Lettice Curtis, left above, was both born at the right and the wrong time. It was her fortune to have been one of 164 women ferry pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War 2, part of an extraordinary organisation – the first in the world to employ women to ferry military aircraft. Many, like Lettice, ended the war with dozens of different aircraft types in their logbooks and many hundreds of flying hours.

It was her misfortune to have then lived through a barren period for women in aviation when precious few succeeded in becoming commercial pilots and none were accepted into the Royal Air Force as operational pilots until 1992.

Lettice’s moment of glory came in 1942 when she became the first woman to fly solo in a four-engine aircraft – a Halifax, resulting in her photograph in all the newspapers. She was acutely aware that many doubted whether women would have sufficient physical strength to cope with these huge aircraft. “Any mistakes or failures, even if not of my own making, could result in an official decision that four-engined aircraft were not for women,” she wrote.

While undertaking her training, Lettice was presented to Eleanor Roosevelt and Clemmie Churchill during their visit to the ATA’s headquarters at White Waltham, above. The following day’s newspaper headlines proclaimed: ‘Mrs Roosevelt meets Halifax Girl Pilot’ and ‘Girl Flies Halifax’.

Normally, seven solo landings should have been sufficient to clear her for ferrying the four-engines, but in her case, the ATA’s Chief Flying Instructor had decreed it had to be ten. So Lettice had to endure the frustration of waiting several months before having the opportunity to be cleared.

The description of her historic solo flight in the ATA’s official book Brief Glory describes how the wheels “kissed the surface gently and the 30-ton aircraft rolled steadily down the runway in the smooth manner which seldom characterises a first solo, and came to a dignified halt”, much to the surprise of the station master.

He reputedly turned to the General beside and commented: “It didn’t swing! It didn’t even bounce! And my lads have always kidded me how difficult Halifaxes are. Why, damn it, they must be easy if a little girl can fly them like that!”

By the end of the war, she had ferried nearly 1,500 aircraft, including 222 Halifaxes, 109 Stirlings and many Lancasters and Liberators, plus one B-17 Flying Fortress. Her only major accident of the war was after an engine failure in a Typhoon, which necessitated a forced landing in a field. Hitting the ground at 100mph, the aircraft turned over, leaving Lettice with a head wound that required hospitalisation.

Whatever anyone thought of Lettice Curtis, her skill as a pilot was never in any doubt. Neither was her intelligence or her sporting prowess. From her early days, Lettice Curtis was no ordinary girl: her favourite toy, she confessed in her autobiography, was Meccano. She was disappointed to discover after being accepted to study Maths at St Hilda’s, Oxford University in 1933, that she could have taken engineering to which she felt she would have been better suited.

Lettice set high standards for herself – and for others – and was very competitive. “To me second place at anything was failure,” she wrote. She soon discovered that even maths was an unusual subject for a woman to study but compensated for her unease at the lack of teaching support by throwing herself into her favourite sports - tennis, lacrosse and fencing, representing Oxford University at all three.

After leaving university and a chance encounter with a pilot, she decided flying was “infinitely preferable to sitting in an office”. A £100 bequest from her grandmother funded her flying training. Amazingly, given her later contribution to aviation, Lettice Curtis’s first report for her commercial licence noted that she was far too nervous ever to become a pilot.

Nevertheless, she passed and by 1 April 1938 she had her commercial licence, even though she admitted “nobody thought for one moment that I would get a flying job”. She soon proved them all wrong and started working for a company carrying out air surveys for Ordnance Survey.

In June 1940, she was invited by Pauline Gower to join the Air Transport Auxiliary – one of the first 17 women to fly in the ATA. By October, she was sent to the RAF’s Central Flying School at Upavon to learn how to fly more complex aircraft such as the twin-engine Airspeed Oxford and the single-engine Miles Magister with retractable undercarriage. “We all found the CFS course pretty harassing; we were so unbelievably ignorant,” she wrote. “We were given no separate technical instruction or written notes, so it was simply a question of remembering what our instructors told us.”

Worse was to come when women were finally cleared to fly operational aircraft and Lettice found herself in the cockpit of a an elderly Mark 1 Hurricane with no prior training and only the trusty Ferry Pilots’ Notes to guide her.

