How long have you waited for something that you really wanted? A few weeks? Maybe a year at most? Well, how about 70 years? That’s how long one incredible woman has waited to once again do something she loves.
That woman is 93-year-old Joy Lofthouse. She’s a veteran of World War Two, and one of only a handful of female pilots who took to the skies in the conflict. And, some 70 years later, she had the chance to fly again.
But to really understand the impact of this incredible flight, we need to take a step back in time. A step back to when Joy was part of an all-female squadron that was known as the “Attagirls.”
Joy was a service pilot for the British Air Transport Auxiliary. She flew to and from the front lines, piloting 18 different aircraft over the course of the war. Essentially, if a plane needed repairing, Joy and the other female pilots would transport it to the factories.
The ATA was based in RAF Cosford in Shropshire, England and RAF Hamble in Hampshire. The 166 female pilots could fly more than 35 different aircraft between them.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that recruiting women to the Air Transport Auxiliary was the idea of another woman. Pauline Gower was the daughter of a Conservative MP, and was able to use her influence to create a women’s section of the ATA.
What’s more surprising are the conditions that the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary worked under. For starters, they had something that a lot of women are still striving for in the modern world – equal pay with the men.
In another surprising twist, Joy actually learned to fly before she learned to drive. And she told The Mirror that the war was a great opportunity for her. “Wartime gave many women something they’d never had – independence, earning your own money, being your own person.”
The war opened up a series of opportunities for Joy and her sister Yvonne that simply wouldn’t have existed without the conflict. “You have to remember that as young girls, the emphasis for us had always been on marriage and children. So being able to go into the Forces to be taught to fly was virtually undreamed of,” she told The Mirror.
But while Joy flew a number of planes during the war, there was one that held a special place in her heart. And, in a very real way, it’s the airplane that still dominates our understanding of the war in the air.
The Supermarine Spitfire was the only British plane manufactured continuously throughout the war. And while there were a larger number of Hawker Hurricanes flying in the Battle of Britain, it was the Spitfire’s success ratio against German Messerschmitts that made them an icon.
There are currently around 54 Spitfires that are still airworthy. And, for the first time since the end of the war, Joy – one of the last surviving female members of the Air Transport Auxiliary – stepped into the cockpit of one for the first time in seven decades.
And the experience Joy had of being back in the air is probably one of the most life-affirming things you’re ever likely to hear about. Joined by a co-pilot, Joy took the controls of the iconic Spitfire to relive some of the most important moments of her life.
Speaking before she got into the plane, Joy was slightly worried about the experience ahead of her. Before the flight, she told a reporter from the BBC that she was “excited,” but “aware of [her] age.”
However, when asked by the BBC about the Spitfire itself, Joy was full of praise. “It was the iconic plane,” she said. While she acknowledged the Hurricane, she called the Spitfire “the nearest thing to having wings of your own and flying that I’ve known.”
After take-off, Joy took control of the Spitfire for the first time in 70 years. And speaking on the radio to her co-pilot, she told him that it was “wonderful to be back in a Spitfire again after so long,” and that she was “so lucky to be given the chance to fly in it again.”
Soaring above the ground in a machine she hasn’t been in control of for so long, Joy said it was “hard to describe the feeling.” She then added that “it almost makes one feel young again.”
Back on the ground after her flight, Joy explained that she hadn’t spoken as much as she’d expected to. That was because when she flew the planes they had no radio – once you were in the air you were flying in total silence.
But that didn’t sully her experience. Speaking to the BBC she said that it was “lovely, it was perfect, of course.” She reiterated her comment made while flying the plane that the whole thing had made her feel “quite young.”
And so, with just six members of the “Attagirls” still alive, Joy’s story is all the more poignant. She’s a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Indeed, her return to the cockpit after so many years is truly inspiring to see.