February 2nd is set to be a special day, as Mary Ellis (one of the last surviving ATA girls) will reach the milestone of her 100th birthday!
To celebrate the occasion, why not discover more about these special women, by reading a new book on the subject? The Female Few, by Jacky Hyams, is published by the History Press, and features interviews with five ATA girls (sadly, only two of whom are still alive).
To whet your appetite, here's an exclusive extract, about birthday girl Mary Ellis:
Mary was born in Oxfordshire in 1919 [it has now come to light that she was born in 1917]. She joined the ATA on 1 October 1941, leaving on 31 December 1945 as a 1st Officer. She delivered 400 Spitfires to 210 airfields, flew 76 different types of plane and flew a total of 1000 aircraft.
At one stage during her time as an ATA pilot, Mary Wilkins was known to her colleagues as ‘The Fog Flyer’ because of her skill in delivering planes in atrocious weather conditions. On one memorable occasion, after delivering a heavy twin-engined Wellington bomber to an RAF station, the officers there demanded to know where the pilot was. They just couldn’t comprehend that a slim, fair-haired young twenty-something woman could have piloted such a mighty war machine to its destination. One of five children from a comfortable Oxfordshire farming family, Mary’s entire adult working life has been spent in aviation.
After the ATA Hamble ferry pool disbanded, she was one of three women to continue ferrying planes for the RAF for six months. Then she became a private pilot to a businessman, eventually setting up an air charter business with six aircraft. As a result, she became Europe’s only woman Air Commandant, Managing Director of Sandown Airport, on the Isle of Wight, for two decades.
Reserved, graceful and still as passionate about flying as she was as a small child on her first ever joy flight in the 1920s, hers is an awesomely distinguished flying career. She retains that low-key modesty that is the hallmark of the surviving Spitfire Girls. You leave Mary (Wilkins) Ellis with the impression that this woman could cope with anything life threw at her, even in her nineties.
‘I loved the Spitfire, like all the other pilots. But I also liked flying the twin-engined bombers, especially the Wellington. The first time I ever saw one my reaction was: ‘Oh if only I could fly that.’ It was ginormous. It seemed the tail was a mile away when you looked back. The RAF flew them into combat with a crew of two pilots, a navigator and an engineer. I did so love flying it alone – solo.
At one point, I had to deliver a Wellington to an RAF station, the first time a Wellington had been delivered there. After I’d landed it at the airfield, a ‘follow me’ car guided me to dispersal. Then, when I climbed down through the hatch with my parachute, the ground crew were there to greet me.
‘Where’s the pilot?’ one guy said.
‘I am the pilot,’ I told them.
They shook their heads as if to say this couldn’t possibly be true. Then one of them decided to check inside the plane. Of course, when they realised I was the pilot, they were incredulous. In combat, they needed five men inside the Wellington. But to deliver, it took just one young woman.
On another occasion, as I stepped out of a plane I’d just delivered, the airfield’s Commanding Officer was watching from the tower. When he saw me, he was heard to ask who was responsible for teaching the ATA girls to fly all the different types of planes. I never saw the expression on his face. But I can imagine what it was like when he was told: ‘Nobody, sir. They learn from their little Blue Book.’ Referring, of course, to the ATA Pilots Notes.
That incident with the Wellington was, really, the only example of what they’d call sex discrimination nowadays. We were all too busy with our work to question who did what. A handful of girls had already shown they were capable of doing this job in the early years of the war. Now, there were more of us, simply because they needed more pilots. And we could do it.
I still see Joy Lofthouse and Molly Rose [sadly, Molly has now passed ] at ATA reunions. I kept in touch with a lot of the other ATA girls but, one by one, they’ve gone now. There was an ATA girl living here on the island, Bennie Willis. We’d often go out for lunch. But now she’s gone too.
The ATA years, when I look back, were the best time of my life. At an ATA reunion at Maidenhead recently, I found myself sitting next to Prince Michael of Kent, one of the Queen’s cousins. I asked him about flying. He told me: ‘I don’t fly alone, I only go with instructors.’ I told him: ‘I started my flying career meeting the Duke of York and now I’ve ended it talking to Prince Michael.’
I don’t know how true it is but people joke that I’m the oldest Spitfire pilot in the world. A few years ago it was arranged by Spitfire pilot Caroline Grace that I would accompany her on a short flight in the Suffolk area. It was being filmed. At one point I took the controls of the Spit for 20 minutes. How did I feel? I was grateful to Caroline for the opportunity and I would say I felt terribly elated.
In one way, it felt like the best day of my life – the years just rolled away!’
Extracted from the ‘Mary (Wilkins) Ellis’ chapter of The Female Few by Jacky Hyams, published by The History Press