The First Eight

In 1939, at a time when few women knew how to drive cars, or even had an opportunity to learn, a group of young women broke into the all-male world of military flying. This is the story of an important chapter in aviation and women's history.

Pauline Gower and been a "joy ride" pilot through the 1930's, running a pleasure trip business for the general public on a field next to a major highway in Kent. With the sign, "fly now - first left", she and her partner had started one of the earliest all-woman commercial flight businesses. As war approached, and with 2,000 hours flying time and 33,000 passengers under her belt, Pauline looked for an opportunity to contribute to the war effort with her kinds of skills.

In A Harvest of Memory's, her son's tribute to Pauline Gower, Michael Fahie quotes her:

"I have heard all this talk about the futility of training women to fly and I think that the critics are wrong.... Women flyers will be very useful in an emergency. They could ferry planes. They could also act as assistant instructors, thus relieving men instructors for more combat flying."

As the threat of war increased, Pauline Gower was appointed as the second woman Commissioner for Civil Air Defense for London and the Southeast of England, based upon her considerable flying experience. As a commissioner she flew a variety of aircraft types to the various civilian flying clubs and landing fields for which she was responsible. However in July of 1939, all civilian flying was curtailed by the outbreak of war.

In September 1939, from this springboard, and using her social and political connections, she approached Lt. Colonel Sir Francis Shemerdine, the Director- General of Civil Aviation with the idea of using women to ferry planes, with the newly formed and all-male Air Transport Auxiliary. Following initial bureaucratic resistance to women entering in upon this male preserve, permission was finally granted in November 1939. Pauline Gower was asked to head up this effort.

Her initial charge was to recruit eight women flyers to deliver light training planes, such as Gypsy Moths, from the DeHaviland factory at Hatfield to RAF training bases in Northern England and Scotland.

Ms. Gower, an inveterate coiner of light verse, wryly depicted this attitude of only risking simple and inexpensive planes that were easy to replace "if broken by women," as "the hand that rocks the cradle wrecked the kite."

On December 1 1939, Ms. Gower was appointed Second Officer. Two weeks later she took a ten-minute flight-test in a Gypsy Moth, and was promptly promoted to First Officer Class. Her salary of 400 pounds per year was 20% lower than her male colleagues - as per Treasury Department rules.

At this point the Women's Section of the ATA was born.

At a time when even the wife of the Air Minister was not permitted to enter a military craft, Pauline Gower was the first woman to be allowed into, let alone fly, a Royal Air Force plane.

On December 16, 1939, the first group of twelve women pilots were assembled at Whitchurch, and flight-tested in a Gypsy Moth. From this group of twelve, eight were selected and appointed as Second Officers at a salary of 26 pounds per annum (including flight pay.)

A uniform was furnished consisting of: a pleated skirt, slacks, a one piece "Sidcot" flying suit and quilted liner, a sheepskin leather "Irvin" flying jacket, a blue service tunic with four pockets, a belt with a large brass buckle, a great coat and a forage cap. Women had to purchase their own blue shirts, black nylon stocking, black shoes and black necktie.

Officially, slacks were only allowed on the base, and a skirt was to be worn off-duty. The same rule applied to the very warm black leather fleece lined flying boots; but both rules appear to have been routinely ignored.

This major step forward for women in aviation caused an initial uproar, and continued to be a source of consternation to people throughout the ensuing five years of active duty, as attractive, young and often physically slight women emerged from the cockpits of huge heavy bombers.

This important episode in the history of women's aviation began modestly, despite glamorous depiction by the press. Flying slow biplanes, with open cockpits in the winter without radios or navigational aids, out of wooden shacks on small airfields, these original eight women carried out the journeyman/journey-women duties of ferrying planes.

By June of 1940 there were 12 women pilots, to rise to more than 166 women by the war's end.

This move was not without controversy; especially at a time when England was coming out of the Depression, and there was a strong sensitivity to the idea of women taking jobs a way from men. Erroneous rumors of outrageously high rates of pay for these aviatrixes only fanned the flames of male resentment.

Pauline Gower was aware of the skepticism that her small group of women flyers aroused, and the higher standard that their detractors held them to.

Gower's response to this skepticism was to ensure the highest competence and professionalism among her section. In often appalling weather, poor visibility, no radio, no electronic navigational instruments, camouflaged land fields often with construction in progress, these first women flew with the awareness that errors meant providing ammunition for their critics.

In a BBC interview Pauline Gower stated simply that:
"We are a small group of women pilots with a job to do. We are just helping, along with others, to win the war. Our job will be unobtrusive. But it is going to be well and efficiently done."

The original eight woman flyers were recruited by Pauline Gowers were: Joan Hughes, Winifred Crossly, Margaret Unison, Mona Fried Lander, Rosemary Rees, Marion Wilberforce, the Hon. Mrs. Margaret Fairweather, and Gabrielle Patterson.

