Diana Barnato Walker: Aviator who was the first British woman to break the sound barrier

Diana Barnato Walker was one of some 154 women pilots who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the Second World War, ferrying all manner of aircraft from factories and aircraft parks to service units all over the British Isles, often in adverse weather and with a bare sufficiency of instrumentation.

Born Diana Barnato in 1918, she had a good start in life. Her father, Woolf Barnato, inherited the millions accumulated by his father, Barney Barnato, who had risen from being a trader and juggler in the Mile End Road in east London to found a diamond-mining company in South Africa that later became part of the De Beers group. Woolf became a celebrated racing driver, winning the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1928, 1929 and 1930, and was also an accomplished sportsman.

Diana Barnato and her sister Virginia thus enjoyed the privileges and pleasures of high society, though Woolf separated from their mother, an American, when Diana was only four. The sisters were brought up by their mother, who maintained an amicable relationship with their father, with whom they frequently stayed. They lived in a large house on Primrose Hill, and were cared for by numerous nannies and governesses. Diana Barnato was educated at Queen's College in Harley Street until 1936, when she came out as a débutante and "did the season".

Becoming disenchanted with the social rounds, Barnato decided to learn to fly, and invested her allowance in lessons with the Brooklands Flying Club at what was then the expensive rate of £3 an hour. In her autobiography, Spreading My Wings (1994), she recalled: "In those days I was far too much of a snob to learn to fly with what I thought would be the hoi polloi [in the Civil Air Guard], even though it cost only 7/6d per hour". She went solo after six hours in a Tiger Moth, but then had to stop, having run out of money.

When the Second World War broke out, Barnato worked as a VAD (Voluntary Air Detachment) nurse and with the Red Cross, but was soon drawn to the ATA, despite her minimal 10 hours of flying experience. The ATA's chief flying instructor, A.R.O. Macmillan, was persuaded to give her a test, but she then suffered an injury riding in a point-to-point which laid her up for six months. During that time, the ATA set up a training programme and, following another test flight, she became an "Atagirl" in December 1941. One of her fellow pilots, Alison King, recalled meeting Barnato: [She was the] daughter of a famous millionaire racing driver. Fine-boned, clear-cut, and, with all her money, strangely unspoilt."

In 1942, three weeks after she first met the Battle of Britain fighter ace Sqn Ldr Humphrey Gilbert, they were engaged, but he died in a flying accident just days later. Two years later, on 6 May 1944, Barnato married another pilot, Derek Walker, and was docked three months' pay when she made an unauthorised honeymoon flight to Brussels in a Spitfire, her new husband flying alongside in another.

The ATA pilots were trained to fly all manner of military aircraft, from trainers to bombers, and would be ferried from the ATA pilots' pools to their points of departure. To use her own phraseology, Diana Barnato Walker strapped an extraordinary assortment of aeroplanes to her backside, and experienced her fair share of incidents and close calls. Aircraft she flew included the single-engined Spitfire, Hurricane, Defiant, Mustang, Avenger, Wildcat, Vengeance, Firefly, Barracuda and Tempest, and twins such as the Oxford, Anson, Wellington, Warwick, Mosquito, Hudson and Mitchell.

Her least favourite aeroplane was the Supermarine Walrus air-sea-rescue amphibian pusher biplane: "I would not have liked to have been killed in one", she wrote, "a most unglamorous end." On 19 September 1944 she was flying a Walrus from Cosford to Eastleigh when the engine spewed oil all over the windscreen. She was then at 1,500ft and approaching the Southampton balloon barrage, but without power there was no alternative but to push down the nose to prevent a stall and make a steep descent into the sea fog. Miraculously she missed the balloon cables, and when she got a glimpse through the bespattered windscreen she was out of the cloud and a few feet above the grass of Eastleigh aerodrome.

Shortly after the war's end, Derek Walker was killed in a flying accident. Undeterred, Diana Barnato Walker gained a commercial pilot's licence and became a pilot for the Women's Junior Air Corps (WJAC), giving cadets training and air-experience flights at weekends and amassing many flying hours in the Corps' Fairchild Argus and Auster aircraft. In 1963 she was awarded the Jean Lennox Bird Trophy, presented annually to a British woman pilot, for her work with the WJAC. On 26 August that year, Barnato Walker fulfilled her desire to fly in an English Electric Lightning, attaining 1,262mph (Mach 1.65) in a two-seat T.4 trainer and becoming the first British woman to exceed the speed of sound.

In later life, Barnato Walker took up sheep farming, became Master of the Old Surrey and Burstow Foxhounds for 13 seasons, and continued to fly for the WJAC, now renamed the Girls' Venture Corps. She also became Commodore of the ATA Association. A 30-year relationship with the racing driver Whitney Straight produced a son, although Straight never left his wife.

Philip Jarrett

Diana Barnato Walker, pilot: born London 15 January 1918; MBE 1965; married 1944 Derek Walker (died 1945), (one son with Whitney Straight); died 28 April 2008.

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