St Patrick’s Day and ATA’s Irish Connections

Kipper Graham waits for his next job from Belfast

On St Patrick’s Day we salute all the Irish men and women who served with ATA in a multitude of capacities. There were 8 men and 1 woman from the Irish Republic as pilots, together with further pilots and a couple of flight engineers who were born in northern Ireland. Then lots of riggers, fitters, and other occupations as well. The boss of the Belfast Ferry Pool throughout its existence was Paddy Armstrong, in peacetime a pilot on Railway Air Services between Liverpool and Belfast. Other pilots included 53-yr old Leslie Warren and ‘Kipper’ Graham, a retired sea captain – we hope there was nothing in his pipe!

Belfast served the Shorts factory and their bread and butter was the Stirling bomber. Sunderland flying boats were also involved and to help with mooring duties ATA employed a small number of Sea Cadets. We bet they had fun. We heard an amazing story about Paddy Armstrong recently. When the Belfast Pool was being closed down, all the office furniture, files, etc were piled in the back of an Anson to go to Aston Down. In the copilot seat was Jill Farquaharson, who was in charge of MT at Belfast. As soon as they were airborne Paddy gave control of the aircraft of Jill and promptly went to sleep. Too much Guinness for lunch?!

Annette Mahon was born in Dublin and was one of the WAAFs recruited by ATA in 1944; the story of these WAAFs recruited is well told in the book “WAAFs with Wings” by Peggy Lucas. Annette served from May 1944 until the end of September 1945. After her training Annette was posted to No 4 Ferry Pool at Prestwick, where she was known as the Barracuda Queen. In the documentary film Spitfire Sisters she tells a wonderful story of flying over the heather covered hills of southern Scotland and suddenly thinking that the scent from the heather was very strong. When she looked down into the cockpit well she saw that her feet were soaked in hydraulic fluid! She used to say that she loved every minute in ATA and would do it all again, if she had to. Annette married Dr Hill who was on ATA’s medical staff.

On St Patrick’s Day in 1942, the American Stuart Updike (based at White Waltham) recorded in his diary “three deliveries today, Mohawk, Hurricane & Spit – a really good day, visibility good and ceiling about 2000ft – had tea at Shawbury – very good too!” But… the British weather changes all the time and the very next day he wrote “Flew an Anson through some stinking weather today, did not enjoy it one bit either. Lunch at Sherburn (No 7 Ferry Pool in Yorkshire) with Coe and Eddie”.


  Photo by Robert Wadsworth

We are very sad to report that Eleanor Wadsworth, one of the last surviving pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), died shortly before Christmas 2020 at the age of 103.  She served with ATA from June 1943 to the end of September 1945.

Eleanor spoke about her time in ATA in an interview for Maidenhead Heritage Centre filmed in 2011.   She was born in Nottingham and joined ATA as an architect in the Works Department at ATA’s White Waltham HQ, “designing parachute packing rooms, male and female toilets and rest rooms for pilots”.  When the department ran out of work she was one of the first 6 non-flying staff to be offered the chance to learn to fly.  She said “I always liked a new challenge” and so she went to ATA’s Initial Flying School at Thame and Barton-in-the-Clay.  After ground school, Tiger Moths and Magisters were used for her basic training with Dennis Lead as her instructor.  After being checked out by ‘Timber’ Woods (“a nice old boy”), lots of cross country practice was required before being allocated air taxi work in the Fairchild Argus.  Then back to school for high speed training on the Harvard and thus to the Hurricane, Spitfire, Hellcat, Mustang and others.  In all she flew 22 different types, with a total of 215 hours flying on 19 different single types and 86 hours on twin engine aircraft (Anson, Oxford and Dominie).

She never attempted any aerobatics (strictly forbidden), being happy to fly straight and level and “sit back and enjoy it”.  She loved the Spitfire, which she described as “remarkably subtle to fly” – although the check points went past very quickly.  Luckily she loved maps!  One aircraft she disliked was the Fairey Barracuda, a “remarkably ungainly contrivance”. Its bi-plane predecessor the Swordfish was “OK if you weren’t in a hurry”, but when she was allowed to take controls of a Liberator in which she was a passenger, it was “a heavy-handed kind of aircraft, a bit like driving a bus”.

Eleanor’s most worrying experience was when flying a Fairchild air taxi fully laden with 3 passengers, including Flight Captain Joan Hughes.  Immediately after take-off a piston came through the engine cowling, requiring a smart turn to the left in order to land successfully on a cross runway.

Eleanor was based for short periods at Sherburn-in-Elmet and Cosford, before settling at No. 6 Ferry Pool at Ratcliffe, where she found the Americans based there “very refreshing” and shared her family’s caravan with her friend Mary Wilson.  Most importantly she met her future husband Bernard Wadsworth, who was a Flight Engineer with ATA.   She and her fellow ATA pilots will for ever remain an inspiration to women everywhere.  Rest in peace, Eleanor.

“She has slipped the surly bonds of earth”