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“No female pilots!” Wendy’s inspiring story of overcoming discrimination

Wendy Mills

THE lives of inspirational women from the Frome area were celebrated last week for ‘International Women’s Day’.

And the story of one Frome woman, 84-year old Wendy Mills, really caught the imagination. Despite being told emphatically by the RAF 60 years ago ‘no female pilots’, Wendy went on to make history and become the RAF’s first female air crew member.

Jerry Short of Evolve Care Group, who manage Frome Nursing Home where Wendy now lives, spoke to the pioneering woman.

Jerry  said, “I wanted to speak with someone who had lived through many decades of discrimination and learn what they thought about this, so I started researching nursing homes to find somebody who was both the right age, and had a powerful story to tell. 

“I found that person in Frome Nursing Home – 84-year old, Wendy Mills.  As a child she had watched the Battle of Britain in the skies over her childhood home in the Home Counties and grew up determined to become a pilot. As soon as she was old enough, she applied to join the RAF but when she asked about flying, she was told point blank, that they didn’t accept female pilots. She was angered and disappointed but didn’t let her frustration show. 

“She went on to train as a fighter plotter, who are those women you see in war movies, pushing model aircraft around a map, with sticks. This was during the Cold War years when there were regular incursions into British airspace by Russian bombers, usually coming in over Scarpa Flow. Wendy and her team would scramble fighters up to intercept them. Her shifts could last 36 hours, meaning she slept and ate underground, in a top security bunker in Norfolk. The job was onerous because the aircraft were sometimes carrying nuclear payloads. 

“Before her shifts, she told me she would walk in the fields around the bunker, filling her nostrils with the scent of vegetation, because if a nuclear war did ensue, it may have been her last chance to experience that. 

“She did well in her post and was soon promoted to Flight Sergeant, but she never lost her yearning to fly. One day, she noticed a magazine advert for women to join the RAF as air-crew. Eagerly she took the magazine across the airfield to where the flight crews were based and knocked on the commanding officer’s door. She presented the magazine and explained that she was requesting flight training and had thought of little else since she was a child. The C/O smiled and carefully read the piece before telling her that she’d need to pass a medical and get permission to fly, from her own commanding officer.

“A few days later she presented him with both. The C/O, smiled, and took her to where the aircrews sat around smoking and drinking coffee before sorties. The C/O introduced Wendy as their first female air crew member. The place erupted with cheers and whistles. Wendy’s eyes twinkled as she tells me this, the memory still fresh in her mind. 

“Although women could be air-crew members in 1958, they were not allowed to be operational pilots for another 34 years. It wasn’t until 1992, long after Wendy had left the RAF, that the Government finally announced that women would be allowed to fly jet aircraft. But what had happened to Wendy?

“After the RAF, she got married and went on to work as a successful aviation journalist for the Yorkshire Evening Post and spent her first month’s wages on flying lessons. 

“It turned out that she was a natural, and quickly passed her pilot’s licence and then became a flying instructor and then a flight examiner and taught flying instructors how to teach. She continued to write aviation stories, including one memorable piece when she flew faster than the speed of sound as a co-pilot on in a 2-seater supersonic, Phantom jet fighter. 

“Impressed by her remarkable story I asked Wendy if she thought the UK needed a Women’s Equality Day. She sighed before turning to me.

“”Of course we do, dear. Things have improved, but I think Westminster still needs shaking up a bit, don’t you?”

“I do, Wendy, I do.

“Suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, once said, “Justice and freedom for women are things worth securing, not only for their own sakes but for civilisation itself.” 

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