On 20 May a unique event took place at the Royal Aeronautical Society when the female aviation pioneers of the WW2 Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) were celebrated in a special half-day seminar.
The ‘Spitfire Women’ seminar saw four ATA veterans, Molly Rose, Margaret Frost, Mary Ellis and Joy Lofthouse, become the guests of honour at this event marking their achievements. These four women represented the many veterans from Britain’s ATA that had played a critical part in delivering aircraft to the front line in WW2. The ATA delivered some 309,000 aircraft during WW2, with 148 different types. Its most famous member was Amy Johnson, but the ATA also included some 1,152 male aircrew – one of whom was a certain Freddie Laker.
These pioneering women, who had overcome contemporary attitudes to females doing a dangerous job, learning complex aircraft, battling weather and navigation, were forgotten immediately after the war. Only recently has interest soared.
The seminar, sponsored by BAE Systems, British Airways, Marshall Aerospace and Rolls-Royce was opened, with welcoming remarks, by the new RAeS President, Lee Balthazor. He noted that the ATA was a “vital part of the of the allied war effort” and that their recognition was well overdue.
The first speaker was Clare Walker, Chairman, RAeS Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee, who was instrumental in organising the seminar. Her presentation outlined the background to the ATA and other pioneering female aviators in WW2. The UK Air Ministry, she noted, was initially reluctant to the idea of female pilots but by December 1939 the first eight volunteers had been approved with 168 women eventually serving with the ATA.
The ATA itself scored a number of firsts – not only the first female pilots to fly front-line British military aircraft but it was also the first organisation to grant equal pay to men and women. Nowadays this right is (mostly) taken for granted – but in 1940s it would have been truly revolutionary.
But it was not just in Britain that women were vital to the war effort. In Russia women flew in the Soviet Air Force in fighters, bombers and in Po-2 biplanes as the ‘Night Witches’, a night bombing force that harassed the Germans around the clock. Meanwhile, in the US, the ATA service was copied to form the WASPs – they delivered some 80% of US military aircraft.
Yet, despite this contribution to the allied war effort, the “ATA Girls, WASPs and Night Witches were quickly forgotten after WW2,”said Clare Walker.
Women Ferry Pilots
The next speaker was Richard Poad, Chairman of Maidenhead Heritage Trust (which incorporates ‘Grandma flew Spitfires!’). His presentation gave a more in-depth look at the story of the women ferry pilots. He said that the idea of female ATA pilots aroused much hostility at the time – with a sexist quote from the then editor of The Aeroplane, CG Grey on the ‘fact’ that women were ‘incapable’ of the task. How wrong he was to be.
Richard Poad explained that originally the ATA was conceived as an air transport and liaison service – to ferry VIPs and personnel rather than deliver aircraft. However, large losses of aircraft and the need to preserve highly-trained RAF aircrew for frontline operations meant the ATA picked up this critical ferry role. Indeed, some sort of scale can be seen by the fact, that on average the ATA delivered 141 aircraft every single day throughout WW2. And this, remember, was just to RAF/FAA squadrons.
But the ATA was not just a service for English Home Counties girls. Its members included women from Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Poland and the United States – all united by a desire to do something to help the war effort and a love of flying. And the propaganda angle of ‘pretty girls joining the war effort’ was soon exploited – with Hollywood-style photo sessions and pictorials in newspapers and magazines.
But the women were pilots first and foremost. Richard Poad explained the training system for the ATA. He said contrary to popular belief they were not ‘untrained’ – but their training involved ‘masses’ of cross country work. However, because of the variety of aircraft they would fly, a highly streamlined and efficient conversion and training system had to be set up. This revolved around a set of pilots’ notes which, on one double-sided A5 sheet, had all the critical information for an aircraft type. The ATA, he also explained, split aircraft types up into five classes, from light singles (such as the Tiger Moth) right the way up to four-engine heavy bombers and finally flying boats – judged the most complex aircraft to fly. A typical day thus might see an ATA pilot fly five or even six types of aircraft, such as Swordfish, Spitfire, Anson or Wellington.
