Mary Wilkins Ellis was a volunteer pilot for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during World War II.
In the ATA, her job was to deliver warplanes — Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, the famous Wellingtons (nicknamed Wimpys), Lancaster bombers and more than 70 other types of military aircraft — from factories to scramble-ready male pilots at bases of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.
Mrs. Ellis, who died on July 25 at 101, was one of the last surviving female pilots of the ATA. Only three female ATA pilots are thought to be alive. Her death was confirmed by Graham Rose, chairman of the ATA. The organization works to ensure that the ATA’s pilots, men and women — including its chairman’s mother, Molly Rose — are remembered.
Mrs. 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.
Mary Wilkins was born Feb. 2, 1917 on her family’s 1,000-acre farm near the village of Leafield. She was the middle child of five siblings.
When she was 8, her father bought her a ride in a de Havilland DH-60 Moth two-seater biplane. From there, 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 World War II 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, and even outrage, quickly followed. One of the most ardent voices against women in the cockpit was C.G. Grey, founding editor of the British magazine Aeroplane. “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, Mrs. Ellis recalled: “Girls flying aeroplanes was almost a sin at that time.”
While Britain badly needed combat pilots, there were not enough of them to deliver planes and fight, so the ATA was 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 vice versa for repairs.
When the ATA was disbanded at the end of the war, Mrs. Ellis was seconded to the RAF. She 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.
She settled on the island in the English Channel and 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. 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 towards 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.
In 1961, she married fellow pilot Donald Ellis, who died in 2009. She has no immediate survivors.
“Up in the air you are on your own,” Mrs. 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.”
At the height of World War II, a 26-year-old Mary Wilkins, all 5 feet 2 inches of her, helmetless and with curly blonde 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.
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 2016 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 aeroplanes.”
She was one of the “Attagirls,” as they were nicknamed, who almost always flew solo and always without compass or radio assistance. They guided themselves by using maps and following rivers or railway lines. They were mostly British but included several American, Canadian and other Allied volunteers. While they did not fly in combat, they faced the daily danger of attack by Luftwaffe fighters and collisions with the huge barrage balloons floating around southern England as anti-aircraft obstacles to low-flying enemy planes.
Mrs. 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 reaching its target in London or elsewhere.
In her memoir, co-written with journalist Melody Foreman, she recalled that a Luftwaffe fighter plane with black Swastika markings flew alongside her over Pershore, Worcestershire.
“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 blonde 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.”
Mrs. Ellis 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. Among her female comrades, that episode won her the nickname “the fog flyer.”
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 Mrs. Ellis’s good friend, the renowned English aviator Amy Johnson, who was the first female pilot to fly alone from England to Australia.