Obit of the Day: Air Pioneer
Lettice Curtis had her pilot’s license for only three years when she was recruited to Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1940. The ATA’s sole mission was to ferry aircraft in and around the British Isles to make them accessible for members of the Royal Air Force. A shortage of male pilots forced the ATA to invite women to join, and Ms. Curtis was one of the first.
She was also the best. During her five years of service Ms. Curtis transported more than 1500 aircraft. Everything from Spitfire fighter planes, to the two-engine multi-purpose Mosquito, to the Lancaster four-engine bomber, had to be flown by Ms. Curtis, often solo and using only a map for navigation. Ms. Curtis was, in fact, the first woman in the world to qualify to fly four-engine bombers including the American B-17 Flying Fortress. She gained national attention in October 1942 when she met and shook hands with Eleanor Roosevelt and Clementine Churchill.
Ms. Curtis was one of 166 women served in the ATA, which was dubbed ”Always Terrified Airwomen” by cynical journalists when the program was first expanded. The pilots came not just from the United Kingdom but also the U.S., The Netherlands, and Poland. Fifteen women lost their lives while serving in the ATA, a remarkably low death rate for pilots asked to fly at all hours and in all types of weather.a
After the end of World War II, Ms. Curtis hoped to fly in a professional setting but with the end of the war came the end of a need for women pilots. Like so many other women of the era Ms. Curtis was pushed aside to make room for the men returning from the front. While interviewing for a test pilot position with one company, she heard and entire boardroom break into laughter when told she was waiting in the lobby.
Ms. Curtis found her way airborn by participating in the air racing circuit. And she continued to excel. Flying in a borrowed Spitfire, Ms. Curtis set a women’s record in the 100 km closed loop race in 1948. Later, in her own private plane, she raced nationally against all pilots, male and female.
Later in life, she also took it upon herself to tell the story of the ATA and wrote The Forgotten Pilots which was published in 1971. She wrote her autobiography, Lettice Curtis, in 2004.
In 2008, Ms. Curtis and fourteen other surviving women who flew for the ATA were honored by the British government for their service in the war with a special patch. (The men of the ATA were recognized as well.) “The Forgotten Pilots” had finally gotten their due.
Lettice Curtis, who earned her helicopter pilot’s license at the age of 77, died on July 21, 2014 at the age of 99.
(Image of Lettice Curtis stepping into the cockpit of a Spitfire sometime during World War II is courtesy of The Daily Mail)
Other women pilots featured on Obit of the Day:
Nadhezda Popova - One of the Sovet Union’s “Night Witches”
Betty Skelton - Dubbed “The Fastest Woman on Earth”
Patricia Wilson - Member of Philadelphia’s Civil Air Defense in WWII