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Mary Ellis (1917–2018)

At one RAF base where Mary Ellis landed a Wellington bomber, the ground crew flatly refused to believe that she was the pilot. They even searched inside the bomber convinced that its male pilot was lurking somewhere.

Issue: 02-2024By Joseph Noronha

Mary Ellis was a British ferry pilot during the Second World War. At that time women were not considered capable of engaging in combat, or even of flying skilfully for that matter. However the War Office, in its desperation to find enough pilots to ferry planes to and from the frontline bases, was ultimately compelled to accept women.

Mary Wilkins Ellis was born on February 2, 1917, in Leafield, Oxfordshire. Since her home was located close to a couple of Royal Air Force (RAF) airfields she was familiar with aviation from an early age. When she was eight, the Sir Alan Cobham Flying Circus visited the area. Mary’s father did not need much persuasion to sign her up for a joy ride in an Avro 504 biplane. And she promptly lost her heart to flying. She took her first flying lessons as a teenager at a flying club in Witney and successfully gained her private pilot’s licence. Thereafter she flew whenever possible for pleasure.

When World War II broke out all civilian flying was stopped. However, to her good fortune, Mary heard a radio advertisement about women pilots being urgently needed in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). She applied to join in October 1941 and was sent to Hatfield, where she demonstrated her flying abilities in a Tiger Moth. She trained further on Moth, Hart and Hind biplanes at the RAF’s Central Flying School in Wiltshire, before joining a pool of female flyers based in Hamble, Hampshire. During her stint in the ATA she flew over 1,000 planes of 76 different types, including 400 Spitfires and 47 Wellington bombers, clocking around 1,100 flying hours. The frequent cockpit changes – sometimes from a Spitfire to a Tiger Moth to a Wellington all in the same day – would have challenged even a seasoned test pilot. And all this was with little or no type training.

The exploits of the ATA during the war was a saga in itself. The ATA was a civilian organisation hurriedly set up in February 1940, to transport urgently needed military aircraft and supplies from the factories to the operational bases, and sometimes from one base to another depending on where the requirement was most pressing. Initially it had only male pilots. But as the ferry needs multiplied it was decided to employ qualified females as well. The first eight women pilots joined the ATA in 1940 and were immediately dubbed “Atagirls”. The Atagirls could only ferry aircraft other than fighter and bomber aircraft. However, as the supply of aircraft and casualties both mounted, even this restriction had to be lifted.

As can be imagined, the decision to allow women to fly Britain’s frontline fighter and bomber aircraft, albeit only on ferry missions, was met with widespread consternation and even resistance. “Women anxious to serve their country should take on work more befitting their sex instead of encroaching on a man’s occupation,” an editorial published in Aeroplane magazine declared. As Mary Ellis later put it, “Girls flying airplanes was almost a sin at that time.” At one RAF base where Mary landed a Wellington bomber, the ground crew flatly refused to believe that she was the pilot. They even searched inside the bomber convinced that its male pilot was lurking somewhere. “Everybody was flabbergasted that a little girl like me could fly these big aeroplanes all by oneself,” Mary later recalled.

However, by the time the ATA was wound up in November 1945, following the end of the war, 166 women from many different countries, comprising more than 12 per cent of the total pilots in the ATA had served. Around 15 women lost their lives in the course of their duties. Initially female pilots were paid a fifth less than men. But after 1943 they became among the first women in the UK to achieve equal pay with their male counterparts. In all the ATA ferried 3,09,011 aircraft.

Mary had several brushes with death including once when her aircraft was shot at, possibly by friendly fire. On another occasion her Spitfire narrowly missed colliding with another as both landed from opposite ends of the same runway in thick fog. ATA pilots could not use radio equipment, as the limited frequencies were kept clear for the RAF. Mary also survived a crash landing when the undercarriage of her Spitfire jammed.

After the war, Mary Ellis was accepted as a pilot by the RAF and continued to ferry aircraft. She was one of the first women to fly the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first jet fighter. In 1950, she became the manager of Sandown Airport, and Europe’s first female air commandant. She also founded the Isle of Wight Aero Club. She died at her home in Sandown, Isle of Wight, on July 24, 2018, at the ripe old age of 101.