Imagine being asked to fly an open-cockpit aeroplane, totally exposed to all the elements, for four hours to Scotland in winter in minus thirty degrees wind-chill. I don’t know that I would survive such a trip. But the female pilots in The Paris Secret survived thousands of flights just like that, as well as many other, even more dangerous, activities.
The Air Transport Auxiliary During WWII
Skye Penrose is one of the main characters in The Paris Secret. She’s a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary, a wartime organisation whose pilots transported RAF planes from factories and maintenance units to RAF bases. She’s a fictional creation but much of what she does in the book is based on fact. And the fact was: the ATA women risked their lives for their jobs.
They flew planes using only a compass and following railway tracks to guide them to their destination. That was all. They had no navigation instruments, no radio to call in if they lost their way or if their plane experienced mechanical problems.
Because they needed to follow railway tracks, they had to stay in sight of the ground and were told only to fly if the cloud base was eight hundred feet or higher. But is English weather predictable? No.
So many of these courageous female pilots set out on what appeared to be a fine day. Then the weather changed en-route and they would be stuck in the midst of a thick layer of clouds with no way of knowing where they were. They died crashing into hills they couldn’t see. Or they died as they flew on, hoping for the cloud to clear, but eventually running out of fuel and falling into the sea. Sometimes, they were even shot at by the Luftwaffe.
More Danger …
And, returning to those sub-zero flights to Scotland for a minute: when the women landed in Scotland, their bodies were so frozen they couldn’t get out of the plane. They had to be lifted out by male engineers, which was mortifying. The RAF tried to use it as evidence that the women couldn’t do the job, despite fact that no one, not even a man, could stand up after enduring such a flight and in such conditions. But the ATA women kept going, flying 2,000 planes to Scotland over one long, cold winter.
Enjoy the Video!
I loved writing about aviatrix Skye in The Paris Secret, and honouring the courage of the ATA women. I was very lucky to be able to visit the National Archives in Kew, where all of the papers to do with the ATA are kept, in order to find out more. In this video you can see photos from that research, and find out more about the female pilots in The Paris Secret. Happy watching!