International Air Tattoo
Part two: Women in Aviation & Training
Guy Harvey looks at the dominant themes of the weekend. All pictures by the author unless stated otherwise.
...was the primary theme throughout RIAT 2001, celebrating the achievements of the fairer sex in the realm of aviation. Although only the one display pilot was female in Julie Wiles, 'Blue Eagle' Gazelle pilot (an opportunity missed in inviting Carolyn Grace and her Spitfire T9), many of the static participants sported female crews, principally the South African C-130 (including aircrew involved with Mozambique flood rescues at the end of 2000) and USANG C-22. Women aircrew also represented the RAF, Army Air Corps, United States Air Force and Navy, Royal Netherlands Air Force, Royal Danish Air Force, Turkish Air Force and the Belgian Air Force and Army Air Corps. Nearly forty female aircrew from air forces around the world were able to meet their trailblazing forerunners, members of the Air Transport Auxiliary.
A pre-event symposium in Cambridge allowed 'Women in Aviation' to exchange views and experiences ninety years after the UK's first female aviator, Mrs Hilda Hewlett, was given a pilot's licence at Brooklands Race Track. Hilda Beatrice Hewlett was born in the Victorian London of 1864, a vicars daughter who went to art college and also trained as a nurse. Her husband Maurice was a romantic novelist. Hildas life took a completely new direction when she saw the first English flying meeting at Blackpool in 1909.
Adopting the alias "Grace Bird", Hilda arrived at Mourmelon-le-Grand aerodrome in France later that year to study aeronautics. She met Gustave Biondeau and they became business partners, united by a passionate belief in aviation. Returning to England with a Henri Farman bi-plane, the "Blue Bird", Biondeau and Hewlett opened Britain's first flying school at Brooklands race track in the summer of 1910.
On 29 August 1911, aged 47, Hilda Hewlett was awarded Ticket No. 122 and flew into the history books as Britains first woman pilot. She promptly taught her son to fly, possibly the only naval airman in the world to be taught to fly by his mother!
When the Great War broke out the Biondeau/Hewlett partnership went into the aircraft business, employing 700 people in their Bedfordshire plant to produce ten different types of planes. Later, aged 62, Hilda left England for New Zealand seeking escape from "crowds, convention and civilisation". Her husband Maurice, from whom Hilda 'politely' separated in 1914, is recorded as saying "Women will never be as successful in aviation as men. They have not the right kind of nerve"!
Speaking just before RIAT 2001, the Chief of The Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire, said "I am delighted that RIAT salutes the achievements of airwomen, from early pioneers to the young women who are increasingly at the cutting edge of modern military airpower, both in the air and on the ground."
Supplying the front-line
RIAT paid tribute to the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary who delivered 309,011 aircraft during World War II, flying without instruments or weapons. Renowned wartime ferry pilots Jackie Moggridge from Taunton and Joy Lofthouse from Cirencester were among the ATA pilots who had the chance to swap yarns at Cottesmore with todays women flyers from United States, South Africa, Romania and Holland.
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was formed in September 1939 to fly urgent mail in light aircraft but, with the outbreak of World War II just days later, the role of the ATA became much more important. The new organisation began to deliver factory aircraft to the RAF as it geared up for full-scale combat. For the first few months, all ATA pilots were men.
In January 1940 the Government decided that experienced women pilots could join the ATA. Miss Pauline Gower, a pilot with 2,000 flying hours, recruited other women aviators to fly for the first time with the British military. The original eight pilots eventually rose to 150, not only British but from the Commonwealth, Europe and the USA. Three times as many men served with the ATA.
At first women were only permitted to fly 'the light type of aircraft'. As a shortage of pilots became more desperate common sense prevailed and competent women flyers coped with everything from Tiger Moths to heavy four-engined bombers. During World War II the ATA delivered 309,011 aircraft of 147 different types, freeing over-stretched RAF pilots from routine duties.
