‘Everybody was flabbergasted that a little girl like me could fly these big airplanes all by oneself.’
I have already mentioned in damesnet the fun I’ve had in recent years getting to know some of my numerous relatives who live on the other side of the Pond. One of them, cousin Stephen, is a keen supporter of damesnet, and he regularly sends me links to stories about remarkable women.
So it is not without some sense of embarrassment that I admit that my latest dame designate, an English woman, was completely under my radar (geddit?) until Stephen sent me news from America of her recent demise.
Mary Ellis, one of the last female surviving World War II pilots, flew her final mission on 26 July 26 2018, aged 101. She was born in 1917 on a farm in Oxfordshire near to the RAF bases. When she was a child her father paid a flying circus to take her on a flight in a de Havilland 60 Moth, and her passion for the skies was born.
She had her first flying lesson as a teenager and went on to gain her pilot’s licence. She flew for pleasure until the outbreak of war in 1939, when all civilian flying was banned. Then in 1940 Ellis heard a radio announcement that the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was looking for female pilots. She seized the opportunity and went on to fly around 1000 planes to the front line for over four years. There would be up to four aircraft in a day to deliver, ranging from Spitfires to Tempests, Hudsons, or a twin-engine Airspeed Oxford. In her autobiography, Ellis records flying her first Spitfire on 15 October 15, 1942, which she described as ‘a date and time etched in my memory’.
The ATA’s decision met with considerable criticism from the male community, despite the wartime need. The magazine Aeroplane published articles with comments that included: ‘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.’ In an interview with the BBC about her life, Ellis is quoted as saying ‘Girls flying airplanes was almost a sin at that time.’
After the war ended, Ellis was invited to join the RAF and became one of the first women to fly the Meteor jet fighter. She moved to the Isle of Wight and lived with her husband, a fellow pilot. Their home was right by the airport runway. She worked as a private pilot for a wealthy businessman and when he bought Sandown airport Ellis was appointed its manager. She held the position from 1950 to 1970. While airport manager Ellis helped introduce passenger flights to and from the Isle of Wight to Europe.
She was awarded the Freedom of the Isle of Wight for her heroic actions during the war.
A total of 168 women served in the ATA during the war, and 15 died in the line of duty. Damesnet salutes Mary Ellis as a potent example of an extremely brave woman who couldn’t have cared less about male opinion, and went on to make a huge success of her life.