At the height of World War II, 26-year-old Mary Wilkins, all 5 feet 2 inches of her, helmetless and with curly blond hair, climbed down a ladder from the cockpit of a mighty twin-engine Wellington bomber at a combat-ready Royal Air Force base in England.
“Where’s the pilot?” someone on the ground crew asked.
“I am the pilot!” she responded.
As a volunteer pilot for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary, Ellis’ job was to deliver warplanes — Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, the famous Wellingtons, Lancaster bombers and more than 70 other types of military aircraft — from factories to scramble-ready male pilots at bases of the RAF and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. She had delivered the Wellington — solo, although built for a five-man crew — from its factory.
“Well, they didn’t believe me,” she wrote in her memoir, “A Spitfire Girl.” “One or two of them still decided to clamber on up the ladder to check the aeroplane for the ‘missing’ pilot…. They just could not believe women could fly these airplanes.”
The death of Mary Wilkins Ellis on July 25 at 101 — a year older than the RAF itself — was confirmed by Graham Rose, chairman of Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary Assn. The organization works to ensure that the ATA’s pilots, men and women — including its chairman’s mother, Molly Rose — are remembered.
Ellis died at her home, next to a runway at Sandown on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England. No specific cause was provided.
Ellis was one of the last surviving female pilots of the ATA. Only three other female ATA pilots are thought to be alive.
The “Attagirls,” as they were nicknamed, almost always flew solo and always without compass or radio assistance, guiding themselves via maps and following rivers or railway lines. Mostly British — but including several American, Canadian and other Allied volunteers — they did not fly in combat but faced the daily danger of attack by Luftwaffe fighters and collisions with the huge barrage balloons floating around southern England as antiaircraft obstacles to low-flying enemy planes.
Ellis once had to take evasive action to avoid a deadly Nazi flying bomb known as a “doodlebug” or “buzz bomb” because of its noise. With her plane unarmed, she could do nothing to stop it from reaching its target in London or elsewhere.
In her 2016 memoir, co-written with journalist Melody Foreman, she recalled flying over Pershore, Worcestershire, when a Luftwaffe fighter plane with black swastika markings flew alongside her.
“With one hand I waved at this pilot to move away and get out of my sight,” she wrote. “I can picture his grinning face now. Then he cheekily waved back again and again — and then suddenly he was gone. I wondered if it was my blond curls that caused him to stare as I never ever wore a helmet during my whole career with the ATA. What was the point of a helmet when we couldn’t speak to anyone? It didn’t do much for the hairstyle, either.”
She was once shot at over Bournemouth, in southern England, by “friendly fire” from the ground (“not an experience I ever wanted to repeat”) and had a near-miss when landing in thick fog at the same time a combat Spitfire landed on the same runway from the opposite direction.
She also survived a crash landing when her Spitfire’s landing gear jammed. During the war, the ATA delivered more than 309,000 aircraft using 1,152 male pilots and 168 women. It lost 159 men and 15 women in accidents, usually because of bad weather or failing to find highly camouflaged air bases.
One of those killed was Ellis’ good friend, the renowned English aviator Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly alone from England to Australia. Her Airspeed Oxford plane, on an ATA delivery flight, crashed into the Thames Estuary near London in 1941.
One thing for which the ATA has rarely been praised is being the first branch of the British armed forces to gain equal pay for women, a massive crack in what later became known as the “glass ceiling” for women.
In all, Ellis, eventually with the ATA rank of first officer, flew more than 1,000 warplanes of 76 types — including 400 Spitfires — from 1942 to the end of the war in 1945.
The middle of five siblings, Mary Wilkins was born Feb. 2, 1917, on her family’s 1,000-acre farm near the village of Leafield.
She was 8 when her father bought her a ride in a de Havilland DH-60 Moth two-seater biplane. She was hooked. As a teenager, she persuaded her father to pay for flying lessons, and she earned her pilot’s license at 22 in 1939, just as war was looming.
After the Battle of Britain in 1940, when the RAF successfully repelled the Luftwaffe but at a high cost, she heard an ad on BBC radio for qualified pilots to help the war effort.
Criticism, even outrage, quickly followed. C.G. Grey, founding editor of the British magazine Aeroplane, was among the most ardent voices against women in the cockpit. “The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly,” he wrote.
Years later, Ellis recalled: “Girls flying airplanes was almost a sin at that time.”
Britain badly needed combat pilots, but there were not enough of them to deliver planes as well as fight the enemy in them. Thus was the ATA founded in 1940, to allow able-bodied but not combat-ready pilots to support the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm. The mission was to deliver planes from factory to base, or often vice versa for repairs.
When the ATA was disbanded at the end of the war, Ellis was seconded to the RAF and became one of the first women to fly Britain’s earliest jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor. After her discharge, she became a rally driver; at the wheel of her black Allard sports car, she won many competitions, including the Isle of Wight Rally.
Having settled on the island in the English Channel, she went on to become air commandant — basically managing director — of the Isle of Wight’s Sandown airfield in 1950. She was thought to be the first woman to run an airport in Europe, and over the next two decades, she did everything from working the control tower to running out to shoo away sheep and wave the aircraft in toward the terminal.
She even cut the grass and helped the airfield grow into a busy airport handling flights between the Isle of Wight and many mainland English cities.
She married fellow pilot Donald Ellis in 1961. He died in 2009, and she has no immediate survivors.
“Up in the air you are on your own,” Ellis told a British TV interviewer when she turned 100. “And you can do whatever you like. I flew 400 Spitfires…. I love the Spitfire, it’s everybody’s favorite. I think it’s a symbol of freedom.
“And occasionally I would take one up and go and play with the clouds. I would like to do it all over again. There was a war on, but otherwise it was absolutely wonderful.”
Davison writes for the Washington Post.