• Bob Dack

    'This is wizard!' 100-year-old woman who flew spitfires during the Second World War celebrates her centenary by getting behind the controls again

    Mary Ellis was in a select gang of female pilots who flew during World War II

    She has now celebrated her 100th birthday by flying a plane over West Sussex

    Mrs Ellis flew next to one of the Spitfires she was in more than 70 years ago

    By Sarah Oliver For The Mail On Sunday

    PUBLISHED: 09:03 +11:00, 5 February 2017 | UPDATED: 10:00 +11:00, 5 February 2017

    Mary Ellis (pictured during her time as an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot in WW2) has celebrated her 100th birthday.

    Tearing through the skies above the South Coast, two Spitfires evoke powerful memories of Britain's wartime resilience.

    But this stirring image holds a further poignancy – for in the cockpit of the lead aircraft sits Mary Ellis, celebrating her 100th birthday by recreating her time as one of the 'Ata-girls', the select gang of female pilots who flew Britain's fighters during the war.

    And over her shoulder is one of the actual Spitfires she flew during her 1,000 flights as a First Officer with the Air Transport Auxiliary.

    'Wizard, this is wizard!' yelled the delighted centenarian through her intercom.

    Mary was handed the controls of the 275mph twin-seater as it swooped over West Sussex. After about 15 minutes, she turned for home, and told her co-pilot Matt Jones: 'Goodwood on the nose, you have control...'. Then she settled back to enjoy the ride back to base.

    Earlier, Mary watched in delight as Spitfire MV154 took its place beside her in an extraordinary airborne tribute. It was a plane she had delivered to RAF Brize Norton from Southampton on September 15, 1944, and it hides a sentimental secret. For at the end of the 25-minute wartime flight, she signed the cockpit, scrawling her maiden name Wilkins and the initials ATA.

    Mary Ellis (circled) was handed the controls of the 275mph twin-seater as it swooped over West Sussex

    She hoped her tag might be spotted by a handsome pilot and lead to a wartime romance – although the impulsive act, a career one-off, didn't bag her a boyfriend.

    Mary, originally from Oxfordshire, had her first flying lesson in 1938, and flew for pleasure until 1941 when she heard a BBC radio appeal for women pilots to join the auxiliary service and so release male pilots for combat duty.

    Speaking at a surprise birthday party on Thursday, Mary said: 'The war was a challenge and one had to do something about it. I went on and on until I flew everything. I love the Spitfire – it's my favourite aircraft, it's everyone's favourite, it's the symbol of freedom.'

    For four years she ferried warplanes from factories to frontline squadrons. The 166 women of the ATA – about one in eight of the total – have been dubbed 'The Female Few', echoing Winston Churchill's description of the RAF airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain.

    Mrs Ellis looked back over her left shoulder and glanced at the aircraft she once flew

    Mary was usually found at the joystick of a Spitfire or a Hurricane but ultimately flew more than 50 types of aircraft, logging 1,100 hours of flight, much to the astonishment of some colleagues.

    As she sat on the airfield ready to deliver her first Spitfire, the mechanic standing on the wing asked how many of them she'd flown. When she said it was her first, he was so startled he fell right off. The largest aircraft she flew solo was the Wellington bomber. After landing at an East Anglian airfield, Mary was greeted by the ground crew who asked where the pilot was. 'I'm the pilot,' she said. They insisted on searching the aircraft before they believed her.

    It was dangerous work. Mary was sometimes ordered to move combat-damaged planes that were not officially fit to fly, but had to be taken for repairs. She crash-landed twice and was shot at once.

    Mrs Ellis toasted a glass of champagne with co-pilot Matt Jones, managing director of Boultbee Flight Academy

    Fourteen of her fellow ATA female flyers lost their lives, including aviation pioneer Amy Johnson.

    Mary – who to this day needs no spectacles, nor a walking stick – was one of the last six women serving in the ATA when it disbanded after the war. She remained a private pilot and then became managing director of Sandown Airport on the Isle of Wight. She married Don Ellis, a fellow pilot, in 1961, but was widowed in 2009. Matt Jones, who flies Spitfires for Goodwood-based Boultbee Flight Academy, reunited Mary with MV154 after first meeting her in 2015. He conspired with the plane's current owner, pilot Maxi Gainza, to bring it to the UK from its base in Bremgarten, Germany.

    He said: 'I gave Mary control of our Spitfire. I wasn't sure where we were but Mary was very clear. She pointed us towards Thorney Island, up through the Witterings, flew on to Selsey Bill and then Bognor Regis, never losing a foot of altitude.

    'She showed me precisely how she was able to deliver all those aircraft with just a map, a compass and a stopwatch. I was utterly humbled by a superior aviator who also happens to be 60 years my senior!'
  • Krystyna
    What a remarkable and feisty woman.Happy 100 BD Mrs.Ellis!Great story Bob,thank you for sharing.
  • godseeconomy
    Spritely woman alright! How awesome! Happy birthday to Mrs Ellis. What a milestone. What a joy it must have been for her when the flight was arranged.
  • Bob Dack
    Truly Eh,if we could all have that exciting a life!
  • frances turkel
    [Bob Dack; WOW...100 yrs young....My Great Grandmother lived to be 101 yrs old I still mis her after all these yrs.
  • Admin
    Thats incredible inspiring story, thanks for sharing.. Its good to see such an interesting post it feed our knowledge carving and also boost our morale, its never too late to follow your dream and passion, she has truly proved ageing is just an number. THanks (L) (Y)
  • minlun
    An incredible feat at such age,HATS-OFF to her. She fits the Guiness world records acknowledgement.
  • bigdayqueen
    What an inspiration!
  • Bob Dack

    What a life,I wonder what she did after that everything else must have seemed boring?
  • Admin
    True, hats-off to such an explorer and daring lady... while dying she can easily and happily mutter, ""oh what a life i had, i lived it all ways"
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