The first time I fell in love, I was flying a plane. And no, I didn’t fall for a handsome passenger or get swept away by the pink cotton candy clouds blanketing the sky. The truth is, I fell in love with flying itself.
Up there in that endless expanse of atmosphere, the weight of life just vanished and I was simply Elaine Daniels, a roving soul tied to no one and nothing. A soul that knew in the deepest corner of my being how it felt to be free. Up there, it was just me and my aircraft and an unreachable horizon. And once I had a taste of that freedom, I never wanted to let go. Not ever.
“Bending the throttle a little, wouldn’t you say, Daniels?” Pilot Officer Bradley’s voice drifted lazily through my headset as we soared above the British countryside. I glanced over at the co-pilot’s seat. He was looking out the window like a little kid, studying the fields and trees below. You’d think he’d never been in a plane before. I noticed a tuft of honey gold hair sticking out from the back of his leather aviator’s helmet. I was fascinated by the way the gold caught the slanting sunlight. With unexpected enthusiasm, he turned his head in my direction, his blue eyes laughing.
“You just sped up, didn’t you?”
I nodded and he grinned, highlighting the dimples in his boyish face. The man might be an absolute nuisance, but no one could say he wasn’t good looking.
“I’d like to get to Ringway in one piece, thank you,” he said, pulling back from the window and adjusting the sling cradling his left arm. “I’m crippled enough as it is.”
I rolled my eyes at him. I was flying a twin engine Avro Anson and we were nowhere near max speed. “You think this is fast? You should see me in a Spitfire.”
He laughed. “I’d like to.”
I felt my cheeks go a little red. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was flirting or just being friendly. At 19, I knew next to nothing about men, even the young, carefree ones who still acted like little boys.
“What’s the recovery on your arm?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“Doc says I’ll be back behind the controls in a couple days. But you know, if I don’t get better, I can always join the Ancient and Tattered Airmen and fly with you.”
I glared at him. ATA pilots were allowed to make that joke, but certainly not members of the Royal Air Force. “It’s the Air Transport Auxiliary to you, Officer Bradley. We can fly ‘anything to anywhere’—even pretentious RAF officers.”
“Pretentious, am I?” He straightened his shoulders a little, looking pleased with himself.
I nodded. “I’d bet my license and this plane I’ve flown more hours than you ever have.”
Bradley’s eyes sparked at the challenge. “Doesn’t matter if you have. I’m still your superior officer.” He smirked. “And that makes you a pretty lucky girl.”
“Lucky to be rid of you,” I mumbled and turned the plane a little too sharply to the right just to see his reaction.
The insufferable man seemed unfazed. He simply grinned that movie-star smile of his.
“Why don’t you make yourself useful and pull up the landing gear?” I nodded my head in the direction of the crank handle.
“Aye, aye, captain.” He grabbed the handle with his good arm and started in on the 144 turns necessary to bring up the wheels. At least having an injured RAF passenger was good for something.
“You know I really do admire the ATA, right?” he said in between turns. “Without you, there’s no telling where us RAF boys would be.”
I nodded, secretly grateful. What he said was true. Though not front page news, my role with the Air Transport Auxiliary was important. It was one of the truly dangerous jobs open to women during the war. Not that I craved danger specifically, but I was eager to do my part. The more we did, the sooner this war would be over. At least, that’s what I told myself.
As an ATA pilot, I’d typically ferry new or repaired planes from factories to RAF bases or bring damaged planes back for repair. Sometimes I’d deliver mail and medical supplies or taxi other ATA pilots and important personnel throughout UK airspace. The RAF figured by using those not suitable to fly combat missions, it would free up the able bodied men for service. Not suitable to fly combat missions. Those words irked me. What they really meant was…too old…too disabled…or just too…female. I sighed, thinking enviously of the stories I’d heard of the Soviet women, dropping bombs and shooting enemy aircraft out of the sky. They were allowed to fly combat missions, so why not us?
“You like flying Spits?” Pilot Officer Bradley interrupted my thoughts. He had finished with the landing gear and was back to looking out the window.
“My favorite, by far.” I closed my eyes for the briefest second, imagining I was in the single seat fighter instead of this transport aircraft. If I so much as breathed on the control column of a Spitfire, the plane would jump to my command. It seemed infinitely better than wrestling the Anson at the moment. “If there was ever a plane meant for a girl to fly, it’s the Supermarine Spitfire,” I said dreamily.
“A fighter? Planning to shoot down the Jerries are you?”
