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Playing Herstory: Spitfire Sisters

At the beginning of September, I performed in a rehearsed reading for a new play about a verrrrrrry interesting subject: female ATA pilots in WWII. What’s the ATA, you ask? Wait a minute, there were women flying planes in WWII, you ask?!?! Indeed, it is an intriguing piece of history that definitely deserves more attention… so get ready for some herstory!

ATA PilotsSpitfire Sisters is a fantastic play currently being developed by three Oxford based playwrights named Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort, and Heather Dunmore. I won’t tell you too much about the play itself as it is in the process of being rewritten, but I think the playwrights’ synopsis below provides a good introduction to the topic:

 

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a British civilian organisation set up during WWII to ferry repaired, as well as new, military aircraft between factories and active service squadrons and airfields. Many of the ATA’s pilots were women and, from 1942, they included female American pilots. They flew over 150 different types of aircraft. In 1943, these women finally gained equal pay to that of their male counterparts, a first for Britain. Based loosely on real events, Spitfire Sisters depicts their loves, their worries, their humour . . . and their support for one another – as well as the clash of two very different cultures coming together to fight the war as allies.

It blows my mind a little bit to think about these women pilots in 1940s. To even be able to voice that you wanted to learn to fly, wanted to get into that ‘hobby’ in the first place, must have taken a special kind of woman with a certain level of ferocity. Most (but not all) of the pilots came from monied backgrounds, as learning to fly would have been an expensive endeavour. And what a contrast it must have been to transition from the society pages to the cockpit. At one point or another, all of the characters in Spitfire describe the agency, purpose, and freedom they felt flying had given them.

Spitfire SistersDuring the ATA’s active years between 1940 – 1945, there were 168 female pilots.* The rest of the pilots were men who had been deemed unfit for the RAF due to disability or age. Originally, the women were only allowed to fly Tiger Moths… but eventually they ended up handling all types of aircrafts used by the RAF. The play touches on the fact that these pilots were not permitted (or even taught how!) to use the instruments in the planes they were flying, as the mechanisms were viewed as too complex for the female mind. Instead, they were given compasses for all their navigational needs! Fifteen of the ATA women lost their lives in service.

 

Tiger Moth Plane
Tiger Moth

 

Incredibly, these women eventually attained the right to the same pay as their male counterparts of equal rank in 1943. Our characters learn of this particular victory in the final scene of the play, and I think that moment on stage proved to be very emotionally charged for all of the actors involved.

While these ATA pilots came from several different countries around the world, Spitfire Sisters focusses on the culture clash between the British and American pilots. Obviously, I played one of the two American pilots. My character was based on a woman named Cornelia Fort. This incredible woman survived Pearl Harbor–and indeed was the first American pilot to witness the arrival of the Japanese. She was conducting a civilian training flight during the bombing and had to make an emergency landing amidst the chaos.

Fort_License338
I clearly was not cast for my physical resemblance.

While it does not appear that Cornelia went to England to join the ATA in real life, she did work for the American version, known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Tragically, she became the first female American pilot to die in active duty in 1943 at the age of 24.

Cornelia Fort ClippingThe other American pilot in the play was based on the (more) famous and formidable Jacqueline Cochran. ‘Jackie’ was a ball-busting southern woman who grew up in (disputed) poverty in Florida and went on to marry one of the 10 richest men in world at the time, Floyd Bostwick Odlum. Unlike Cornelia, Jackie did work for the ATA in real life, recruiting fellow American pilots for the program and becoming the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. Jackie wrote a proposal to Eleanor Roosevelt to head up an American equivalent of the ATA… and hence the WASPs took form and function in the US. Jackie sounds like quite the woman, and I would be interested in doing some further reading about her.

Jackie Cochran
Jackie killin it!

Speaking of reading, another character featured in the play is based on the British heiress Diana Barnato Walker who wrote a book about her experiences titled Spreading My Wings. I haven’t read this epistle yet myself, but it looks most enlightening for anyone who has further interest in the topic!

Diana Barnato Walker
Diana spreading her wings.

All in all, I think it is a fantastic play about a fascinating subject, and I feel really honoured to have had the chance to play one of these incredible women. I am humbled and astonished by their bravery.  I really hope I have a future opportunity to work again on this really importance piece of theatre.

41474513_727080640976270_4811103342845493248_n
Bringing these women back to life (photo thanks to Maria Cole/her husband).

xWeekes

*Facts and figures thanks to Wikipedia and the diligent research of the aforementioned playwrights.

14 thoughts on “Playing Herstory: Spitfire Sisters Leave a comment

  1. Extremely interesting! Thanks for this, Ali! I would love to see the play. Let me know if you read that book and if you think I would like….if I can find it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I wonder if Amazon carries it in the states?? I will let you know. Wish you could see the play too! Maybe some day when it makes it to the West End and they revive the original cast 😉

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    • I know, I feel so lucky! I don’t think I’d ever be brave enough to do such a thing in real life… truly heroes. I really love reading about wartime women who are so willing to step into roles and do everything they can to help. It’s so interesting how awful situations like that lead to moments of equality… like they finally realise that they need us and have to admit it! Anyway, thanks for stopping by and reading!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • But of course! And yes, it’s a shame that it took a world war to open those doors, but we’re probably still reaping the benefits of what these brave women did. Hope there are many more inspiring roles a-comin’ your way soon!

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    • I knew a bit about the UK side before I started the project, but it was interesting reading about it taking shape in the US as well. And the culture clash between the Americans and the Brits was very close to home! Thanks so much for reading, Frank 🙂

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  2. What the–? You lost nearly 10% of your crew because you thought they were too dumb to understand the controls!? Who are the dumb ones?! This is timely since Mr Husband and I just went to an aviation museum and I was the one climbing into all the simulations. I guess that’s as far as I’m going to get toward my pilot’s license, but yay you for this post and your showing off these feisty ladies!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha the way I wrote that is a little misleading — I’m not sure that ALL the deaths were due to not being about to use the instruments (which became even more imperative in inclement weather!) but it was probably a big factor. Idiots. Oooohhhh I’d love to climb into one of those simulations (if not terrifying)! I mean, I feel unwieldy driving a huge SUV (well, and a normal sized bicycle, if I’m honest)… I cannot imagine handling a plane. Good thing I’m just an actor! Thanks for reading, Tammie!

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      • Hell, I can barely drive our Prius because I’m constantly complaining about how huge it is (my previous car was a VW Beetle). Yeah, you’re right, they probably didn’t ALL die due to poor training because you know what, a woman would look at that control panel and figure it out. Or just do that thing where they tap on the glass cover of the dials with their fingertips like they do in all the movies. That works, right? That’s how you fly, just tap the little dial thingies. Okay, probably good I didn’t learn to fly.

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