The Women’s RAF

In World War II Britain, a new group of pilots answered the call to serve.

Former ATA pilot Molly Rose actually preferred the Spitfire to the Hurricane (pictured). (Courtesy Graham Rose)
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Despite its aura of glamour, the job was demanding and dangerous. The ATA flew in bad weather, often without instruments and sometimes without radios. The pilots were asked to pick up airplanes that had not yet been flight-tested and usually had only a compass and gyro, and not the altimeter, airspeed indicator, and other instruments that fully finished airplanes would have. The work took its toll. During the war, 16 women and 157 men flying the ferry runs were killed, according to the ATA Museum at the Maidenhead Heritage Centre. (Among reference works about ATA history, the number of fatalities varies slightly.) Among the women: Amy Johnson, who, lost in bad weather and reportedly out of fuel, crashed her Oxford into the Thames estuary and drowned in January 1941.

Despite such tragedies, more women joined the ATA. By 1944, the original eight had grown to 108. Eventually, the ATA had 168 women (along with 1,077 men), according to the ATA Museum.

The women sometimes faced challenges that their male counterparts did not. One hot day, Diana Walker was flying a Spitfire at 5,000 feet when her airplane went inverted. In Spreading My Wings, she recalls that, while she contemplated what to do next, her engraved, silver compact slipped from the pocket of her overalls and “wheeled round and round the bubble canopy like a drunken sailor,” then opened and “sent all the face powder over absolutely everything.” When she arrived at her destination, a tall, handsome RAF flight lieutenant came bounding up to the airplane. When he saw her, “his expression changed as his mouth dropped open in sheer disbelief. ‘I was told,’ he gasped, ‘that a very, very pretty girl was bringing us a new aircraft. All I see is a ghastly clown!’ ” Walker watched him turn on his heel and march off. Her mental note: “Be quite sure, Diana, before doing your next clever bit of aerobatics, that the top buttons of your flying overalls are done up.”

Opportunities that male pilots received from the start were withheld from the women of the ATA until they had proved themselves. Even with the 600 flying hours that were a prerequisite to their acceptance, they were restricted to light, single-engine aircraft before they could fly heavier twin-engine airplanes. According to Whittell, they struggled for nearly two years to be allowed to fly fighters, and five before they started flying them to Europe.

By 1943, as the demand for ferry pilots surged, the ATA had reversed its policy and was recruiting women with no flying experience; Yvonne Gough MacDonald and her sister Joy were two such recruits. Yvonne grew up in Gloucestershire, where she excelled in athletics. “I signed up for everything and was the captain of everything: tennis, field hockey, net ball, swimming. And I played to win,” she says. She married an RAF pilot who was killed while bombing Berlin. “All the people I knew were flying people,” she recalls. “So it seemed natural to me to do my part for the war by flying as well, especially when I learned that they were accepting women without experience.”

MacDonald was given 12 hours of training before she went solo. She did not attend ground school; that came later. She began flight training on a “standard carriage with fixed wheels,” then moved on to a trainer aircraft. “They couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time training us,” she says. “We had to show aptitude quickly.” Though

MacDonald never flew a four-engine bomber, she learned to fly 18 types of aircraft. And like Molly Rose, she preferred the Spitfire above all. “You climbed in and it was like someone kicked you in the rear end,” she says, and adds an unorthodox view of the fighter: “It was designed for a woman. You touched the controls and it just moved.”

Some men resented the ATA women, who made 20 percent less than the male pilots (it wasn’t until 1943 that they were paid equally). “The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an air raid warden and yet can’t cook her husband’s dinner,” editor C.G. Grey wrote in Aeroplane magazine in 1941.

Yet there were also men like Peter George, a Cambridge-born aviator who made some 900 aircraft deliveries during his five years with the ATA. George says he viewed his female colleagues no differently than any other pilots. “They were steady,” he recalls. “Sometimes even steadier than the men.” George took the attitude that “as long as they had two eyes and a good sense of hearing, that was enough for me.”

As the war intensified, the need for the ATA pilots continued to grow, and recruitment spread across the Atlantic. Gower’s U.S. counterpart was Jacqueline Cochran, a scrappy New York beautician who had managed to become both an acclaimed pilot and a cosmetics millionaire. She married a wealthy industrialist who was on close terms with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1940, Cochran wrote to Eleanor, explaining that women could help in the war by flying military transport aircraft so the men could fly combat missions. With Eleanor’s support, General Hap Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces, authorized Cochran to recruit 25 women with at least 350 hours of flying time each to help ferry airplanes throughout the United Kingdom.

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