Throughout the Second World War, Mary Ellis ferried Spitfires and other military planes from the factories where they were made to the RAF bases that needed them, one of 169 women who pushed their way in to do a man’s job—eventually for a man’s pay.
At 100 years old, she still had the sprightly yet clipped manner of a woman who had survived and thrived in the man’s world of aviation. One of the last World War Two pilots still alive, I was lucky to have lunch with her near her home on the Isle of Wight in the south of England.
Armed with questions and preparing myself to meet a frail centenarian, little did I expect that she would bark a few questions at me, and then proceed at last to tell me things I’d never known about the women who took on the dangerous role of delivering planes for the war.
Bad weather, friendly fire, barrage balloons, derelict planes, and coming face to face with a Nazi bomber were among the many dangers these women faced in their day-to-day duties. Flying without navigation equipment or radio support, getting lost or trapped above thick cloud cover became a life-or-death situation. Every morning they were handed their orders: around three to six ferrying jobs for each day, sometimes short hops and others from the very south of the country to the very top of Scotland.
“It wasn’t for the faint hearted,” Mary said when I asked what kind of girls took up the job. “The flying was hard work, but then you had to deal with the prejudices too. No one thought we women could do it, and we had to work twice as hard as the men, and we couldn’t get away with accidents or mishaps.”
By the end of the war, women had demonstrated their aptitude for levelheadedness, with fewer broken planes, more flights per person, and less deaths than the male ferry pilots. On top of these feats, the women quietly pressed for equal pay for equal work, and were awarded it in 1942, the very first women ever to break that threshold.
Thank you to Mary Ellis and the other fearless women World War Two pilots for bravely bolstering air control and for steadfastly furthering the equality for women.