In the spring of 1944, when the Allied forces were preparing for the invasion of Normandy, the job of transporting aircraft to strategic spots along the south coast of England fell to members of a little-known civilian group called the Air Transport Auxiliary. Many of the planes, which would provide vital air support on D-Day, were flown by women such as Violet Milstead Warren, then a 24-year-old Canadian with unshakeable confidence at the controls.
She was a petite woman, at just over five feet tall, and male pilots would mock-faint when they saw her climb out of the cockpit while delivering planes. None of the Allied air forces had female pilots at the time.
“For women to fly military aircraft was extremely revolutionary,” Joyce Spring, an expert on female aviators, said in the CBC Television documentary Women of WWII: Spitfires in the rhododendrons. The women who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary blazed a trail, doing what no women had done before, Ms. Spring said.
Getting the planes from British factories to the squadrons often meant navigating through unfamiliar terrain or bad weather while watching for barrage balloons or enemy aircraft incursions. After landing each Spitfire during the D-Day buildup, Ms. Warren recalled in the documentary, she had to conceal the aircraft, sometimes in an orchard, among a grove of trees, or under some rhododendrons, until it was needed.
A huge responsibility rested on her slender shoulders and she carried it with aplomb, eventually earning a slew of honours, including the Amelia Earhart medal, the Rusty Blakey Award and induction into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. She was named to the Order of Canada in 2004.
To celebrate her 85th birthday, her friend and biographer Marilyn Dickson took her out for a plane ride. The octogenarian confidently took control and did most of the flying. Ms. Warren was 94 when she died on June 27 at her home in Colborne, Ont.
Her passion for flying had begun seven decades earlier when a novice pilot buzzed the field one day while she was in the stands watching a high-school football game in Toronto. The sight of that plane gave her a rush that she never forgot. She decided then that she would fly. Her meticulous logbooks chronicle a life in flight that saw her progress from studying aviation as a teenager to ferrying fighter planes during the war to navigating through the bush of Northern Ontario (the first woman to do so, by most accounts) to teaching journalist June Callwood and scores of others how to pilot an aircraft.
“I felt alive in a way I had never before imagined,” she told Shirley Render, author of No Place For a Lady: The Story of Canadian Women Pilots 1928-1992. “Flying, as a vocation, is in a class by itself. It is the very greatest. It affords satisfactions – intangible ones – available in no other line of work and, after the hangar doors are closed, fellowships of the finest and most enduring kind.”
Violet Milstead was born to Harold and Edith Milstead on Oct. 17, 1919, and grew up in Toronto. Her father was a carpenter and to help make ends meet during the Depression, her mother opened a wool shop at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue. She pulled 15-year-old Vi out of school, against the girl’s wishes, to help in the store, Ms. Dickson says. Once Vi had caught the flying bug, the wool shop became a way to save up money for flying lessons while she took night classes in flight theory, navigation and meteorology. She took her first flying lesson on Sept. 4, 1939, and had her pilot’s licence before Christmas. Her commercial licence followed in the spring. When she received her instructor’s rating in July, 1941, she was one of only five Canadian women to do so before the end of the war.
She taught flying for a time, but as the war heated up, gas rationing put an end to civilian flight in November, 1942, so when Ms. Warren heard of the Air Transport Auxiliary, she and her friend and fellow pilot Marion Orr signed up and sailed to England in the spring of 1943. Only two other Canadian women were admitted to the elite organization. The ATA’s contingent of pilots – totalling 166 women and 1,152 men – consisted of those who were ineligible for military service because they were disabled, too old or female.
Required to fly a variety of different aircraft, the pilots often had to consult a manual before takeoff to figure out how to use the cockpit controls, which could vary widely from one model to the next. During her service with the ATA, Ms. Warren logged 600 hours while flying 47 types of planes, themselves divided in 74 different marks. Sometimes, she had to perch on a parachute sack or her black leather overnight bag just to see the controls.
“Vi was an inspiration to any young woman because of her ability to fit into a male world and retain a sort of femininity,” said novelist Jane Urquhart, a neighbour and distant relation of Ms. Warren. “She never paused for a moment to think that she couldn’t do it.”
Despite the obstacles she overcame, or perhaps because of them, Ms. Warren often said that wartime was the highlight of her life. “They were thrilling, nerve-tingling days,” she said in Ms. Render’s book.
She would often share stories about her wartime experiences, and particularly the challenge of navigating visually, using landmarks. “They would have to follow rivers or fences,” Ms. Urquhart said. “She said once that she followed Hadrian’s Wall getting from Point A to Point B. I found that kind of flying by sight and her recalling of it to be almost literary in a way, and of course that appealed to me enormously.”
She was discharged in the fall of 1945 and returned to Canada, finding a job as a flight instructor with Leavens Brothers Air Services at Toronto’s Barker Field, where she had learned to fly. One of her students there was Ms. Callwood, who profiled her in a magazine, calling her, “Canada’s most competent female airline pilot,” and asserting that “she would rather fly than eat, drink or be married.”
The young flight instructor changed her mind about that final point, however, when she met Arnold Warren, a fellow pilot and co-worker, and the two set off on a life together.
After a couple of years at Barker’s Field, they left to take jobs in Sudbury with Nickel Belt Airways. Doing a mix of instructing and charters, Ms. Warren would fly planes on floats in summer and on skis in winter, according to The Sky’s the Limit: Canadian Women Bush Pilots, a book by Ms. Spring.
She was happy flying deep into the bush, although navigating there was difficult, as she had become accustomed to flying over built-up areas and no longer had structures such as Hadrian’s Wall to help her. Although there are competing claims as to who was Canada’s first female bush pilot, both Ms. Spring and Ms. Dickson insist that Ms. Warren was the first.
When Nickel Belt Airways fell on hard times, the couple were forced to find work elsewhere, first at a flying club in Windsor, then in Indonesia, where Mr. Warren was an aviation instructor. Although Ms. Warren was allowed to fly there, she couldn’t get work teaching. The couple returned to Canada after his two-year contract was finished. They found various jobs, including a stint at Orenda Engines, at the Avro Arrow plant, until the aircraft program was cancelled. They retired in 1973, settling first in the Magdalen Islands and later in Colborne, Ont.
Ms. Warren continued living with her dog in her beloved log home by Lake Ontario after her husband died in June, 2000. The house was situated so that she could see the horizon where the lake meets the sky, Ms. Dickson said in her eulogy.
Outside the window was an elaborate bird feeder, recalled Ms. Urquhart, who has a cottage near the Warrens’ house. “I asked her once, ‘Vi, what is it about birds?’ and she looked at me like I had the IQ of a fencepost and said, ‘They fly.’”
Ms. Warren leaves several nieces and nephews, her late husband’s three daughters and many close friends and neighbours.
“I seem to be blessed with a temperament,” she once told Ms. Render, “which has enabled me to delight in the challenges of flight, to love its freedom, its self-sufficiency, its splendid loneliness, to marvel at the awesome beauty of skyscapes, to pity the earthbound.”
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