What Was It like to Be a Female Pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary?

History Hit Podcast with Mary Ellis

3 mins

23 Nov 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Spitfire Pilot with Mary Ellis on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 26 July 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Being a girl in a job away from your family was quite exciting. All us girls were together from first thing in the morning, and we were all terribly excited waiting for the list of aeroplanes to come out saying where we’d be flying and so and so.

We didn’t know until that moment what we were flying or where we were going, which was strange but lovely, and terribly exciting.

Breaking boundaries

Men might have thought it odd seeing a female pilot, but they never said anything loud enough for me to hear! There was one time when I delivered a Wellington and switched everything off, unbuckled my parachute and went down the steps of this big aeroplane with my parachute.

Mary Ellis flew Wellington bombers like this one from the factories where they were built to the RAF’s airfields. Credit: British Government

There was a crowd of RAF people around, and I said ‘Can we please go to the control room because I have to have my delivery chitty signed saying I delivered the plane.’

They said that we couldn’t go yet because we had to wait for the pilot to come out of the aeroplane. I said in astonishment ‘But I am the pilot’. They didn’t believe me, they were so dumbstruck.

Then two men went inside to search and several minutes later they came out and said ‘There’s no one else there’, so I said ‘There you are then’. I’d flown it all by myself, whereas the RAF has a crew of between five and seven flying those planes. And I had to try and navigate all by myself.

Watch an interview with aviation pioneer Mary Ellis on HistoryHit TV Watch Now

A dangerous task

It was very sobering when some the girls were killed on delivery jobs. There was one girl from the same billet as me, and one day I got back from flying my aeroplane and the commanding officer said ‘I’m awfully sorry to tell you, your friend was killed this afternoon’.

That was a bitter, bitter, bitter blow. The CO didn’t allow me to fly for two days because they obviously thought the effect on me would be too great. Afterwards the CO said, ‘Yes, we’re all very sorry, but you know, there is a war, and we have a job to do’. We all agreed no matter what, we must go on.

What made me a good pilot was that I bothered to find out all the little intricacies that you have to learn about flying before you actually do it. It’s not terribly easy, or at least it wasn’t then because we had no radio.

Today, people have terrific radio. They’re told what to do, what not to do, where to go, where to land, everything. Us ATA girls had no one at all. We were on our own. It sounds incredible now, people can hardly believe it. They just say ‘It’s amazing, how did you do it?’

Paving a new path

It does make my very proud that we were pioneers for female aviators, and now girls are allowed to join the RAF and become pilots and do exactly the same jobs as the men.

The ATA allowed female pilots like Mary Ellis and Maureen Dunlop (pictured here) to contribute to the war effort. Credit: Picture Post

If any young woman wants to join the RAF now, I’d say ‘Go ahead, don’t be put off by anyone’. Girls now are getting to high ranks, which never used to happen. One was looking after me recently in London and she was a delight. We had a great time together.

I think we made it easier for people like her to serve because we proved ourselves as pilots. If someone has the inclination to be a pilot, I would certainly like any girl that wants to fly to go ahead and do it.