Medal collection

Reach for the sky! Medal serves as reminder of female WW2 pilot’s daring career

Sue Cade
Authored by Sue Cade
Posted: Friday, November 13, 2020 - 11:12

A Civil MBE medal belonging to one of an elite group of female pilots who flew in WW2 is to be sold by Chilcotts Auctioneers in Honiton.

The medal was awarded to Flight Lieutenant Joan Lily Amelia Hughes in 1946 in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to the war effort flying new planes to RAF bases around the country.

Joan asked her parents if she could learn to fly after her brother Douglas started; they both learnt with the East Anglian Flying Club at Abridge. She was just 15 when she took her first solo flight in a Gypsy One Moth bi-plane, securing her pilot’s licence at 17 to become the youngest flyer in England. She went on to train as a flying instructor with Rosamund King Everard, but it was during the Second World War that Joan’s skills really came to the fore.

At the outbreak of the war, the heads of Imperial Airways got together with plane makers and flying clubs to form the Air Transport Auxiliary. The ATA was responsible for delivering new or repaired planes to RAF bases, freeing up fighter pilots to better use their time to concentrate on training. The daughter of MP Sir Robert Gower, pilot Pauline Gower was put in charge of forming a women’s section and in 1939 she put together an initial team of eight women pilots - including Joan who was the youngest of the group.  

Joan was such a good pilot that she was trained to fly many different types of aeroplane including Hornet Moths and Leopard Moths. She also flew Stirling and Lancaster bombers, although she had to sit on a high cushion, and needed an engineer on board to help her reach the levers and controls. By the end of the war she had flown nearly a hundred different kinds of aeroplane.

She was very down to earth about her skills, saying in one news article: “The first thing I would like to make clear is that we women members of the British Air Transport Auxiliary do not regard ourselves as “heroines”. We are doing what we hope is a useful job of work, but there is nothing spectacular about it.” She added: “… we think no more of piloting an aeroplane than we do a of driving a car.”

In total around 166 women, nicknamed the “Attagirls”, flew with the ATA, with 14 losing their lives in service, including the famous Amy Johnson. Joan and Pauline Gower were both awarded the MBE for their services.

After the war Joan not only stayed on at White Waltham airfield to fly and train new young people but also began a glamorous career as a stunt pilot. She flew Kenneth More’s Spitfire in “Reach for the Sky” (1956) in which More played Battle of Britain pilot Group Captain Douglas Bader; she piloted a replica of the diminutive 1909 Demoiselle in “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines! (1965) and undertook all the dogfights in “The Blue Max” (1966) on behalf of George Peppard. Joan also served as Lady Penelope’s stunt pilot in the original Thunderbirds series, famously flying under a motorway bridge on the M40 which was then under construction in 1967, a daring deed for which she was prosecuted but later cleared of all charges.

Finally giving up her beloved flying she moved to live on a farm in Warmore, Brushford in Dulverton. She died, aged 74, in 1993.

Auctioneer Duncan Chilcott says, “Having the opportunity to research the story behind an item like this is always a real pleasure for an auctioneer.

“Joan was clearly quite a character and lived such a remarkable life, a truly fascinating, brave and capable woman. It’s an honour to learn about her.”

The MBE medal is being sold together with Joan’s Pike Trophy medal which she was awarded in 1980. The collection also includes a scrapbook put together by an admirer of her piloting skills, which includes fascinating details not just about Joan but many other female pilots.

Difficult to price, Chilcotts estimate between £100 to £200 for both medals and the scrapbook. They will be sold in the December 12 auction.



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