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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The ATA drew pilots from 25 countries; the Americans, with 176 men and 27 women, made up the largest foreign contingent. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, far fewer American men signed on with the ATA. (They could join the ATA because it was a civilian agency; they couldn’t join the RAF without the risk of losing their U.S. citizenship.)

One of the Americans Cochran recruited was Ann Wood Kelly, whose mother had encouraged her to take up flying. (The family lived in Maine, and Ann’s mother believed the opportunities there for her bright, capable, and adventurous daughter were limited.) Wood attended ground school through the U.S. government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program. Although nearby Bowdoin College initially rejected her application to its all-male flight training program, the school was unable to find a final applicant for its 12-man program, so it ended up accepting her. In a short time, she was made a flight instructor at Bowdoin. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she signed on with Cochran.

Her son, Christopher Kelly, heard many times his mother’s story of the day the call came from the ATA. She told him that she was so excited “she practically climbed down the phone.” Her decision to join, he says, was “as natural as putting a hand into a glove.”

“My mother was 88 when she died,” says Kelly. “She was still flying at the age of 87. On March 31, her birthday, I suggested that we fly to Martha’s Vineyard for lunch. I picked her up and put her in the pilot’s seat. She greased the landing; she had that kind of precision.” Thinking his mother had had enough for the day, her son flew the airplane back. “But I didn’t land as well as she had,” he says.

From 1942 to 1945, Ann Wood Kelly ferried more than 900 airplanes to Britain and France. Unlike fellow pilots Lettice Curtis and Joan Hughes, Wood Kelly was not rated for large bombers and flew mostly single-engine fighters like Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, and North American P-51 Mustangs. She also flew the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito. “It was terribly fast,” says her son. “She adored it.” Did she ever crash? “Only once, when she was in either a Hurricane or a Spit,” he recalls. But Wood Kelly preferred to dwell on the humorous aspects of flying with the ATA, telling her son about the time she landed in a mud puddle in a cow pasture and looked up to find a farmer brandishing a pitchfork at her.

After D-Day, Wood Kelly flew airplanes to various bases outside Paris. Her logbook shows four or five flights daily. When Cochran asked her to join the new Women Airforce Service Pilots in Sweetwater, Texas, she declined. In Wood Kelly’s mind, Sweetwater was another name for backwater. “She didn’t want to go back and pull targets,” says her son, referring to the targets that the WASP, America’s ATA equivalent, towed behind their airplanes for gunnery practice. “Not after she had been in the frontlines, flying the best equipment. She remained where all the action was, where she always wanted to be.”

Later, Wood Kelly worked for Northeast Airlines, though not as a pilot. She rose through the ranks until she became head of stewardesses and eventually assistant to the president.

Other ATA women continued to fly after the war. Lettice Curtis was an avid air racer in England who flew her own Foster Wikner Wicko and a Spitfire owned by the American attaché in London. She became a technician and flight test observer at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment, a military aircraft test site at Boscombe Down; later, she worked at Fairey Aviation as a senior flight development engineer. As late as 1992, she qualified to fly helicopters, and she didn’t stop flying until 1995.

In the 1960s, Joan Hughes worked as a flight instructor with the Airways Aero Association at Booker Airfield (now Wycombe Air Park). She flew a replica of a 1909 Demoiselle in the 1965 movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and piloted a Tiger Moth in the 1968 movie Thunderbird 6. She died in 1993.

Diana Walker also continued to fly for decades. After getting her commercial license, she became a volunteer pilot with the Women’s Junior Air Corps. The job allowed her to do something she loved: encourage teenage girls to consider a career in aviation. On August 26, 1963, she flew an English Electric Lightning T4 to Mach 1.65, becoming the first British woman to break the sound barrier. She died in 2008.

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