Anne Diamond: A thrilling journey into the past
PUBLISHED: 16:42 22 August 2016
© Mark Beton/Transport / Alamy Stock Photo
Anne visits Maidenhead Heritage Centre for a thrilling journey into the past and discovers how women pilots delivered planes across Britain to The Few
Never mind those magnificent men in their flying machines. In our patch we can celebrate those wonderful women who were the pin-ups of their generation precisely because they were doing a man’s job.
They were the gutsy, gorgeous, glamorous ladies of the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary and they were based at White Waltham airfield during The Second World War, just outside Maidenhead. It was their job to fly Spitfires, Lancasters, Hurricanes and Halifaxes between factories, assembly plants, transatlantic delivery points, scrap yards, and active service squadrons and airfields all over the country (and sometimes into France). When the Air Ministry first started recruiting them, they were often men and women from very wealthy backgrounds, who already knew how to fly recreationally.
Later, women particularly were taken on and trained, and ended up flying (often solo) the biggest aircraft - including four-engined heavy bombers - with no radio nor armoury! The celebrities of their day, as cover girls for magazines, they were, however, highly regarded and treated equally to the men - even when it came to pay! (At the time, women doing the same job in the USA got only 65 per cent of male pay). But don’t take it from me, go and see a really unique exhibition celebrating their work - in a wonderful interactive permanent show called Grandma Flew Spitfires, at the Maidenhead Heritage Centre. They’ve got a Spitfire simulator and it’s utterly brilliant! At busy times, you may have to book a slot - but it’s so worth it because you get one-on-one ‘tuition’ from a proper pilot who can show you how to take off from White Waltham airfield, and then fly over Windsor Castle, through the Eye in London and even land at City Airport. I know how brilliant it is because I have done it, and I have to tell you that, after just a few minutes, the feeling is so real that you instinctively peer out, over the wing, to see if The Queen is waving at you from her tower.
But it’s not just the simulator that is so fantastic, it’s the uniforms, the log books, the knick-knacks and above all the real-life stories of the amazing women who flew those machines, did their bit for the war effort, and in 15 cases, lost their lives in the air (one was Amy Johnson). No other place in the UK can celebrate their story as we can, because the ATA was based here. And now their story comes to life with the cries of “chocks away” and the throb of the old Merlin engine!
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