The mag­nif­i­cent women in their fly­ing ma­chines

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Column -

ome to lunch,” said some friends on the Isle of Wight, “there’s a lady we’d like you to meet.” And so we went, and we met her – a slight woman, with a twin­kle in her eye and a warm, en­gag­ing smile – and were sim­ply en­chanted by the most re­mark­able story. Mary El­lis is 98 and bright as a but­ton. When she was at school she was hope­less at hockey and so she opted for an­other sport­ing en­deav­our: she learnt to fly. It was at an air show in Hen­don that she was bit­ten by the bug, af­ter per­suad­ing her fa­ther to let her take a plea­sure flight in an Avro 504. “From that mo­ment I was hooked,” said Mary. She had been awarded her fly­ing li­cence by the time she was 16. That in it­self is re­mark­able, but it was only the be­gin­ning of Mary’s story, for in 1941 she heard an ap­peal on the ra­dio by the civil­ian Air Trans­port Aux­il­iary (ATA) for women pi­lots. She ap­plied, took a fly­ing test and was ac­cepted into their ranks. At Hat­field, Mary Wilkins, as she then was, learnt to fly Spit­fires, Hur­ri­canes and Har­vards with the ob­ject of de­liv­er­ing the newly man­u­fac­tured planes to At­ta­girls: fe­male mem­bers of the ATA, and above, Mary El­lis in her time as a pi­lot the bases from which they would be used. Af­ter ba­sic train­ing Mary was based at Ham­ble on the south coast, and dur­ing the war she sin­gle­hand­edly de­liv­ered 76 dif­fer­ent types of air­craft, in­clud­ing around 400 Spit­fires. I say sin­gle-hand­edly as Mary was alone in the air­craft, which was equipped only with a compass and a stop­watch. She found her way to her tar­get us­ing a map. The ATA de­liv­ered a to­tal of 308,567 air­craft dur­ing the war; Mary’s own to­tal was in the re­gion of 1,000 planes. I asked her if she had been shot at. “Just the once,” she said. Dur­ing the war, 143 ATA pi­lots were lost – one in 10 did not sur­vive – in­clud­ing 14 women. “At­ta­girls”, they were called, and not with­out cause. Seated in her very first Spit­fire prior to de­liv­ery, Mary was asked by the me­chanic who had helped her into the cock­pit, “How many times have you flown one of th­ese?” As she re­lates the story her face breaks into a smile. “I said never, and he fell off the wing.” Of the dif­fer­ent planes that Mary pi­loted, the Welling­ton bomber was prob­a­bly the largest. That such an air­craft could be han­dled by such a slen­der young woman filled many with dis­be­lief. Hav­ing landed and tax­ied a Welling­ton to its park­ing place at an air­field, Mary climbed down the lad­der to be greeted by the ground crew who asked her where the pi­lot was. “I’m the pi­lot,” she said. It was not un­til they had searched the air­craft that they fi­nally be­lieved her. At the end of the war Mary de­liv­ered the very first Me­teor jet. “You will run out of fuel in about 35 min­utes, so make sure you’re down by then.” She did. In 2006 a me­mo­rial to the ATA pi­lots was erected at White Waltham air­field in Berk­shire. Though rarely the sub­ject of recog­ni­tion, they de­serve our grat­i­tude and our ad­mi­ra­tion, for their work was ev­ery bit as vi­tal as the Battle of Bri­tain pi­lots whose air­craft they de­liv­ered. Mary still gets air­borne, though she no longer flies solo. The light in her eyes when she talks of her ex­pe­ri­ences is com­pletely in­fec­tious, but she is as in­ter­ested in other peo­ple and their sto­ries as in re­lat­ing her own. “I’m noth­ing spe­cial,” said Mary at our lunch. “I’m just or­di­nary.” Per­haps she will for­give us if we beg to dif­fer.

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