Jean Bird flew like one. Bird by name, bird by nature. She first strapped on wings at Hampshire Aeroplane Club, Hamble. Two months later she had gained her ‘A’ flying licence. Miss Bird learned to fly at the same time as her father Lt. Col. Lennox Godfrey Bird.
They had the distinction of being a father and daughter who qualified on the same day, 2nd October 1930. She was 18 years old.
They accomplished this during a two month stay in England when they came home to visit family.
The club counted some distinguished Hampshire residents as members. Sir Alliott Verdon Roe of Bursledon and Lord Louis Mountbatten were but two.
Jean Lennox Bird was born on 8th July 1912 in Hong Kong to British parents. She was the second daughter. Her elder sister was Margaret Elise Bird. Their father was a respected architect who, together with his brother, designed some of the most notable buildings in Hong Kong and Shanghai, still standing today.
Jean and her family returned to Hong Kong in late 1930. She continued to build up her flying experience there.
When Lt. Col. Bird stepped down from his business partnership with his brother, he brought his family back to England in 1935. By 1937 they were settled into Old Farm, in what is now known as the present day village of Beech, near Alton, Hampshire.
Jean was destined to make her mark on women’s aviation. She came from pioneering stock. Her maternal grandparents supported feminist causes.
Her grandfather was Sir John Cockburn who went to Australia, took up a political career and supported the Women’s Suffrage League there, before he returned to England. Back in London, Cockburn and his wife continued to support the Suffragette Movement. So, challenging the status quo was in Jean Bird’s DNA. She was not going to disappoint.
When the Second World War started Jean joined the WAAF in 1940. In December she was appointed assistant section leader. On 1st August 1941 she resigned from the WAAF and transferred to the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). She stayed with the ATA until it’s closure when First Officer J. L. Bird left on 30th November 1945. She had ferried such aircraft as Hurricanes, Spitfires, Wellingtons, Beaulighters. Mosquitos and Dakotas.
After the war the Spitfire Girl worked as a commercial pilot. In 1946 Jean flew to the rescue of a young lady wanting to return to Britain for her wedding. Jean piloted a single-engine air taxi from South Africa to Croydon to get the bride to the church on time. With no ships leaving Durban it was the only way the bride could get home.
Jean then became very active as an Air Training Officer with the Women’s Junior Air Corp. She taught many girls to fly. Miss Bird was an expert glider pilot.
It was Jean Bird who pioneered for women to be able to gain their RAF wings. In September 1949 she signed up with Women’s Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (WRAFVR). She put in the necessary hours of training and managed to persuade someone in a position of authority inside the RAF to let her qualify for full wings.
In September 1952 she made history when she became the first woman pilot to do so. She had clocked up over 3,000 hours in more than 90 different types of aircraft.
In a blaze of publicity Pilot-Officer Bird was presented with her full wings at a ceremony at Redhill Aerodrome. News cameras filmed the occasion.
Jean had paved the way for some of her ex-ATA friends to train for their wings. Four women matched her achievement before the door was shut on any more females doing the same.
One of them was Jackie Moggridge. She was forever grateful to Jean for the opportunity to train in the WRAFVR for her wings. Benedetta Willis, Joan Hughes and Freydis Leaf were the other three who comprised the First Five Women who got their wings in the 1950s. Read their story here: Forgotten First Five.
Flying Officer ‘X’.
Jean wasn’t finished yet with breaking down barriers. Miss Bird then ruffled the feathers of the RAF Club in Piccadilly when she applied to join this exclusive all male establishment. Her application form omitted her gender but included all the necessary qualifications. She was accepted but was booted out of the Club as soon as she tried to enter the premises. The newspapers got a sniff of the story and wanted to know, ‘Who Is Flying Officer X?’ Both Jean and the RAF Club remained tight lipped.
Mum’s Army Sharp Shooter Jean.
Jane Hurst is an Alton local historian who has carried out some research on behalf of Solent Aviatrix. My thanks to Jane for contributing this marvellous gem of history to add to Jean Bird’s life story:
“Jean’s father, Lt. Col. Bird, was in one of the local Home Guards in WWII. These were all stood down at the end of 1944 but one was reformed in Alton for a short while in the 1950s. This time quite a few women joined their ranks and Jean Bird was one of 16 female members of the 3rd Hants (Alton) Battalion of the Home Guard. She started in December 1955 and was a keen small-bore shot and said to be very good, regularly attending the unit’s .22 shoots at Alton T.A. Drill Hall. Earlier she had been a member of the Alton Rifle Club. The Air Ministry had given permission for Jean to join the Home Guard but they would not release her from the liability to recall whilst on the reserve.”
How many of us knew that the Home Guard was revived after it’s closure at the end of the war? Opportunity there for a Dad’s Army Reunion movie? Although peace had been restored with the defeat of Hitler in 1945, the Home Guard was reformed in 1951 to complement the regular forces against the perceived growing threat of the Soviet Union. It was closed down again in 1957.
Untimely death, dubious ‘accident’ verdict.
In 1957 Jean Lennox Bird died in an air crash at Ringway Airport, when she was pilot for an aerial survey aircraft. She was 44 years old. The coroner’s verdict was accidental death, despite a wrong part having been fitted to the aircraft. The conclusion that this ‘did not amount to culpable negligence’ would not stand up to scrutiny today. The evidence suggests that it was gross negligence that took the life of this trail blazing pilot. Like her father, Jean was buried at sea.
Britain had lost a leading personality in women’s aviation. Her contribution is recognised by British Women Pilots’ Association (BWPA) who honoured her achievements and memory by creating the Jean Lennox Bird trophy. It is awarded each year to one of their outstanding members. Two of the past winners were Jackie Moggridge and Joan Hughes. See BWPA for more and to view an image of Jean proudly wearing her wings.
A celebration of Jean Lennox Bird’s life is long overdue in this the year of RAF100. It starts here!