RAF Upper Heyford remembers American woman ATA pilot

A total of 56 TAB-V or Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), proof against a direct hit from a 500 lb high explosive bomb, were built at RAF Upper Heyford as part of a scheme to upgrade the base so that it could continue to operate after attack by conventional, biological or chemical weapons, or after contamination by radioactive dust.

Each HAS was intended for a single General Dynamics F-111E nuclear-capable strike aircraft, although two aircraft could be accommodated by making use of the F-111’s variable geometry (swing) wings.

The first batches of HASs were originally open ended weather shelters, made from interlocking metal parts and held together with 24,000 nuts and bolts. Later these were ‘hardened’ by adding a thick concrete skin and doors.

‘HAS 20’ was completed in January 1981 and handed over to the 55th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

In 1986 personnel of the four squadrons based at Heyford were asked to nominate names for each shelter. HAS 20 was  named in memory of Air Transport Auxiliary pilot ‘Jacqueline Cochran’.

Jacqueline Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pitman on 11 May 1906. In about 1920 she married Robert Cochran, and they had a son, who was to die at the age of 5. The marriage was not a success, but the change of surname and the adoption of ‘Jacqueline’ or ‘Jackie’ as a first name allowed Bessie to rewrite history and refer to the Pitmans as her adopted family.

Working as a hairdresser in Pensacola and New York, Jackie met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, founder of the Atlas Corporation and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Odlum was believed to be one of the world’s ten richest men. He financed Jackie’s cosmetics company, and promoted it through Jackie’s new interest in aviation by suggesting the renaming of ‘Wings to Beauty’ cosmetics and aviation advertising tours across America. Odlum and Jackie married in 1936.

In 1934 Jackie was one of only three women to take part in the England-Australia MacRobertson Air Race which started at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Concentrating on speed records, Jackie entered the famous Bendix Race in 1937 and worked with Amelia Earhart to open more aviation competitions to women. By 1938 Jackie was considered the best women pilot in the USA, and went on to establish speed, altitude and distance records, still holding more than any other pilot at the time of her death.

In September 1939 Jackie began agitating for a women’s division of the US Army Air Corps. Before the USA entered the Second World War, in December 1941, Jackie worked for Wings for Britain, ferrying American-built across the Atlantic. She became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic when she delivered a Lockheed Hudson. In March, 1942, Jackie led a party of 25 American women pilots to join the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain, and report back on the ATA’s successful employment of women.

The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron was created in September 1942 and Jackie returned from Britain to lobby for the creation of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment so new pilots could be trained. In August 1943 the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) was formed with Jackie as director. The Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to Jackie in 1945 in recognition of her achievements.

Postwar Jackie continued to set aviation records, becoming the first woman to fly supersonic, in 1953. She joined the USAF Reserve in 1948 and retired as a Colonel in 1970.

A sponsor for the Mercury 13 space programme, Jackie campaigned for women astronauts, but later admitted that winning the ‘Space Race’ against the USSR was the priority.

Colonel Jacqueline Cochran, possibly America’s greatest woman pilot, died on 9 August, 1980.

International Womens Day

On March 8th, International Womens Day, we salute the women of 10 different countries who flew for ATA and make inspiring role models for women of the 21st century. Beside the British pilots, the largest contingent came from the USA in 1942, recruited by Jackie Cochran. The other nations were Australia, Canada, Chile, Eire, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and South Africa. They all contributed immensely to the success of ATA. Apparently crew room conversations at Hamble often included Spanish voices (Margot Duhalde from Chile and Maureen Dunlop who grew up in Argentina) and Polish voices (Anna Leska and Stefania Wojtulanis – known as Barbara!) along British, American and South African voices.

Important ATA and White Waltham anniversary

15 February 1940 was a real landmark in the history of ATA.  On that date 80 years ago, ferrying operations began from No. 1 Ferry Pool at White Waltham.  The airfield was occupied by the RAF’s Elementary Flying Training School 13, so ATA was a cuckoo in the nest.  Within 12 months White Waltham would be so busy that EFTS 13 was forced to move elsewhere.

The ATA pilots who came to White Waltham are listed in The Forgotten Pilots.  Our photo archive contains photos of most of them, but we would be interested to know whether any of their logbooks survive.  25 of them were from the original intake who signed up on 11 September 1939, including one-eyed, one-armed Stuart Keith Jopp, speedway ace Wally Handley and Graham Head, extracts from whose diary appear in earlier news in this section of the website.  By the end of 1940, three of the pilots (Fields, Clark and Cummings) would be killed.  Five would be Commanding Officers of Ferry Pools: Handley at Hawarden (3 Ferry Pool), Vincent at Ringway ( sub-pool of Hawarden), White at Prestwick (4 Ferry  Pool), Wills at White Waltham (1 Ferry Pool) and Sandeman at Ratcliffe (6 Ferry Pool).  Bradbrooke would be Chief Ferry Officer, Napier Chief Technical Officer and White (a BOAC pilot) in charge of the training pool.

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.