The story of a young woman who might have
become the RAF’s first female pilot

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.

Author Bill ToddThe magazine of Barbara’s old school, Wycombe High, 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.

Here is Barbara’s story.




AN extended account of Barbara’s short life is now available in the book PIGTAIL PILOT. The book includes more background and pictures and is available as a Kindle and Kobo ebook and in paperback. Just click on these links:
Kindle ebook:
Kobo ebook: