I finished reading ‘Spitfire Women of World War II’, by Giles Whittell a few days ago, which tells the story of how women came to be part of the Air Transpot Auxilary. Taken from interviews with female pilots, there are many accounts of their experiences of flying, and the role the weather played in their safety and the risks they faced. The book begins with an account of the pilot Betty Keith-Jopp being overcome by cloud and in the process of turning back, landing on water and narrowly escaping, and there are many other accounts throughout the book of pilots being stuck above cloud with no way of knowing how low it came down, or exactly where they were, including the weather conditions and other flights that went ahead on the day that Amy Johnson died.
There are also comments of the embodied experience of flying: (p141) ‘It changes your perspective of the world, once you see it from the air. This was the sensation that interested me: a wonderful feeling of expansion.’ (Roberta Sandoz in an interview with Whittell).
And this account of the calculations that went into navigation, with no radio and only instruments to fly by. In returning from the first international flight made by a woman in the ATA, in 1944, Diana Barnato got stuck above cloud.
“When asked much later whether at any point on this flight she had felt completely lost, Diana said airily that if things had got that bad all she would have had to do was fly up the North Sea and turn left.
It did not seem so simple at the time. The first decision was easy enough: she could not turn back. The chances of overshooting Evere and ending up behind German lines were too great. Then there was the choice of continuing on a compass course that might or might not deliver her to RAF Northolt depending on wind and visibility over north London; or going as low as she dared and nosing around until she recognised something from her map. She chose to descend and eventually saw the hills of St Omer rising to meet her. Soon afterwards she crossed what she hoped was the French coast south of Gris Nez. If it was, seven and a half minutes on a course of 295 degrees should put her over Dungeness. She adjusted her course and began counting down. But the Channel was covered in sea fog thicker than anything so far, right down to the water. She climbed to 4,000 feet to get over it, and started finding distractions – another aircraft, which she dived to follow hoping it might be Derek’s, only to find it was a Dakota flying in the opposite direction; a change from white fog to yellow fog beneath her (did that mean land?); a gap in the yellow fog just where Dungeness should have been (if she had managed to get back on the right course and allow for the right number of lost seconds after chasing the Dakota).
She stood the Spitfire on its wingtip to peer through the gap. No land. Now her brain began rewinding involuntarily to what she thought had been the French coast. If that had been east of the Cap, not south – Belgium, not France- she might already be over the North Sea rather than the English Channel, with no hope of a landfall unless she turned west. But if it ahd been where she thought it was and she turned west too soon, she’d fly straight down the Channel and run out of fule somewhere over Cornwall. With one half of her mind racing, the other half hammered out a practicable compromise. After twenty-two minutes flying north-west with no sight of land she reasoned that she must have crossed hte Frnch coast further south than she thought, putting her over the Channel now rather than the North Sea. She dived to 200 feet and turned right, skimming over the water on a bearing of ten degrees. “Suddenly there was a little sheen of light ahead, a line of white in the yellow. I peered at it anxiously; and yes, it was something. Land at last? The White Cliffs of Dover, perhaps? I flew on. It was not the White Cliffs of Dover, but an east to west line of lovely sandy beach. There, right behind it, looming up beside me with a rusty grin, was the huge gasometer at Bognor.” Diana was 100 miles west of where she’d meant to be, but no longer lost. “