Interview with Mary Ellis


Interview with Mary Ellis


Mary Wilkins Ellis was born in Oxfordshire and became interested in aviation at a very early age. She experienced her first flight with Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus. Mary learned to fly while still at school and obtained her licence in 1938. When the war began all civil flying was stopped and she thought her flying life was over until she heard a request on the radio for ladies who had a flying licence to join the Air Transport Auxiliary. She applied and was accepted immediately. She began her training at Hatfield and then at White Waltham, where she learnt the rudiments of flying various different kinds of aircraft as well as emergency training, meteorology and morse code. As with all ATA pilots, she began ferrying planes to airfields without the benefit of a radio and landing without any assistance. This led to a number of close calls. One day she ferried two Wellingtons, a Spitfire, a Defiant and a Swordfish. Towards the end of the war she also flew a Meteor.




Temporal Coverage

Spatial Coverage




01:17:14 audio recording

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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 3rd of July 2017 and I’m in Sandown with Mary Wilkins Ellis who was a delivery pilot during the war and has a variety of tales associated with that. So, starting off then Mary what were your earliest recollections of life.
ME: Well I come from a farm in Oxfordshire. My father was a farmer and I had three brothers. And I can remember looking at aeroplanes when I was eight, six, eight and thinking how lovely. And then Alan Cobham came along with one of his circus planes to Witney Airfield which is in Oxfordshire. Which is quite close to Brize Norton actually. And so, I had the urge to be more interested in aeroplanes more and more. And then I went for a flight with Alan Cobham’s Circus and this set me off even more. And then I talked with my Pa who also liked flying and he thought it was a good idea that I was interested in flying. And when I was at school in Burford I wasn’t very good at playing hockey so, I was allowed that hockey time to go to Witney Airfield and have a flight and that’s how I started flying aeroplanes.
CB: What age are we talking about here?
ME: We’re talking about [pause] I suppose twelve when I started flying. Well, I don’t know but it was very early on.
CB: What was the reaction of the school to your giving up hockey and going to flying?
ME: Each one was allowed to do their own thing so it didn’t register that I was flying. Other girls were doing probably far more important things but we didn’t talk about it. We just went on with our lessons during the other time.
CB: What did the other girls think about your flying? What did the other girls think about your flying?
ME: We didn’t talk about it. So I don’t know.
CB: No. Interesting. Yeah.
ME: But I learned to fly at Witney and, as I’ve just said and I was flying and I got my licence just in 1938. And then the war came and so all civil flying was stopped and I thought that’s the end of my flying life. So, I went home and I was at home doing precious little [laughs] as girls do, you know. Play tennis and all that sort of thing. And then one day I heard on the radio that girls who had licence, flight licence and were able to fly aeroplanes would they please contact the Air Transport Auxiliary because girls were badly needed to fly aeroplanes. So, I applied and I was taken on almost immediately. And I joined Air Transport Auxiliary on the 1st of October. Now, there’s another car coming. I think this is —
CB: We’ll stop there a mo.
[recording paused]
ME: To fly aeroplanes you have to be trained.
CB: Yes. So, when the radio announcement came looking for girls who had got flying experience then there was a process you went through. So you said you joined the 1st of October 1941. Then what happened?
ME: I went to Hatfield. And I was at Hatfield with three other girls who also joined at the same time and we had to — none of us had very much experience so we had to learn to be able to fly aeroplanes without any radio or any help whatsoever. And so, we were, each day we went off on cross country’s from Hatfield to learn the countryside as it was. You know. Woods here, rivers there, churches there. Something else. Like that. And then I was posted to, I was posted to cross country flight at White Waltham in December.
CB: Yeah.
ME: And that was at White Waltham which was — White Waltham was the HQ. Did you know that?
CB: Of the ATA. Yes.
ME: And so there I had to go through all the procedures of finding out how an aeroplane works. How the undercarriages works. And what to do in emergencies. It went on and on and I had to learn about the weather conditions. Had to learn Morse code. And it really was fantastic — the amount of learning that one had to do before starting ferrying. And I was flying in the flying training. All the single aeroplanes and I was ferrying these around. And [pause] what happened next?
CB: So, at White Waltham they had a number of different aeroplanes to fly.
ME: Yes. They had a Harvard something or other. And I flew all these light aeroplanes including Hurricanes and I flew fifteen Hurricanes. And then one day I had a little chitty which said I must fly a Spitfire. Just like that. And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. How can I do that?’ I haven’t been near one because they didn’t have any spare Spitfires at White Waltham for one to look at. And so, I was taken by taxi aircraft to Swindon. South Marston. And there —
CB: The factory.
