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Grandma flew Spitfires!

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Anne Diamond | 11:28 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

It's a fact that, around these parts, it's quite possible that your Grandma flew Spitfires. Also if you live in the West Midlands (where so many of the aircraft factories were located), Bristol or Hamble, near Southampton, because that's where the amazing 160 ladies of the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, were based.

Women of the ATA

This picture shows just some of these feisty and amazingly glamorous girls. Eventually, they were all centred at White Waltham, near Maidenhead. Many of them came from America at first, others were amateur pilots who volunteered to fly everything from Lancaster and Wellington bombers to Spitfires around the country - to wherever they were needed. It wasn't an easy job, either. Some were killed, some shot at (occasionally by our own guys) and often the planes they were flying were broken, damaged or strange to them - they'd never flown that type before.

I love such stories - and now they will be immortalised in a special project at the Maidenhead Heritage Centre - called Grandma Flew Spitfires! (They're even going to have a Spitfire simulator!)

Audrey Roberts, who's 83, from Newbury, called in to say how many memories that stirred in her. She was a maintenance engineer at RAF Lossiemouth and had to work out in all weathers, under camouflage, and got terrible chilblains. So they transferred her to a desk job indoors, where her job was to process the log books of all the incoming and outgoing ATA pilots. Thus she met some wonderfully interesting characters, like the young girl pilot who arrived so utterly exhausted they made a bed for her on the floor of the office, out of parachutes and overcoats. She slept until her next plane was ready to be flown somewhere else - and off she went again!

I so love stories like that. Sometimes that's the wonder of doing this job. You get to meet lovely people like Audrey. She even went on to marry a Concorde test pilot, and danced with another young pilot, Ian Smith, who later became Prime Minister of Rhodesia.

Whatever his politics, Audrey had one lasting opinion of him:

"He was a great dancer!" she said.


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