Celebrating 100 years of British women pilots
On August 18th 1911 Hilda B Hewlett, a 47-year old mother of two, became the first British woman to pass her flying test; she received Pilot’s Certificate no. 122 from the Royal Aero Club eleven days later on August 29th. Hilda’s introduction to aviation came in October 1909 when she motored up to Blackpool for Britain’s first international flying meeting. There she watched an aircraft take to the skies for the first time and was instantly smitten:
“A great white thing was slowly pushed out of a shed, so big and strange. Paulhan (the French pilot) climbed up somehow, men twisted something round and round behind, when suddenly there was a roar which got louder and louder. The white thing moved – slowly – then faster and faster, till as it passed in front of me I saw one foot of space between it and the dirty muddy grass. That one foot of space which grew more and more made everything within me stop still. I wanted to cry, or laugh, but I could not move or think, I could only look with all my other faculties dead and useless. Something inside me felt it must burst. I had seen a reality as big as a storm at sea, or Vesuvius throwing up fire and rocks – it made more impression than either of these. There seemed to be no limit to its future. I was rooted to the spot in thick mud and wonder and did not want to move. I wanted to feel that power under my own hand and understand about why and how. The whole trend of life seemed altered, somehow, lots of important things were forgotten, a new future of vague wonder and power was opened.” (Hewlett)
At that time the place to go to learn to fly was France, which was an early investor in heavier-than-air craft and consequently had the machines and flying schools. Although there were a number of routes that could be followed, Hilda only had one real option – buy a French machine, which automatically entitled her to lessons at the manufacturer’s school. Her husband Maurice, a well-known writer, did not believe that aviation had a future and had no desire to share in his wife’s new-found passion so Hilda turned to her family to help finance her ambition and adopted the pseudonym Grace Bird as a cover for her adventures in France.
She chose to buy a Henri Farman aircraft of the type that had fired her desire at Blackpool but for various reasons she was unable to get airborne as more than a passenger in France. Her business partner Gustave Blondeau was more successful and in the summer of 1910 the aircraft was shipped to England where they set up a flying school at the Brooklands motor racing circuit in Surrey. Tommy Sopwith had his first flying lesson with Gustave shortly after but Hilda deferred to (much-needed) fee-paying pupils until July 1911, passing her test the following month.
By then Maurice Hewlett was left in no doubt that there was most definitely a future for aviation!
Aviation was perceived as glamorous right from the start and in the early years many of the pioneers, both men and women, were household names as records were set then broken almost monthly as people took to the skies to experience the thrill of flight. Today, people unconnected with aviation might mention Amy Johnson as a famous British woman pilot, or Kirsty Moore, the RAF’s first female display pilot with the Red Arrows, but from Hilda onwards British women played a prominent role in pushing the boundaries.
In many respects the period between the two world wars was aviation’s heyday, particularly for women. Those with the means to pursue their interest encountered no restrictions and found no obstacles in their way. Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, became interested in aviation in her 60s and made two record-breaking flights in her single-engined Fokker F VIII G-EBTS, accompanied by her personal pilot C D Barnard. The first, in 1929, was a 10,000 mile trip from Lympne to Karachi then back to Croydon in eight days; the second, from Lympne to Cape Town in 1930, covered 9,000 miles in 100 flying hours over 10 days. She died in 1937 at the age of 71 after leaving Woburn Abbey in DH.60GIII Moth Major G-AGUR that crashed in the North Sea off Great Yarmouth; her body was never recovered.
Aviation attracted many motoring enthusiasts and Mildred, the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce was one such. Mildred and her husband were well-known in motor racing circles so when she dropped in to the Automobile Association Map Department to order maps for her planned round-the-world trip they were very interested and wanted to know when she had learnt to fly. To this she replied, “Oh, to tell the truth, I haven’t learnt yet, but I will before I go.” Earlier that month she had spotted a Blackburn Bluebird in a London showroom, on which was hung a ticket saying, ‘Ready to go anywhere’. Rising to the challenge, she pored over her atlas that evening to plan which route she would take to circumnavigate the world then returned to purchase the aircraft the following morning. On September 25th1930, just twelve weeks later, she set off for Tokyo. An engineer working late on her aircraft just before she left was asked what the callsign G-ABDS stood for – A B***** Daft Stunt, came the reply!
By the time Mildred arrived back to Croydon on February 20th 1931 she had become the first woman to fly around the world alone – albeit crossing the oceans by ship, the first person to fly from England to Japan and the first person to fly across the Yellow Sea.