ME: Yes. And there I — a Spitfire was, came out of the hangar and it was the one that was on my little chitty. So this, I had to fly this aeroplane. The first ferry Spitfire I’d ever flown. And in uniform, you know, when you’re very young one can look quite attractive [laughs] which is rather different today. And so, the hangar doors were opened and out came this Spitfire and I eventually climbed in. Someone put my parachute in because we always wore parachutes and then I got in myself and I thought, ‘Oh gracious me. How lovely.’ And then a chappy that was fastening my parachute and all the other things inside, he said, ‘How many of these have you flown? You look like a schoolgirl.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t flown one before. This is the very first one.’ And he simply could not believe it. And the people around, they were staggered to see this schoolgirl about to fly a Spitfire. However, I managed very well and I taxied out and took off and I got up in the air and I thought I must play with this aeroplane just a little to find out how it flies. What it can do. What I can do with it. And so I did. I flew around for quite some time and I was only going to Lyneham but it took me a long time because I was flying around in this beautiful Spitfire. I landed it at Lyneham. All was well. My taxi aeroplane was waiting for me so I got out of this Spitfire into the taxi aeroplane which took me straight back to Swindon for the second Spitfire in the same day. And they couldn’t believe it when I got there and they said, ‘Oh you’re back again.’ [laughs] I went through all this paraphernalia you do. As one does. At this time I had to do some cross country to fly to Little Rissington — which I did. And I was almost killed at that time because they were flying Oxfords and as I was going in to land I just landed and an Oxford came and landed just in front of me. I still have the letter of apology [laughs] It nearly killed me.
LS: That’s incredible.
ME: But I’m still here. So, that was the beginning of the Spitfire. As you know I flew four hundred and one Spitfires on ferry flights. So —
CB: Were they consecutive or they tended to be interspersed with others?
ME: Interspersed. I’ll show you if you want to know.
CB: Yes. I’d be interested.
ME: Are you a pilot?
CB: Yes.
[Pause. Packet rustling]
ME: These are very precious so I have to keep them.
CB: Of course.
ME: This is D-day. If you’d like to look at my book.
CB: Thank you. Just while I’m just looking at this, going back to your comment about going to South Marston, the factory, to pick up the Spitfire you then did a handling trial. How much would you throw the aeroplane around?
ME: For ten minutes I was, probably, yes, getting used to it. Marvellous.
CB: So you were doing aerobatics in it.
ME: No. We were told never to do aerobatics or fly at night.
CB: Steep turns. Were you, to what extent were you able to —
ME: Everything else.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Well you can see there were all sorts of different aeroplanes in the same day. I could fly a bomber or a Spitfire. All on the same day.
CB: I’ll stop this for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: We’re talking about the variety of planes you flew, Mary, but in the early training —
ME: No.
CB: At White Waltham they had Hurricanes there. Did you deliver many Hurricanes later?
ME: Well, it’s all in the logbook.
CB: You’ve got a variety here but the Hurricanes aren’t a major item. I’m just curious to know whether you —
ME: Well, if you give me I’ll tell you.
CB: Yeah. Because you’ve got Albacores, you’ve got Spitfire, you’ve got Wellingtons. All sorts of things in there.
ME: There you are.
CB: Oh, there we are.
ME: Those are the ones I flew.
CB: Yeah. At the back. Thank you. So, you’ve got a Tiger Moth as a starter. How did you like the Tiger Moth after what you’d been training on?
ME: I didn’t fly Tiger Moths after I’d been doing my training.
CB: Right.
ME: Silly questions.
CB: Yeah. So, we’ll stop there just for a mo.
[recording paused]
ME: Different types in fourteen days.
CB: Right.
ME: It’s all down there.
CB: Yes. So, did you end up with a preference for certain aircraft and ones that you’d like to avoid. If you had the choice.
ME: We were not given a choice.
CB: No.
ME: We were told each day which aeroplane to fly and where from and to.
CB: Yes.
ME: We had no choice.
CB: No.
ME: But we had a choice as to whether we were flying or not. We had no radio. If we chose not to fly because the weather wasn’t what we wanted then we didn’t. I didn’t. And another thing is there are two or three different aeroplanes all in the same day, different places.
CB: Yes. And what’s it like switching from one plane to another when they are different in the way they handle?
ME: [laughs] Well I don’t know. We had a little book with ferrying pilot’s notes. Read the book. Get in the aeroplane and fly.
CB: And what are the most significant points in the ferry pilot’s notes that they’re making you aware of? Some of them had flaps and some didn’t I presume for instance. Did they?
ME: Oh, I don’t want to go into the technical pieces of —
CB: Ok. Doesn’t matter. I’ll stop just for a mo.
[recording paused]
ME: Garlands or whatever it was.
CB: Right. So I suppose —
ME: It was all, it was all different.
CB: Yes.
ME: But you had to know this.
CB: Yes. That’s what I was getting at really because —
ME: Have you seen the ferry pilot’s notes?
CB: I haven’t. No.
ME: You haven’t.
CB: No.
[recording paused]
CB: So, what you have there is a book of pilot’s notes. Ferry pilot’s notes. Could you just do what you did just then? Tell me what variety have you got in there of planes because it’s just significant in terms of how you had to handle this extraordinary change of aeroplane.
ME: It wasn’t, it wasn’t only the aeroplanes. We had no radio whatsoever. We had nothing except our own thing. And to go from one place to another and when one gets to an airfield that is flying Oxfords and then you have to go around and sit in somewhere. Or another place. I’d go to Shawbury and take a Wellington. And I go around and I have to fit in with all the others because they are talking with the RAF. But I have no radio and they don’t know really I’m there except by looking and I have to choose when to go in and land. And it wasn’t easy.
