Winnie Drinkwater, pioneer pilot; born April 11, 1913, died October 6, 1996

WINNIE Drinkwater, who has died in New Zealand at the age of 83, made aviation history in 1930 by becoming the youngest aircraft pilot in the world. She was just 17 and had qualified under the instruction of Captain John Houston at the Scottish Flying School in Renfrew, but by then she had already been an air enthusiast for years. In those days she lived at Cardonald but in no time her aviation expertise turned the whole world into her home. By her 21st birthday she was not just the youngest commercial pilot in Britain but also a ground engineer.

In the early days her career was confined to giving joy rides from Prestwick beach. During one of her last interviews in the late eighties, Winnie recalled that the director of Midland and Scottish Ferries, later to become British Midland, had serious doubts that anyone would wish to be flown by a female, but he desperately needed a pilot. ``I was told that if I could make a go of it, the job was mine.'' As it happened people queued for the experience, her five shillings a flip bringing in around #100 a day. She remembered that only one young man protested about a girl being at the controls.

After 15 hours' training, at a cost of #34.10s, she flew solo in Gypsy Moth at Renfrew Aerodrome. Her father, also passionate about aviation, encouraged her to be intrepid, and she would think of everything in daily life in terms of how to land a plane: ``In my imagination I used to land my bed, and make the jam spoon do a three-point landing on the jam dish.'' Piloting twin-engined Dragons, she became the first woman pilot in the UK to fly the inaugural Glasgow to London service.

In the pioneering days of her solo flights Winnie often had to clear fields of cows before she could land, by flying low and pointing her wing tip at them. ``You got used to that sort of thing, but yes, I suppose I took a lot of chances.'' Her charter work included press assignments and newspaper deliveries to isolated corners of Scotland, including Campbeltown and Islay, as well as Belfast and the Isle of Man. Along with ambulance work on the Western Isles, her duties included making an air search for a boat full of kidnappers, and flying press photographers up and down Loch Ness in search of Nessie.

Her exploits fired the popular imagination and she received admiring letters from all over the planet, some requesting personal flying lessons, others simply addressed to Winnie Drinkwater, England, or Winnie Drinkwater, Air Ace, Scotland.

In fact, although colourful, her commercial career last only four years, ending on a romantic note. One day she was dismantling an engine, covered in grease and wearing dungarees when Francis Short, director of Short Brothers, the Belfast aircraft manufacturers, visited Renfrew Aerodrome.

He asked to be introduced to her and within four hours the director and the world's youngest aviator were engaged. A fortnight later they were married secretly in a Dumfries registry office, but when they stepped outside the streets were lined with well-wishers. That was in 1934 and the couple had two children, the late Francis Short, a businessman of Glasgow, and Ann, who lives in New Zealand.

Winnie's second marriage to Bill Orchard, a fisherman, took her to Cornwall, and when she was widowed again she returned to Scotland to live at Malin Court on the Ayrshire coast near Turnberry. She had been suffering from Parkinson's disease, and a few years ago she went to live in New Zealand to be close to her daughter. It was there at Taumarunui that she died. A person who never saw herself as breaking down male barriers, but one whose distinction certainly smoothed the flight path for the many accomplished women pilots in the skies today.