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Flying Women

It’s Women’s History Month during March, and it is also the last month of our current exhibition “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, so we thought we would bring the two together in three blogposts, focussing on women in aviation, racing and the railways.

In this first blogpost we are focussing on flying women. One of the aviators featured in our exhibition is Beryl Markham, who took off on her historic trans-atlantic flight from RAF Abingdon. It is worth taking a look at her life, and to consider other flying women of her time.

Beryl Markham is best described as a professional pilot. She was born in England but grew up in Kenia, where her father had a farm. At first she worked in riding stables and trained horses, but her interest in planes and flying was sparked. She took lessons, got her licence, and worked as a bush pilot. This involved supporting hunters on the ground by spotting the game from the air. She was connected to the wealthy white big-game-hunting society you may remember from the film “Out of Africa”. Beryl Markham knew Denys Finch-Hatton, the dashing pilot portrayed in the film by Robert Redford. In fact, she was supposed to be with him on the flight from which he did not return. She pulled out because her former flying instructor had a premonition.

Pioneering aviator Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham wrote a book about her life (thus far) in 1942. A good part of it is taken up by the story of an elephant safari she went on with Baron von Blixen-Finecke (called Blix or Blicky by her), who also appears in “Out of Africa”, as does his wife Karen Blixen on whose book the film was based. Blixen was a professional hunter, and Markham as bush pilot teamed up with him to take people on safari. She also travelled with him, flying her own plane, to London, in several stages. During that trip she appeared to receive a prophecy about her trans-atlantic flight. She didn’t seem to take it very seriously, but she tells this story about having her fortune read by an official at Cairo airport:

“I see a journey,” said Abdullah Ali.

“They always do,” said Blix.

“The lady will fly over a great water to a strange country.”

“That’s an easy prediction,” mumbled Blix, “with the Mediterranean just ahead.”

“And she will fly alone,” said Abdullah Ali.

Blix turned to me. “If I am to be abandoned, Beryl, couldn’t you make it a little closer to the bar?”

When Blix asks her later whether she believed, it, she thinks:

Who believes in fortune-tellers? Very young girls, and very old women. I was neither of these.

“I believe it all,” I said. “Why not?”

Whether she believed it or not, it came true with her historic trans-atlantic flight. There was nothing in the prediction about taking off from a country town in the south of England, but she did start her flight from RAF Abingdon. On the evening of the 4th September 1936 she climbed into her Vega Gull and took off, heading west. Twenty hours and twenty-five minutes later she crash-landed on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. She had intended to reach New York, but bad weather and engine trouble caused her to come down in an unplanned fashion. As she herself wrote: “Atlantic flight. Abingdon, England, to a nameless swamp – non-stop.” But she had crossed the Atlantic, the first person to do so on a solo flight from East to West.

Earlier in the book she talks about flying across the Sudan, and how the RAF would not permit female solo pilots to fly a certain (admittedly dangerous) route. “I am a little vague as to why it was thought that women were less capable than men of avoiding these obvious dangers, though I suspect there was more of gallantry than reason in the ruling. In all, I flew the entire route between Nairobi and London six times – four of them solo […], and other women have flown it too.”

This brings me to my next point in this post. So far we have only talked about one flying woman, but as she points out, she was not the only one.

In the 1920s and 1930s, aviation captured more and more of the public’s attention. Aircraft technology was developing rapidly, and there was a slew of record-breaking flights and firsts achieved. Flying also became a private pursuit. Wealthy owners of big country houses would add an airstrip to their estates, buy a plane and take up flying, following the example of the Prince of Wales, who had learned to fly during World War 1 and came to own several aircraft.  People also found having their own plane handy for nipping across to France for a holiday. Flying was not even perceived as particularly dangerous. As the Prince of Wales wrote to Sir Philip Sassoon, another avid flyer, “it’s safer than motoring and far more fun”.

Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, ready to fly.

