‘A privilege to meet a pioneer of aviation and equality’

Mary Ellis

On International Women’s Day, RAF Benevolent Fund regional fundraiser Heather Kemp talks about meeting one of the last surviving Air Transport Auxiliary pilots, Mary Ellis, and the impression this incredible lady made.

I had the great fortune to meet the Second World War pilot, Mary Ellis last year in the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar celebrations of RAF100. This elegant lady regaled us with tales of delivering the mighty Spitfires, Wellingtons and Hurricanes, to name but a few of these iconic aircraft, from factories to RAF Stations from 1941 to 1945. 

Armed only with a compass, map and a stopwatch, Mary singlehandedly flew 76 different types of aircraft encountering disbelief from male ground crews each and every time she alighted from the cockpit! It was not uncommon for them to thoroughly search the aircraft before they reluctantly accepted that it was actually Mary and not a male pilot who had landed the plane. 

She had several close calls, including being shot at by British anti-aircraft artillery who mistook her for the enemy and a crash landing when the undercarriage of a Spitfire caught fire. The anecdote I enjoyed hearing about most however was when she was shadowed by a Luftwaffe plane whose pilot declined to shoot upon realising that the Spitfire was being flown by a woman! 

Mary and her dynamic ATA colleagues deserve our gratitude and admiration for the pivotal role they played during the war.  I feel very privileged to have met this truly inspirational lady.

Mary and women of her ilk inspired me as not only were they aviation pioneers, they were way ahead of their time. This was an era when most women stayed at home doing mundane housework and looking after children. Very few ventured into the workplace and certainly not to take on this most ambitious role of piloting aircraft all over the country, in what must have been at times, dangerous conditions. 

She proved that women could achieve the same accolades as men and that anything is/was possible. It must have taken great determination, grit and indeed courage to achieve what she did in what was very much a man’s world.

A truly courageous and inspiring woman of her generation who proved that if you put your mind to it, you could become anything you aspired to be.

RIP, blue skies, Mary.

Image: Heather Kemp and Mary Ellis. Photo: RAF Benevolent Fund

Back to news