A classic ‘but she’s a girl’ moment from World War II

· culture ·

If you have read my about page, you'll know that this blog is named after the bafflement that meeting a geeky, technically-minded female engenders in some people. I am far from unique in this experience, of course, and for older women with non-typically female interests, it was probably a weary, daily experience.

I was watching a fascinating documentary earlier this week called Spitfire Women, about the women who served in the Air Transport Auxillary (ATA), and came across a perfect example of a 'but she's a girl' moment. Pilots in the ATA transported all manner of aeroplanes and RAF personnel between the factories and airfields across the UK. Commander Pauline Gower was instrumental in persuading the RAF to recruit women as pilots as well, since there was a shortage of available male pilots, and many very experienced female aviators who were keen to do their bit.

Mary Wilkins-Ellis was one of the ATA pilots, and described how she arrived at an airfield one day, having delivered a Wellington bomber. A couple of guys were waiting on the runway in an RAF car, and she assumed that it was to transport her to the control tower. They protested that they were waiting for the pilot, and when she said she was the pilot, they didn't believe her. In fact, they got out of the car and entered the plane to search it for the male pilot that obviously must be concealed somewhere aboard. She said:

"Everybody was flabbergasted that a little girl like me could fly these big aeroplanes, all by oneself."

It's a really interesting programme if you get a chance to see it. These women must have been incredibly skilled, because they flew an enormous variety of aircraft (from ancient biplanes, through Hurricanes and Spitfires to Wellington and Lancaster bombers): Mary herself flew 76 different kinds of aircraft. They had no specialist training on each of the planes, and instead relied on a small, ring-bound manual which had one page for each type of aircraft, giving the barest of essential information about that machine. I can only imagine getting in to a Wellington for the first time, and — mid-air — flicking through the manual to find out how the heck to land the thing. As if that wasn't daunting enough, they mostly flew alone, without navigational aids and unarmed, and yet they had an incredible safety record. I'm in awe of what they managed to achieve, and yet the women featured in the programme were all very matter of fact about it, except when they were describing flying a Spitfire. Then their faces lit up, and their joy as they remembered "playing with the clouds" in the little fighter gave me a bit of a lump in my throat.

They all described their years in the ATA as the best of their lives, but sadly only one of the women was able to become a commercial pilot after the war, despite the fact that they all dearly wanted to make a career in flying: ex-RAF men took all the jobs in commercial aviation.