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.
I started to fly seriously when I was at school. I was not very good at hockey, and the school let me go to Witney Airfield for flying lessons instead. It wasn’t long before I was flying by myself.
I think I got my license when I was bout 16 or 17, which was absolutely wizard. Flying just gave me such a feeling of freedom, but then the war came and all civil flying was stopped. I thought that was the end for me.
One day I heard on the radio that female pilots were required for the Air Transport Auxiliary. I said to my mother that I was thinking about applying, and she said ‘No, I shouldn’t if I were you’, but I did it anyway and was accepted!
So there I was, back in the aviation world just after the Air Transport Auxiliary had started, stationed at Hatfield Airfield. My mother didn’t want me to do it because I think she just wanted me at home with her, going with her to all her tea parties. That sort of thing wasn’t really my priority at the time though!
Doing their bit
I didn’t really know how much we could do to help the country, but after I really got underway with the Air Transport Auxiliary, that’s when I knew I could fly some military aeroplanes and help the country.
The Air Transport Auxiliary originally existed because aeroplanes were being made like mad in factories all over the country, and they had to be delivered to various squadrons, which themselves were at airfields all over the country.
There weren’t enough RAF pilots to let them do that job rather than fight, so the ATA employed both men and girls to the planes from the factories to the squadrons, no matter where they were in the UK.
That job was really a dream come true, it was splendid. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be flying military aeroplanes. And as for flying a Spitfire, that was something terrific we just dreamed about but never thought of actually flying.
When I did get to fly one, it was absolutely wonderful. It is such a wonderful aeroplane, it really is. It will respond to anything you ask it to do immediately.
I didn’t have any training in a Spitfire at all, but one day I was flown to a factory and there was a Spitfire waiting for me! I was delighted to be able to fly it because I’d never even been close to a Spitfire before, let along inside one!
It was a differed sort of aeroplane from a Hurricane, more ladylike. It’s almost impossible to describe how delightful a Spitfire is and how it flies like a bird. It’s so adorable.
We were always told not to play about with the aeroplanes, but I wouldn’t say we always flew them straight and level! We had to make our own way irrespective of the weather, which was a great humbler at times. It was difficult, but there you are. There was a war.
Going it alone
Often it was very dangerous. We didn’t have any radio or any help from the ground at all. Once you were in the aeroplane you were on your own. There wasn’t any point wearing a helmet because no one was going to talk to me, so I just wore a white scarf. It was lovely.
Navigating was very difficult, and one had to use one’s own imagination. Should I take off in the first place? If I do, shall I be able to cope? You had to choose your route to wherever, and no one told you where to go. All you knew was that you had to take this aeroplane, be it a fighter or a bomber, to the destination that was on your little piece of paper that day.
I never really had any resentment about not being able to fly in combat. It was more than enough to fly three different aeroplanes in one day!