Diana Barnato Walker set a speed record as a pilot in 1963.
By John F. Burns
Monday, May 12, 2008
LONDON: Diana Barnato Walker, an heiress to a South African diamond mining fortune who took up flying in the 1930s and became a celebrated aviator as one of a group of women who delivered new fighters and bombers to combat squadrons in World War II, died on April 28. She was 90.
Her son, Barney Walker, said that Walker died in a hospital near her sheep farm in Surrey, and that the cause was pneumonia.
Walker, a granddaughter of Barney Barnato, a co-founder of the De Beers mining company in Johannesburg, was 18 years old when she discovered her calling in 1936. Seeking a break from the social whirl of a young debutante in London, she paid £3 for a flying lesson in a Tiger Moth biplane at the Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit and never turned back.
In 1941, after serving as a nursing auxiliary with the British expeditionary force, which had been driven from France by the German invasion the year before, she passed rigorous tests and became a member of what The Times of London described in 2005 as "the pluckiest sisterhood in military history," the women's arm of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Only a little over five feet tall, Walker often needed a special cushion to allow her to reach the controls of the aircraft she flew.
Known as the "Atagirls," the transport auxiliary pilots--108 by the war's end in 1945 -joined more than 500 male pilots in delivering many of the most renowned aircraft of the war to squadrons across Britain. Walker, like the other women in the group, flew Spitfire, Hurricane and Mustang fighters, as well as Wellington and Hampden bombers, though not heavy bombers; only male pilots were judged to have the physical strength to handle those.
Walker alone delivered 260 Spitfires during her four years in uniform, according to wartime records. In one month, September 1944, she delivered 33 aircraft of 14 types. Pilots were often asked to fly in poor weather, without instruments, without combat weaponry and frequently without radios.
A total of 16 women piloting the ferry runs were killed in the war, nearly one in six, a ratio that aviation historians say was worse than that suffered by the Royal Air Force's wartime fighter pilots.
Walker, who survived many brushes with death, wrote in her 1994 autobiography, "Spreading My Wings," that she owed her survival to a "guardian angel." Twice the unarmed planes she was flying came were attacked by German aircraft, and she emerged uninjured.
There were light moments. The incident that amused her most occurred when she tried aerobatic maneuvers in a Spitfire and found herself flying upside down, unable to right the aircraft. "While I was wondering what to do next, from out of my top overall pocket fell my beautifully engraved silver powder compact," she wrote. "It wheeled round and round the bubble canopy like a drunken sailor on a wall of death, then sent all the face powder over everything."
After she managed to right the plane and land, a "very tall and handsome" RAF pilot hopped onto the wing and told her that he and his fellow pilots had been told to expect "a very, very pretty girl" at the controls, but that "all I can see is some ghastly clown."
Born on Jan. 15, 1918, Diana Barnato Walker was the daughter of Woolf Barnato, a London-based financier who, as chairman of the Bentley car company, won the Le Mans 24-hour race in France three times in succession from 1928.
In 1942 she became engaged to a Battle of Britain fighter ace who later died in a Spitfire crash. In 1944, she married another decorated Spitfire pilot, Derek Walker, and flew alongside him, each in a Spitfire, to a honeymoon in Brussels. He was killed in a flying accident six months after the war ended in 1945. She subsequently began a 30-year relationship with Whitney Straight, an American-born graduate of Cambridge University who was a grand prix racing driver in the 1930s and a Battle of Britain fighter ace. Barney Walker, her survivor, is their son.
Diana Walker continued to fly after the war, when she flew her own light aircraft around Britain encouraging young women to take up careers in aviation through an organization known as the Women's Junior Air Corp. She bought the sheep farm in Surrey and became master of the local fox hunt.
In 1963, at the age of 45, she became the first British woman to fly faster than sound when she piloted a two-seat RAF Lightning fighter at a speed of 1,262 miles an hour over the North Sea. That made her, briefly, holder of the world air speed record for women; it was broken in 1964 by Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, one of more than a dozen American women who had flown with the Air Transport Auxiliary during the war.
In 1964, Odlum, flying an F-104G Starfighter, raised the record to 1,429 miles an hour.
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