CB: So, you’re talking about fitting into the circuit.
ME: I’m flying a Wellington all by myself, with nobody else there. So I couldn’t ask. They’re all there.
CB: Yeah. So a huge range in there and the number, the notes are simply on a single sheet. Yeah. So, in here we’ve got Catalina. Buckmaster. Blenheim. Huge variety. Albacore. Tutor.
ME: They’re in alphabetical order.
CB: Yes. And Firefly. Did you do any four engine bombers?
ME: Yes. As a second pilot.
CB: What was that?
ME: In a Stirling. And a Halifax. And a Lancaster.
CB: Right. So, in those four-engined planes were there just the two of you or would there be another person as well.
ME: No. There was also an engineer.
CB: Right. Right. And the engineer was there because of them being multi-engined. Right.
ME: That’s right.
CB: So, in the circumstances of this navigation challenge it’s amazing that you managed to find places. What was the way that you planned a route to get there with no radio.
ME: We just had a map.
CB: Yeah.
ME: And don’t forget all these places were — what’s the word?
Other: Camouflaged.
ME: Camouflaged. And they were not easy to find.
CB: No.
ME: And some of them were secret and so they were very difficult to find but we did it. Didn’t we?
CB: Extraordinary. Yeah. What about the night flying? You said you weren’t normally going to do that.
ME: No.
CB: Were some people —
ME: The whole idea of the Air Transport Auxiliary was to get the aeroplane safely from the factory to where they were needed in the RAF and the RNAS. It was no good breaking them because the country at one time was almost without aeroplanes. And so we had to be very careful.
CB: Yeah.
ME: But we were very much on our own. We could fly or if we didn’t like the weather or we didn’t like the aeroplane then we were not pressurised at all.
CB: Which sort of aeroplane would you not like, really?
ME: Which what?
CB: Which sort of aeroplane would you not like?
ME: I didn’t like the Walrus. I know it was a very useful aeroplane.
CB: Seaplane.
ME: But it had a mind of its own and once it clattered about like a lot of bags of old things and something and it made a terrible noise on the ground [laughs] and in the air it just did what it wanted to do no matter what. It was terrible [laughs] but I flew quite a lot of them.
CB: Did you land them all on land? Or did you land some on water?
ME: Yes. They were made at Cowes and I took them from Cowes and landed them wherever I had to.
CB: Yeah. If the weather deteriorated what would you do while you were flying?
ME: Either put down at some aerodrome. It didn’t matter where. Or turn around and go back. Just depended on what weather was coming.
CB: And the people on the [pause] your destination were all expecting you.
ME: No. They didn’t know.
CB: Sounds interestingly challenging.
ME: Very challenging.
CB: Yeah. So, when you landed in your Wellington and got out — what happened next?
ME: Well [laughs] I can tell you the story which everybody already knows. You can tell the story couldn’t you Frank?
CB: Well it’s just we can’t hear it on there. Yes. Could you tell it please?
ME: This, yes, this Wellington I delivered. I can’t remember where it was but I delivered it to some station and I taxied to dispersal and switched off and then opened the door and let the ladder down. I went down with my parachute and the crowd of people on the ground who were there they were amazed. This schoolgirl, you know, flying these big aeroplanes. And they just stood there. And I said, ‘Can we go to control. I must have my chitty signed.’ And they said, ‘We’re waiting for the pilot.’ I said, ‘I am the pilot.’ There I was, you know, young and lovely uniform and they wouldn’t believe me so two men went inside to search the aeroplane to find the pilot. And they came out and they said, ‘No.’ There was no sign of anybody else so they accepted that I was the pilot. And I was. But I was unusual for one small girl to be flying these bombers. Hampdens and things like that.
CB: The fact a girl was doing it or just on her own?
ME: Without any radio. Without anything else at all.
CB: So was there a rule that if it was a bomber there would normally be two pilots?
ME: In the RAF they would have five.
CB: Yes, but —
ME: I think.
CB: In delivery. On delivery, when you were doing, delivering bombers was there a rule that normally there would be two for bombers or just one pilot.
ME: No. There was only two when they were four-engined ones.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Or if I flew an aeroplane like a Mitchell, I think, if you couldn’t get to the emergency you had to carry an engineer but not another pilot.
CB: You mentioned uniform. So how did you feel about your uniform?
ME: Well we were so used to having a uniform we were so pleased when we had two days off because we worked for two weeks and then had two days off and it was nice to get into civilian clothes and rush off all around one’s friends and go home.
CB: Were you based, yourself, always at White Waltham or did you move elsewhere?
ME: I wasn’t based at White Waltham. I was based at Ferrypool 15 which is Hamble.
CB: Right. And what sort of accommodation did you get there?
ME: It was very good. Everywhere I went was very very good because the ATA sorted it all out and we were just taken from one place to another to another. And I was stationed at Basildon and lived with a family in this big, big house, you know, and they looked after me frightfully well. And each girl had some other place. So, we were all well looked after. We had to be ‘cause we were flying each day and all day.
