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Memories take flight on Mary's VIP visit

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 05, 2013


  • Mary Villiers, now aged 94, with Lt Cdr Chris Gotke on her VIP visit to Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton (RNAS) and, inset, as an ATA during the Second World War

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Imagine driving off at 150 miles per hour in your car only to realise someone's left a window open and all your maps have blown away. Now try to imagine being a young woman piloting a huge bomber, alone, in the darkest days of the Second World War and discovering something very similar has happened.

This alarming scenario is exactly the one a Westcountry great-grandmother was remembering this week when she was treated to a VIP visit around the Royal Naval Historic Flight at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton (RNAS).

Mary Villiers, aged 94, was recollecting her work as a pilot delivering hundreds of aircraft for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and RAF – and some of the challenges she faced flying more than 25 different machines were more than a little hair-raising.

As a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) she was required to deliver all manner of aircraft, large and small, and this week she told onlookers at Yeovilton: "Wellington bombers are quite big. Once, when I was taking off, a hatch at the front flew open and everything – all of my maps – flew down to the tail end.

"It wasn't my fault – the engineer should have checked the hatch. I didn't have the maps for guidance, but it didn't matter," recalled Mary. "I had learned where I was going and it wasn't very far."

Mary had been invited to the Historic Flight museum where she came face to face with one of the aircraft types she knew best… The great grandmother, from Leigh in Dorset, recalled how she flew several Fairey Swordfish on delivery missions to Naval Air Stations in Scotland…

"Seeing the Swordfish – it reminds me of the scramble up the side using five footholds, swinging a leg over the side, and dropping down into the pilot's seat. I recall it being rather cold," she told Lt Commander Chris Gotke, commanding officer of the Royal Naval Historic Flight, who escorted Mary on her visit.

She explained how she joined up at the age of 24 and flew more than 500 flying hours between June 1943 and the end of October 1945.

Previously a driver before joining the ATA, she said: "When I saw the chance of getting into flying I took it. They were so short of pilots that they were grateful for anyone with enthusiasm. There was no better job."

After training on a plane called the Miles Magister, she went on to fly numerous aircraft types for both the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF including the Harvard, Barracuda, Hurricane, Swordfish, Spitfire and Wellington Bomber.

One of 166 women in the ATA, Mary flew aircraft all over Britain from factories to operational squadrons.

Minister for aircraft production, Lord Beaverbrook, was later to say of the ATA: "They carried out the delivery of aircraft from the factories to the RAF, thus relieving countless numbers of RAF pilots for duty in the battle.

"Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront."

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