Mary Ellis death: Female Spitfire pilot and Second World War 'heroine' dies, aged 101

Head of RAF describes pioneering pilot as an 'inspiration to generations'

Sarah Ward,Jon Sharman,Josh Payne
Thursday 26 July 2018 15:40 BST
Ellis (right) with Joy Lofthouse, a fellow ATA pilot who died last year
Ellis (right) with Joy Lofthouse, a fellow ATA pilot who died last year (SWNS)

One of the last surviving female Spitfire pilots who flew 400 of the iconic planes during the Second World War has died aged 101.

Described as “pioneering” and a “heroine”, Mary Ellis was among the last known surviving fliers of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which delivered fighters and bombers to RAF airfields during the war.

At the start of the war women were not allowed to fly military aircraft, but this changed in 1940.

Ms Ellis, whose maiden name was Wilkins, joined the ATA in 1941 after hearing an advert for female pilots on the radio.

She was born into a farming family in Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, in 1919 and learned to fly at a nearby aero club.

After joining the ATA she started at Central Flying School, training on Tiger Moth, Hart and Hind biplanes.

By the end of the war she had spent more than 1,100 hours flying dozens of different types of aircraft, including 400 Spitfires and 47 Wellington medium bombers.

Ms Ellis was one of the last six female pilots still flying for ATA by the end of 1945. The group gained the nickname “Attagirls”.

She later described the Spitfire, which became legendary following Fighter Command’s heroics in the Battle of Britain, as “a symbol of freedom”.

During the post-war period Ms Ellis returned to Brize Norton and continued farming, before moving to the Isle of Wight to manage Sandown airport from 1950 to 1970.

She enjoyed keeping sheep and driving rally cars.

She married Donald Ellis, who shared her love of flying, in 1961. The pair lived together by the runway at Sandown until his death in 2009.

Earlier this year she was awarded the freedom of the Isle of Wight, aged 100, after being described by council leader Dave Stewart as a “national, international and island heroine”.

Leading the tributes, the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, tweeted: “Another terrible loss. Mary Ellis, pioneering female aviator, Air Transport Auxiliary veteran, an inspiration to generations. I’ll always remember her proudly reminding us at RAF100 events that she was older than the RAF itself! RIP Mary.”

Author and former RAF navigator John Nichol wrote: “Very sad to hear that WW2 ATA pilot Mary Ellis has died aged 101. A truly remarkable lady, she flew 400 Spitfires & 76 different types of aircraft during WW2. Another giant leaves us to join her heroic friends in Blue Skies. Rest in peace Mary; you truly deserve it. Thank you.”

And RAF veteran Sally McGlone said: “RIP Mary Ellis, you have inspired so many women to fly. You will always be remembered, with love and thanks. Blue Skies Thank You. Aetheris Avidi - Eager for the Air.”

Red Arrows pilot Mike Ling MBE wrote on Twitter: “More awful news. RIP Mary Ellis. A legend of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Over 1000 aircraft; 76 different types and over 400 Spitfires alone. I hope you’re enjoying a well-earned sherry up there with Joy Lofthouse again. Blue skies Ma’am #LestWeForget”.

Joy Lofthouse, a fellow “Attagirl”, died last year. She signed up for ATA duty in 1943 while she was too young even to hold a driving licence.

In 2015 she described the Spitfire as a “wonderful” aircraft. “Small cockpit. Very manoeuvrable – the slightest touch on the stick and she moved. It’s the nearest thing to having wings of your own and flying.”

She flew 18 different kinds of aircraft during the war, including Hurricanes and American P-51 Mustang fighters.

Last week, Geoffrey Wellum, one of the youngest Spitfire pilots to have fought in the Battle of Britain, died at the age of 96.

Additional reporting by SWNS and PA

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