“I would if I could.”
“No doubt.” He laughed and patted the side of the Anson. “Then how’d you end up with Faithful Annie here? There was a fleet of 12 Spits ready to go this morning.”
I shrugged. “Those were the orders on the delivery chit I picked up. Transport you to Ringway and then taxi the group of 12 ATA pilots who flew the Spits back to White Waltham.”
I thought of the other ATA pilots and how they cheered when they found out they were assigned to fly one of the Spitfires. And here I was, left with Officer Bradley on the Anson. I wasn’t jealous. Well, not very jealous anyway.
“I fell in love flying a Spitfire,” I said it more to myself than to anyone, but he nodded as if he understood.
“I think for me it was an Anson.”
I cleared my throat, feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Now what did he mean by that? I felt my face start to get red again. I risked a glance over at him, but mercifully, he was staring very intently at the controls.
Ratatatatat! The Anson suddenly lurched to the side. I frantically clutched the control column, trying to steady the massive aircraft. My heart hammered at the shock of the impact, my breath escaping in shallow bursts.
“Blast! What was that?” My voice came out steadier than I expected, but my heart was still racing.
Bradley didn’t answer. He was nearly turned around in his seat, eyes scanning the airspace for any sign of the attacker. A dark shadow passed above us as another round of gunfire assailed the left side of the Anson. The Anson lurched in the other direction and my heart dropped. Through the side window, I saw the black cross on the wings and tail, the yellow nose, the single engine propeller. It was a German fighter plane, a Messerschmitt 109.
“What’s a blasted Jerry doing in UK airspace?” Bradley was livid. “Fire a round at him, Daniels!” I could see his eyes scanning the cockpit for a mounted machine gun.
“I’m ATA. This is a civilian flight! I’m not armed.”
Bradley swore. He was used to fighting back.
“We’ve got to drop him. I’m going to dive. Hold on!” Without waiting for Bradley’s opinion, I pressed forward on the control column. There was a sudden tilt, followed by the plane launching into a steep dive.
The scream of wind tore past my ears. My head throbbed and I felt my vision grow blurry and start to fade. Increasing gravity like that wasn’t fun. I’d only experienced dives in training and only in much smaller aircrafts like Tiger Moths and Spitfires. Hold on, Elaine. It was almost as if there was a voice outside of me, reminding me to stay present. Pull up, pull up. I pulled back on the control column and the plane mercifully leveled out. I glanced over at Bradley, he had his head in his hands, seemingly just as dazed as I was.
“You alright?” I asked.
He looked up, blinking his eyes. “Yeah, barely.” He craned his neck looking in all directions for a sign of the Messer. “Do you think we lost him?”
“I sure hope so.”
He suddenly grinned, instantly back to the boyish pilot from earlier. “How’d you learn a stunt like that?”
I shrugged. “ATA pilots have to go through training too, you know.”
Our relief was interrupted by a metallic grating sound, almost louder than the machine gun fire from the Messerschmitt.
“What was that?” Bradley was searching the skies again, his eyes frantically roving back and forth for the source of the noise.
I tried to angle the plane to the side to get a better view of our surroundings, but the usually pliable control column suddenly grew rigid. Something was wrong. I pressed forward on the column, attempting to lower the nose of the plane. It wouldn’t budge. “Bradley, do me a favor and take hold of the controls. It doesn’t seem to be working right.”
Bradley nodded, using his good arm to grasp the co-pilot’s column.
“It’s like the control column is locked,” he said, his eyes growing wide. I could see the strain on his face as he tried to press the mechanism forward again. “What’s going on?”
“We’re stuck in a climb. Maybe the Messer hit one of the elevators?” I suggested.
“Let me see what I can find out. You keep flying the plane as best you can.” He unstrapped the lap belt and climbed out of his seat. Opening the metal door to the cabin, he disappeared from the cockpit.
I heard a tumble of footsteps and a crash of metal, followed by a string of colorful swears.
“Sorry!” Bradley called over the choppy whir of the engine.
“Just figure out what’s wrong with the plane!”
He didn’t answer, so I focused my efforts on trying to unlock the steering column. I pushed against it as hard as I could, but I wasn’t making any progress. It was like it was frozen in place. Bradley had been gone for a while now—was he even okay? I heard some more crashing about, but less swearing this time. Several minutes later, a pair of RAF boots echoed in the cabin behind me.
