“We accepted our responsibility and we got on with it”

Britain’s last surviving female pilot of WWII shares memories of her wartime role.

They were the unsung heroes of the Second World War – the courageous men and women of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Part of the civilian wartime service, the pilots of the ATA transported planes from factories to airfields across the country. Their work freed up RAF personnel so they could focus on strategic military campaigns.

At 102, Eleanor Wadsworth is the oldest living female pilot of the ATA. She is one of 166 women who put their lives on the line to help the war effort.

Born in 1917 in Nottingham, Eleanor began her career as an Architectural Assistant, working for the ATA and involved in the construction of facilities at the ATA’s newly-established ferry pools. It was there, in 1943, that she spotted a notice asking for people with no flying experience to train to become ATA pilots.

Eleanor, who now lives at bpha’s Oxlip House in Bury St Edmunds, recalls the moment she decided to apply: “I enjoyed my job but I was ready for a new challenge. The thought of learning to fly for free was a great incentive. I put my name down and didn’t think much about it.”

The 25-year-old passed all her medical checks and was accepted into the training programme. At the time only a quarter of the men and women who applied were offered a place. It was an unusual job for a woman and Eleanor fondly recalls her mother saying, ‘well if the ATA trusts you to fly their expensive planes, who am I to argue with them’.

“I enjoyed my job but I was ready for a new challenge. The thought of learning to fly for free was a great incentive. I put my name down and didn’t think much about it.”

Flying for the first time

Eleanor began her training at the ATA Initial Flying Training School at Thame in Oxfordshire. She was able to fly solo after just 12 hours of training, having never flown before. “It’s not that difficult to learn to fly if you’re taught properly,” she says. “But it takes a long time to be able to fly perfectly.” As part of her training Eleanor learned about navigation, meteorology, engines and more importantly – map reading. “We had no contact with the ground. There were no radios so we had to rely on maps,” she added.

During her time in the ATA, from June 1943 until September 1945, Eleanor flew 22 different aircraft, including the Hurricane, Spitfire and Mustang. Her favourite, she says, was the Spitfire: “It was a beautiful aircraft, great to handle and I was fortunate to be able to fly 132 of them during my time at the ATA.”

Equal pay

Eleanor was posted at several of the ATA’s 14 ferry pools, working alongside men and women doing the same job. She is keen to point out that the women pilots were treated the same as the men. “We had equal pay. We were probably years ahead of our time. But it’s right that everyone should get the same pay for the same job. We were respected just as much as the men were. Of course, there was some teasing but no-one took it to heart.”

As non-military personnel, the ATA pilots were undoubtedly putting themselves in danger. When asked if she ever felt afraid, Eleanor replied: “There were times when I felt unnerved but we’d had such good training, we accepted our responsibility and we got on with it. I remember hearing that some of our female ATA colleagues working near the south coast had spotted enemy attacks and that must have been frightening. But luckily, I didn’t come across that.”

After the war

Eleanor flew her last plane for the ATA on 21 September 1945. She has never piloted a plane since. “After the war, I married Bernard who was a flight engineer with the ATA. We had two children – George (now 73) and Robert (70) – so I was busy raising my family. After the boys left school I went back to my architectural career and worked for Greene King in Bury St Edmunds for 15 years before retiring.”

Eleanor’s husband, Bernard, passed away a few years ago after the couple had spent 71 years together. She’s since moved to bpha’s Oxlip House Retirement Living scheme – aptly situated on Airfield Road! “It’s a pure coincidence,” says Eleanor. “But I have to admit it’s quite funny. I’m happy living here. It’s very comfortable and I’m well looked after.”

Commenting on the ‘secret’ of her long life, she adds: “I try not to worry about things I have no control over. I’ve never smoked and I always did my own cooking and baking. My family – two sons, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren are a joy to be around.”

And how does it feel to be the last female pilot of the Second World War? “I think it’s just luck,” she said.

The ATA attracted pilots from all over the world, including Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, India and the USA. By the time the ATA was wound up in November 1945, 309,000 aircraft had been ferried by 1,245 men and women. The ATA’s headquarters were at White Waltham airfield near Maidenhead. A large collection of memorabilia, including logbooks and thousands of photographs are on display at the Maidenhead Heritage Centre.