CB: So, when you got to your destination for the delivery you were picked up by the taxi were you?
ME: Usually. But sometimes I had to fly an aeroplane up to Prestwick and maybe it took two or three days to get there depending on the weather and something. And then I had to come back by night train to London. Back to White Waltham and there they would give me another aeroplane to fly back to Hamble.
CB: Right.
ME: A delivery flight. So, very complicated but it was marvellously operated.
CB: Well, very well organised. What were the taxi planes? Predominantly.
ME: The Anson or the Fairchild.
CB: And they went to various places. They picked up pilots from various places did they? On the way back.
ME: Yes. It’s usually a junior would fly the empty aeroplane and whoever got in the other aeroplane the senior pilot would take over.
CB: On the way back.
ME: So if someone went to pick me up then I would have to fly the aeroplane back or wherever it was going. Probably to another delivery place.
CB: We talked about your initial training at White Waltham which was single-engine. Was it? Where did you do your twin engine training?
ME: Pardon?
CB: Where did you do your twin engine training?
ME: I went to Thame for two hours. And that was on light twins. I flew an Oxford for several hours. And when I’d flown lots and lots of different aeroplanes like twins I then went back to White Waltham and I was given a few hours training on a Wellington which put me in the league of all these bombers. And so it was. And from having training on five different aeroplanes I was able to fly a hundred and seventy six aeroplanes.
CB: Right. What was the most daunting thing about switching to a thing like the Wellington because it’s quite a big aeroplane.
ME: I know but [laughs] you don’t need strength really to fly the big aeroplanes, do you?
Other: Not these days you don’t.
CB: No.
Other: It was a bit more difficult in those days.
ME: I’ll tell you one thing that happened in the Spitfire. Two of us girls were going from Southampton one morning. Quite short. And it was quite hazy. Very thick hazy. You couldn’t see. You could see straight down like that and my friend went off in her aeroplane and I thought yes, I’ll go off in mine and took off and it was, I went above the haze as much as I could and I never saw another aeroplane. But we were both going to Wroughton which is Swindon and the thick haze was so great that I managed to look down because I’d judged on the time and what have you that it was — Wroughton was there. And I looked down and it was there. And I didn’t see any other aeroplane. I couldn’t see anyway. Only straight down. So, I did a circuit and came in to land and she must have done exactly the same. I don’t know. But she did a circuit the other way and we actually passed on the runway. We were actually wheels on the runway. She was going one way and I was going the other. We must have missed by inches [pause] and we didn’t see each other. Not even, not even at the end, coming in to land.
CB: Amazing.
ME: We only saw each other as she was going that way or I was going that way and suddenly there was another aeroplane and then I discovered later it was her and she discovered it was me. So we decided we mustn’t tell anybody.
CB: What conversation did you have about that?
ME: Oh, it frightens me. Lots of lovely stories like that.
CB: Yes.
ME: But we can’t go on forever.
CB: Well. Finding the airfields, I thought, was an interesting point because your navigation clearly was very good but in certain circumstances it must be difficult. So how did you? When you got near to an airfield that you weren’t right on course how did you deal with that? You weren’t quite sure where it was. Did you do a square search or what would you do?
ME: Well we just had the maps.
CB: Yes.
ME: And hoped to get there. Whether we went straight or went that way and like that but we got there and then the map said this is the one. So then you had to operate in between the other aeroplanes which were being driven, piloted by the RAF. And the RAF didn’t know that we were coming.
CB: So, what was the technique? Would you fly overhead and then they would communicate with you by —
ME: How could they? We had no radio.
CB: By — no, no. By lamp. They would signal.
ME: No.
CB: They wouldn’t do anything.
ME: They were doing what they had to do and I would —
CB: You just joined the circuit.
ME: Well I couldn’t really join it because probably it was a different sort of aeroplane. Mine might be a Spitfire and somebody else’s might be an Anson or something.
CB: As time went on the planes became more powerful and sophisticated. How did you feel about that? Did you enjoy that?
ME: I loved the fast and furious ones [laughs]
CB: Tempest.
ME: The Tempest. The Typhoon. What was it? All those fast ones. The American one. What’s that?
Other: Mustang.
CB: Mustang.
ME: Pardon?
CB: The Mustang.
ME: Mustang. That was it. I did, I loved those. But then if you’re flying every day then it’s not as difficult as if you’re flying once a week.
CB: No.
ME: But it is difficult when you have three or four different types.
CB: In a day.
ME: In a day.
CB: Let alone in a week.
ME: And then being taken to somewhere else. [pause] Here you are. A Hudson. A Barracuda. A Boston. A Fairchild and a Spitfire.
CB: Three twins and two singles. Yeah.
ME: [laughs] I find it’s, it’s difficult to talk to anyone unless they are a pilot because they don’t appreciate the dangers we were in all the time. It’s amazing really that we did so well.
CB: Yes. What did you regard as your biggest danger when you were doing deliveries?
