Sunday, November 29, 2020

Anything To Anywhere: ATtAgirls of the ATA

Zoë Sharp


In 2018, a lady called Mary Ellis, née Wilkins, died at her home in the Isle of Wight, aged 101. She was one of the last of a rare breed – female pilots who flew during World War II.

Mary Ellis in her ATA uniform

Ellis started learning to fly while she was still at school. “I was not very good at hockey, and the school let me go to Witney Airfield for flying lessons instead.”


I wasn’t very good at hockey, either, but I don’t remember being offered that alternative…


After gaining her licence at around sixteen or seventeen, she flew constantly until all civilian flying ceased at the outbreak of the Second World War. Ellis thought that was the end for her. “Then one day I heard on the radio that female pilots were required for the Air Transport Auxiliary. I said to my mother that I was thinking about applying, and she said ‘No, I shouldn’t if I were you’, but I did it anyway and was accepted.”

Mary Ellis during her service with the ATA

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was set up as a civilian organisation in May 1938, initially to carry mail, supplies and personnel. However, it soon became apparent that the pilots were needed to work with the Royal Air Force, ferrying aircraft from factories to the maintenance units where guns and other equipment could be added. Once war broke out, they also had to replenish the active duty squadrons with aircraft, thus freeing up RAF pilots for combat duty.


To begin with, the ATA recruited male pilots who had been turned down for active service, usually because of age or injury. Providing they could fly, the ATA ignored any such disabilities, and such pilots referred to themselves as the Ancient & Tattered Airmen.


Already, in 1939, an aviatrix and engineer called Pauline Gower proposed establishing a women’s section of the ATA, to be based at Hatfield. It didn’t hurt that Gower’s father was MP Sir Robert Gower—or that Gower herself was a highly experienced flying circus and taxi pilot. She was duly appointed head of the women’s branch in November 1939.

Pauline Gower, head of the women's section of the ATA

By the start of 1940, Gower had recruited her first eight female pilots, who were initially allowed only to fly Tiger Moths. These women were a remarkable bunch. Of them, Joan Hughes went on to become one of the UK’s first test pilots. Margaret Cunnison was Scotland’s first female flying instructor. Gabrielle Patterson was Britain’s first female flying instructor.


Gower firmly believed that women should be allowed to fly all types of aircraft. By July 1941, founding member Winifred Crossley Fair became the first woman to fly a Hurricane, while Margaret Fairweather flew a Spitfire for the first time the following month. Pilots were trained in the ATA’s own programme rather than at the RAF’s Central Flying School. They qualified on single-engined planes and progressed in stages according to the classification of the aircraft. By gaining experience on all types of aircraft belonging to that class before returning for more training at the next level, they could proceed at their own pace and still make an invaluable contribution.


During the war, there were 168 women flying for the ATA—one in every eight pilots. Among these ATtaGirls, as they were known, was record-breaking pilot Amy Johnson, who was tragically killed when she had to bail out into the Thames Estuary in January 1941.

record-breaking aviatrix, Amy Johnson

Pilots from neutral countries were accepted, and 28 different nations flew with the ATA. This included Maureen Dunlop from Argentina, who became a pin-up after being featured on the cover of Picture Post, and Margot Duhalde from Chile, who initially spoke almost no English. When she was forced to make an unscheduled landing due to weather, the crew at the airfield could not understand a word she said and actually had her arrested.

Argentine pilot Maureen Dunlop on the cover of Picture Post

There were also pilots from Poland, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Holland, and the US. One of the notable American pilots was Jacqueline Cochran. By the time of her death in 1980, Cochran had apparently set more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other pilot—male or female—in aviation history.

Jacqueline Cochran with Col. Chuck Yaeger,
the first woman and man to break the sound barrier

Another remarkable pilot was Diana Barnato Walker, who flew 80 different types of aircraft for the ATA, including 260 Spitfires. After the war, she became the first British woman to fly faster than the speed of sound, achieving Mach 1.6 in 1963.

