British Columbia

'You just lived for the moment': Meet one of the last surviving female pilots who served in Second World War

Now just a few months shy of her 100th birthday, Jaye Edwards of North Vancouver is one of the last surviving members of the famed "Attagirls," a group of 168 women who flew war planes from factories to the front lines during the Second World War.

B.C.'s Jaye Edwards is 1 of 3 women still alive who flew Spitfires and bombers during the war

Jaye Edwards holds one of her several medals received after she served Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the 1940s. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

When Jaye Edwards takes a moment to reflect on her service during the Second World War, the first thing that comes to mind is a clear sky.

"All the beautiful blue sky, nothing but blue sky," Edwards said, with a nostalgic sigh. "Maybe there was the odd little white puff."

"You never really thought about the past — you just lived for the moment," she recounted.

Edwards served as a pilot during the war. She flew more than 20 different types of planes — from Spitfires to bombers — and took flight hundreds of times.

Now just a few months shy of her 100th birthday, she's one of the last surviving members of the famed "Attagirls," a group of just over 160 women who flew war planes from factories to the front lines.

Edwards, pictured here at 23 years old, received her pilots licence on the day after the Second World War was declared in 1939. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

A humble beginning

Born on the outskirts of London, U.K., Edwards found herself fascinated by small planes that would take residents for joyrides over long grass fields and farmlands.

When she was in her early 20s, she made good on a childhood dream to become a pilot by enrolling in the National Women's Air Reserve — a small flight school that would convene on Sundays.

Five hundred training hours later, she was certified. Then, the war machine took over.

"It was in '39 when I got my licence. It arrived the day after war was declared," she said.

The first delivery by the female ATA pilots during the war on Jan. 10, 1940. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Trained to fly anything

Women weren't allowed to fly planes for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. For the first few years of the war, Edwards was employed as a child-care worker, then as a nurse.

Meanwhile, the war machine was grappling with a desperate need for pilots. The British government enlisted the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) — a group of civilian pilots that were deemed either too old or physically unfit to serve in the RAF — to ferry planes from factories and airports to military outposts.

We were trained to fly not just one type of single engine [plane] — but any type of single engine planes.- Jaye Edwards, ATA pilot

To keep up with demand, the group began recruiting female pilots from across the world. In 1943, Edwards received the call. She became one of 168 women that would fly with the ATA. The group employed 1,320 pilots.

"The difference between our training and RAF training is that we were trained to fly not just one type of single engine [plane] — but any type of single engine planes," said Edwards.

Female pilots pictured at the ATA's No. 5 Ferry Pilots Pool Women's Section based at Hatfield in Berkshire, England. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The amazing 'Attagirls' 

The women became known across the globe as the Attagirls. Edwards said the team would often learn how to fly more planes than many RAF pilots would learn in their entire career.

The ATA pilots could learn a new aircraft in a matter of days, often flying through storms and without the use of radio communications.

"The [RAF] pilots would be amazed," said Jerry Vernon, an aviation historian and president of the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

"This new bomber would fly in — a big four-engine bomber — and a single pilot would get out: a five-foot [tall] woman would be flying it, and [the men would] be amazed."

A veteran's badge awarded by the British government is one of numerous medallions on display in Edwards's North Vancouver home. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

One last flight

When the war ended, so too did the demand for pilots. Edwards said there were few jobs for female pilots, so she moved on, eventually making her way to British Columbia, where she became a teacher and raised a family..

She has only flown a plane once since the war days. She was in her early 80s, riding passenger in a small plane flying over White Rock, B.C.

For just a few moments, the pilot let her take control.

"We just did a very gentle turn … and I thought, 'I haven't forgotten,'" she said. "It gave me great satisfaction."

Jaye Edwards gazes out the window of her retirement home, towards a blue sky. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

3 remaining female pilots

Today, Edwards is one of three remaining female ATA pilots, alongside Eleanor Wadsworth of the United Kingdom and Nancy Stratford of the United States, according to the ATA Association.

Fellow pilot Mary Ellis, 101, died in July.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Hernandez

Video Journalist

Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter:

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