Joan Hughes

At 17, Joan Hughes had been the youngest female flyer in Great Britain, having started at 15, before age restrictions were introduced. Prior to the war, she was an instructor with the Civil Air Guard. By the age of 22 she had booked 600 hours ferrying planes for the ATA, ranging from light trainers to heavy four-engine bombers. She was the only woman qualified to instruct on all types of military aircraft in service during W.W.II.

Ann Wood Kelly remembers her as petite, and very young, but rising rapidly to become the most senior ATA pilot by the end of the war. She continued to fly after the war, and continued to instruct at the Airways Flying Club, where she taught airline pilots to be instructors on light aircraft.

In 1965 she starred in the film " The Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines," flying a replica of a 1909 Demoiselle. In 1965, she also flew a replica for the film "The Blue Max". She later visited the US where she appeared on a television quiz show as a mystery guest.

She retired in 1985 with 11,800 hours in her logbook. She died age 74. in August 1992.

Margaret Cunnison

Margaret Cunnison Ebbage was an instructor prior to the outbreak of war, and became a highly effective and respected instructor with the ATA. She was the main instructor at Hatfield, charged with the evaluation and training of new pilots. She "checked outmost of the U.S.A. women at Luton.

She left the ATA to get married in 1943. In 2002she was still living.

Mona Friedlander

An international women's ice hockey player. She had a pilots as well as a navigators license and spent many hours of "Army Cooperation" flying in front of anti-aircraft batteries to help them with the aiming and ranging of guns and searchlights. She left the ATA in 1943, when Hatfield was closed, and got married.

Rosemary Rees/ Rosemary Lady du Cros

Rosemary Rees had been a flyer before the war, and held an instructors license in 1938 and had toured extensively around the world in her Miles Hawk. She had even attended an air show in Germany as war threatened. Escaping in time, she returned to England to fly with the ATA. To add to this colorful background, Rosemary Rees was also a former ballet dancer.

In the ATA she became the Second in Command at the Hamble Ferry Pool.

After the war she set up an air taxi business with a Percival Proctor. She married in 1950 and died age 92 in 1994.

Marion Wilberforce

Marion Wilberforce was an experienced pilot in the 1930's, flying her own Gypsy Moth.

In the ATA she rose to become Deputy Commander of the No. 5 Ferry Pool at Hatfield, and later became Commander of the No. 2 Ferry Pool at Cotsford. She served the full 5 years until the ATA was disbanded after the war she purchased a Hornet Moth and continued flying until she was 80. She died at age 93, in July 1996.

The Hon. Mrs. Margaret Fairweather

Margaret Fairweather, daughter of Lord Runciman, became the first woman to fly a spitfire. Prior to the war she already had 1,000 hours of civilian flying and was an instructor with the Civil Air Guard. This groundbreaking episode opened the doors for women of the ATA to progress from light training aircraft to armed fighters and eventually to, large heavy four-engine bombers.

Her husband, Douglas Fairweather was also a pilot and one of the first to sign on with the ATA. He set up the Air Movements Flight at White Waltham in 1942, and his wife later joined him. In 1944 Ms. Fairweather was killed on a communications flight while landing a Proctor. Her husband was also killed in the war.

Gabrielle Patterson

Gabrielle Patterson was married with small a son, living in the town of Walsall. In 1935 she was the first woman to obtain an appointment as a flight instructor. She later became chief instructor and head of the Women's Corps of the Civil Air Guard in Essex.

Winifred Crossley Fair

Winifred Crossley had spent more than five years towing banners for aerial advertising and as a stunt pilot in an air circus. She served for the full 5 years of the ATA. After the war she married airline captain Peter Fair, head of BOAC owned Bahamas Airways in Nassau.

Of the 8 original woman pilots. Joan Hughes and Pauline Gower were awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire).

Along with the first eight, there was another influx of female pilots to the ATA in the 40's.

Amongst these in February was Lois Butler, wife of the Chairman of de Havillands. She became well known as the Flying Grandmother, and died in the early 80's.

In May the famous Amy Johnson joined but was killed in the ATA while ferrying an aircraft from Scotland. In horrid weather and low on fuel, she missed London but crashed in the Thames. A Royal Navy Officer tried to rescue he but he too perished. She died on May 1, 1941.
· Mrs. Grace Brown flew for Air Dispatch
· Joy Davidson (Muntz) crashed in a Master at the Central Flying School at Upavon

The month of June 1940 heralds six more ladies coming aboard. They were:
· Ursula Preston (Metcalfe)
· Ruth Lambton (Ballard) who's first husband was killed in RAF shortly thereafter
· Margot Gore to become C.O. Hamble
· Phillipa MacMillan (Mackenzie/Lady Brocklehurst)
· Audrey Sale-Barker (Countess Selkirk)
· Lettice Curtis followed soon after because she had to give notice to her job with Ordinance Survey

Then came:
· Mabel Glass in July, 1940
· Connie Leathart in August, 1940 and was killed in June of 1944
· Ann Douglas (Welch) in December 1940

This article was written by Alan Long, an ex-Brit living in Manchester, MA, after much research. He is an established writer.

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