Aircraft were handed over to the ATA as basic airframes, with no instruments or weapons fitted. Before take-off the pilots were given a sheaf of 'handling notes' to be strapped to the knee for reference during the flight. There was seldom time to practise in advance on unfamiliar aeroplanes.
Over 100 ATA pilots were lost in flying accidents. Fifteen of these were women, including the legendary Amy Johnson who died on 5 January 1941. After running out of fuel in dense fog over the Thames Estuary, she bailed out of the twin-engined Airspeed Oxford but died in the freezing waters. The ATA flag was hauled down for the last time on 30 November 1945.
A modern-day Amy Johnson
Another guest of honour was Polly Vacher, 57, who arrived back in Britain on 16 May having completed a record-breaking round-the-world flight in a tiny Piper Dakota, not much bigger than a family estate car. Polly raised £160,000 for The Royal International Air Tattoo Flying Scholarships for the Disabled, and she was joined at the airshow by Sue Hanisch who learned to fly through the scheme after being badly injured in an IRA bombing.
Polly touched down at Birmingham Airport on 17 May 2001 to complete an epic 29,000-mile flight. She is the first woman to fly single-handed around the world via Australia in such a small aircraft; her record-breaking Piper Dakota is not much bigger than a family estate car. The trip lasted 124 days, and in 47 hops she landed in 17 countries. The former music teacher from Oxfordshire did not learn to fly until 1993, when she was living in Australia for two years.
Polly took on the round-the-world challenge to raise money for The Royal International Air Tattoo Flying Scholarships for the Disabled. Since 1983, when the scheme was established in memory of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, close to 200 men and women with disabilities have experienced the joy of flying.
On Sunday Polly flew into the Flying Scholarships awards ceremony aboard an RAF Harrier T10 flown by Squadron Leader Al Pinner of IV(F) Squadron, which is based at RAF Cottesmore. A single Harrier had taken to the air to wish Polly bon voyage when she left Birmingham in May, and two of them escorted her when she arrived back, dipping their noses in salute at her achievement.
At the awards ceremony Polly presented a cheque for £160,000 to HRH Prince Feisal of Jordan. When invested this money will provide an annual scholarship in perpetuity so in the years to come there will be many disabled men and women with every reason to be grateful to Polly and her remarkable achievement.
Training the RIAT way
Training was the other main theme for RIAT 2001, and it brought together an interesting array of training airframes from around the world. Perhaps rarest was the Bulldog from the Armed Forces of Malta, an epic journey for such a small aeroplane and doubly appropriate as the RAF retired its last example a couple of months ago. Two Hungarian L-39s added an iron curtain flavour, enhanced by the MAKO mock-up. A gorgeous all-black Saab Sk60 (aka 105) from Sweden showed just how to do national markings on a black paint scheme, evoking memories of those JPS-backed Lotuses of Mario Andretti some twenty-three years ago.
The training theme provided two segments to the flying display, the first dedicated to RAF training, starting with the Firefly and Tucano, ending with the mighty Tornado F3. The only element missing was the Grob Tutor, but as it doesnt actually form part of the pilots training plan (being used for CFS, UAS and AEF duties) it didnt detract from the career path offered.
The second segment of the display was much shorter, being Other Nations Training and represented by the Belgian Alpha Jet and Dutch PC-7. The latter was deputising for the Slovenian PC-9 which hadnt made it to Cottesmore, but was a more colourful and definitely smoky display than the 9 would have been.
Celebrating its 60th birthday was the Air Training Corps, noticeable by the number of cadets roaming the airfield, and which had a visit from HRH Princess Alexandra who is Honorary Air Commodore of RAF Cottesmore. Cottesmores Station Commander, Group Captain David Walker, was himself a cadet in his formative years and he paid tribute to the organisation in his opening speech, confirming there nearly as many cadets in the ATC as there are full-timers in the RAF! During the Lazy lunch section gliders from the RAFG&SA demonstrated what potential ATC recruits can look forward to during many weekends throughout the year.
Part three: Tributes, Tornados and T'other things