ME: Weather. Because the weather could clamp down at any time and the amount of meteorology that we knew was very little. It’s not much better today anyway [laughs]
CB: No. So you talked about going above the haze but would you sometimes put them really low in order to be able to see where you were going?
ME: Would I what?
CB: Would you fly really low sometimes in order to —
ME: Yes.
CB: Under the cloud.
ME: I liked to fly in a fast machine. I liked to fly so that I could see the church steeples and go from one to the other and I knew the country so well that I could do that on a flight. That was lovely [laughs]
CB: So where —
ME: I was still working of course.
CB: So, you did a bit of beating up occasionally.
ME: Yes.
CB: Airfields as well?
ME: Not, not airfields but if you were on track and you thought, ‘Oh my friend lives down there,’ I’d go [whoop] you know. Why not? As long as we kept the aeroplanes safe that was the thing.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Because a broken aeroplane was no good to anybody.
CB: No. How did you feel about when you were picked up by the taxies? How did you feel about being flown up by somebody else?
ME: In the Anson. There were sometimes five of us in the Anson. That was perfectly alright because we would go — whose duty it was that day to pick up. The Anson would go around and pick up until there were five or six of us in the aeroplane and then back to base probably.
CB: If the weather was bad you would have to stay at an airfield I presume. Would you?
ME: We did. Yes. We were well looked after if we had to stay.
CB: Because you had effectively an officer rank so they put you in the officer’s mess did they?
ME: Oh yes, we were. Yes. We were.
CB: And what happened in the social side of the officer’s mess activities? Off duty.
ME: Off duty. I wouldn’t know. If we stayed overnight we would have an evening meal and then obviously one was tired and I used to go to bed in the officer’s — wherever it was. I don’t know. They allowed us a very special officer’s place. What do you call them? In the officer’s mess or somewhere.
Other: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Anyway, we were well looked after.
CB: Well looked after.
ME: I was well looked after. Yes.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
ME: But what I didn’t like. I landed somewhere, I remember, and I had to stay the night and I stayed and ate in the evening with a lot of these RAF officers and then went to bed. And the next morning I got up and went to have breakfast and there were only one or two officers there. So, I said to one of them, ‘What has happened to everybody this morning?’ And they said, ‘They didn’t come back last night.’ And that really hurt. That was terrible. I couldn’t bear that. But I had to get in my aeroplane and go off.
CB: Are we talking about a bomber delivery here?
ME: So [pause] it wasn’t all fun.
CB: No. And did —
ME: Because I lost several friends, you know. The girls. They were there and then the next day at Hamble, when we went, they weren’t there. And we had to carry on. There was a war on.
CB: And what sort of things would cause the girls not to be there?
ME: Because they’d been killed.
CB: But flying in bad weather would it be, or aircraft breaking down?
ME: It was usually bad weather. As ATA.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Yes. It wasn’t, that wasn’t very nice.
CB: Did you strike up some really strong friendships with other ATA people?
ME: Yes. We were all fifteen, twenty girls together. We were all great pals. Some were high rank and some were low but it didn’t make any difference socially. We were quite happy to be together.
CB: And what rank did you start at?
ME: I started as a cadet. And then I skipped third officer and I became a second officer and I was a second officer for about a year and then I became a first officer. And after that, if one went higher, it meant you had to have a job on a desk as well as flying. I didn’t particularly want that.
CB: No.
ME: So, I tried to keep as a first officer.
CB: So that’s equivalent to flight lieutenant.
ME: No. It’s equivalent to squadron leader.
CB: Right.
ME: Isn’t that right?
Other: [unclear]
ME: Well I was told it was.
CB: So your real interest was to fly all the time. Were you marking?
ME: Rather than sit.
CB: Yes. Were you marking up your score of the number of different planes.
ME: No. No.
CB: Or was it just coincidence that it —?
ME: No. Each day one had to put in the log book.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
ME: Because they all had numbers and so you had to put them in the logbook.
CB: Yeah. Apart from the meeting on the runway in opposite directions what other scary moments did you have?
ME: [Laughs] Too numerous to say.
CB: Give us a sample.
ME: I — no I’m not going to say that. [pause] Yes. There were always little incidents rather. Especially with Spitfires when the tail wheel wouldn’t either go up or go down. I can’t remember. Do you remember?
Other: You’re probably thinking about the main wheels because the tail wheel, first, the very early ones had a skid and then they got the tail wheel very early on but it was not retractable. I think they did have some on the PR aeroplanes that were retractable. I’m not sure.
ME: I’ve got a lot of things in one or two of my books.
CB: Was the Spitfire rather temperamental or was it just you needed to drive with caution?
ME: Here’s a Headquarters, Finding Accidents Committee. “The aircraft landed at its destination with the tail wheel retracted.”
CB: Right. The later model.
ME: “The pilot is held not responsible for this incident.”
CB: Right. Right.
ME: Or accident.
CB: Right. So, which aircraft was that?
ME: This? What?
CB: Which aircraft was that?
ME: It was a Spitfire.
CB: Right.
Other: Interesting.