“You’re gonna have to hit the silk, Daniels.” Bradley popped his head into the cockpit. I could tell from his expression it wasn’t good. He climbed into his co-pilot’s seat and grabbed hold of the nearly useless controls. “Yours is the only parachute left, so you better get started.”
“Only parachute? What do you mean? This plane is supposed to be outfitted for 12 passengers.”
“Yeah, about that...” Bradley started leaning on the control column, trying to use his bodyweight to get it to move. “The parachute packs hanging on the racks are riddled with bullet holes now. That Messer messed us up pretty bad. There’s also a fire started on the tail.”
I stared at him. “Bullet holes? A fire!? Being pretty nonchalant about all this, aren’t you?”
He shrugged. “It is what it is. You better get going. If this plane continues to climb, it won’t be safe to jump.”
I was mad now. Furious really. Here we were in a life and death situation and he was acting like it didn’t matter. Like he wasn’t even bothered.
“I’m not going anywhere!” I stormed. “Where’s your parachute? Why weren’t you wearing it when you boarded the plane?” I couldn’t believe anyone, especially an RAF officer, could be so daft as to not wear a parachute.
He looked at me sheepishly. “I couldn’t get it on with my arm, and I didn’t want to ask for help, so I just put it on the rack with the others.”
“You put it on the rack because you couldn’t ask for help?” I was absolutely speechless. Men and their egos! I sighed loudly, exaggerating the noise as much as possible, and started unbuckling the straps and pulling my arms from my parachute pack.
“Wait.” Bradley stared at me. “What are you doing?”
“Giving you my blasted parachute, that's what I’m doing!”
“You’re not giving me your parachute. I’ll be fine,” Bradley insisted. “Besides, I have a better chance at landing the plane.”
“And why is that exactly? You have an arm in a sling! You think you can land a damaged plane with one arm?” I could feel the clouds of anger storming behind my eyes.
Bradley looked uncomfortable. “Well, yes, because I’m…uh… stronger than you.”
I glared at him. “With one arm?”
“But I can’t allow a girl to—”
“Damn your chivalry, Bradley! Are you forgetting there’s a war on? Only one of us can drop bombs on the Nazis and it certainly isn’t me!” I pushed the parachute pack in his direction. I hated that I was crying, but I could feel the tears wetting my cheeks. “I won’t take it. No matter what you say. You’re more valuable in this war, so get off this plane and stop arguing.”
He looked at me and something in his face shifted. It was a look I wasn’t accustomed to seeing in the eyes of my male colleagues. It was a new look, a look I had longed for my entire life. It was the look of respect.
He took the parachute, lifting his hand in salute. “You’re the real thing, Daniels. I just thought you should know that.”
He fitted the parachute over his shoulders and I helped him clip the belt around his waist. He didn’t say anything else as he climbed to the back of the plane. I felt the weight shift as he opened the service door and jumped.
My heart sank with the sudden crushing realization that I was alone now. I let out a great, hiccuping sob. It was just me, soaring over the British countryside in an aircraft bound for destruction. I hurriedly wiped the remaining tears from my cheek. I was a British ATA pilot. I could fly anything to anywhere and I was done feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t keep crying like this when I knew I had made the right choice. If I had it to do over again, I would have done exactly the same.
I checked the altimeter. We were still climbing. Pretty soon, it’d be too dangerous to jump even if I had a parachute. I braced my feet against the floor of the Anson and pushed down on the control column with every remaining bit of my strength. Nothing. This aircraft would continue to climb, at least until the tail burned off, I ran out of petrol, or the fuel tank exploded…I’d rather not think about the ending.
I turned my face towards the final rays of the setting sun. The sky was streaked pink and purple on a canvas flooded with gold. Isn’t this what I always wanted? To fly into the unreachable horizon and never let go. I leaned into that sunset, feeling the freedom of flight fill my soul. The first time I fell in love, I was flying a plane. And now that it was the last time, it was clear nothing had changed.
Thanks for reading! I love studying World War II history and am so inspired by the heroism of the past. I am far from a historical expert, but I did try my best to research this story and make the events historically plausible. I apologize if there are any historical inaccuracies or technical mistakes when describing the mechanics of WWII planes—these were entirely unintentional! The ATA was very much a real and vital part of the Allies’ success during World War II. If you’re interested in reading more about these incredible pilots, here’s an article that I found helpful:
I also wanted to add that this story was inspired by one of my all-time favorite Young Adult novels, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I highly recommend Wein’s book to anyone looking for a masterfully crafted plot, strong female protagonists, and an adventure story set during WWII!
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