Visible Women

The incredible true story of female WW2 Spitfire pilot Mary Ellis

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Moya Crockett
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Ellis, one of the last surviving women to fly a Spitfire in WW2, has died aged 101. This is her story.

On 26 July 2018, it was announced that Mary Ellis, one of the last surviving women to have flown a Spitfire plane in WW2, had died. The 101-year-old passed away at her home on the Isle of Wight, at the end of a long and fearless life that saw her break down boundaries for women in aviation – and become one of the first women in British history to achieve equal pay for equal work.

Ellis joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1941, after hearing a radio appeal for more women to become ferry pilots. At the time, she was Mary Wilkins, the 24-year-old daughter of an Oxfordshire farmer. Her interest in flying had been piqued after watching Cobham’s Flying Circus, a touring aviation display that was wildly popular across the UK in the Thirties, and she had had a few flying lessons before the war broke out.

Although Ellis didn’t have as much flying experience as some of the other women in the ATA, she was accepted to train at Hatfield in Hertfordshire – otherwise known as the UK’s No 1 Elementary Flying School, which provided training to Royal Air Force pilots. Over the course of the war, she piloted more than 1,000 planes of 74 different types, delivering Spitfires and bombers to the front lines. 

Mary Ellis pictured at an event commemorating WW2 in 2015 

The women of the ATA were known as the “Attagirls” by the men they worked with, and while they didn’t engage in combat themselves, their job was an essential and dangerous one.

They were trained to fly 38 different types of aircraft, and 15 female pilots were killed in action in total during the war.

While the ATA employed many women during WW2, only five – including Ellis – were awarded their RAF wings and formally recognised as trained pilots.

In 1943, these women became the first in the UK to receive equal pay to their male co-workers. It was the first time the British government had approved equal pay for equal work in one of its organisations. 

Ellis and the other female pilots of the ATA are the subject of a new book, The Hurricane Girls, by Jo Wheeler. The book includes the story of late Spitfire pilot Jackie Moggridge, whose daughter Candida Adkins got to know Ellis before her death.

“My mum taught Mary Ellis to fly, and she always told me how kind my mother was as a teacher,” Adkins tells Stylist.co.uk. “She was such a lovely woman, and always so ladylike.”

After the war, Ellis moved to the Isle of Wight, where she managed Sandown airport between 1950 and 1970. In 1961, she married fellow pilot Don Ellis, and the couple lived next to the runway at Sandown for decades.

Speaking at her 100th birthday party last year, Ellis told the BBC that the Spitfire remained her favourite plane. “I love it, it’s everybody’s favourite,” she said. “I think it’s a symbol of freedom.”

According to John Webster, the current secretary of the ATA, there are three women still alive who flew with the ATA during WW2: Eleanor Wadsworth, Nancy Stratford and Jaye Edwards, who live in Bury St Edmunds, the US and Canada respectively.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women past and present who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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