A Local Memorial to Bravery

Gabrielle Patterson In 1934

On the 16 December at a square in Bristol Avenue, Colindale a naming ceremony took place commemorating one of the many female pioneers in the world of aviation. The names of four women were considered for this with consultation with the RAF Museum and voted for by the public. These were Gabrielle Patterson, Margaret Fairweather, Mona Friedlander and Winifred Crossley Fair.

The four women who were under consideration were all part of a group of eight female pilots that were the first women to join the Air Transport Auxiliary who ferried aircraft in wartime across Britain and who signed up on the 1 January 1940. Women being allowed to join this organisation was due to the work of Pauline Gower who campaigned for women to be allowed.

These women were at first restricted and were only allowed to ferry Tiger Moths from Hatfield to storage reserves in places such as Kinloss and Lossiemouth, they then had to make their own way back home. It was not until over a year later in July 1941 that women were granted permission to transport operational aircraft. Eventually women would advance from flying single engine aircraft to four-engines.

These four women had over 5000 flying hours between them before joining so no mere novices. In their time serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary they would put this experience to good use, on average each flying 33 different types of aircraft while serving.

Of the four women it is Gabrielle Patterson who has been selected via public online vote. Gabrielle had the most flying hours before joining the ATA with 1530 hours. Her service record is full of praise for a pilot who had undoubted ability and experience. Much of Gabrielle’s experience had been gathered from her experience as a flying instructor and was a leading figure in women’s aviation being Britain’s first female instruction was a role she carried on after the war and inspired many young female pilots to follow in her stead. Her work with the ATA was at the core of her life so much so that when she died in October 1968 her ashes were later scattered from an aircraft over White Waltham airfield, the wartime home of the ATA

Left to right: Lettice Curtis, Jenny Broad, Wendy Sale Barker, Gabrielle Patterson and Pauline Gower.

The other three women who were considered are also pioneers in their field.

Winnifred Crossley Fair was like Gabrielle Patterson a highly experienced pilot before the Second World War with even more flying hours, some 1895. She was a renowned stunt pilot and when serving with the ATA was the first to fly the iconic Hurricane fighter. Her general record is full of praise for her piloting skills being described as a ‘smooth and polished pilot’.

Mona Friedlander was the youngest of the four joining at the age of 26 and had comparatively little flying experience before joining the ATA, although even this was some 556 hours. In her service Mona would fly over 30 different aircraft and like all the other members of the ATA be vital in transporting much needed aircraft around the country to where they are needed.

The life of Margaret Fairweather illustrates the dangers these women and men of the ATA faced on a daily basis. Margaret was 39 when she joined and in the 700 hours she spent ferrying aircraft she become the first woman to fly a Spitfire.

In 1938 she had met and married a fellow pilot Douglas Keith Fairweather and Douglas was one of the first to sign a contract with the British Overseas Airways Corporation for work with the ATA. He became in charge of aircraft movement flights from No. 1 ferry pool White Waltham in 1942 and Margaret joined him.

Margaret was viewed as one of the most capable pilots eventually learning to fly four-engined aircraft, she is rather nicely described in her service record as ‘an experienced and capable pilot. Consistently does good work in an unobtrusive manner’.

On 3 April 1944 Douglas volunteered to fly to Prestwick to pick up an ambulance case, somewhere over the Irish Sea in poor weather his aircraft was lost. A few days later Margaret gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth. Tragically within four months Margaret would also be killed in service when a Proctor she was piloting suffered full engine failure and it crashed into a field.

It is often thought that the life of a woman in the ATA was one full of glamour and media attention. It can be seen here that it was one of hard work, danger and bravery and the naming of this square serves as a memorial to them.

For further information on the ATA please see my previous blog here: https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/blog/posts-from-the-archive-evelyn-hudson-and-ata/


About the Author

Gary Haines: Archivist

Gary is honoured to be the archivist for RAF Museum London and part of the Archive & Library team. Gary has a lifelong interest in military history, research and writing and is published in the fields of social, cultural and military history. He enjoys telling stories that have been forgotten which can be discovered in the archives. If you hear someone going wow that will be Gary in the archives.