As told to Melody Foreman
Mary Ellis was one of the longer serving female ATA pilots. Although she wasn’t one of the first to join, she did enter the service fairly early, and she remained with the RAF into the post-war period. During her time with the service she flew seventy six different types of aircraft, including over 400 Spitfires. This memoir was written when she had turned 100 and was conducted as an interview with Melody Foreman, but it’s Mary’s voice that dominates.
Mary Ellis was born into a farming family, and was bitten by the aviation bug at a very early age. Her first flight came at the age of 8, and she was already a qualified pilot at the outbreak of war in 1939. Indeed for some time it looked as if the war had ended her aviation career, but a group of determined pioneers were eventually able to convince the Government to allow women into the Air Transport Auxiliary, which was officially a civilian service. Maray soon signed up for the new service, and worked her way up through the ranks until by the end of the war she was about to start flying heavy four engined bombers. The total of seventy-six different types of aircraft includes sub-types, but even without that the number of totally different types flow approaches seventy, and of course many of the sub-types of aircraft like the Spitfire were quite different.
One of the most impressive aspects of Mary’s flying career (and indeed of all of the ATA Ferry Pilots) is that they were expected to fly entirely new types of aircraft without any training on that type! Instead they had their ‘Blue Book’ of notes, which listed all of the key characteristics of each type, but if they were qualified to fly a particular type of aircraft, then they’d be expected to consult the book, then deliver the aircraft! One gets the impression that the more different types of aircraft you flew, the easier it was to adapt to another new type, with the biggest jumps being from single to twin engined then from twin engined to four engined types. Interestingly Mary found the Meteor jet to be very similar to fly to the familiar propeller driven types, with the visual lack of a prop being the main concern! Generally even front line combat units got a bit more time to get used to a new aircraft!
One of the most obvious questions is how much sexism did the female pilots encounter? There was clearly some – Mary talks about one Ferry Pool within the ATA that refused to take female pilots until the very end of the war, and includes an incident where the people she was delivering a Vickers Wellington to refused to believe she was actually the pilot, and another where an NCO refused to allow her to fly until he’d more than double checked, despite her carrying the legitimate orders. However the novelty of women delivering aircraft must have worn off eventually, as about one in ten ATA pilots were women. However she did still encounter problems post-war, finding that it was best not to let the passengers in civil flights know if their pilot was a woman.
Mary Ellis comes across as a remarkable person. Her post-war career is just as impressive as her wartime exploits, and included a successful period as the only female airport manager in Europe, running Sandown Airfield on the Isle of Wight, and a successful career as a rally car driver – clearly speed was her thing! Her stories from the ATA were a mix of the light hearted, especially with the joy of flying and the friendships formed, and the dangers of flying with several of her friends dying in air crashes. As a result this is one of the most interesting Second World War autobiographies I’ve read (and probably one of the last to be written as the generation that flew in the war disappear).
1 - My First Spitfires
2 - Early Inspirations
3 - To the Skies - Aged Eight!
4 - Those Were the Days
5 - Going Solo
6 - The ATA Women's Section
7 - 'New Eves of the Air'
8 - Fighter Girls
9 - Reporting for Duty
10 - Ferry Girl
11 - No.15 Ferry Pool, Hamble
12 - Forced Landing
13 - 'My' Spitfire
14 - Life and Death
15 - All in a Day's Work
16 - Close Calls
17 - 'I AM the Pilot'
18 - D-Day Spitfires
19 - Shared Memories
20 - Last Days of the ATA
21 - Rally Driver
22 - Miss Wilkins Runs and Airport
23 - 'Spitfire Mary'
I - Spitfire Deliveries 1942-1946
II - Hurricane Deliveries 1942-1945
III - Swordfish Deliveries 1942-1944
IV - Wellington Deliveries 1943-1945
V - Typhoon Deliveries 1945
VI - Tempest Deliveries 1945
VII - Mosquito Deliveries 1945-1946
VIII - Eleven Types in Ten Days March 1944
IX - Twelve Types in Ten Days August 1945
X - Twelve Types in Twenty Days May 1945
XI - Aircraft Types Flown
XII - Airfields Flown To and From During ATA Service
Author: Mary Ellis