Being “different” paid off for Jaye Edwards. As a young girl in England, at age 11, she suddenly shot up to five feet eleven inches (180.3 cm). This set her apart from the other girls in her school. She didn’t fit into the games; she felt awkward in class and eventually was home-schooled, as it is known today.
Jaye became somewhat of a loner, always struggling to distinguish herself from an older and a younger sister, each seeming to take up more space than she could, in schools and at home. Born in 1918, in southern England, she lived a life of bicycling, intermittent school, and trying to create her own “niche,” her own pursuits, her own identity.
So, at age 11, the tall, awkward girl found a dream that would lead to experiences very few girls envisioned, much less lived on a daily basis.
The mid-1930s were the days of airplane “barnstorming.” Both men and women would fly the tiny, canvas-covered biplanes from town to town. They’d dance and whirl in the sky, showing their daring skills and sometimes taking passengers up for a ride. As she was bicycling home one day, in the summer of 1936, Jaye “realized suddenly there was a plane there.” She was so mesmerized by it, as she stared into the sky, she ran her bicycle into a parked car. Arriving home, she told her parents she wanted to fly. They took this to mean she wanted a ride in a plane, but Jaye meant much more. Her parents did think girls could have careers - her mother graduated from Oxford in 1907. But careers were limited largely to nursing, by now a family tradition.
Jaye kept her eyes open for chances to learn to fly, and the first opportunity to be connected with flying came about in 1939. This was the foundation of the National Women’s Air Reserve. It was structured along the lines of a military unit - uniforms that were more like boiler suits, roll call, numbered I.D. Weekly meetings took place on Sundays when most of the girls weren’t working. A woman pilot, who later became Jaye’s first instructor, founded the organization.
Since Jaye was not working, and the other girls were, the founder of the NWAR arranged for her to begin flying lessons. The government subsidized lessons, if a person could train during weekdays. The lessons were with a private school, where Jaye earned her solo licence.
The training started out with doing “circuits and bumps” with the instructor a few times, and then going up alone. For today’s pilots, that would be the equivalent of “touch and go” exercises. Jaye describes the progression of learning:
“Then they say, 'you’re on your own.' And you think, 'My God, I’m on my way now!' And then you sort of collect yourself and say, 'You can do it.' You climb to 2,000 feet (610 metres) and do two figure eights and land. You’re expected to land pretty close to a certain spot on the field, where you’d taken off.”
Jaye still beams when she recalls the first time she thought to herself, “I’ve been solo!” The training escalated - more circuits and bumps, and then going up alone for half an hour, keeping the airfield in sight. Then more figure eights to solidify the turning skills that were needed. Finally, after three hours solo, her licence was granted.
So, when Jaye was able to enrol in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1943, she went directly into training for flying the various fighters and transport planes, those with one or two engines. The training was like an expanded version of what she had experienced before, only this time they would go across country, “bumping” down at three locations. They had to prove they could go out and get themselves back. Once trained, the pilots were assigned to a “pool” with 40 pilots each. There were 1,600 pilots in all, 150 of them women.
Planes, in those days, were much simpler. Though there were eight kinds of planes Jaye flew, they had enough in common that knowing how to pilot one served as a foundation for flying the others. She started with Barracudas and then moved on to the Spitfires, Hurricanes, Swordfish, Mustangs and Defiants, as the need arose. There wasn’t formal training beyond learning how to fly the first type. A pilot would get up, go get a “chit” that said what plane they would use, where they were to go, and a slip for being signed off when the job was completed. The need for their services was so great, that if an ATA pilot was assigned to a plane that was new to her, she just dashed for the 150-page manual (“the Bible”) that had instructions on the special characteristics of the plane and how to work with them. The next step would be to go to Maps and Signals to get the lay of the land - there were no names on any maps, so they had to be shown their destination by the map staff. Then came a visit to the Met (meteorological) Centre to study the weather. Then, she was off to do the day’s job of flying.
Jaye never knew, from one day to the next, what plane, destination or reason for the flight would be - delivery of a new plane, taxiing pilots to bases or carrying other passengers who needed to be at another airbase. There was an added challenge in that neither the single nor twin-engine planes had radio communications. The pilots did not fly blind, but they did fly speechless and hearing nothing but the sound of the engines. (American planes could communicate with each other, but even they did not have radio contact with the ground.)
There were accidents. Jaye had two. One was beginner’s bad luck. During training, she was landing, coming in very low, looking to one side only and her opposite wing hit a tree. She pitched into the crash pad on the instrument panel, and lost her front teeth. She felt stunned at the time, tried to cut off the gas, but it was already broken. “You’re just sitting there, can’t go anywhere. I didn’t feel terrible, I don’t think I realized I’d hurt my mouth.”
She was rescued quickly, since she was virtually at the airport. The rescue team was there in two minutes, and they said they were glad so little damage had been done to the plane. Jaye did not share their enthusiasm for her narrow escape.
Her other accident occurred when the landing gear collapsed as she touched down. This was not due to inexperience, but she was noted in the records as “responsible, but not to blame.” She was uninjured and still has the documents recording the crash.
Jaye was discharged at the end of the war. Restless, she began to travel, worked as a childcare worker for friends in Singapore, stayed for a while with relatives in Australia and, eventually, arrived in West Vancouver in 1948. She took teacher training and taught for many years. She married and has two sons.
Her love of planes remains, but she did not fly again. After the war, there was no need for an ATA. She looks back with pride and wistfulness about her experiences flying.
“To take off, especially a bright day, to take off and then be at 2,000 feet, the sun shining, no clouds, just you. It was fabulous! The war didn't exist, it was just 'Wow!'”
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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