Benedetta Day was born in 1914 in Famagusta, Cyprus. At the age of 10 she was brought with her younger brother and sister to England by her parents Bert and Eva. They settled in Chertsey, Surrey. Bert was a civil engineer. Benedetta excelled at boarding school and was made head girl. As a student she studied architecture and got a job as an Architect’s Assistant.
In her early 20s she joined the Civil Air Guard at the Insurance Flying Club in London. Age 23, she gained her pilot’s licence. It was during this time that Miss Day met the man she was to marry. Charles Willis was a flying instructor at the club.
In September of that year Charles Willis competed in the King’s Cup Race against Tommy Rose, Alex Henshaw and Neville Stack, amongst others.
Benedetta came into a family inheritance. She bought a second-hand, 8 year old, Gypsy Moth bi-plane ‘G-AAIU’. She called it ‘Vagabond’. In June 1938 she and Charles got married. They flew ‘Vagabond’ to Sandown Airport, Isle of Wight, for their honeymoon.
Now Mrs. Willis, she was happy to quit her architect’s job. She became a mother in 1939. When war was declared in September 1939 Charles joined the Royal Air Force. He struck lucky with some of his duties. He had to fly VIPs around Europe. One of them was Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Mrs. Willis gave birth to her second child. She later heard about the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) women’s section. Charles encouraged her to applied. By Benedetta’s own admission she lacked self confidence. However, according to ‘Forgotten Pilots’, her application to ATA was accepted and she joined on 1 September 1941 as a First Officer.
Her two young children went to live at her mother’s house, under the supervision of an Irish nanny. Benedetta went to Hatfield for her initial few weeks training. Mary Wilkins followed in her footsteps, having joined ATA one month later.
Two weeks later another new female recruit arrived. A young South African joined ATA. Joan Marshall moved to Northumberland, England in 1926 as a teenager, with her family. She learned to fly in 1937 and worked for Alan Muntz at Airwork, Heston as Catering Manager.
Mary, Benedetta and Joan were just three of 166 women (167 if you included forgotten Marjorie Spiller) and 1,152 men who filled the ranks of ATA during the war.
Tragically, Joan died eight months later in a flying accident. On 20 June 1942, her Miles Master spun into the ground at White Waltham. Her final resting place is Maidenhead Cemetery. Benedetta performed the sad duty of one of the pall bearers. The others were ATA officers Winnie Pierce, Louise Schuurmann, Katie Williams, Mary Wilkins, Irene Arckless and Commandant Pauline Gower.
Benedetta settled into flying life at the women’s ferry pool at Hamble, Hampshire. Others sharing her base included Mary Wilkins (Ellis) and Jackie Sorour (Moggridge). During their time there, they formed friendships which lasted a lifetime. They flew a variety of aircraft. Mrs. Willis clocked up over 40 types, including the infamous amphibious Walrus, loathed by all the women. This plane accounted for her only accident. Described by Mary Ellis as, ‘like trying to fly a brick,’ Benedetta miscalculated the wind when bringing the Walrus to land. She was unhurt but the plane sustained a damaged float. Other aircraft she delivered, all without incident, included the Miles Master, Defiant and the Supermarine Spitfire. She flew in excess of 100 Spitfires during her two years at Hamble.
It was a happy event that caused Benedetta’s resignation. She was pregnant. She left ATA on 3 August 1943, a year after flying her first Spitfire.
After the war Charles left the RAF and went into a career in banking. Benedetta completed her family with a fourth child. Home life kept her busy. But her flying life was not over yet. Her crowning achievement was yet to come,
She joined the RAF Volunteer Air Reserve in 1953. Age 40 she became the second of only five women to get their RAF full wings in the 1950s. Winning her wings required six weeks intensive training at Feltwell, Middlesex. She had to pass theory and practical tests. Benedatta qualified on 28 August 1953 and was extremely proud of this.
Her friend from ATA Hamble days, Jackie Moggridge, also won her wings.
Benedetta last climbed into a cockpit in 1954. The post-war cost of civilian flying had become an expensive barrier for her.
Some years later she and Charles moved to the Isle of Wight where they had honeymooned years before. They settled in the coastal village of Bembridge where they could enjoy their love of yachting. Charles became Bembridge harbour master.
As her former flying life became a fond memory of yesteryear, an event in 1984 caused her to rise up to remind the world of her proudest moment. Benedetta was so angered by a local newspaper report that she overcame her usual modesty to challenge the publication about a woman pilot story they had printed.
In the 31 August edition of the Southern Evening Echo, the editor published an apology. Mrs. Willis had supplied photographic evidence as indisputable proof of her claim. The headlines shouted,
BENEDETTA WON HER WINGS. RAF CLAIM SHOT DOWN BY FLIER.’
It reported that: ‘An Isle of Wight grandmother who flew Spitfires during the war has shot down official claims that no women had won RAF “wings.” Mrs. Benedetta Willis of Bembridge produced evidence to the Echo that she was awarded the coveted insignia n 1953.
Confirmation that the “wings” she proudly showed me were genuine came from an entry in her service record book stamped August 28 of that year.
In a follow up to an Echo story about another woman flier, the Ministry of Defence said that no lady had yet gained RAF pilot “wings.”
Now after another approach from the Echo, they are searching deeper into their archives – “We are rechecking our records.”
Mrs. Willis, now 70, said that four other women had also reached the required standard at the same time as her – all having undertaken a strenuous six-week course at RAF Feltwell.
She said that followed previous flying experience during the war years for the Air Transport Auxiliary on such aircraft as Spitfires, Hurricanes and Wellingtons. Her husband Charles, a former Squadron Leader, also has RAF “wings,” thus making them a unique flying couple.
Mrs. Willis said, “The RAF are probably worried about admitting the facts, because they might feel it would open the floodgates. They have always been worried that engaging women pilots, there might be the rick that one day they would have to use them in active service.”
She sent a copy of this report to Jackie Moggridge. The page is annotated with Bene’s own written comments around the margins:
“Only agreed to have report because my letter was contradicted by the Southern Evening Echo” and “Awarded Wings August 18 1953. One of 5 women at the time after 6 week course at Feltham.”
Fortunately Jackie kept the report, which has now been shared with Solent Aviatrix by her daughter Candy Adkins. This precious piece of evidence is something for the history books, for there are still some people today who would argue that it never happened.
In 1990 Benedetta’s husband of 52 years passed away. Charles Henry Willis was 81 years old.
Benedetta and Jackie kept in regular contact with each other, friends from their ATA years to their final days.
Mary Wilkins Ellis, a near neighbour of Mrs. Willis on the Isle of Wight, also remained friends with both women. Mary said, “The last time I saw ‘Bene’ was in September 2008. We were invited to 10 Downing Street, London, along with all the other surviving members of the Air Transport Auxiliary.
The Prime Minister then was Gordon Brown. He presented us all with an ATA veteran’s badge.”
Three months later Benedetta Willis passed away. It could be argued that she won her RAF wings twice.