The Anonymous Widower

Was This Pilot Marion Wilberforce?

My post about our use of women in World War II, Why We Didn’t Lose World War II has got me thinking about the Air Transport Auxiliary, especially as a number of people have contacted me after the article.

I can remember in the 1970s seeing a book called something like Ferry Pilots Notes for the ATA, which showed you how to fly everything from a Spitfire to a Stirling or a Liberator with little or no training.  Where was the Health and Safety?  Nowhere, they were just exceptional pilots, even if some of them were amputees, one-eyed or diminutive women like Joan Hughes. 

When I was learning to fly at Ipswich Airport in the early 1980s, I can remember an elderly lady flying into the field in an immaculate vintage de Havlland Hornet Moth.  She used to come for checks on her flying skills. And also to practice aerobatics in a Cessna 150 Aerobat.

The instructor who flew with her, said that she had been a ferry pilot during World War II and was one of the best pilots he’d ever sat with.

Searching for the Air Transport Auxiliary, I found this page, which talks about the first eight women pilots of the organisation.  This is one of the eight.

Marion Wilberforce

Marion Wilberforce was an experienced pilot in the 1930’s, flying her own Gypsy Moth.

In the ATA she rose to become Deputy Commander of the No. 5 Ferry Pool at Hatfield, and later became Commander of the No. 2 Ferry Pool at Cotsford. She served the full 5 years until the ATA was disbanded after the war she purchased a Hornet Moth and continued flying until she was 80. She died at age 93, in July 1996.

I’m absolutely sure, that the pilot was Marion Wilberforce and she was doing aerobatics at an age of almost 80!

At least Richard Poad is getting an exhibition together on the Air Transport Auxiliary  at the Maidenhead Heritage Centre.

September 14, 2010 - Posted by | World | , ,


  1. Your meeting that elderly lady at Ipswich airport in the early 1980s reminds me of someone I met when I was learning to fly. In 2003, when I was getting into my car at Bourn aerodrome near Cambridge after a flying lesson, an elderly and rather reserved man, well into his 70s, arrived at the aerodrome. We chatted for a while. I mentioned proudly that I hoped to get my pilots licence within the next few weeks. It turned out he had just started a course of flying lessons at the club. I condescendingly said I’m sure he’ll be fine and will be flying solo in no time.

    A year and a half later, when I read his obituary in a newspaper, I realised what an extraordinary individual this man had been. His name was Vic Spencer. When I had the above chat with him he had already clocked up well over 22,000 flying hours! He started flying in the second world war. Near the end of the war he was shot down in Japan and came close to being beheaded by drunken Japanese officers. He was awarded the MBE in 1967 for services to aviation. In the 1990s heart problems forced him to give up powered flight so he took up gliding. When he became aware of the less-restrictive medical requirements of the National PPL he undertook a short course of refresher training at Bourn, which was how I met him. Cessna G-BUEF, the last aircraft he flew (and which I often flew when learning to fly) made a flypast at his funeral on Armistice Day, 11th Nov 2005.

    Comment by SpencerH | September 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. It certainly sounds like Marion. The least publicised of ‘the eight’, she was always just out of sight or turned away during photographs. She disliked publicity intensely and could not understand being interviewed about simply doing one’s duty. Her courage and skill was in evidence all her life

    I had the great pleasure of helping to care for her during her nursing home years and she remains a heroine to me.

    Comment by joy goodenough | September 15, 2010 | Reply

  3. Everybody at the Flying Club said she was a lovely lady and a superb pilot. I wonder what happened to the Hornet Moth, as it was as immaculate as her owner! I hope she’s still flying, as she must have lots of memories.

    Comment by AnonW | September 15, 2010 | Reply

  4. Regrettably she died in 1996. We talked a great deal about her civilian flying – from Australia to Scotland solo on one occasion – she had 900 hours flying time when she joined the ATA. She was in her early 90s by the time I knew her and would greet me in the morning by opening one eye and enquiring “Darling am I dead yet?”

    I had the pleasure of taking her, with her niece, by taxi to London from Gloucestershire for her nephews wedding and observing how well loved she was within the Wilberforce and Ogilvie-Forbes families. A true original. Try and find her obituary published in the Times by her nephew Sebastian Wilberforce.

    Comment by joy goodenough | September 17, 2010 | Reply

  5. I was referring to the Hornet Moth still flying, as you’d already said she had passed on. I’m trying to find the registration, so I can heck it out!

