Pigtail Pilot

A young woman who might have become the RAF’s first female pilot.

The 17-minute flight ended in tragedy when the training aircraft spun into the ground, killing a World War Two veteran and a young pupil who might have become the first woman to gain her RAF pilot’s wings.

Barbara Gubbins made her first solo flight at the age of 17 after 5½ hours flying and gained her private pilot’s licence soon after. Dubbed the “Pigtail Pilot” in a newspaper photo caption, Barbara paid for her flying by picking fruit and giving horse riding lessons.

A talented scientist with a passion for chemistry and applied mathematics, she went to Nottingham University and joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a cadet pilot.

Barbara, an only child, had logged some 150 hours of day and night flying at the time of the crash. She was 20 years old. Her attempt to fly through glass ceilings had put her on track to become the RAF’s first woman pilot, a distinction that went just six months later to Pilot Officer Jean Lennox Bird.

This is Barbara’s story.

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The training flight took off at 11.40am. The instructor, Flight Lieutenant Eric Church, was a 31-year-old veteran of Coastal Command in World War Two, mentioned in despatches for “valuable services in the air”.

His pupil was 20-year-old Barbara Gubbins, a Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve trainee pilot who had already logged 150 flying hours.

The aircraft, a single-engine, two-seater Percival Prentice Mk1 of 16 Reserve Flying School, took off from RAF Burnaston near Derby and headed westward over the open farming country of south Derbyshire.

The aim of the day was the practice the recognition and recovery from a spin, a vital element of training to enable a pilot to recover when their aircraft loses lift and control and spirals earthwards like a leaf.

Seventeen minutes after takeoff the aircraft spun into the ground just north of the River Dove near the village of Scropton.

The crew might have attempted to bail out but both were killed when the Prentice hit the ground.

Barbara Gubbins lived for flying and was close to becoming the first qualified woman pilot in the Royal Air Force.

But Barbara was also a talented horse rider, accomplished sportswoman and passionate about science. At a time when glass ceilings were probably lower than they are now, she reached for the sky.

Barbara’s school magazine described her with words like “zest”, “unswerving determination”, “outstanding achievement”, “exceptionally able”, “infectious interest”. And these words were more than 60 years ago when praise was harder to come by.

She strikes me as an exceptional young woman. She was also my cousin. I never met her but have always felt her achievement and lost potential should be remembered.

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I’ve spent most of my working life as a journalist and was pleased and surprised to win an award for my travel writing. Before that I tried all sorts of jobs including furniture removals, photography, teaching and running a magazine group.

Travel writing is not all cocktails under the palm trees but it’s a fantastic job that has taken me to more than 40 countries, from the pure white wastes of Arctic Finland to the ancient deserts of Namibia.

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