In delivering aircraft ATA pilots were also forbidden from low-level flying and from aerobatics. With wartime fuel at a premium and aircraft in dire need at the frontline, the women of ATA were conscious that their performance had to be better than the men. As Joy Lofthouse told the audience later when asked if she had ever done aerobatics, “No. I didn’t want them to take this fantastic job away from me.”
Richard Poad explained that because of this and women didn’t take “damn fool risks”, female ATA pilots were seen as ‘safer’ flyers – with the statistics bearing this out. Out of 173 ATA aircrew killed in action – 14 pilots (and one flight engineer) were female. The lack of instrument training, too, also may have contributed to the ATA’s low accident rate – since it prevented them flying in marginal conditions.
Speaking from the RAF’s point of view was Squadron Leader Tony Iveson, DFC, RAF, Bomber Command Association, who explained how vital the ATA was to frontline crews – especially when 12,000 RAF bombers were lost in action during the war. He said the comparison between the RAF conversion course and the ATA training ‘amazed us’ – especially when a women pilot would deliver a Lancaster with a perfect landing at a base. In fact, he said, that one ATA women pilot, had told him that the Lancaster was ‘so easy to fly’ with no vices, the full conversion course was skipped.
Referring to that era, Sqn Ldr Iveson said: “Our heroes were not popstars or footballers but men and women aviation pioneers, like Amy Johnson.”
Undoubtedly the highlight of the day was the personal reminiscences from these women, who were given a standing ovation on entering the lecture theatre. Joy Lofthouse spoke on how she had enjoyed a friendly rivalry with her sister on joining the ATA and had applied on seeing an ad in The Aeroplane magazine – and joined one of the first ab initio courses in 1943. She explained she “never found any discrimination” – but did have a couple of ‘dicey moments’ including flying a Griffon-engined Spitfire and losing a canopy mid-flight.
Meanwhile Mary Ellis, who joined the ATA in 1941, ended the war having delivered some 1,000 a/c (400+ of these Spitfires) and 76 different types – including the RAF’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor. (Her briefing for this, she said, was simple – get it on the ground in 30 minutes or it will run out of fuel). She also survived two crash landings, being fired at by friendly AAA and even a chance encounter with a German aircraft. “I noticed this aircraft that had iron crosses and swastikas flying alongside me – so I waved. The other aircraft sheered off. I was quite pretty in those days, so I felt a bit rejected!” she joked. Levity aside, it has to be noted that the ATA flew unarmed and there were no official guidelines or advice as to what to do if the enemy was encountered over Britain.
The final session saw a question and answer panel session chaired by Captain David Rowland, RAeS Past President, and the four ATA veterans Molly Rose, Margaret Frost, Mary Ellis and Joy Lofthouse. One question was – did anyone land at the wrong airfield? “We wouldn’t admit it if we did!” was the simultaneous answer.
Another question asked was what aircraft had the best cockpit layout? The Boston, Spitfire and the Oxford received top marks. For the worst aircraft, the veterans pointed at the Fairey Swordfish, Auster (taxiing) the Tiger Moth and the Walrus – “it had a mind of its own – both in the air and on the ground.” Surprisingly the P-51 Mustang made it into both groups – with it being praised for its cockpit layout, but also criticised (it had too many unnecessary switches).
Finally, the RAeS President, Lee Balthazor made a presentation on behalf of the Royal Aeronautical Society which included certificates and the new RAeS brooches..
In short this seminar was a unique tribute and acknowledgement of these pilots’ role in advancing women in aviation in the middle of the 20th century. It was extremely humbling to hear their stories and memories. Two things stand out. The first is their obvious courage. Said so eloquently by Mary Ellis: “The worst days were when a name was rubbed off the board – but there were still aircraft to deliver.” – this is a sobering reminder of the dangers they faced. The second was their passion for flying. As Joy Lofthouse said: “It sounds terribly wicked, but when someone says, ‘would you like to fly that Hurricane today’, I didn’t want the war to end.” Proof then, if any is needed, that the appeal of flight transcends all.
It is fitting then that these pioneering aviation women finally get the recognition they truly deserve.
For a gallery of more pictures from this unique event go here.
The Royal Aeronautical Society will be holding the inaugural Amy Johnson lecture on 6 July with speaker Carolyn McCall CEO easyJet. For more details of this event, click here.