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!
Spitfire 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.
During 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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!
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.
*Facts and figures thanks to Wikipedia and the diligent research of the aforementioned playwrights.