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Pioneering women of the Air Transport Auxiliary celebrated at Maidenhead Heritage Centre

Staff reporter

Staff reporter

Maidenhead Heritage Centre has been celebrating International Women’s Day by offering female visitors a taste of what it was like to be one of the pioneering women of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).

While Women’s Day was yesterday (Wednesday) the museum, in Park Street, is offering women visitors a free 15-minute flight in its popular Spitfire simulator until Saturday.

Chairman Richard Poad said: “We want to pay tribute to the 164 women who flew during World War II as ferry

pilots for ATA, whose headquarters was at White Waltham airfield.

“These women needed to overcome strong male prejudice to take on the role but they quickly proved they could do what was seen as only a man’s job. They are a superb role model for the girls and women of today.”

The first eight women joined ATA in January 1940. Initially they were restricted to flying non-operational types of plane, and were paid 20 per cent less than the men.

The female pilots became known as the ‘ATA girls’ and were given a great deal of publicity – sometimes to the chagrin of their male colleagues.

Joan Hughes was one of those first women, aged just 22. After the war she was a flying

instructor at West London Aero Club at White Waltham. Lettice Curtis, from Twyford, joined in May 1940 and by July 1941 they and their colleagues had proved themselves enough to be permitted to fly single engine fighters and twin-engined bombers.

Maureen Shiel from Cookham joined in September 1943 and was trained from scratch by ATA flying instructors.

Mary Ellis, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, recalls how an incredulous RAF ground crew refused to believe she was the pilot of a huge Wellington bomber until they had searched the plane from one end to the other.

Other similar stories have been recorded by volunteers at the Heritage Centre, which has more than 100 pilot logbooks in its collection.

These record many days where a pilot would fly five or more flights in five different types of plane, some of which they had never seen before, let alone flown.

“It must have taken tremendous courage and skill,” said Mr Poad. “They flew in all weathers, unarmed and with no radios. Their only guidance was a thin volume of Ferry Pilots Notes – a pocket-sized flip pad of basic dos-and-don’ts for every aircraft in service.”

Women from 10 countries came to Britain to join ATA’s war effort.

In autumn 1942 Lettice Curtis became the first woman to fly a four-engined bomber and would eventually ferry almost 1,500 planes. May 1943 saw the women finally achieve equal pay with their male colleagues, making ATA Britain’s first significant equal opportunity employer.

Mechanical failure and bad weather conditions claimed the lives of 173 ATA male and female aircrew, including aviation pioneer Amy Johnson who was lodging with friends in Marlow at the time she died after bailing out

of her plane over the Thames estuary.

Mr Poad continued: “ATA pilots were shot at, often by friendly fire, but none were ever shot down. Women suffered fewer casualties than the men, probably because they were more cautious and were always aware that their critics were waiting

for them to make mistakes.”

Plenty of women could also be found in ground jobs supporting their airborne colleagues. Female fitters and riggers serviced aircraft in the hangars; other women were weather forecasters and parachute packers.

They all contributed to the war effort and their story is told at Maidenhead Heritage Centre, where displays include uniforms, flying equipment, hundreds of photographs, paintings and wartime cartoons and plenty of model aircraft.

“We don’t have space for a real Spitfire,” said Mr Poad. “But we do have our fabulous Spitfire simulator, suitable for everybody between eight and 80.

“We look forward to seeing lots of ladies wanting to experience a Spitfire flight to celebrate International Women’s Day.”

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