    Comment by AnonW | September 17, 2010 | Reply

  6. Oh Dear! I hate to be a spoilsport but the lady Hornet Moth pilot would quite positively have been the late Dr Helena Hamilton. Her aeroplane was (and is)the overall silver G-AHBL now at Biggin Hill. As a matter of fact, I have flown it.

    The last of at least two Wilberforce Hornets was G-AEZG which was exported to Australia in about 1978 or 79. It is for sale now if anyone wants to repatriate it! Doc Hamilton had no ATA connection to my knowledge but she was certainly a good pilot, even as late as 1994 when she came flying with me at Woburn Abbey in Hornet Moth G-AELO.

    Doc owned and flew G-AHBL privately from the early 1960s almost to her death – including annual trips to the KZ Rally in Denmark. I can see the Ipswich connection because she was friendly with John Parkes, a one time DH Propeller Co. and Alvis man, who kept his own Leopard Moth at Martlesham.

    By the way, the correspondent who mentions Vic Spencer is spot-on. An outstanding man, best remembered at Duxford for flying the Russavia Rapide in the 80s.

    Comment by Mark Miller | October 18, 2010 | Reply

    • Not quite correct there Mark. I was fortunate enough to fly with Marion at Stapleford Tawney in 1967, in her Hornet Moth G-AEZG. She sorted out my tail wheel landings a treat. She lived not far from Stapleford elsewhere in Essex. G-AEZG was silver overall with red registration lettering It was sold to a farmer in Australia and is still flying.

      Comment by Barry Gillingwater | July 15, 2019 | Reply

  7. Thanks for the corrections. It still doesn’t alter the fact that the lady was an exceptional pilot according to her instructor/check pilot.

    Comment by AnonW | October 18, 2010 | Reply

  8. Absolutely, Doc kept in very good flying practice and was legendary for her intrepid but textbook cross-country flights. I can see the grounds for confusion as in only slightly earlier times she might have been almost the Identikit ATA pilot! In our de Havilland office at Duxford we have hung a framed photo to her memory.

    Comment by Mark Miller | October 18, 2010 | Reply


    Have you seen this? Rick did a sculpture called Formation for the new housing on Ipswich Airport. In some sites it says that it honours the female pilots of WW2.

    Comment by AnonW | October 18, 2010 | Reply

  10. I remember Marion Wilberforce as a wonderful old lady who used to fly into Sunderland Airport (EGNU) on the way too and from her holiday in Scotland. She continued flying in until a couple of years before the airport closed in 1985

    Comment by Jos Booker | November 19, 2010 | Reply

    • I am searching for a long time for a picture of Marion Wilberforce.
      Do uoy know where I can find a photograph of her?
      Thank you very mucht
      Jos van Gils

      Comment by J. van Gils | May 4, 2013 | Reply

      • Have you e-mailed Mark Miller here? Or you could try the RAF Museum at Hendon.

        Comment by AnonW | May 4, 2013

      • Like you I have also been looking for a photograph as I knew from afar when flying from Stapleford in the mid 60’s early 70’s and husing our a/c in the same hangar as her immaculate Hornet Moth. Try commons.wikimedia The_Air_Transport_Auxilliary_1939-1945. Alternatively, if you can turn up a picture of the the first eight pilots to join the ATA at Hatfield she is likely to be the last one on the left hiding her face from the camera by looking away. Good luck.

        Comment by Rodney Johnson | December 18, 2013

  11. I too have very fond memories of Marion Wilberforce. Working as an engineer at Stapleford in Essex in the 70s and 80s,and had the great privilege of being Checked Out to Swing Start the Hornet Moth G-AEZG by Marion. I also worked on the aircraft on several of her visits and on one visit which was for a C of A renewal, I re-sprayed the aircraft. Marion was the Talk of the Town in ARB and then CAA circles as she insisted on flying the aircraft with NO RADIO AIDS of any kind and in spite of many attempts to persuade her otherwise, refused to have one fitted, and did the whole job with just a Compass and maps. WHAT A LADY. And finally, as a token of her appreciation, every Christmas she brought a Christmas Cake for all the Lads to share with the words “Thank you all so much for helping me with my little aeroplane, Happy New Year”. I could go on all Night. Much Loved and Much Missed. Dave Harvey.

    Comment by Dave Harvey | February 6, 2014 | Reply

    • I seem to remember the aircraft was a dark brownish colour. Is that correct?

      Comment by AnonW | February 6, 2014 | Reply

  12. could well be , but back in those days I sprayed it SILVER as it came to us.

    Comment by Dave Harvey | February 6, 2014 | Reply

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