Engineer of the Week No.63: Eleanor Lettice Curtis (1 February 1915-21 July 2014)
On the 5th anniversary of her death, we remember Lettice Curtis, pioneering commercial pilot and aeronautical engineer.
Lettice Curtis was almost unique in being a pre-WW2 pilot who served through WW2 in the Air Transport Auxiliary and then carved out a full post-war career in the technical side of flying. Eleanor Lettice Curtis was born in Devon into a prosperous and well-connected family, her father W S Curtis being a barrister. She was educated at the very exclusive Benenden School for Girls and then read mathematics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
In 1937 she gained her private pilot’s A certificate, at Yapton Flying Club, Ford, near Chichester, and a year later got the commercial pilot’s B licence, which enabled her to get her first flying job with C.L. Air Services in Eastleigh. Charles Lloyd was under contract to the Ordnance Survey, to take aerial photographs for mapping.In 1939 she went to work for the Ordnance Survey’s research department, drawing maps from aerial photographs and the following year joined her many flying friends in the Air Transport Auxiliary, initially at its Hamble base. During her war service, Lettice became the first female to fly the heavy four-engine bombers, including Halifaxes, Lancasters and the the US B-17 Flying Fortress. She had flown 400 of them by the close of the war.
After the war Lettice was determined (and fortunate) to keep flying professionally and became a technician and flight test observer at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) military aircraft test establishment at Boscombe Down in 1948. Her role was to fly in the planes under test and make manual recordings of insturmentation in flight. She undertook this role on many different planes, including Hermes, Ambassador and Marathon, and often flew to Khartoum for the planes to be tested under tropical conditions. During this period she also became a keen competitor in flying races. One of her first races, the Lympne high-speed flying handicap, in a borrowed Spitfire saw her set up a new international women's record for the 100-kllometres closed circuit, doing 313.07 mph. Not long after she bought her own plane, a two-seater Wicko, G-AFJB, from her ex-ATA friend Philippa Bennett, for racing and took part in numerous high-profile races, often on England’s south coast, in which she was usually one of a tiny number of female entrants.
In 1953 she moved toFairey Aviation to be their senior flight development engineer. She was there until the 1960s and was again doing flight tests on such planes as the Royal Navy’s Gannet anti-submarine strike aircraft. Lettice then moved to the Ministry of Aviation, working for a number of years on the initial planning of the joint civil/RAF Air Traffic Control Centre at West Drayton, before moving again, to the Operations Inspectorate of the Civil Aviation Authority. Retiring from the CAA in 1976, she took a job with a firm supplying contractors to the Sperry Corporation at Bracknell. In the same year she was asked to fly one of two Defenders (military version of the Britten-Norman Islander) from Bembridge, Isle of Wight, to Cochin in India. Two, military version of the Islander, were to be ferried to the Indian Navy.The other Defender was flown by Janet Ferguson, both planes being disguised as British-registered (rather than Indian which was the reality) because of tensions with Pakistan.
Lettice continued to fly in her retirement and qualified to fly helicopters in October 1992 but voluntarily "grounded" herself in 1995. She died in 2014. For more detail about her amazing life and work, see her two books, ‘Forgotten Pilots’ and ‘Lettice Curtis, Her Autobiography.’