Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2964: LETTICE CURTIS:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, meet Lettice Curtis. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lettice Curtis was just one of a whole group of British WW-II heroes. We choose her, simply as an exemplar. She was born in Devon, in 1915; but was a very 21st-century woman. She studied math at Oxford. She also captained the women's tennis and fencing teams there. She took up flying in 1937 and did aerial ordnance survey work for two years. Then war:

Curtis was among the first women to join the Air Transport Auxiliary - the ATA. We read volumes about combat pilots. But each of their planes had to be shipped from plants or depots, then moved about to be armed, modified, repaired. The ATA moved a third of a million airplanes - 130 different types - around the country, or flew them in from outside - all while England was under attack.


Five ATA flyers, left to right: Lettice Curtis, Jenny Broad, Audrey Sale-Barker, Gabrielle Patterson, and Pauline Gower. (Image courtesy of the Royal Air Force Museum)

Combat pilots died faster than they could be replaced. They were too precious to be diverted into such work. But ATA flying was also dangerous. Almost ten percent of those women died in action.

Just think: A combat pilot knew one airplane intimately. ATA pilots carried a ring binder with instructions for each of a 130 different airplanes. Curtis began by flying primary trainers to training airfields, then basic trainers, then fighters. She was the first woman finally cleared to fly four-engine bombers.

These women (as well as older, often disabled, men) climbed into cockpits with their ring binder. They'd run down the list, pressing the right levers for that model, and take off - often in dangerous weather. They logged nearly a half million hours.

I'll post videos of interviews with these women in their late years. One woman comments on the one time she flew a B-24, Liberator. Can you imagine flying that four-engine bomber just once, with no training?

B-24 Liberator in British Service
A B-24 Liberator in British service during WW-II (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

So what became of these women later? Well, back to Lettice Curtis. She went on to work as a flight-test observer, then flew for Fairey Aviation, and finally the Civil Aviation Authority. She retired in 1976. Soon after the War she'd set a speed record flying a souped-up Spitfire.

And she kept on flying. She qualified to fly helicopters in 1992, and gave up flying only at the age of eighty. My awareness of Curtis, and of the ATA, came about with her death and obituary in 2014. She was 99 years of age.

At first people ridiculed the ATA, saying it meant Ancient and Tattered Airmen. Then women joined, and they claimed it meant Always Terrified Airwomen. But that didn't last long. Soon Britain set a stunning precedent for those times by making men's and women's ATA pay the same. Now we look back at those times, when Great Britain wondered how she could possibly survive the NAZI onslaught. And I, for one, can only marvel at how much those unlikely fliers did to make that survival possible.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Click here for the British Air Transport Auxiliary website.

My thanks to listener Robert Wells for calling my attention to Lettice Curtis's obituaries. This from the Telegraph. And another from the Guardian.

For a video of Curtis setting the record in a Spitfire, see: Click here.

See these three videos for a detailed account of the ATA activity during WW-II.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAB5goCmg1o
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTTSoB8PrbI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdgeXq2HHMw

This episode was first aired on August 8, 2014

Note added Nov. 2, 2016: Today, listener Robert Wells provided this obituary. It helps to give us a better picture of these women and their work: Molly Rose: Spitfire Pilot Obituary.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2014 by John H. Lienhard.