ATA’s first 8 women pilots

ATA’s first 8 women pilots joined on 1st January 1940. By 15 January they had uniforms and flying suits and could be paraded at their Hatfield base for a press call. It was a lovely sunny day. In some of the photos the shadows of the photographers can be seen.

The ladies were all hugely experienced. Here are brief biographies of these special women.

Winifred Crossley

Born 1906, pre-war stunt pilot, first ATA woman to fly a fighter (a Hurricane) on 19 July 1941 at Hatfield.  Served until November 1945.

Margaret Cunnison

Born 1914, flew light types only.  Left ATA March 1943.

The Hon. Margaret Fairweather

Born 1901, joined ATA with over 1,000 flying hours, flew her first fighter at Hatfield in July 1941 and was the first ATA woman to fly a Spitfire.  She was known to be rather aloof and is said to have been known as “Cold Front”. Married to Flight Captain Douglas Fairweather, who was killed in April 1944, for months before Margaret was killed in after an engine failure in a Proctor III.

Mona Friedlander

Born 1914, a qualified flying instructor with a commercial pilot licence. Flew 32 different types of aircraft with ATA, including the De Havilland Mosquito and Wellington bombers. Left ATA February 1943.

Joan Hughes

An Essex girl, Joan was the youngest of the first eight, born in 1918. She learned to fly at Romford, going solo aged 15. One of only 11 women to fly 4-engined bombers.  Joan served until November 1945. After the war worked as a flying instructor at White Waltham and Booker. Joan flew the replica Demoiselle for the film “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and also flew for “The Blue Max”.  

Gabrielle Patterson

Born 1905, Britain’s first woman flying instructor, flew 30 different types of aircraft with ATA, including the De Havilland Mosquito and Wellington bombers.  Left ATA March 1943.

Rosemary Rees

Born 1901, one-time ballet dancer (not the classical kind!), had over 600 flying hours when she joined ATA. Flew 91 different types.  One of only ATA 11 women to fly 4-engined bombers.  Became second in command of the all-women Ferry Pool at Hamble.  Served until November 1945 and in 1946 started her own air charter firm called Sky Taxi.

Marion Wilberforce

Born 1902. In the 1930s farmed in Essex and owned a De Havilland Hornet Moth. For tax purposes this was classified as an ‘agricultural implement’ which she used to transport poultry and Dexter cattle, when she wasn’t touring in Europe. In ATA she flew 47 different aircraft types, including 4-engined bombers.  When the all-women Ferry Pool at Hamble opened in 1941 she was the Deputy Commanding Officer and in 1940 she became Commanding Officer of the all-women Ferry Pool at Cosford.  Left ATA August 1945, but continued to fly a 1937 Hornet Moth until the age of 80. Our archive contains a French newspaper article recording that in her 60s she stopped at Darois, near Dijon, to refuel on her way to Cannes. In perfect French she told the paper “Cet avion remplace ma bicyclette”. She died in December 1995.

Remembering the fallen of ATA

On Remembrance Sunday let us remember the 173 men and women who died in ATA service. These casualties represent 14% of the total aircrew workforce of 1250 pilots and flight engineers. The first casualty was  Douglas King, killed in April 1940 and the last was South African Rosamund Everard Steenkamp, killed in January 1946 while ferrying for 41 Group RAF. However the number of women casualties was proportionally fewer than the men. As Peter George said: ‘The women were more reliable than the men. They didn’t take the same damn fool risks.

Male or female, they will be remembered with gratitude.

More from Graham Head’s diary

The first of these three entries shows that within 3 weeks of World War II breaking out, ATA’s role was already expanding beyond the original remit to operate communication flights.

22.9.39  Telegram from British Airways saying report to CFS Upavon (the RAF’s Central Flying School on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain) 09.00hrs Monday 25th inst for test.  The ATA is to assist the RAF with ferrying.

25.9.39 Reported Upavon 09.00hrs. Flew HARVARD dual with Squadron Leader Cox for 50min. Flying test OK, the third circuit unaided. Darned fine lunch in Officers Mess! Other ATA pilots were F.D. Bradbrooke, C.S.Napier, H.A.Taylor (from “FLIGHT”). We received our instructions from Squadron Leader Constantine.

28.9.39  Letter from C.A.G. releasing me from obligations.  Filled in National Register as “Air Pilot, Air Transport Auxiliary, 2nd Officer, British Airways”

More from the diary of Graham Head

Here are five more entries from Graham Head’s diary. More entries next weekend.

Captain Anthony Graham Head

14.9.39 TODAY – HALF MY LIFE GONE.  Letter from BRITAIRWAY enclosing duplicate agreement.

16.9.39  Petrol rationing postponed till 23rd inst. Uniform measurement from BRITISH AIRWAYS.

17.9.39 Measured by my wife for ATA uniform.

18.9.39  Russians invaded Poland. HMS Courageous sunk.

19.8.39   Requested release from Civil Air Guard for ATA duties.

80 YEARS AGO TODAY

11 September 1939 was a landmark day in ATA’s history. On this day, contracts were signed with the first 29 recruits, all male. One of these by Graham Head, who had been an instructor in the Civil Air Guard and would become ATA’s unofficial photographer. His diary is in the ATA museum collection and reveals that he was first contacted by British Airways on 30 August asking if he would be willing to be a ‘transport pilot’ in case of war. On 6 September he had a flying test at Whitchurch near Bristol with Mr A R O Macmillan, on loan from British Airways. On 11 September he had a letter saying he was accepted and got married at 11 am! On the 12th he wrote “Damn Hitler. FLABBERGASTED by honeymoon!” The very next day he wrote “Hotel charge of 2 guineas per night. Left hurriedly. Here endeth honeymoon.” More entries will follow as his diary records the evolution of the young ATA.