ME: I don’t know where it was. I’ve got [unclear] [pause] yes, I had [laughs] I was flying over the New Forest one day. I was going to pick someone up from Stoney Cross. I was flying a taxi aeroplane and the engine clipped so, as you know, you can’t stay up there too long when you’ve got no engine. Fortunately, I found a space and I managed to get down in this space which was very very small and I didn’t damage the aeroplane. But there I was. Stranded. And from out of all the trees and bushes came a herd of cows and I’m terrified of cows. And so I had to be rescued [laughs] myself. Somebody passing by or doing something saw an aeroplane and so they came and rescued me from these cows which is extraordinary. To land an aeroplane quite safely and then have to be rescued from the cows [laughs]
CB: And as a farming girl that was quite interesting.
ME: [laughs] yes. There was a reason why I was not very [laughs] intimate with the cows.
CB: In the early days of farming was it?
ME: [laughs]
CB: So, what was that plane you were flying that day? A single engine was it?
ME: There you are. Eleven types in fourteen days. Did I tell you that?
CB: No. That’s good.
ME: I did.
CB: You did.
ME: That was that one. Well, there was ten types in fifteen days.
CB: Right. What’s the predominant one there?
ME: On July the 6th I flew a Wellington.
CB: Yeah.
ME: A Defiant, a Wellington, a Spitfire and a Swordfish. All in the same day.
CB: Quite a bit of variety. What was the Swordfish like to fly?
ME: It was lovely.
CB: Draughty.
ME: I liked being out in the open for a change. It was. It really was lovely. It was like a ginormous Tiger Moth.
Other: It was big.
CB: Apart from the Walrus which you didn’t like what other plane would you rather have avoided?
ME: I think I told you. The Walrus.
CB: No. Apart from the Walrus.
ME: There isn’t one I disliked but several I found rather more difficult to handle than others.
CB: Would that be twin engines more difficult to handle or some of the very fast?
ME: Some of the bigger ones.
CB: Yes.
ME: Like a Hampden. And you know when you fly a Hampden you have to put a special thing on to get the undercarriage down. If you forget to press this little knob —
CB: Pneumatic.
ME: Then the undercarriage won’t go down and so you circle around and think why can’t I get the undercarriage down? Eventually you just remember to poke this thing [laughs]
Other: Yeah.
CB: Did you ever have a wheels-up landing?
ME: Yes. I did [laughs] I hesitate because I don’t really like answering it but Chattis Hill was a secret place for making Spitfires.
CB: Oh.
ME: And it was in [pause] what’s it near? Chattis Hill. What’s it near?
Other: [unclear]
CB: I don’t know where that is.
ME: Anyway, it was a secret and it was on a side of a hill. And I took this Spitfire off down to where they’d been training horses. So I went down to get a good look and I took off quite happily and one day I forgot that it was a different engine and [laughs] I hadn’t changed the trim the right way and I took off and I went zoom. Like that [laughs] and missed the trees by that much. ‘Cause you know there’s a Merlin engine and a Griffon engine. Now, I forgot so that was my fault. But shortly before or after that I took off from Chattis Hill, this secret place and I went up and I couldn’t get my green lights. In fact, I couldn’t get any lights at all and so I didn’t know what was happening with this Spitfire. And then it started getting warm and I thought I can’t stay up here so I flew around this place and these people in this secret place, I saw them bring out the fire engine and I saw them bring out the ambulance and I thought, oh. And I then went back around and I knew I had to land somehow and so I did. I came in to land and I switched an engine off as I crossed into the field.
CB: On the boundary.
ME: And then sat it down without any, without the undercarriage, without more ado.
Other: [unclear]
ME: It, because I’d switched off everything I could it wasn’t too bad. I got a few bruises myself. But they soon mended the aeroplane I think. A couple of weeks afterwards.
CB: Yeah.
ME: It was flying again.
CB: So, did you come in at a lower speed in order to make sure that you stuck well or how did you do it?
ME: When?
CB: When you were on finals did you actually come in slower than you would have done with the undercarriage down?
ME: What do you mean finals?
CB: Final approach.
ME: Are you talking about this aeroplane?
CB: Yes. As you came in.
ME: It wasn’t [laughs] There was no case of finals. It was just a racecourse.
CB: Right.
ME: [laughs] And I knew if something — obviously I would come in as slowly and safely as I could.
CB: Yeah.
ME: All my learnings came into my head in a fraction of a second and that’s why I didn’t break it very much.
CB: Just bent the propeller.
ME: So all my learning was very good [laughs]
CB: You clearly had a huge number of experiences. What would you say was your proudest event?
ME: Oh, I don’t know [laughs]
CB: I should think that was one of them. Getting it down undamaged.
ME: Pardon?
CB: I should think that was one. Getting it down undamaged.
ME: Ahum.
CB: Now, there were men in the ATA as pilots as well as women. So how did that fit?
ME: We were all girls at Hamble.
CB: Right.
ME: We didn’t have any men.
CB: Right.
ME: Just one engineer man. That’s right.
CB: So, at Hamble you were picking up brand new aeroplanes.
ME: We were not always picking up brand new aeroplanes. Quite often we were picking up aeroplanes that had been damaged that had to be flown to the MUs to be fixed again to carry on flying. Quite often we did that. It wasn’t always new ones.
