Mary Ellis, a pioneering volunteer pilot for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II has passed away at the age of 101. She flew more than 1,000 warplanes of 76 types — including 400 of Britain’s iconic Spitfire fighters. During the war, Ellis was one of 168 “Attagirls” tasked with delivering warplanes from factories to military bases — a difficult and dangerous mission that required them to not only fly solo, but also to locate the heavily camouflaged bases without the assistance of a compass or radio. On one such flight, Ellis recalled in her 2016 memoir, A Spitfire Girl, a German Luftwaffe fighter plane with black Swastika markings appeared out of the clouds and flew alongside her.
“With one hand I waved at this pilot to move away and get out of my sight,” wrote Ellis. “I can picture his grinning face now. Then he cheekily waved back again and again — and then suddenly he was gone. I wondered if it was my blonde curls that caused him to stare as I never ever wore a helmet during my whole career with the ATA. What was the point of a helmet when we couldn’t speak to anyone? It didn’t do much for the hairstyle either.”
Her fellow Brits, she added, were often equally surprised to see her in the cockpit. In one instance, she had just stepped out of a twin-engine Wellington bomber when she was accosted by ground crew demanding to know where the pilot was.
“One or two of them still decided to clamber on up the ladder to check the aeroplane for the ‘missing’ pilot … They just could not believe women could fly these aeroplanes,” noted Ellis.
Ellis went on to become the first known woman to run an airport in Europe at the Isle of Wight’s Sandown airfield in 1950. She died at her home next to the Sandown runway on July 25, with no immediate survivors. For more on her incredible life, watch the video below.
Read the full obituary at The Washington Post.