When Needs Must: Women Take to the Air by Marty Wingate
I am delighted to welcome Marty Wingate to First Friday!
When Needs Must: Women Take to the Air
by Marty Wingate
It wasn’t all jam making for women in Britain during the Second World War—some of them flew airplanes.
The Air Transport Authority (ATA) was created in September 1939. All the good pilots had gone off to the war, and someone needed to fly mail, dispatches, supplies, and important people about the country. So, those usually considered unfit to fly—too old or missing an arm or an eye, for example—were put in the cockpit. Thus the designation ATA became known as the “ancient and tattered airmen.”
Women were considered unsuitable for aviation. But the war had barely begun when it was clear the ATA’s role would be broader than first thought: airplanes needed to be flown—ferried—from factory to RAF base, from base to maintenance unit and back again, between bases, and so more pilots were needed. Through the skill, knowledge, and what must have been a great deal of diplomacy, aviatrix Pauline Gower convinced the government that women could indeed fly planes. She was placed head of the new women’s division and began recruiting “attagirls” as they would come to be known.
Unlike the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), or the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the ATA was not a military organization. Also, unlike the women in those military services, the female pilots in the ATA, from the summer of 1943 (thanks to Gower), earned pay equal to their male counterparts. Even though civil, the ATA had its own uniform and ranking (First, Second, and Third Officer). Women’s uniforms came with trousers and skirts, but the latter usually were worn only for publicity photos.
There was, naturally, publicity—women pilots!—and although some came from a background where getting your photo in Country Living was a normal part of life, others avoided it.
That was the case with Mary Wilkins Ellis. Mary Wilkins grew up on a farm in Oxfordshire and by all accounts was a shy young woman with a deep desire to fly. Her memoir of the war is chockfull of cheerful accounts and anecdotes of those years. Here, inspired by Mary, is a recreation of a day in the life of a female ferry pilot based at No. 15 Ferry Pool Hamble in Hampshire (one of three all-female pools).
You wake in your billet in the village, a house shared with the landlady and two other pilots. Walk or bicycle into headquarters and head immediately to the waiting room already full of other women drinking tea, knitting, reading the papers, and chatting.
When it’s time, you move to the next room where paper chits cover a table—your assignments for the day, which are also listed on the chalkboard. The chitties tell you which plane(s) you are to fly and where you’re to go. ATA pilots do not have radio or radar or maps in the cockpit, and so you must plan your route and remember it. The only thing in the cockpit with you—apart from your parachute and overnight bag—is your Ferry Pilot Notes, which tells you how to fly each of the ever-growing number of planes in the war.
Take your two-penny bar of chocolate, parachute, and overnight bag and check with the Maps and Signals for any known hazards and the Met Office for weather alerts. Good thing the weather isn’t bad, because if you can’t see, you can’t fly. Today, it’s clear and you’re off. Do be careful—“The country does not pay you to break aeroplanes,” and you don’t want to have to fill out an accident report.
Perhaps you have two chitties that day—flying a Spitfire from Hamble to Brize Norton then returning on an air taxi, which makes three other stops on the way back. At Hamble, you collect an Airspeed Oxford for Kidlington. When you arrive there, you’re asked if you’ll take a Tiger Moth to Hatfield. Of course you will.
You return to Hamble later than usual and the waiting room is empty, so you head back to your billet in time for the evening meal. Your landlady—who has possession of all her lodgers’ ration books—has made Lord Woolton’s pie, a wartime recipe of various root veg including swedes (aka rutabagas), carrots, and parsnips, along with potatoes encased in a thick crust. Yum.
After the meal, head for the pub. The war has broken down barriers in the pub, and no longer are women expected to drink in a separate room. If not the pub, perhaps it’s off to a film or a dance.
It was a life of contrasts as it was for all during the war—sharply divided between the boredom of waiting, the lively social scene, and the devastation of losing those you loved in the blink of an eye.
There were 166 women pilots in the ATA, compared to the men at 1,152. Not all of them made it through the war: 129 men and 20 women were killed in service. Pauline Gower, the woman who made it possible for Mary Ellis and other female ATA pilots to fly, died not long after the war, in 1947.
When the war was over, female ATA pilots were expected to go back to the kitchen along with the other women who had worked at so many different jobs, but for some, it was too late for that. A few continued to fly in high profile ways—for example, in 1963, Diana Barnato Walker established a world air speed record for women. Others quietly persisted in their dreams: Mary Wilkins Ellis married after the war, and she and her husband moved to the Isle of Wight where she managed a private airport. Mary died in 2018 at the age of 101.
A Spitfire Girl: One of the World’s Greatest Female ATA Ferry Pilots Tells Her Story, by Mary Wilkins Ellis as told to Melody Foreman, Frontline Books, 2019
The Hurricane Girls by Jo Wheeler, Penguin Books, 2018
First Light by Geoffrey Wellum, Penguin Books, 2009
British Air Transport Auxiliary, http://www.airtransportaux.com
Air Transport Auxiliary Museum and Archive, https://atamuseum.org
USA Today best-selling author Marty Wingate is the author of Glamour Girls (Alcove Press), which follows Spitfire pilot Rosalie Wright through both the physical and emotional dangers of the Second World War. Marty also writes The First Edition Library series (Berkley) set in Bath, England, about the curator of a collection of books from the Golden Age of Mystery. Book two, Murder Is a Must, was released in December 2020. Marty also writes two further mystery series: the Potting Shed and the Birds of a Feather books.
Marty prefers on-the-ground research when possible, and so she and her husband regularly travel to England and Scotland, where she can be found tracing the steps of her characters, stopping for tea and a slice of Victoria sponge in a café, or enjoying a swift half in a pub.