CB: So were you delivering the damaged ones as well as picking up the ones that had been mended?
ME: Yes.
CB: Right. And when you landed at the airfields there was a simple — they weren’t expecting you but there was a simple procedure that you went through was there? To hand over the aircraft.
ME: No. We went and put the aeroplane where they asked us to put it. And then we had this little chitty which we took back with us to Hamble and put it in so they knew that we had delivered that particular aeroplane safely.
CB: Yeah. I’m going to stop there for a mo.
[recording paused]
ME: Meteor flight.
CB: No. So tell us. The first jet.
ME: This —
CB: So, this was —
ME: That’s what you wanted.
CB: Thank you.
CB: This is a letter from November 1945 saying, “Dear Miss Wilkins, I’d like to add to the expressions conveyed to you by my commanding officer my own appreciation of your good work you’ve done for the Air Transport Auxiliary as a ferry pilot. I wish you every happiness in the future and success in any work you may undertake. Yours sincerely, Senior Commander, Director of Women Personnel, Air Transport Association.” Amazing.
ME: Thank you.
CB: So, the Meteor. Where was that being collected from?
ME: Yes. When ATA really closed in ’45 I was seconded with a few other men to fly in 41 Group. The RAF.
CB: Yes.
ME: So, I was posted to White Waltham and during that time I was asked — given a Meteor to fly. [pause] And so I flew it [laughs]
CB: So where did you take off from?
ME: I was flown to Gloucester. Where we were the other day.
CB: Yeah. Staverton.
ME: I flew it from Gloucester to Exeter. I’d never seen one before and I remember saying to the pilot, ‘I can’t fly it because it doesn’t have any propellers.’ [laughs] And so, I said, ‘Can you tell me any of its characteristics or something.’ And he said, ‘All I can tell you is that you must watch the fuel gauges because they go from full to empty in thirty,’ something, ‘Minutes so you’d better be on the ground in that. Before that.’ And that’s all the instructions I had on a Meteor [laughs]
CB: So, what did they explain about the engines and how they operated?
ME: I’ve no idea.
CB: Extraordinary. Because one of the interesting —
ME: I just had to fly it and I had my book.
CB: Yeah.
ME: I looked in the book.
CB: Pilot’s handbook.
ME: What it said.
CB: Yeah.
ME: This, that and the other and I just flew it.
CB: Did it tell you you had to keep the revs above a certain level?
ME: No. It didn’t [laughs]
CB: ‘Cause one of the interesting —
ME: How would I know? Because it was entirely different from an ordinary aeroplane.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
ME: So, I just looked in the book and there it told me and so I did what it said.
CB: What height did you fly on that?
ME: Oh. I can’t remember but I remember going off and I thought oh I’m up here. Where am I? I’m lost [laughs] but I soon found myself. Oh and the pilot had told me it would drop like a stone when I took the power off but I didn’t find that at all. I did, it could be a perfect landing and all the people at Exeter were there to greet it and they couldn’t believe this female [laughs] this young female driving this. And the CO said, ‘Oh that’s wonderful. We’ll have a party,’ [laughs] and he said he would keep it for his own because they were changing from Spitfires to Meteors or the other way around. I don’t know which. Anyway, that was my experience which was fantastic. I thought it was wonderful.
CB: And how did you feel the acceleration and speed on that compared with a Spitfire?
ME: Well it was nothing like a Spitfire. A Meteor’s got two engines. A Spitfire’s only got one. So [laughs]
Other: Very fast.
ME: Oh, dear.
CB: Yes.
ME: I’ll tell you what.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Someone said you wanted to know how many Wellingtons I’d flown.
CB: Yes.
ME: And so, I put it out at one, two, three, four to be continued. I got tired of doing it so I —
CB: Right. That’s very good.
ME: And there it is. I copied from my logbook.
CB: That’s lots of Wellingtons. Yeah.
ME: Hard work that was.
CB: Thank you.
ME: Four engines were Lancaster, Lancaster, Liberator, Stirling and Halifax.
CB: Did you fly as first pilot in any of those?
ME: Not the four engine ones.
CB: Right.
ME: No.
CB: And were they also flown by women?
ME: There were secret places.
CB: Yeah. Were they flown by women?
ME: Yes.
CB: As well. They were.
ME: Yes. Of course. Women did everything.
CB: They did. Marvellous. Yeah. So was it only one Meteor you flew or did you go on to fly others?
ME: Pardon?
CB: Did you fly other Meteors?
ME: No. Because I was only there for three months.
CB: Right.
ME: And they were just making these Meteors then. No other girl alive has flown a Meteor.
CB: No. I can imagine. So, then the war ends. Well, what happened at the end of the war?
ME: Well, flying ceased so I went home. I went home. Played tennis with my mother.
Other: [unclear]
CB: And when did you meet your husband to be?
ME: I met him, oh I don’t know. I was running the airfield up here for about ten years before I met him. And then suddenly he appeared and he was a commercial pilot then. So. He was very handsome and so I thought [pause] he talked me into it. I may as well agree [laughs]
CB: So, after the war then you went home and played tennis but after that you went back in to flying.