The 1930s saw a myriad of aviation firsts. Amy Johnson gained worldwide recognition in May 1930 when she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in her Gypsy Moth, ‘Jason’, now on display in the Science Museum in London. This was the main reason why Mildred Bruce decided to head for Japan instead! Amy set a number of distance records, both solo and with her husband, Jim Mollison. He became the first person to cross the Atlantic solo non-stop from east to west (Dublin to Canada) in 1932, the first woman to achieve the same feat being Beryl Markham in a Vega Gull in 1936, who in so doing also claimed the record for becoming the first person to cross from England to North America. The American, Amelia Earhart had become the first woman to cross solo west to east in 1932. At the outbreak of World War II many women pilots were keen to help the war effort by joining the Air Transport Auxiliary but entrenched prejudices against women taking on such a serious task meant there was much initial resistance to the idea. Eventually necessity prevailed and it fell to Pauline Gower, pilot and civil defence commissioner, to establish the women’s section. The first eight women were appointed on 1st January 1940 and by the time the ATA was disbanded in 1945, 166 women from across the free world had passed through its ranks. The following are just a handful of the many British women who flew for the ATA:
Amy Johnson signed up and became the first ATA pilot to die in service when she ditched in the Thames estuary during a ferry flight and drowned in 1941.
Joan Hughes and Jean Lennox Bird both qualified as pilots in 1930 at the age of eighteen and once taken on by the ATA Joan became the only woman cleared to instruct on all types of military aircraft then in service. Lettice Curtis was another pre-war pilot to join the ATA and became the first woman to be cleared to fly 4-engine bombers. Ann Welch gained her licence in 1934 a month after her 17th birthday; Diana Barnato Walker learned to fly in 1938 aged 20 and joined the ATA in 1941. Already the holder of a private pilot’s licence, Jackie Moggridge was training for her commercial licence when war broke out. She transferred to the ATA from the WAAF once the women’s section was up and running and eventually ferried over 1500 aircraft, more than any other ATA pilot, male or female. Freydis Sharland, future founding Chairman of the British Women Pilots’ Association (BWPA) learned to fly after becoming ‘air-minded’ following a flight at an air display in 1941 and joined the ATA in 1942.
After the war the opportunities for women to continue flying in anything other than a private capacity were greatly limited but a number managed to do so. Of those mentioned above, Joan Hughes had a very successful post-ATA flying career and was a highly-regarded instructor with the Airways Aero Association for many years. Initially at White Waltham then at Booker, she retired in 1985 with some 11,800 hours in her logbook.
Jean Lennox Bird continued as a member of the WRAF Volunteer Reserve and in 1952, with over 3100 hours experience on more than 90 aircraft types, became the first woman pilot to gain her RAF wings. She subsequently became a commercial pilot and died when the Aerovan she was piloting for an aerial survey crashed on take-off from Ringway Airport in April 1957.
Lettice Curtis initially joined the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down as a technician and flight test observer. She later moved to Fairey Aviation as a flight development engineer before joining the Ministry of Aviation in the 1960s. Lettice qualified to fly helicopters in 1992 at the age of 76 before voluntarily grounding herself three years later.
Ann Welch returned to gliding in the postwar years, re-establishing the Surrey Gliding Club that she had started at Redhill in 1938 and which subsequently relocated to Lasham. Ann played a significant role in the British Gliding Association (BGA) for many years but a need for change within the BGA and her desire to encourage more young people into aviation saw her move away from gliding and become closely involved in the development of hang gliding and paragliding. In her time Ann was president of the British Hang Gliding Association, the British Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association and the British Microlight Aircraft Association.
Following the disbandment of the ATA, Diana Barnato Walker gained her commercial pilot’s licence and shortly after was appointed as a Corps Pilot with the Women’s Junior Air Corps (WJAC), later the Girls’ Venture Corps. She flew with the WJAC until the late 1960s, training cadets and giving flights to air-minded teenage girls to encourage them to enter the aviation industry. In 1963 Diana was invited to fly the new English Electric Lightning T4 and after clearance from the Ministry of Defence established a world air speed record for women and became the first British woman to break the sound barrier when she flew to Mach 1.65 with Squadron Leader Ken Goodwin as her check pilot.
Jackie Moggridge joined the WRAF Volunteer Reserve after a short period out of aviation, which enabled her to keep flying and she eventually converted to Meteor and Vampire jets. After the WRAFVR closed its flying training schools Jackie found a job ferrying ex-RAF Spitfires from Cyprus to Rangoon for the Burmese Air Force. She joined Channel Airways In 1957 where she became an airline captain, operating short-haul passenger services in such aircraft as de Havilland Doves and Douglas Dakotas from Southsea on domestic routes, to the Channel Islands and to the Continent.
After the war Freydis Sharland became a pilot with the WJAC and in 1953 delivered a plane on her own to Pakistan as a freelance commercial pilot.
Although the majority of ex-ATA women pilots who continued to fly did so purely recreationally, a number of them wanted to promote opportunities for women to work in the aviation industry as well as to encourage the participation of women in aviation at a recreational level. It was a group of these who founded the BWPA in 1955 to further these aims under the Chairmanship of Freydis Sharland. By coincidence, the first honorary member of the BWPA and great supporter of the association was Lord Brabazon of Tara, Britain’s first licensed pilot, who gained his licence on March 8th 1910, the same day that Frenchwoman Baroness Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman to receive a pilot’s licence.
