In 1939, at a time when few women knew
how to drive cars, or even had an opportunity to learn, a group of young
women broke into the all-male world of military flying. This is the
story of an important chapter in aviation and women's history.
Pauline Gower and been a "joy ride" pilot through the 1930's, running
a pleasure trip business for the general public on a field next to a
major highway in Kent. With the sign, "fly now - first left", she and
her partner had started one of the earliest all-woman commercial flight
businesses. As war approached, and with 2,000 hours flying time and
33,000 passengers under her belt, Pauline looked for an opportunity
to contribute to the war effort with her kinds of skills.
In A Harvest of Memory's, her son's tribute to Pauline Gower, Michael
Fahie quotes her:
"I have heard all this talk about the futility of training women to
fly and I think that the critics are wrong.... Women flyers will be
very useful in an emergency. They could ferry planes. They could also
act as assistant instructors, thus relieving men instructors for more
As the threat of war increased, Pauline Gower was appointed as the second
woman Commissioner for Civil Air Defense for London and the Southeast
of England, based upon her considerable flying experience. As a commissioner
she flew a variety of aircraft types to the various civilian flying
clubs and landing fields for which she was responsible. However in July
of 1939, all civilian flying was curtailed by the outbreak of war.
In September 1939, from this springboard, and using her social and political
connections, she approached Lt. Colonel Sir Francis Shemerdine, the
Director- General of Civil Aviation with the idea of using women to
ferry planes, with the newly formed and all-male Air Transport Auxiliary.
Following initial bureaucratic resistance to women entering in upon
this male preserve, permission was finally granted in November 1939.
Pauline Gower was asked to head up this effort.
Her initial charge was to recruit eight women flyers to deliver light
training planes, such as Gypsy Moths, from the DeHaviland factory at
Hatfield to RAF training bases in Northern England and Scotland.
Ms. Gower, an inveterate coiner of light verse, wryly depicted this
attitude of only risking simple and inexpensive planes that were easy
to replace "if broken by women," as "the hand that rocks the cradle
wrecked the kite."
On December 1 1939, Ms. Gower was appointed Second Officer. Two weeks
later she took a ten-minute flight-test in a Gypsy Moth, and was promptly
promoted to First Officer Class. Her salary of 400 pounds per year was
20% lower than her male colleagues - as per Treasury Department rules.
At this point the Women's Section of the ATA was born.
At a time when even the wife of the Air Minister was not permitted to
enter a military craft, Pauline Gower was the first woman to be allowed
into, let alone fly, a Royal Air Force plane.
On December 16, 1939, the first group of twelve women pilots were assembled
at Whitchurch, and flight-tested in a Gypsy Moth. From this group of
twelve, eight were selected and appointed as Second Officers at a salary
of 26 pounds per annum (including flight pay.)
A uniform was furnished consisting of: a pleated skirt, slacks, a one
piece "Sidcot" flying suit and quilted liner, a sheepskin leather "Irvin"
flying jacket, a blue service tunic with four pockets, a belt with a
large brass buckle, a great coat and a forage cap. Women had to purchase
their own blue shirts, black nylon stocking, black shoes and black necktie.
Officially, slacks were only allowed on the base, and a skirt was to
be worn off-duty. The same rule applied to the very warm black leather
fleece lined flying boots; but both rules appear to have been routinely
This major step forward for women in aviation caused an initial uproar,
and continued to be a source of consternation to people throughout the
ensuing five years of active duty, as attractive, young and often physically
slight women emerged from the cockpits of huge heavy bombers.
This important episode in the history of women's aviation began modestly,
despite glamorous depiction by the press. Flying slow biplanes, with
open cockpits in the winter without radios or navigational aids, out
of wooden shacks on small airfields, these original eight women carried
out the journeyman/journey-women duties of ferrying planes.
By June of 1940 there were 12 women pilots, to rise to more than 166
women by the war's end.
This move was not without controversy; especially at a time when England
was coming out of the Depression, and there was a strong sensitivity
to the idea of women taking jobs a way from men. Erroneous rumors of
outrageously high rates of pay for these aviatrixes only fanned the
flames of male resentment.
Pauline Gower was aware of the skepticism that her small group of women
flyers aroused, and the higher standard that their detractors held them
Gower's response to this skepticism was to ensure the highest competence
and professionalism among her section. In often appalling weather, poor
visibility, no radio, no electronic navigational instruments, camouflaged
land fields often with construction in progress, these first women flew
with the awareness that errors meant providing ammunition for their
In a BBC interview Pauline Gower stated simply that:
"We are a small group of women pilots with a job to do. We are just
helping, along with others, to win the war. Our job will be unobtrusive.
But it is going to be well and efficiently done."
The original eight woman flyers were recruited by Pauline Gowers were:
Joan Hughes, Winifred Crossly, Margaret Unison, Mona Fried Lander, Rosemary
Rees, Marion Wilberforce, the Hon. Mrs. Margaret Fairweather, and Gabrielle
At 17, Joan Hughes had been the youngest
female flyer in Great Britain, having started at 15, before age restrictions
were introduced. Prior to the war, she was an instructor with the Civil
Air Guard. By the age of 22 she had booked 600 hours ferrying planes
for the ATA, ranging from light trainers to heavy four-engine bombers.
