Mary: Queen of the skies
As the smartly dressed lady sitting in a Sandown Airport kiosk, handing out tickets for pleasure flights over the Isle of Wight, very few of Mary Ellis’s customers could possibly have imagined the amazing tales of heroism that have been a major part of her incredible life.
Some may have recognised Mary as the former manager and then managing director of Sandown Airport, taking care of matters there for 20 years. But that was just a small part of her remarkable journey. It was long before then, when Mary was growing up in the family home in Oxfordshire, that her story began.
While still at school, she decided she was too small to play hockey, and didn’t like the game anyway, so asked her teacher if she could go to the local airport instead, to learn to fly an airplane. Smiled: “It was a good way of getting out of playing hockey, but as soon as I started flying I was smitten.”
At the age of just 16, Mary – then Mary Wilkins – gained her pilot’s licence, but soon afterwards her social flying came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Second World War. Undeterred, she patiently waited for a route back into the sky, and in 1941 she heard a radio broadcast that the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), were looking for girls with flying experience to help the war effort.
She recalls: “It was fortunate I heard the broadcast, and told my mother I was going to apply She told me it was nonsense, and to stay at home and enjoy myself. But I had this urge, so I applied, and shortly afterwards I was asked to go along to show I could still fly a plane.
“I was accepted into the ranks of the ATA, and when I told my parents, my father said I could go — provided I didn’t do any fighting in the war. My mother couldn’t understand why I wanted to go, as I was the middle one of five children, and I was the only one interested in flying.”
But off she went, and her job flying for the ATA began in earnest in 1942 when she began taking planes to strategic points all over Britain and France, for pilots to fly them into combat. In all she flew to a mind-boggling 210 different airfields delivering planes to keep the RAF in the air against the German threat.
Mary said: “Initially I flew just single-engined planes that didn’t go much faster than 120mph, but then I went on to fly 70 different planes, everything from Spitfires to Wellington bombers, and others that most people have probably never heard of. It wasn’t until I arrived at ATA HQ each morning that I knew what plane I was going to fly, or my destination.
“The biggest hazard was the weather, because every day was different. Some of the planes were old and shaky, but others were new. In one seven-day spell I flew seven different types of plane, as my log book still shows. Some days I was flying three types of planes to three different places, and was getting back to HQ in a taxi plane. The ATA had a fantastic organisation to look after us pilots.
“Sometimes you couldn’t get to your destination, so you had to land the plane anywhere and stay the night. But the ATA always found us, and we were looked after so well at which every station we stayed.”
She continued: “There was always the threat that I could have come under attack from German planes, but I was only shot at once, and that was by the British! I was flying down towards the south coast, and the weather was hazy. The people on the ground must have thought it was a German plane, so they began shooting at me. Fortunately I managed to swoop up into the air to avoid them.”
However, not all the ATA pilots were as fortunate as Flying Officer Mary Wilkins. During the war, 143 were lost — one in 10 did not make it – including 14 women. Mary said: “When you are young you don’t think there are risks, and when you know your subject you are not bothered, because you know exactly what to do. It is when you don’t know what to do that you are sunk. I always felt in control, even when a plane’s engine suddenly stopped, and I had to find a place to land, and very quickly. I loved the challenge, and wanted to do something for King and country, as we all did.
“I once had an engine cut over the New Forest, saw a small field, and just managed to manoeuvre into it. I only had a few seconds to decide, otherwise I would have been dead. There were several more times like that, but you never think you are not going to make it. However, I did lose quite a few friends. I would go into work one day, and one of them would not be there any more – that was terribly sad.”
Mary says she did not have a favourite plane, but reckons: “Everyone loves a Spitfire.” She should know – in her years flying for the ATA she delivered an incredible 401 different Spitfires!
Her War effort ended in 1946, the same year she flew her first jet plane – the iconic Meteor. She thought that was the end of her flying days, but in 1950 her vast experience brought her to the Island. She said: “I was offered a job as pilot to an influential businessman who lived here. He had a plane, which he couldn’t fly, so I became his personal pilot, and flew him to lots of places all around Britain.
“I had visited the Isle of Wight once as a child before the Second World War, but during my ATA days I was often ‘plane-taxied’ to Cowes, before taking off from a very small strip of land in an airplane that had been built here.”
Mary celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year, and among her messages of congratulations was a very special one. It came from General Dave Goldfein, US Air Force Chief of Staff, and read: “On behalf of 660,000 American Airmen please allow me to wish you a Happy 100th Birthday! As a member of the greatest generation, you bravely answered the call of a nation at war, and are counted among a treasured legion of international heroes.
“Your service as an Air Auxiliary Transport pilot during World War II shines as an inspiration all men and women who dream of ‘slipping the surly bonds of earth’. We honour your courage in the chronicles of history.”