“Tearing through the skies above the south coast of England, two WWII Spitfires evoke powerful memories of Britain’s wartime resilience. But this stirring image holds a further poignancy, for in the cockpit of the lead aircraft sits Mary Ellis, celebrating her 100th birthday by recreating her time as one of the A.T.A. Girls, the select gang of female pilots who flew Britain’s fighter aircraft to wherever they were needed to support the Royal Air Force. Over her shoulder is one of the actual Spitfires she flew during her amazing 1000 aircraft deliveries as a First Officer in the Air Transport Auxiliary.”
For four years, Mary ferried warplanes from factory to frontline squadrons. The 166 women of the A.T.A. have been dubbed “The Female Few”, echoing Winston Churchill’s description of the RAF airmen who fought and died during the Battle of Britain.
Mary was usually at the controls of a Spitfire or Hurricane but eventually flew over 50 different types of aircraft, much to the astonishment of her many colleagues. The largest aircraft that she flew was the Wellington bomber and the mighty Lancaster. It also became quite dangerous work as the A.T.A. girls were often required to move combat damaged planes that were not officially fit to fly, but had to be repaired for further active service. Mary remembers on her very first Spitfire pickup and delivery, a factory mechanic asked her how many of these had she flown. She replied, “I haven’t, this is my first.”
Mary, originally from Oxford, had her first flying lesson in 1938 and flew for pleasure until 1941 when she heard BBC radio broadcast appeal for qualified female pilots to join the new auxiliary service and in doing so, would release male pilots for combat duty.
Fourteen of her fellow female A.T.A. girls lost their lives including pioneer Amy Johnson.
Perhaps you’d like to see Mary in this snippet on YouTube.