Grandma flew Spitfires

PUBLISHED: 00:16 05 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:24 20 February 2013

Grandma flew Spitfires

Grandma flew Spitfires

Michael Pearcy discovers the brave women whose lives in wartime Britain saw them take to the skies in fighters and bombers.

The effort of climbing the ladder into the Spitfire simulator at Maidenhead Heritage Centre threatened to be too much for Molly Rose so she stood to one side and watched others enjoy recreating flying at 400 mph and in many cases a crash landing as well.

But 70 years ago, at the height of the Second World War, Molly Rose flew the real thing. She was one of 168 female pilots whose job it was to ferry war planes from the factories to front line bases all over England. They served in the Air Transport Auxiliary created at the outbreak of war, with its headquarters at White Waltham aerodrome near Maidenhead. At first the ATA recruited male pilots who, for many reasons, were not fit for combat flying but could release operational pilots for front line service.

The first eight women pilots were assigned to the ATA in 1940 under the leadership of Pauline Gower, an accomplished pilot in her own right with 2,000 hours commercial flying experience. The male ATA pilots looked on with interest, and not a little trepidation. They were concerned that women pilots would lose valuable aircraft but their biggest fear was that the women might actually make a good job of it!

Women were initially restricted to flying Tiger Moth training aircraft and over 2,000 of these were successfully delivered during the first winter of the war. Finally, in July 1941, the women were given the chance to prove they could fly operational aircraft when five of them took test flights in a Hurricane fighter. They passed with flying colours.

Richard Poad, ATA historian and chair of the Maidenhead Heritage Centre explained how important the womens leader Pauline Gower was in the history of the ATA: "She was a consummate politician. Without her women would never have been allowed in the ATA. She was quietly persistent, took the right people to lunch, put words in their mouths and planted questions in the House of Commons.

"By 1941 Pauline Gower got permission for women to ferry combat aeroplanes. By 1942 the women were flying four-engined bombers. In 1943 she finally got equal pay for the women, making the ATA possibly one of the first equal opportunity employers."

Being a pilot in the ATA was not a soft option. They faced long flights from the factories in the north of England and Scotland, often alone and having to navigate by peering down at unfamiliar landscapes using maps and a compass. They flew every type of combat aeroplane from Spitfires to four engine Halifax bombers.

Veteran pilot Molly Rose explained. "Before you took off you always went into the Met Office to see what the weather was going to be like. And then you simply map read. You couldnt go down and look at station signs to find out where you were because theyd all been taken down because of the war. The same applied to sign posts on the roads. Railway lines were a big help, as were clumps of trees. Surprisingly I didnt ever deliver an aircraft to the wrong place!

"But I had a lucky escape once when I came face to face with one of the Cotswolds whilst flying a Spitfire north. Fortunately I had enough power to put full throttle on and get over it. I think it might have surprised some people on the ground and it certainly gave me quite a surprise."

ATA pilots trained on categories of aircraft so they could often face a particular aeroplane type they had not flown before. Each pilot had a little booklet called Ferry Pilots Notes. Some of the notes are surprisingly brief as in this one for the throttle control on the Spitfire: At maximum revs the automatic device is overridden and higher rpm is obtained (avoid selecting by mistake). Good advice at 400 miles per hour!

Molly Rose smiled when she remembered these little books. "With an aircraft you need to know take off speed and landing speed, and best cruising speeds, to be economic with the fuel. And thats roughly all you need to know about any aircraft."

By the end of the war the ATA had 764 pilots of both genders supported by over three times that number of ground staff. Many of the ground staff were women like Wyn Roper of Maidenhead who was conscripted into the ATA at the tender age of 17 to become an aircraft maintenance engineer.

"I got my call up papers in 1942," she explained. "You either had to go into war work or you had to join the forces. I chose to go into war work and I was very lucky to be sent to White Waltham because you could have been sent anywhere.

"I went for an aptitude test at West Drayton and I passed that. They said to me youll go to the ATA. I was lucky that I could still stay at home because I didnt expect to. I lived in Winter Hill Road in Pinkneys Green and cycled to work across the thicket. I went for training for three months. They taught us everything and at the end we had to strip an engine down. Before that Id never even held a spanner."

A similar experience faced Margaret Vera Carter, who lived in the Cox Green area of Maidenhead at the start of the war. Sadly, Margaret died in 2008 having never mentioned ATA to her daughter Pam Casement.

"I found two photographs of people outside a Nissan hut," explained Pam of Stompits Road in Maidenhead. "I was looking at the faces of about 20 women and then one caught my eye. I thought thats my mum strange. But whats she doing? I didnt know when the photograph was taken or where. She was very careful with her appearance so it was odd to see her wearing an overall with her usual high heels."

Pam was determined to investigate the mystery photos but she needed more evidence from her mothers papers. That came in the form of a book called Brief Glory, the official history of the ATA and a certificate of service.

The certificate read: This Certificate is issued by way of Record and in recognition of your Services with the Air Transport Auxiliary. The ATA was formed in 1939 upon the Declaration of War by Great Britain, for the purpose of delivering His Majestys aircraft to the Royal Air Force and The Royal Navy and for Air Transport tasks Auxiliary to the War Effort. You have played your Part and shared in the Achievements of an Organisation that has every Reason to be proud of its Record.

"I dont know why mum never mentioned it," said Pam. "This was something she should have been very proud of. I suppose when youve been through a war and there was so much suffering you just want to forget."

Pam was able to piece together her mothers secret wartime exploits during a visit to Maidenhead Heritage Centre where there is a permanent exhibition about the ATA including the Spitfire simulator. It transpired that the group photograph Pam had discovered also contained Wyn Roper, so they must have known each other at White Waltham.

Wyn Roper looked closely at the photograph but at first was not sure if she was in it. "I did look at one of the women in the photo and think that could have been me. Now Im sure it is." She peered at another face from the past. "Thats Betty Almond who came from Littlewick. Im sure. She became my best friend. I met her on the training course and she was my friend for ever after."

There are very few surviving members of the ATA and it is sad that Margaret Vera Carter (Grantham by marriage) and Wyn Roper lived just a few miles from each other for over 60 years and never managed to have a chat about the old days before Margaret died.


Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life readers can enjoy a special two-for-one offer at Maidenhead Heritage Centre if they would like to try the thrilling Spitfire Simulator. Take this coupon with you on a visit and two people can enjoy the experience for 5, normally the price per person. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm. Usual musuem admission charges apply.

The offer runs until December 17 and is subject to availability. We advise phoning 01628 780555 prior to your visit. See and for more info on the exhibition.

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