Remembrance Day rallies Canadians to honour the sacrifices and achievements of Canadian veterans during nearly a century of wars and conflicts. It is also a time to reflect on the many sacrifices that, for the Air Force, began in the skies over France in 1914 and still continue to this day.
This week, we salute all military aviators who have served both in the air and on the ground, past and present, from peacetime and war, whose sacrifices and selflessness have helped shape Canada and the world into what it is today.
Today, we salute those women who served in the Second World War supporting the RCAF in its mission here at home and overseas.
It may sound strange in this day and age of equality among the sexes that women were not allowed to fly as pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War. There were, however, some Canadian women who did fly with the Royal Air Force’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).
The ATA’s motto, Aetheris Avidi, Eager for the Air, aptly describes this legion of trailblazers who were willing to leave the safety and security of their homes and countries to volunteer to help the RAF and its allies achieve victory over the skies of Europe.
The ATA was established in 1939 to transport mail and supplies for the British military, however, it soon expanded to include transporting warplanes, over 300,000 in all. All together, 1,300 men and 166 women served with the ATA, including a handful of Canadians.
One of those women was Marion Orr. Her dream to fly in the war was so intense she actually paid for her own flying lessons in 1941, took herself to England and joined the ATA. A year later she was flying Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitoes. The Spitfire was by far her favourite aircraft, “a real lady’s aircraft,” she once told an interviewer.
By October 1944 Orr had accumulated 700 flying hours on 67 different types of aircraft. Another Canadian trailblazer, Violet Milstead, joined Orr at the ATA in 1943 and logged more than 700 flying hours on 46 different aircraft. Her favourite aircraft was the Hurricane.
Although their contributions stand out as being unusual, there were thousands of other Canadian women who served in more traditional roles in the RCAF Women’s Division.
At its highest, in December 1943, the RCAF Women’s Division’s had a staff of 591 officers and 14,562 members of all ranks. In all, 17,038 women wore its uniform before the service was abolished on December 11, 1946. It amounted to eight per cent of the overall RCAF personnel during WWII.
After the war, Marion Orr returned to Canada and opened her own flying school, although she had to get permission from the Prime Minister to open her own airfield! During her career she flew over 21,000 hours, 17,000 hours as an instructor on single and twin-engine aircraft, on wheels, skis and floats, and helicopters. Marion Orr continued to fly until her accidental motor vehicle death in 1995. She was one of Canada's most distinguished pilots.
Violet Milstead returned to Canada after the war and became Canada's first female bush pilot.