Annette Hill: Aviator who flew 12 different aircraft while performing vital wartime service as an RAF transport pilot

 

A Dublin convent girl's enthusiasm to join in the wider world's great events in 1942 spirited Annette Mahon first to wartime Northern Ireland, and then to Scotland, where she flew aircraft including the Spitfire as one of the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary's elite women pilots. The records suggest that Third Officer Mahon was the only woman among a mere handful of nationals from Eamon de Valera's neutral Republic of Ireland to join Britain's air force during the Second World War.

She served for three years among the 160 or so women of many nationalities who ferried military aircraft to RAF airfields wherever they were needed. They had been allowed, despite reluctance from some quarters in the RAF, to do the job, such was Britain's need between 1939 and 1945, with high casualties draining the supply of aviators.

The women, like their male ATA counterparts, flew aircraft varying in size from the tiny de Havilland Tiger Moth trainer to mighty Avro Lancaster bombers, and could handle the latest fighters: Hurricanes, Spitfires and Mosquitos. The aircraft were generally factory-new and not yet fitted with instruments or radio.

For Mahon, who grew up in a terraced house in Dublin, one of six children of a Post Office official, the wrench from the culture of her childhood was such that for some time at least, she had little contact with her family. "Burn everything British except its coal," her mother had used to say, but that did not stop the former pupil of the Sacred Heart convent (though the name is not remembered with certainty by her family), who had been working for an accountancy firm, from applying to drive ambulances with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in Ulster.

There in the North she heard about the ATA, and the thrill came back to her of a remembered five-shilling joy-ride she had revelled in at the age of 16 back in Dublin. It was during a visit by Sir Alan Cobham's Flying Circus, and the pilot had briefly let her control the aircraft.

In 1942, now 24, she put herself forward for the ATA's pilot training, and went on to learn from scratch at the Elementary Flying Training School at Prestwick in Scotland. Ferry pilots in training had to fly solo after only 12 hours in the air, and during the course were made to stall their aircraft, braving a sudden plummet earthwards, before restoring power.

Thereafter Mahon was posted to Prestwick, and as a Class II pilot ferried aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm to the Western Isles and the north of Scotland, regions among the most likely to present a pilot with the deadly scourge of ATA operations – banks of cloud reducing visibility to nil.

As her experience grew, Mahon came to sing the praises of the Fairey Barracuda, which entered service in 1943 in the North Atlantic and Arctic and which many naval pilots came to dislike. The stubby metal-framed torpedo bomber with its unretractable tail-wheel was to star in the April 1944 raid that damaged the German battleship Tirpitz.

Pilots who appreciated the Barracuda's qualities could put it into a spectacular fast dive, and became adept in the use of its powerful trailing-edge wing-flaps. While at Prestwick Mahon used hers for a different sort of combat, when she took her future husband, Dr Maurice Hill, up for a spin, and told him she would drop him out of it if he did not there and then agree to marry her.

The couple had met when Mahon fell ill with influenza, and the young medical officer, having examined her, said she ought to get a ticket and go home straight away to recover. "I can't", she replied, "I'd have to go to Dublin," and so he personally tended her for a week in the base's sick bay. They were to marry in 1947 in London.

In her wartime career Annette Hill flew 12 different aircraft, and at the end had notched up 475 hours' flying time. When she graduated to the Spitfire, she said, "it was a moment of pure magic mixed liberally with awe, excitement and dread."

The dread was part of the job: more than 100 ATA pilots were killed in flying accidents, of whom 15 were women. "You couldn't forget it," Hill said. "You kept thinking of it all the time when you were flying."

Nevertheless she flew at times through storms with lightning flashing all around her, and on every journey had nothing to navigate by but landmarks such as roads, rivers, and railway lines, with only brief instructions in a small booklet called Ferry Pilots' Notes, which many fliers stuck in to the top of their boots for speedy reference.

Her biggest fright was when, during the five hours' instruction she was allowed with the Spitfire, a leg of the landing gear which had failed to retract during take-off blocked the cooling system, and the cockpit temperature soared. In that situation, said the Notes, pilots should fly round and round – but having done so, she saw the fuel had almost run out, and made haste to land, her heart in her mouth. "The instructor sent me straight back up, before I lost my nerve."

After the war Hill followed her husband, who as a medical officer with the UK Atomic Energy Authority was posted to Cumbria, and then Caithness, where their three daughters were born. They moved south to Hampshire, and while he rose to become the UKAEA's Chief Medical Officer, she returned to her love of aircraft in 1973 by joining, as a volunteer, the team that ran what would become the annual Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford in Gloucestershire.

The Hills' daughter Elizabeth died in 1966, and in 1980 Dr Hill had a stroke, after which Annette Hill cared for him until his death in 1996.

ANNE KELENY

Annette Elizabeth Mahon, aviator: born Dublin 21 October 1918; married 1947 Maurice Hill (died 1996; two daughters, and one daughter one deceased); died Basingstoke 7 October 2013.

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