ME: Well, I just said I came to the Isle of Wight as a, I was a personal pilot to a man that had an aeroplane but no pilot.
CB: Oh. Who was based in the Isle of Wight. Right.
ME: That’s why I’m on the Isle of Wight.
CB: And how often did he use his plane? Well you flew it but —
ME: Very often because he went to various places in, he had to go to committee meetings every so often to here, there and all over the country. So, it was rather fun.
CB: What plane did he use?
ME: A Gemini.
CB: But it had a radio [laughs]
ME: Pardon?
CB: But it had a radio now.
ME: No.
CB: Oh. it didn’t.
ME: No.
CB: Oh right.
ME: No. It didn’t.
CB: What about going abroad? Did he go abroad in it?
ME: I can’t hear now because my hearing aid has just run out.
CB: Ok. I’ll stop.
[recording paused]
ME: I became a personal pilot to this farmer man.
CB: Yeah.
ME: Then he bought a small airfield.
CB: Oh.
ME: And he had several managers which he wasn’t happy with and then one day he suggested that I could manage it for him. And I thought, well it’s a challenge and I like a challenge. So after a while instead of going home I decided to become an airport airfield manager so I was made manager and a few weeks afterwards when I started to build it up and I built the place up and up and I became airport commandant [laughs] because I’d now fixed in a CRDF and all sorts of things which had to be in order for the airline to come in and I did so desperately want the airlines to come in to the Isle of Wight. And so, I had to have all this CRDF and everything else. So, I did that.
CB: This is at Sandown.
ME: And the airlines came in. In the summer it brought people from Leeds and Manchester and Birmingham and Exeter and London. Every day in the summer. Which was — people can’t remember here that this ever happened but it did and it was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. And then of course I was married by this time and my husband was working for the — what was it?
Other: The Hovercraft.
ME: Hovercraft
LS: Yes. Yes.
Other: Hovercraft.
ME: Yes. The British Hovercraft. Whatever it was called.
CB: The British Hovercraft Association. At Cowes. Yes
ME: And he was posted out to various places around the world and then he didn’t like that very much so he came back. And he was asked again, please would he go to various places and he said he wouldn’t go unless I went with him. So it was a case of he giving up his job or me giving up mine. And unfortunately for me I had to give up. So, I said I can’t stay here any longer and so I went abroad with my husband but because I left the field gradually went downhill and it closed shortly afterwards and went for sale. And I didn’t know anything about it then because I was abroad. Had I stayed I would have gone on. Without my husband [laughs]
CB: Yes. We’re talking about Sandown aren’t we? Yes. Which still has a grass runway. So, you went around the world with him. Then eventually he returned to the UK. You did. Together.
ME: Yes.
CB: Then what?
ME: But that, that would take, that took about four or five years because I was in the airfield here from ‘50 to ‘70. ‘70 I took off with my husband. So that was twenty years.
Other: Mary. You did the pleasure flying. Mary. Pleasure flying.
ME: Pleasure flights.
Other: Yeah.
CB: You did pleasure flights.
ME: Donald did afterwards.
Other: Yeah.
ME: But — yes because Donald bought an aeroplane. My husband. And together we did pleasure flights. Yes. That’s right. Which was very interesting because quite a lot of people that went for a pleasure flight decided that they would learn to fly afterwards because they enjoyed it. It was going around the Isle of Wight. So that was some good. And then, for some reason, Donald left and said, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ So he didn’t. And I just went. We sold the aeroplane and I more or less went with the aeroplane just selling tickets. And that’s how people know me. Selling pleasure flight tickets. They don’t know anything about my previous life.
CB: Extraordinary. Yeah.
ME: It’s extraordinary.
CB: Yes. Eventually you gave up selling the tickets.
ME: [laughs] Yes.
CB: And settled down to a bit of retirement.
ME: I’m trying to grow old gracefully with my great help.
CB: Yes. Lorraine.
ME: My great friend.
LS: We try to inspire each other. You’re still inspiring me anyway, Mary.
CB: And finally as far as the air, the association was concerned, the organisation continued.
ME: Which?
CB: In the background. Your [pause] your girl, the girls who were in the —
ME: That stopped at the end of the war.
CB: Right.
ME: That finished in ‘45 and so I had three months in’ 46 when I was with 41 Group.
CB: Right.
ME: Which is part of the RAF isn’t it?
CB: Yeah.
Other: I’m not sure, Mary. I don’t know.
CB: Yeah. But the Air Transport Auxiliary had an Association afterwards did it? Where people kept together and so you kept in touch with the girls you’d flown with for all those years. Did you? At annual events?
ME: There weren’t very many because most of the girls had been married and so they stayed at home.
CB: Right.
ME: But we did have one reunion. Yes. And that was all. And gradually they have all gone to heaven. Or somewhere.
CB: Yeah. Well Mary Wilkins Ellis thank you very much for a most interesting conversation and we wish you many more years.
ME: You can’t do that because I’m a hundred and a half already.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Mary Ellis,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 30, 2023,

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