Diana Barnato Walker during her ATA service

During the Second World War, the sixteen ferry pools of the ATA delivered more than 309,000 aircraft of 147 different types, clocking up 415,000 hours in the air. Almost 900 tons of freight was safely carried, along with 3,430 passengers. Sadly, 174 pilots were lost, including fifteen women.

Joan Hughes with a Stirling Heavy Bomber delivered by the ATA

Perhaps the most remarkable feat of the ATtaGirls of the ATA, however, was the fact that, from 1943, they received equal pay to their male counterparts of equal rank. Until then, they had earned 80 percent. This parity was reported to be the first time the British government approved equal pay for equal work in an organisation it controlled.

Is it just me, or do we seem to have gone backwards since then?


This week’s Word of the Week is anthypophora, which is a rhetorical term for the practice of asking oneself a question and then immediately answering it. Closely related to hypophora, which is sometimes seen as the statement or question, and anthypophora as the immediate reply. From the Greek against plus allegation.


  1. Will Jeff make a pun about ATtaGirls? Wild horses couldn't trample him. ATtaBoy!

  2. What a wonderful post, Zoe. We need to remember what women did in the 40s, as pilots, as riveters, as code breakers, as spies, as doctors and nurses. Regarding going backwards, you are absolutely right! In the US, at least, the first giant backward step happened during the 50s, with a concerted male effort, in corporations and notably by government and entertainment purveyors to put women "back in their place." Coincidently, I heard a podcast just this past week about the numerous productions of The Taming of the Shrew and the debut of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate. In almost all of these "entertainments," Petruchio spanked Kate on the stage and got a big laugh for doing so. When the fight for women's rights restarted in the 60s, it was from that depth.

    1. Yes, very nice post. Annamaria, I just heard the same on the program "On The Media." It's so odd that in wartime women and people of color so often come to the rescue to fill a void, and then when the war's over, the "establishment" insist of degrading them again! Black American WWII fighters who were loved in France but got miserable treatment when they came home.

    2. Kwei, don't you love On the Media! I've been an addict even before podcasts—when it was just a program broadcast on my local NPR station. In depth. Always stimulating.

    3. Thank you, Annamaria. Yes, amazing what's been got away with in books, movies, and on the stage. It makes me wince now to see or read the older James Bond stuff. His ideas on consent were... interesting...

    4. Thanks, Kwei. And I agree about the black American fighters during WWII. They were woefully under appreciated and their bravery and contribution to the war effort went unrecognised and unsung for far too long. I'm not entirely sure we know all of their story, even now...

  3. Great post, Zoë. Thanks. I'm surprised that my eccentric aunt Dorothy didn't join the ATA. She was a pilot in the 1930s.

    1. Hi Stan, and thank you. In the US, there was the W.A.S.P, which stood for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or Women's Army Service Pilots, or Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots - take your pick. They were formed in 1943 with the same aim as the ATA - to free up male combat pilots. Sadly, however, they were only paid 65% of the men's salaries...

  4. Amazing that we never hear of these women. A great biopic, I'd say.

    1. Indeed, Michael. I watched a documentary about them recently, which set me off researching them more thoroughly. And it is tailor-made to be a TV series - you wouldn't have to invent any drama, either. There was plenty!

  5. Sorry, Zoë, to have kept you waiting so long with worm on your tongue (homonymic Greek for "with bated breath"), but I couldn't come up with anything punny to say about a subject that honestly brought tears to my eyes a I thought of how eighty years later my daughter and granddaughters still must contend with these prejudices and double standards. You wrote a great piece, leaving me to say--drum roll--Atta Girl.

  6. Thanks, Jeff! Yes, events in recent years have been a backward step for gender equality in so many ways.
    And 'worm on your tongue' sounds like something that one gets after drinking Mexican beer...

  7. Women can do anything and everything! Great story.