She was the only woman qualified to instruct on all types of military
aircraft in service during W.W.II.
Ann Wood Kelly remembers her as petite, and very young, but rising rapidly
to become the most senior ATA pilot by the end of the war. She continued
to fly after the war, and continued to instruct at the Airways Flying
Club, where she taught airline pilots to be instructors on light aircraft.
In 1965 she starred in the film " The Magnificent Men in their Flying
Machines," flying a replica of a 1909 Demoiselle. In 1965, she also
flew a replica for the film "The Blue Max". She later visited the US
where she appeared on a television quiz show as a mystery guest.
She retired in 1985 with 11,800 hours in her logbook. She died age 74.
in August 1992.
Margaret Cunnison Ebbage was an instructor
prior to the outbreak of war, and became a highly effective and respected
instructor with the ATA. She was the main instructor at Hatfield, charged
with the evaluation and training of new pilots. She "checked outmost
of the U.S.A. women at Luton.
She left the ATA to get married in 1943. In 2002she was still living.
An international women's ice hockey player.
She had a pilots as well as a navigators license and spent many hours
of "Army Cooperation" flying in front of anti-aircraft batteries to
help them with the aiming and ranging of guns and searchlights. She
left the ATA in 1943, when Hatfield was closed, and got married.
Rosemary Rees/ Rosemary Lady du Cros
Rosemary Rees had been a flyer before
the war, and held an instructors license in 1938 and had toured extensively
around the world in her Miles Hawk. She had even attended an air show
in Germany as war threatened. Escaping in time, she returned to England
to fly with the ATA. To add to this colorful background, Rosemary Rees
was also a former ballet dancer.
In the ATA she became the Second in Command at the Hamble Ferry Pool.
After the war she set up an air taxi business with a Percival Proctor.
She married in 1950 and died age 92 in 1994.
Marion Wilberforce was an experienced
pilot in the 1930's, flying her own Gypsy Moth.
In the ATA she rose to become Deputy Commander of the No. 5 Ferry Pool
at Hatfield, and later became Commander of the No. 2 Ferry Pool at Cotsford.
She served the full 5 years until the ATA was disbanded after the war
she purchased a Hornet Moth and continued flying until she was 80. She
died at age 93, in July 1996.
The Hon. Mrs. Margaret Fairweather
Margaret Fairweather, daughter of Lord
Runciman, became the first woman to fly a spitfire. Prior to the war
she already had 1,000 hours of civilian flying and was an instructor
with the Civil Air Guard. This groundbreaking episode opened the doors
for women of the ATA to progress from light training aircraft to armed
fighters and eventually to, large heavy four-engine bombers.
Her husband, Douglas Fairweather was also a pilot and one of the first
to sign on with the ATA. He set up the Air Movements Flight at White
Waltham in 1942, and his wife later joined him. In 1944 Ms. Fairweather
was killed on a communications flight while landing a Proctor. Her husband
was also killed in the war.
Gabrielle Patterson was married with small
a son, living in the town of Walsall. In 1935 she was the first woman
to obtain an appointment as a flight instructor. She later became chief
instructor and head of the Women's Corps of the Civil Air Guard in Essex.
Winifred Crossley Fair
Winifred Crossley had spent more than
five years towing banners for aerial advertising and as a stunt pilot
in an air circus. She served for the full 5 years of the ATA. After
the war she married airline captain Peter Fair, head of BOAC owned Bahamas
Airways in Nassau.
Of the 8 original woman pilots. Joan
Hughes and Pauline Gower were awarded the MBE (Member of the British
Along with the first eight, there was another influx of female pilots
to the ATA in the 40's.
Amongst these in February was Lois Butler, wife of the Chairman of
de Havillands. She became well known as the Flying Grandmother, and
died in the early 80's.
In May the famous Amy Johnson joined but was killed in the ATA while
ferrying an aircraft from Scotland. In horrid weather and low on fuel,
she missed London but crashed in the Thames. A Royal Navy Officer tried
to rescue he but he too perished. She died on May 1, 1941.
· Mrs. Grace Brown flew for Air Dispatch
· Joy Davidson (Muntz) crashed in a Master at the Central Flying
School at Upavon
The month of June 1940 heralds six more ladies coming aboard. They
· Ursula Preston (Metcalfe)
· Ruth Lambton (Ballard) who's first husband was killed in RAF
· Margot Gore to become C.O. Hamble
· Phillipa MacMillan (Mackenzie/Lady Brocklehurst)
· Audrey Sale-Barker (Countess Selkirk)
· Lettice Curtis followed soon after because she had to give
notice to her job with Ordinance Survey
· Mabel Glass in July, 1940
· Connie Leathart in August, 1940 and was killed in June of 1944
· Ann Douglas (Welch) in December 1940
This article was written by Alan Long, an ex-Brit
living in Manchester, MA, after much research. He is an established