However, she was soon flying Spitfires and causing consternation among some male pilots when she delivered her second Spitfire to White Waltham in weather conditions that had caused many of the men to turn back. But flying the 24,000lb Wellington bomber - the largest twin-engine aircraft flown solo by ATA pilots, with the only instruction coming from the Ferry Pilots’ Notes - was, as far as she was concerned, an even bigger leap of faith.

Lettice, who was not averse to voicing her opinions when she thought something was wrong or when she was unhappy with her posting, soon acquired a reputation for being ‘difficult’. In his book Spitfire Women of World War II, Giles Whittell wrote that she either ignored people she thought were fools or “cut them off with a conversational carving knife.”

Not surprisingly, she wasn’t universally popular among her fellow pilots. She asked to be transferred out of an all-female pool as she preferred to be among the men with whom she enjoyed playing board games such as chess. Many decades later, when Lettice and several of her former ATA colleagues were attending a British Women Pilots’ Association awards luncheon, which I was hosting, Lettice talked loudly while Jackie Moggridge gave the after-lunch speech, making it abundantly clear what she thought of the still-glamorous Jackie.

She was also somewhat peeved when Amy Johnson had the misfortune to die in January 1940, the day before a planned ATA party, which Lettice feared would be cancelled - and thought nothing of saying so in her book The Forgotten Pilots. Typical of Lettice, her account of the ATA was jam-packed with facts and information – a much more thorough account of this remarkable organisation than the ATA’s official book.

But, like her autobiography, it was a fairly dry account, unlike the lively autobiographies of her female ATA colleagues - typical of her no-nonsense approach.

After the war, Lettice, who had kept her commercial licence current and now had ten different types of public transport aircraft in her logbook, set out to find a job as a pilot. She wrote to all the airlines advertising for pilots. “For the most part they interviewed me, mostly, I felt out of curiosity, before thinking up a reason for not taking me on,” she wrote. Eventually, she was offered a job with the Ministry of Civil Aviation as an Operations Officer before applying to be a test pilot at the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down.

After her flight test, she received a letter telling her they were “quite satisfied” that she would make a success of the job, given the combination of her flying and technical skills. However, it added that the official processes were now at work and it was for the Establishment’s people at the Ministry of Supply to make the official approach. “I am bound to tell you that they may hedge at employing a woman for, as you yourself realise, Government Departments do not like to set a precedent.” No precedent was set.

However, when another advertisement appeared, she was encouraged to re-apply. “If we can fairly say after a second advertising that there is no other person with your qualifications and experience, we can press A.C.S. (A) to reverse his decision,” said another letter. The next rejection told Lettice that previous experience as a test pilot was an essential requirement. She had again failed in her application, caught on a Catch 22.

Instead, Lettice was offered a job as a Senior Experimental Officer at Boscombe or Farnborough, but decided to accept a job as a flight test observer at Boscombe, recording the basic instruments from which an aircraft’s performance was assessed.

In typical Lettice fashion, ten days before starting her new job she flew into Boscombe ‘to tie up loose ends’ in a borrowed Spitfire, which must have caused quite a stir. The borrowed Spitfire enabled her to enter two more air races, one which she won and the other where she set a British National speed record.

During her five years at Boscombe Down, Lettice made many interesting flights, most notably helping to ferry a four-engine Lincoln from Farnborough to the rocket range at Woomera in Australia, during which she had to take over as navigator after Indian officials had quarantined two of the crew for ten days.

Lettice’s next job was in Flight Development at Fairey Aviation at White Waltham, the airfield with which she remained closely associated until very late in her life. By 1962, she was working at the newly formed Air Traffic Control Experimental Unit at Heathrow Airport where she was later responsible for recommending how Secondary Surveillance Radar could be used by civil aircraft.

After adding an Instrument Rating to her list of flying qualifications, Lettice and another woman pilot, Janet Ferguson, were asked in 1976 to fly two Britten- Norman Islanders from the Isle of Wight to Cochin in southern India. The pair were given just seven days to complete the trip or the aircraft's certificates of fitness for flight would expire. Racing against the clock, Lettice reported that early starts and being six hours behind schedule combined to make them seriously short of sleep. But they accomplished the task after 40 hours of flying.

In October 1992, Lettice achieved her helicopter pilot’s licence, becoming the oldest British woman at 77 to achieve this. Just three years later, she decided to allow all her flying licences to expire to concentrate instead on her garden, writing and the many aviation societies of which she was a member.

Clare Walker CRAeS

15 October 2014