• Categories: 20th Century, 21st Century

Lettice Curtis was one of the most remarkable woman pilots of WW2, flying a wide range of military combat aircraft with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and being the first woman to qualify to fly a four-engine bomber.

She had qualified as a commercial pilot in April 1938, and was working for the Ordnance Survey when, in June 1940, she was approached by the ATA. There was an urgent need for more pilots to ferry aircraft and, with most men joining the RAF, it was decided to form a Women’s Pool to bolster the number of pilots. Lettice Curtis was among the first to join .

With a small group of other young women, she began by flying light training and communications aircraft at Hatfield. She soon graduated to more advanced trainers and also the twin-engined Oxford. ATA pilots often flew alone and with no navigation aids — they had to rely almost entirely on map reading as they ferried aircraft from factories and airfields to RAF units around the United Kingdom. Weather conditions were often difficult.

Until the spring of 1941 there was a government ruling that women could not fly operational aircraft, but everything changed that summer. Without any extra tuition, and just a printed preflight checklist, Lettice Curtis ferried a Hurricane to Prestwick. Soon she was flying the fighter regularly, and it was not long before she was also delivering Spitfires to frontline squadrons.

In September 1941 the role of women pilots was extended further, and Lettice Curtis quickly graduated to the more advanced aircraft, ferrying light bombers such as the Blenheim and the Hampden. She then converted to the even more demanding Wellington, later observing: “Before flying [the Wellington] it was simply a question of reading Pilot’s Notes.”

In 1943 Lettice Curtis was authorised to ferry more types of heavy bombers, including the US B-17 Flying Fortress. The following year she was the first woman pilot to deliver a Lancaster. By the end of the war, when the ATA closed down, Lettice Curtis was probably the most experienced of all the female pilots, having flown more than 400 heavy bombers, 150 Mosquitos and hundreds of Hurricanes and Spitfires, thirteen days on, two off, for sixty-two consecutive months, between July 1940 and September 1945.

Lettice Curtis getting into a Spitfire

Lettice Curtis getting into a Spitfire

In 1992 she gained her helicopter licence, but three years later decided that, at the age of 80, her flying days were over.

A strong-willed, determined individual, Lettice Curtis always felt that the ATA did not receive the recognition it deserved, and in 1971 she published The Forgotten Pilots . Her autobiography, Lettice Curtis, came out in 2004.