Former WW2 pilot, Eleanor Wadsworth, was kind enough to host us in the run up to her 102nd birthday.

Fitting us into her busy schedule, she walked us through her time as a pilot, and her views on age equality, safety for older people, and seizing the opportunities life provides.

Interview by Natalie Ratcliffe & Phoebe Gray on behalf of Action on Elder Abuse.

Thank you for talking to us. Perhaps an obvious place to start - What inspired you to sign up to be a pilot?

Eleanor Wadsworth: In actual fact, I was never really inspired. It just… the opportunity was presented to me, quite unexpectedly, and so I took it.

At the beginning of World War 2, I was training as an architect in Nottingham, and as soon as war was declared all private building was prohibited, so the materials could be used for the war effort.

I was looking for a job, and I came across somebody who was working on the ground for Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). They had a small architects office at White Waltham, near Maidenhead, and I got in touch with the Association and was employed as a draughtswoman and architect with them. They were now making the best use they could of available materials to accommodate their various pools of pilots, which involved operation offices, Met offices, pilots rest rooms, toilets, and that kind of thing.

I did that for 18 months to two years, but they were running out of fully qualified pilots; so, they decided to start training their own grounds staff to fly… and that’s when I put my name down.

So that’s the start of it - that’s not inspiration, it was just luck. I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the opportunity came along.

Did many of the people you worked with sign up as well?

EW: There were only six from ATA grounds staff and, because the offer was extended countrywide, a great many people who had always wanted to learn to fly took the opportunity to apply because it was free.

But, of all those who applied, only 25 per cent ever got through.

Who inspired you when you were younger? 

EW: I don’t think I was ever particularly inspired. My father was a builder, when I left school I thought I would probably like to do interior design or something, but I was told that to do interior design you had to know more about architecture, and about the actual bones of the building before you could design the interiors.

So that’s when I went to art school for a year - included with my architectural training - and I always felt that a subject like architecture would be interesting whatever else I did; you can see houses, buildings, churches all over. Well the more you know about things like that, the more you can take an interest.

Which planes did you fly during your career?

EW: I flew twenty-two different planes, they’re on my log book. They’re not four engine aircrafts, they’re from light tiger moths up to what were known as light twin aircrafts – Oxfords and Hansons and Domineers.

So, did you have a favourite plane?

EW: People always ask that and my feeling is that the Spitfire was a very beautiful piece of engineering and very beautiful to fly. And it looked as lovely on the ground - and still does - it doesn’t look dated at all. Clean lines and beautiful efficiency and very light touch of the control column.

Lots of people have said it was like having wings, really. I mean, I never did any aerobatics, any fancy flying!

My job, and all ATA pilots, was to collect the aircraft and deliver it in one piece to where it was needed. So, we weren’t encouraged to do anything daring, it was more to get it there in one piece as quickly and safely as possible.

Were there a lot of women doing that job at the time?

EW: There were around 166 women pilots in ATA. I’ve got a photograph of one of the spitfires that I actually flew, which was rebuilt (it was found in pieces somewhere). It was rebuilt and is now flying again at Shuttleworth, the heritage aircraft place near Bedford.

What does age equality mean to you, has it changed throughout your life?

EW: Age equality? I think I speak a different language to people nowadays. Apart from not being at all involved with smart phones and computers - I can’t do any of those things, doesn’t mean a thing to me - I’ve found that my interests in a lot of news is nothing to do with what interests’ other people at the moment. I find a lack of respect and care for others generally speaking - I’m not talking about my family, but generally speaking - upsetting and disappointing; and, in spite of all the ways of communicating between people, they don’t seem to communicate in constructive way at all.

Talking about comparing ages, I would like to just say that one of the things about the women in Air Transport Auxiliary - they were paid the same as men. One of the first instances of equal pay for similar jobs and that was arranged by Pauline Gower, who was the Commodore of the women’s side of ATA, and her father (I believe was an MP) raised the question in Parliament and so it came about.

Did you have a good relationship between the men and the women at ATA?

EW: Very easy, yes, I don’t like saying that I was one of the guys because that wasn’t the situation. There’s a certain amount of teasing and good-humoured fun at both sides, you know, but it was very little offence was taken or there was none of this being thought of or bullied or demeaned in any way.

So, it was a nice community?

EW: Yes, very easy. There were two pools for women only, but there were several that were mixed; I was in one of them and it was a very easy relationship.

And at the same time there were all different cultures and people from all over the world joined ATA, but they all seemed to get on together, perfectly well whatever their backgrounds or lifestyles were.

If you could bring back one thing from the past, an attitude, an object or a skill, what would it be?

EW: Difficult… Perhaps now I’m older and in this situation - though I have two sons, both of them into their seventies, they’re very helpful and concerned with my wellbeing and we’re very close; and I have two very nice daughters-in-law - at this stage I think I miss having a daughter.

I don’t miss any sort of material things, I don’t miss or regret having done things in my life. I think it would be nice to have a daughter now, that I could send her out to do a bit of shopping, the boys are very good but they’re not quite the same!

What do you think is important to help older people feel safe?

EW: Well really these things [gestures] - a call button. Somebody on hand, or within calling distance, because you never know as you get certainly to my age - you know I’m not talking about 70-year olds who can get about, although even they can have falls or sudden attacks of something or other. I think it is important to have someone on call for whatever reason you might need them.

Would you like to give a message or say something to other older people who might read this article?

EW: It can be difficult talking to older people in a way. I think an optimistic outlook is a great consideration and I have got to the stage which may apply - of which if I can’t do anything about it - don’t worry. Switch it off. Or hand the worry over to someone else.

Do you have a piece of advice or a saying you’ve always tried to live by?

EW: I always used to say, and I say to the young people nowadays, life’s full of opportunities, and if a good one comes your way don’t be scared of trying - following it. And I do think, overall, that your life, everyone’s life is planned somehow, from the start.

The Shakespearian saying is something about life having opportunities: view them how you will. Polonius says it but it’s not quite that. It means that you can try and divert from your given path, but you often get driven back onto it in a way.