A student pilot by the name of Sheila Scott joined the BWPA just after her first solo in 1959. Qualifying a year later Sheila was soon entering rallies and air races in her Jackaroo, ‘Myth’. She later upgraded to a single-engined Piper Comanche named ‘Myth Too’ and it was in this aircraft that she set over 100 long distance flight records, including a 34,000-mile ‘world and a half’ flight in 1971 that saw her become the first person to fly over the North Pole in a small aircraft. The aircraft, G-ATOY, is currently on display at the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune Airfield, Scotland
Women continued to make progress in the aviation world albeit in a more low-key way and in 1960 two BWPA members, Yvonne Pope (Sintes) and Frankie O’Kane (Spray) were accepted by the Ministry of Aviation as the first women to train as Air Traffic Controllers. Women continued to be employed as airline pilots in increasing numbers but it wasn’t until as recently as 1987 that the national carrier, British Airways, employed its first female pilot, Lynne Barton. Lynne joined as a First Officer on the Boeing 747 fleet and within a year 60 of BA’s 3000 pilots were women. Lynne holds the added distinction of having captained the first BA flight into Heathrow’s T5. Another first came in 1992 when Barbara Harmer, who started her working life as hairdresser, completed her training to join the Concorde fleet, the only woman to fly the supersonic airliner as a line pilot.
By the end of the 1980s women pilots could be found in every quarter of British aviation except one – the military. Jean Lennox Bird had gained her RAF wings in 1952 but only in the WRAFVR. This was about to change. The blanket ban on women flying in the military was lifted and in May 1990 Flt Lts Sally Cox and Julie Ann Gibson flew their first solos at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Julie completed her training the following year and went on to fly Andovers with 32 Squadron at RAF Northolt before promotion to Captain on the Hercules fleet at RAF Lyneham.
The lifting of restrictions on women flying jets came in 1992 and in April that year Flt Lt Jo Salter was awarded her fast jet wings. Jo joined 617 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth in 1994 and was declared combat ready in February 1995, the first female operational Tornado GR1 pilot in the UK. She flew missions to protect the No-fly zone in Iraq in the late 1990s but left the RAF in 2000 after returning to work following maternity leave.
By now women were employed as both fixed-wing and rotary pilots throughout the military and in 2008 Flt Lt Michelle Goodman achieved the distinction of becoming the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The captain of an Incident Reaction Team Merlin helicopter, she had flown her crew into Basra at night under heavy fire to evacuate a casualty critically wounded by a mortar attack.
The advent of combat ready female fast jet pilots in the RAF meant that with the passage of time women would eventually meet all the criteria necessary for consideration for a place in the Royal Air Force Aerobatics Team – the Red Arrows. Flt Lt Kirsty Moore was the first successful applicant when she was selected for the Team in 2010 and is the most high-profile winner of the BWPA’s flying scholarship to date. Administered by the Air League, the BWPA scholarship is awarded annually and provides a young woman with up to 15 hours’ flying instruction towards the issue of an NPPL. As an Air Cadet Kirsty was the recipient in 1998.
The civilian world, meanwhile, has continued to see its share of British successes. Despite the increased difficulties and complexity of planning long-distance flights today, BWPA members Jennifer Murray and Polly Vacher, both relative late-comers to aviation, have followed in the slipstreams of earlier record-setters. Jennifer is the first woman to have circumnavigated the world in a helicopter, firstly with her instructor in 1997 then solo three years later, both trips in a Robinson 44. In 2007 she and her co-pilot, Colin Bodill then completed a polar circumnavigation in a Bell B407 helicopter after surviving a near-fatal crash in Antarctica during an earlier attempt.
Polly has circumnavigated the globe solo twice to raise funds for Flying Scholarships for the Disabled (FSD). Her Wings Around the World Challenge in 2001 was an eastbound circumnavigation of the world in her single-engine Piper PA-28 Dakota G-FRGN, the smallest aircraft flown solo by a woman around the world via Australia. The trip included a 16-hour segment from Hawaii to California. In 2003 she set off again, this time on a Voyage to the Ice for the same charity. Flying over the North Pole, Antarctica and all seven continents, Polly became the first solo woman to fly over the polar regions. Her third fund-raising flight for FSD, the Wings Around Britain Challenge in 2007, saw her land at all 221 airfields in the Jeppesen VFR Manual on a journey that took 158 flying hours to cover 19,000 nautical miles over a 72-day period.
Aviation has changed beyond all recognition since Hilda Hewlett gained her licence back in August 1911 and over the decades British women pilots have most certainly made their mark. It is still very much a male-dominated arena, both recreationally and professionally, but here’s hoping that by celebrating the successes of the past we will inspire a new generation of women to fly us into the future.
Hewlett, Gail, 2010, Old Bird – The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett, Matador, Leicester
About the author
Caroline Gough-Cooper has been flying since the age of 19 and is qualified on fixed-wing and rotary. She was an airline Captain for a number of years and has twice been Ladies’ World Helicopter Champion.
Caroline is the current Chairman of the British Women Pilots’ Association.