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Lettice Curtis

Pilot.

Born: February 1, 1915; Died: July 21, 2014.

Lettice Curtis, who has died aged 99, was a pioneering pilot and one of the so-called Spitfire Girls who delivered planes during the Second World War to airfields across the country. She frequently delivered aircraft to RAF Prestwick, which become a major military airfield on the outbreak of war.

She served with Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and had the distinction of being the first woman to qualify to fly a four-engine bomber. She had obtained her pilot's licence in 1938 but two years later was asked to join the women's pool of pilots to transport aircraft.

Modestly, she considered it just a job. She recalled after the war: "You didn't stop and think whether it was daunting. It was just flying. I loved flying and wanted to continue. If you did badly, you would be terrified or thrown out. It was only one job in the war. People were doing all sorts of things."

Eleanor Lettice Curtis was brought up in Devon and attended Benenden School in Kent, where she excelled at sport. She then read maths at St Hilda's College, Oxford, gaining Blues for tennis, fencing and lacrosse.

She qualified as a commercial pilot in 1938 and was working for Ordnance Survey when, in June 1940, she was approached by the ATA (some in the RAF suggested the initials stood for Ancient and Tattered Airmen).

There was a desperate need for more pilots to ferry aircraft between factories, assembly plants, scrapyards and active service squadrons.

Ms Curtis often had to fly under the most demanding conditions: at dangerously low levels with minimum navigational aids - and no radio contact. She had to read a map while flying and look down at the ground over which she was flying to study the terrain and thus gain her bearings.

Ms Curtis frequently delivered aircraft to RAF Prestwick, which had developed rapidly both as an assembly plant and as an airfield to handle the huge volume of American planes. Another vital factor at Prestwick was that it dealt with the new planes flown in by Ms Curtis and her colleagues that were then used to train pilots.

On some days up to 300 aircraft arrived at Prestwick for onward delivery or servicing. The original factory was expanded in 1941 with the addition of the Palace Of Engineering built in Bellahouston Park for the 1938 Empire Exhibition. It had been taken down and rebuilt at Prestwick and the Art Deco building survives to this day.

Ms Curtis' workrate was phenomenal. She flew 13 days on, two days off, for 62 consecutive months from July 1940 to September 1945. In all weathers, she delivered Blenheims, Spitfires, Tiger Moths and numerous other planes.

The heavy-to-manipulate Wellington bombers presented Ms Curtis with a major challenge. She recalled: "Before flying the Wellington, it was simply a question of reading the pilot's notes."

In 1942 Ms Curtis was sent to an RAF bomber airfield where she was trained to fly the Halifax and that year she met the wife of the American President Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited the airfield accompanied by Mrs Clementine Churchill.

The weather was appalling and Ms Curtis stood under the wing of a Halifax in the pouring rain and was introduced as the first woman to fly a four-engine bomber. The next day the three ladies were in all the papers with one banner headline reading: "Mrs Roosevelt meets Halifax girl pilot".

In all, it is thought Ms Curtis flew more than 90 different aircraft during her time with ATA. So many planes were coming from the factories that had to be got to the pilots as soon as possible. The Spitfire Girls, as they came to be known, were an extremely brave group of women doing a crucial job.

When the ATA was disbanded in 1945, Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister For Production said: "Without the ATA the Battle Of Britain would have been quite different. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront."

After the war, Ms Curtis joined the civil aviation ministry and applied to be a Government test pilot (listed on the schedules as EL Curtis Esq.) and was given the job as a flight-test observer. She worked on testing tropical aircraft, intercontinental missions and co-piloting a Lincoln bomber to the missile-testing station in Woomera, Australia.

From 1953 into the 1960s she was employed, briefly, by Folland and then Fairey Aviation before joining the Civil Aviation Authority, where she stayed until 1976.

She wrote her autobiography, Lettice Curtis, in 2004. Ms Curtis never married and was a popular after-dinner speaker at RAF stations and was a patron of the Yorkshire Air Museum. She is thought to be the last of the Spitfire Girls.

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