COMMANDANT OF THE AIR FORCE
By, Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich
In August of 1931, a young woman started the first “all-female” joy riding and air taxi service. At that time, Pauline Gower was already an acclaimed aviatrix and flight instructor.
This was a time when few women knew how drive cars, let along fly airplanes. Pauline was her own woman, full of determination and drive to succeed. She started her air taxi and sightseeing service on a field next to a major highway in Kent, England. With a sign saying, “Fly Now – first left,” she and her partner, Dorothy Spicer, started one of the earliest all female commercial flying businesses.
Pauline Mary de Peauly Gower was born on July 22, 1910, into the affluent family of Sir Robert Vaughn Gower and his wife Dorothy Susie Eleanor. Sir Vaughn was a Member or Parliament. She was the second of two daughters. While the family was not Roman Catholic, the girls were educated at Sacred Heart Convent. Pauline enjoyed school, was smart, with a pleasant personality and was popular with both students and staff. After leaving school at age 18, she was a London debutante, and due to her father’s profession, was presented at court. However, she was not sure what she wanted to do with her life. She dabbled in music, art, politics, Greek mythology, photography, but could not settle on any of them. She had taken an airplane joy ride before leaving school and, at age 19, decided she wanted join the few like minded, determined women, and enter the male dominated world of flying. She wanted to be a pilot!
Her parents were adamantly opposed to such an unorthodox idea. While she would not be deterred, they refused to support this idea financially. She earned the money for flying by giving violin lessons. She was able to solo after only 7 hours of instruction, the first woman to solo in such a short time. She received her A (private pilot’s) license after 15 hours and 15 minutes of flight time, on August 4, 1930. However, she wanted to earn her living through flying, which would require a B, commercial license. She enrolled at the London Aeroplane Club, at Stag Lane. There she met Amy Johnson (see previous article) who had just returned from her solo flight to Australia. She also met Dorothy Spicer, who would become her business partner. On July 13, 1931 she took her night-flying test and was awarded he B license. She was the 3rd woman in the world to earn a commercial pilot’s license.
Dorothy and Pauline started their air service with Pauline as the pilot and Dorothy as the engineer. They had a Gypsy Moth airplane and also the Simmonds Spartan two-seater which Pauline’s father had given to her as a 21st birthday present. Apparently, by this time Sir Gower had decided that his daughter’s career was acceptable, and he would support her.
Britain had gone “air-mad,” and the public couldn’t get enough of flying demonstrations. Several air circuses were traveling around, much like the Barnstormers here in America. With the commercial license, she was able to join flying circuses, where she demonstrated her skills in both flying and eadership abilities. Those leadership qualities would come into play once WWII started, and throughout her career.
While flying with a circus in Scotland, she learned of her mother’s sudden and unexpected death. Pauline felt that she needed to be more supportive of her father, and left the circus. At that point, her flying business, Air Trips, Ltd, moved to the airfield at Hayling Island and opened an aerial garage. Both Pauline and Dorothy were dissatisfied with this work. They simply had too many other interests and terminated the business.
Pauline had made a name for herself, through her flight demonstrations, her air-taxi business, and as a writer. In 1938, she began to be recognized with honors, and became a sought after speaker. She was elected as a member of the Royal Meteorologic Society, and an officer of the order of St. John of Jerusalem. She was asked to serve on many committees, one of which was looking into the area of air safety. She was both the youngest member, and the only woman, serving on the committee. In 1939, she was given a commission in the Civil Air Guard.
It was obvious that war was approaching, and the Royal Air Force needed pilots. At this point in her career, Pauline had over 2,000 hours of flight time. Knowing that women were not accepted into the RAF, she wanted to find ways to support the war effort.
Gerald d’Erlanger, director of British Airways, knew that when war broke out, the government would restrict, if not prohibit, civilian flying, and probably impound the airplanes. While many pilots would be asked to join the RAF, many would not, due to age, gender, physical limitations, etc. But, these pilots could still be useful. Pilots would be needed to transport dispatches, mail, and supplies; they would be needed to move airplanes from the factory to the military airfields and to transport VIPs. He contacted Harold Balfour, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Air, and Sir Francis Shelmerdine, Director General of Civil Aviation, and proposed creating a group of civilian pilots who could supply these services. They agreed, and the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was born.
A letter was sent to all civilian pilots with at least 250 flight hours. Pauline was well known for her flying and on December1,1939, was appointed a Second Officer, and given the job of forming a women’s section of the Air Transport Auxiliary. (One of the pilots under her command was Jacqueline Cochran, who founded the Women Army Service Pilots, WASP, here in America).
At the beginning of the war, there were only 9 women pilots in the ATA, flying light training airplanes. However, over time and under Pauline’s leadership, that number grew to more than 150 women, flying all types of airplanes from light trainers to heavy, four-engine bombers. Their contribution to the war effort was recognized, and she was able to get them the same pay the men received.
Pauline achieved the rank of Commandant, and in 1942 was appointed a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or MBE. Her leadership and organizational skills, and her contribution to aviation were also recognized in the business world, and she was appointed a director of British Overseas Airways (BOAC). She was the first woman appointed to that position, and probably the first woman to serve on the Board of an airline anywhere in the world. As busy as she was, with BOAC and the ATA, she did not neglect her personal life. In 1945, she married William Cusack Fahie. Unfortunately, her amazing life was cut short. She died of a heart attack while giving birth to her twin sons, Paul and Michael.
Michael wanted to know more about his mother and interviewed many of her friends. Many of these stories he put into a book, “A Harvest of Memories.”
Pauline enjoyed writing. Among her writings are: “Girl’s Own Paper,” “Chatterbox,” and a collection of poetry, “Piffling Poems for Pilots.”
A Harvest of Memories
The Life of Pauline Gower, MBE
England: GMS Enterprises, 1995 Buckram. ISBN:1870384377
The fear of the Lord leads to life, And he who has it will abide in satisfaction; He will not be visited with evil. Prov 19:23
By, Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich