Britain’s last surviving female WW2 pilot turns 101
Britain’s last surviving female pilot in World War Two – one of the famed ‘Spitfire Women’ – has celebrated her 101st birthday.
Eleanor Wadsworth, who lives in Bury St Edmunds, was part of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which was tasked with the delivery of new and repaired aircraft to squadrons of the RAF and Royal Navy.
Eleanor, originally from Nottingham, initially went to work for the ATA at White Waltham in Berkshire in 1941 as an assistant architect, but after seeing a notice saying the civilian organisation needed more pilots, she put her name down.
In June 1943, she began her initial training and was one of the first six people on the course.
“Before we even got into a plane, we had to do a course in meteorology, navigation, which was very important, and the internal combustion engine,” she said.
“Most days, weather permitting of course, we had two half hour lessons a day, in between which we studied books and manuals and drank cups of tea and so forth.”
Flying solo after just 12 hours of training, the then 26-year-old went on to pilot 22 different types of aircraft in the war effort, including 132 Spitfires, 28 Hurricanes, two Hellcats and one Mustang.
But she is in no doubt over her favourite plane to fly.
“I think most people who have ever flown a Spitfire will say that it was a gem,” she said.
“It looked as thought it was meant to fly, you stood and looked at it and looked as though it was just ready to take off.
“I’ve never driven a real sports car but I should imagine that’s what it’s like, only far better because you’ve got an additional dimension. You’ve got up and down as well as side to side.”
The 101-year-old fondly remembers the camaraderie among the men and women pilots in the ATA – who were both paid equally for the work they did.
“Men and women all working together in the same cause, it worked very well,” she said. “There was very little friction, a certain amount of banter and teasing but in the flying business there is quite a lot of macabre teasing.
“The element of risk is always there and if people have had a near miss or frightened themselves and people find out about it, they enjoy causing a bit of discomfort.”
At the end of the war, Eleanor had clocked up 590 flying hours, 430 of which were solo.
She married Bernard Wadsworth in 1945, moving to Bury St Edmunds 11 years later, and the couple spent 70 years together before Bernard’s death in 2015.
Eleanor has two sons, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren and spent her birthday on Monday, October 15, celebrating with family.
Speaking of her 101 years, she said: “I’m so lucky that I’m able to recall things and talk about them and it amazes me all the time what I’ve seen and learnt and never finished learning.
“I’m lucky to have my family around me and to be in good health.”