Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

RAF Veteran World War II pilot Mary Ellis poses with a Spitfire at Biggin Hill Airfield, England on Aug. 18, 2015. Mary Ellis delivered spitfires and bombers to the front line during the war as a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), flying over 1,000 planes during the conflict before moving to the Isle of Wight to manage Sandown airport from 1950 to 1970.
Gareth Fuller/PA/AP
Girls & Women

Trailblazing Female World War II Pilot Dies Aged 101

Why Global Citizens Should Care
This year is all about looking back and honouring the women who have paved the way for gender equality over the past 100 years. Today's feminists owe so much to brave women like Mary Ellis, for showing us how it's done. You can join us by taking action in support of the UN's Global Goal for gender equality here

One of the last surviving female pilots of World War II has died, aged 101, and heart-felt, awe-struck tributes are pouring in. 

Mary Ellis, who was awarded the freedom of the Isle of Wight earlier this year, was described as a “national, international, and island heroine” by the Isle of Wight council leader, Dave Stewart. 

Embed from Getty Images

Take action: Sign This Petiton to #LevelTheLaw and Empower Girls and Women Around the World

Red Arrows flier Mike Ling described her as a “legend” and said: “I hope you’re enjoying a well-earned sherry up there with Joy Lofthouse [a fellow pilot, who died in November 2017] again. Blue skies Ma’am.” 

And TV presenter Dan Snow described her as “one of Britain’s greatest aviators.” 

Ellis — or Mary Wilkins, as she was then — was one of the 166 female pilots who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the second world war. 

After catching the “flying bug” during a pleasure flight at an air show in Hendon, Ellis had been awarded her flying licence by 16. 

She then joined the ATA in 1941, which was notable then for allowing women, after she heard a radio appeal for female pilots. Known as the “attagirls,” the female pilots were — if they don’t mind us saying — completely badass. 

The first eight women were accepted into service on Jan. 1, 1940 and, overall, about one in eight of the ATA pilots were female. 

The women volunteered from all over the world, including Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, the Netherlands, Poland, Argentina, and Chile. 

Ellis alone flew around 1,000 planes over four years — including 400 Spitfires and 47 Wellington bombers, one of the largest aircraft — delivering them to the frontline.

Embed from Getty Images

Spitfires were first flown by women in August 1941 and Ellis, the first time she flew one, was asked by the mechanic how many times she had flown one, according to an interview Ellis did with TV presenter Alan Titchmarsh for the Telegraph in 2015.

“I said never, and he fell off the wing,” she told Titchmarsh. 

Another anecdote she recounted was how, after landing and taxi-ing a Wellington bomber to its parking place, she was greeted by a ground crew who asked her where the pilot was — as the planes so were large many were surprised women were able to fly them at all. 

Related Stories Jan. 23, 2018 14 Badass, Groundbreaking Women Who Fought for Their Beliefs

“I’m the pilot,” she told them. According to Titchmarsh, they didn’t believe her until they’d searched the plane for the male pilot they were expecting. 

In total, 15 of the “attagirls” were killed in the air, including Briton Amy Johnson. Johnson died after being forced to bail out over the Thames Estuary because of bad weather, according to MailOnline.

Interestingly, and something we can learn from even now, is that women in the ATA actually received the same pay as their male counterparts, starting in 1943. 

Embed from Getty Images

It was the first time the the British government authorised equal pay for equal work within an organisation under its control.

After the war, Ellis moved to the Isle of Wight and managed Sandown airport for two decades, from 1950 to 1970, living in a home beside the Sundown runway with her husband — fellow pilot Don Ellis, who she married in 1961. 

Following Ellis’ death, there are now just three surviving female pilots from the second world war, according to the Guardian: Eleanor Wadsworth, who lives in Bury St Edmunds in the UK; Nancy Stratford who lives in the US; and Jaye Edwards, who lives in Canada.