Royal International Air Tattoo

PUBLISHED: 09:48 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Amy Johnson who flew to fame and into the history of aviation as the first woman to fly solo to Australia

Amy Johnson who flew to fame and into the history of aviation as the first woman to fly solo to Australia

Some might have thought 'Women, know your place!', but for the brave few, that place was flying a Spitfire....

This month's Royal International Air Tattoo will, literally, start off with flying colours when the Queen visits RAF Fairford on July 11 - the eve of the world's largest military air show - to present the new Queen's Colours to the Royal Air Force in the UK and the Royal Air Force Regiment at a private ceremony - a right royal tribute marking the 90th Anniversary of the RAF. Some 5,000 invited guests, representing serving personnel of the RAF, its associations and charities, will have the privilege of attending this memorable event which will start with a royal salute and fly-past by four Typhoons before the colours are paraded and presented. As the RAF Project Officer for the Queen's Colours presentation event is quoted as saying, the Queen's Colours represents the link to the direct and hugely important current operations and 'during this RAF 90th Anniversary year, we're reflecting on the sacrifices and achievements of RAF personnel - past and present - while looking to the future'.

Over the following two days some 160,000 visitors from all over the globe will have a full display of the development of the RAF, from its humble beginnings in 1918 to one of the most potent fighting forces in the world, as the Air Tattoo charts its history as part of the official celebrations. A Spitfire from the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will display alongside other legendary aircraft from the period including a Lancaster bomber, a DC-3 Dakota and a Hurricane. Richard Arquati, Air Tattoo spokesman said: 'As exciting as all the modern fast jets and heavy bombers are when they demonstrate their 21st century capabilities at Fairford, there is something quite unique about the sight and smell of the Spitfire. To celebrate the RAF's 90th anniversary without a Spitfire would be like marking the first lunar landing without mentioning Neil Armstrong. It would be ludicrous. That we shall have at least three Spitfires taking part in our celebration is a great coup.'

The Spitfire, with its distinctive shape and sound, still stirs the heart of all those who lived through the World War II days, and even a younger generation who feel the surge of pride as they relive them vicariously through old wartime movies. And it is still a head-turner as it soars across the sky at the air shows. Joy Lofthouse, who lives in the Cotswolds, said: 'The Spitfire was the pilots' favourite. You felt part of the aeroplane. It was the nearest thing to really flying. It was the perfect lady's aeroplane, as many of us said: you just felt as though you were wearing it. I remarked as much to Reginald Mitchell's son recently that his father must have designed it specifically for the ladies - to the contrary, he thought his father would never have envisaged the day that women would become pilots to take on such an important role as we in the ATA did.'

Joy Lofthouse was one of the youngest of those who were taught to fly on being recruited to the Air Transport Auxiliary; the majority of those who served in what was in effect an aircraft ferry service were pre-war fliers - the largest contingent being a whole bevy of 'ridiculously brave' elite beauties drawn from five continents to join the British high-flyers to deliver combat aeroplanes from the factories to the operational airfields. 'We were the trailblazers. We were the first women to touch service aircraft,' said Joy Lofthouse. Combat pilots were needed in combat and the initial idea of forming the ATA, whose members were dubbed the Ancient and Tattered Airmen, because to be eligible to serve one had to be ineligible for the RAF but still able to fly and be entrusted with brand new, expensive and valuable aircraft ready for action in the war zone. Far from being ancient or tattered, the ATA became a glamorous elite force in a stunning gold-trimmed navy-blue uniform epitomising daring and dynamism to the general public, guaranteed to turn heads and be greeted by shy smiles of admiration.

Proving beyond a great degree of male prejudice that the young women were as brave and brainy as they were beautiful, was the initial battle they won over the first couple of years of the war. The editor of Aeroplane magazine gave vent to his chauvinistic views in his spiteful report. The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when really she has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and yet can't cook her husband's dinner. A number of the ATA might agree that he was right about the dinner - totally wrong about the menace as history records their unique heroism and contribution to the war effort. Unlike combat pilots, the ferry pilots flew without radios, instrument training or weapons in aircraft that were still targets for any Luftwaffe pilot who saw them. Sometimes they were mistaken for enemy aircraft by bored or bleary-eyed ack-ack units and were required to fly in all but extremely atrocious conditions. They also had to fly badly damaged planes to maintenance units for repair or to be broken up, and were expected to fly a new type of aircraft with no notice or training period to familiarise themselves with its peculiar settings - a mere twenty minutes alone in the cockpit with the official Ferry Pilot's Notes that tucked into a breast pocket was their only guidance.

To put the dedication, consummate skill and immeasurable courage of the ATA into perspective they moved more planes each day in mid-1942 at the peak of British aircraft production than British Airways did on a typical day in 2006. In all, the ATA delivered 308,567 aircraft, of which 57,286 were the much loved Spitfires. Ironically, the legendary Amy Johnson, who had lived at Stoke Orchard to the north of Cheltenham before the war, never flew a Spitfire but has gone down in history as the inspiration for wealthy and spirited young women to follow her into the air, and took her celebrity status with her as she joined the ATA. The tragedy and, many sources say, the mystery of her death robbed her of the chance to experience flying 'the perfect lady's aeroplane' to become one of the fifteen women and 158 men who lost their lives in the service of the ATA.

Amy Johnson's story has been told and re-told many times and the film, They Flew Alone, was a dedication to her 'and all the Amy Johnsons' when it was released halfway through the war years. Most of the heroes and heroines of the service shunned publicity and considered that they 'only did their bit'. Now, more than a dozen survivors of this exclusive force have been tracked down by Giles Whittell, for their stories to illustrate just what it meant to be one of the Spitfire Women of World War II. 'At last these magnificent women have the tribute they deserve', Sir Ranulph Fiennes wrote in endorsement of the book.

There are still others whose stories have yet to be told, of course, and the wheels of official recognition turn exceedingly slowly - but, at long last, more than sixty years after earning her wings and flying for King and country, Joy Lofthouse will be leaving her Cotswold home some time this month to receive a commemorative badge, which will be awarded to all who survived the ATA service - around 100 women and men pilots and ground staff. A fitting tribute to the unsung heroes of our aerial heritage in the RAF's 90th anniversary year

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