Guest Author - Evelyn Rainey
Lettice Curtis was born in Devon, England in 1916 and was still alive when interviewed by Giles Whittell for his book Spitfire Women of World War II in November of 2007. Tall, with a long, noble face, she was the first woman to pilot a bomber. As a member of the upper crust, she was educated at Benenden School and St. Hilda's College in Oxford. As war snapped from the shadows in Europe, Curtis began flying lessons at Yapton Flying Club. Three years later, while working as a pilot for a survey company, she became one of the first women to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and kept with it until its termination in November 30, 1945 ending her service with a rank of First Officer.
The ATA was developed as WWII loomed over Great Britain to utilize the talents of pilots who were women, medically discharged WWI veterans, or civilian men too old to qualify for the service to transport government ministers. It expanded its role to ferry newly built aircraft from the assembly factories to bases around Great Britain. Begun in 1938, it eventually employed the services of 1,300 pilots divided between 14 'ferry pools' and delivered 308,567 aircraft of 130 different types including 57,286 Spitfires, 29,401 Hurricanes, 9,805 Lancasters and 7,039 Barracudas. Six hundred-fifty of its pilots were from twenty-two countries around the world including Chile, South Africa and the U.S. One hundred-sixty-four pilots were women. By the end of the war, one hundred-seventy-three pilots and eight flight engineers had been killed.
The ATA began assigning aircraft with very little instruction and no instrumental landing to pilots with little regard to their abilities. Eventually, the ATA pilots were divided into special categories, as stated in The ATA - Women with Wings : Part 5 - Classes and Closure website:
Class 1: Single-engined light aircraft. (Primarily trainers)
Class 2: Single-engined operational aircraft. (Mostly fighters, such as Hurricanes, Spitfires, Corsairs, and Mustangs, but also types such as the Avenger)
Class 3: Twin-engined light aircraft. (Oxfords, Envoys and similar types)
Class 4: Twin-engined operational aircraft. (Mostly medium bombers)
Class 4+: Tricycle undercarriaged aircraft
Class 5: Four-engined aircraft. (Heavy bombers, such as Lancasters, Stirlings, B-17 Fortresses, and B-24 Liberators)
Class 6: Flying boats. (Catalinas, Sunderlands)
Class 6 was restricted to male pilots only. Lettice Curtis was the first of twelve women chosen to attain Class 5. As such, she is the first woman to fly a bomber. She flew the Avro Lancaster bomber. Lovingly called The Lanc, this night bomber was developed in 1942 and eventually became the Dam Buster used with such devastating precision in 1943 on Germany's Ruhr Valley dam.
Paid GBP 6 a week, the women of the ATA flew up to 16 hours a day. It was not until the summer of 1943, that equal pay was introduced for the women. Under Secretary of State of Air, Lord Balfour said, "The men and women of the Air Transport Auxiliary were civilians in uniforms who played a soldiers part in the Battle for Britain and who performed throughout the war a supreme importance to the RAF".
After the war, Curtis became a technician and flight test observer and later a senior flight development engineer. She was an avid air racer and qualified to fly helicopters in October 1992. She retired her wings voluntarily in 1995.
In his book Spitfire Women of World War II, author Whittell asked Lettice Curtis, "Why were such clearly superb pilots not flying in combat, instead of many of the half-trained young men sent up to die, particularly during the Battle of Britain?" Ms. Curtis, aged 90, who rolled her eyes and responded: "This is the sort of imagination I am very much against. There was no question of it, and it was not a question you asked. It just never came up."
The Daily Mail published on February 21, 2008: '"Now the 15 survivors, who also flew planes ranging from single seat Hurricanes to massive Lancaster bombers, will receive a commemorative badge," Gordon Brown announced yesterday. Their 100 surviving male colleagues will also be recognised.'
Ms. Curtis has written two books: Lettice Curtis - Her Autobiography, Red Kite, Walton on Thames, 2004, and The Forgotten Pilots, Nelson & Saunders, Olney, Bucks, 1985.
Also written by an ATA woman pilot Diana Barnato Walker with references to Ms. Curtis is Spreading My Wings , Patrick Stephens, Yeovil, 1994.