Flying was also taken up by some of the women of that social group, and not just the young women either. Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, was one of them. When she took up flying in the 1920s, she was 60 years old and increasingly deaf, so perhaps flying gave her a freedom and a sense of control over her life she could not otherwise experience. Whatever it was that motivated her, she became an experienced pilot and participated in record flights to India and South Africa. In 1937 at the age of 71 she had logged almost 200 hours of solo flying time. But on 22nd March, her plane was lost over the North Sea off Great Yarmouth. The cause has never been confirmed – perhaps she lost her way and ran out of fuel.

Having your own plane was a hobby that only the wealthy could afford, but even so female pilots were not exceedingly rare, particularly after Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Australia in 1930, which put female aviators in the spotlight and inspired many others. Women took flying lessons, obtained their licenses and joined flying clubs. Some of them made a living by flying planes, giving people joyrides, flying with air display teams, or becoming instructors themselves.

Still, the RAF held onto its scepticism towards female pilots, even when World War 2 broke out and more pilots were desperately needed. The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) however employed men as well as women to fly the planes. This was a civilian organization, not part of the RAF, and its main task was to deliver new aircraft from the production sites to the airfields. In the beginning the ATA did not train their pilots from scratch, so the women who flew with them had to have learned their skills already. The first 8 women to start in the ATA each had c. 800 flying hours logged. One of them, Pauline Gower, had run her own Air Taxi Service and flew with several air display teams. This gave her a record 2,000 flying hours when she joined the ATA.

Mary Ellis, another ATA pilot, got her first taste of flying as a child, when Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus visited the area where she grew up in Leafield near Witney. She persuaded her father to let her go for a ride in one of the planes. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to learn to fly. When she was 16, she joined a flying club in Witney, took lessons and obtained her private pilot’s license.

Mary Ellis during her time with the ATA

Only in 1943 did the ATA start a training programme for people without flying experience, but only about 2% of the applicants were picked for the programme. Some of the training was carried out at the ATA Ferry Pool in Thame.

The job of an ATA pilot differed from that of an RAF pilot not only because it was a non-combat role, but also because of the vast range of aircraft each pilot was expected to fly. The ATA ferried everything, from small training aircraft to fighters to medium and heavy bombers. One pilot might be tasked with flying any of these in a single day. Aircraft were divided into classes, from single-engine light aircraft to flying boats, and the pilots were given training in maybe two representatives of a class. After that they were expected to be able to fly any aircraft in that class. Mary Ellis, for example, flew 76 different types of aircraft during her time with the ATA. In later interviews, she often named the Spitfire as her favourite.

Ferry pilots did not take part in combat, but that didn’t mean that their job wasn’t dangerous. Aircraft production sites, where they picked up the planes, were difficult to hide and under constant attack. To get the new aircraft out of harm’s way as quickly as possible, Maintenance Units were established, where work such as the installation of guns and radios was carried out. Planes damaged in combat were also ferried to the Maintenance Units. All this meant more work and more danger for the ferry pilots, who had to move the planes around more often and sometimes had to deal with barely airworthy craft.

Overall more than 150 women ended up serving in the ATA, as pilots or engineers. They started out flying only small non-operational aircraft, but ended up piloting Spitfires and heavy 4-engine bombers, just like their male counterparts. It took until 1943 for them to get equal pay, though: until then the women earned 20% less than the men for the same job. However, it should probably be seen as a success that they achieved equal pay at all. The Ministry of Aircraft Production had taken control of the ATA in 1941, and this was the first time that a government organisation had implemented equal pay for men and women of equal rank.

We have no photographic proof, but it’s not impossible that some of the bombers stationed at RAF Abingdon were delivered by one of the “Attagirls”.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer


Beryl Markham’s autobiography is West With the Night, first published in 1942, I have quoted from the 1988 Penguin edition.

The information about flying and Country Houses comes from Adrian Tinniswood: The Long Weekend. Life in the English Country House Between the Wars, London 2016.

Featured Image: The first female pilots to join the Air Transport Auxiliary


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