Margaret Cunnison


Margaret Cunnison was born on 29.05.1914, the second daughter of James and Isabella Cunnison (nee Inverarity).  There appears to be some dubiety around the location of Margaret’s birthplace: one Wikipedia site names it as Haddington, East Lothian, whilst census records state it to be King’s Norton, Warwickshire.  (Her Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate, dated 1933, identifies the place of birth as Bournville, Birmingham.)

The family (on both sides) originated in the Blairgowrie area of Perthshire over several generations and made many prestigious contributions to the broader local communities.  However, Margaret’s parents were recorded as living in Bournville, Birmingham in the 1911 census and her elder sister Kathleen was born in Birmingham in 1912.  James was noted to be a lecturer in Social Economics at Glasgow University in 1919. 

Margaret gained her private “A” pilot’s licence in 1933, at the age of 19, whilst living in Milngavie, apparently after having entered a competition to win an “air scholarship” sponsored by the “Evening News” newspaper; the prize being lessons with the Scottish Flying Club.  Later, Margaret travelled to Lympne in Kent, where she gained her “B” licence, enabling her to pilot commercial aircraft. Margaret was the second woman in Scotland to gain a commercial licence.

In 1937, Margaret was appointed the chief instructor at Strathtay Aero Club in Perth.  She was only the second woman in the whole of the UK to qualify as an instructress at a flying club and – at the time of her appointment – was the only female flying instructor in Scotland.  No mean feat for a lass who had only learned to fly four years before!

The ATA itself began with a suggestion proposed by Gerard d’Erlanger, the director of British Airways, in 1938, when he foresaw a problem.  A war with Germany would lead not only to the suspension of many overseas routes, but also to the impounding of civil aircraft by the British government. The result would inevitably be – in his opinion – that commercial airline pilots would have no planes to fly and nowhere to go. Some of these commercial and civilian pilots could, and would, be absorbed into the Royal Air Force, but many capable and experienced pilots, because of their ages and in some cases because of physical limitations, would not be considered suitable for operational service in the Royal Air Force.

But d’Erlanger believed that war would create a demand for the service these pilots could provide, such as transporting dispatches, mail, supplies, medical officers, ambulance cases, not to mention the occasional VIP. He proposed the creation of a pool of peacetime civil pilots who could employ their aviation skills in service of their country.

As he was the one with the idea, d’Erlanger was given the job of contacting holders of “A” (private) licenses with at least 250 hours of flying time, and making arrangements to interview and flight-test these candidates, with the goal of incorporating them into this newly created organization, which was given the working name “Air Transport Auxiliary.”

 In preparation for a wartime standing, the ATA was given the urgent task of ferrying trainers, fighters, and bombers from storage units to RAF squadrons. Before the war, the RAF had thought it could handle all its own ferrying duties, but it was becoming apparent, from an early stage, that more aircraft would be required to have a viable air force. The resultant workload was beyond the capacity of the RAF ferry pilots. With its ever-increasing demand for ferrying services, the Under Secretary of State for Air proposed that the ATA open its ranks to women. There was a snag, though. The ATA was now operating out of RAF ferry pools, its pilots working alongside RAF transport pilots, and the Air Ministry was opposed to the posting of women pilots to RAF units.

Politically and culturally, there was opposition, as well, the arguments falling broadly along two lines:

1. Aviation was an unsuitable profession for a woman.
2. Women pilots would be taking flying jobs away from men.

The view taken by C. G. Grey, editor of “Aeroplane” magazine was typical of the sentiment of the time: “there are millions of women in the country who could do useful jobs in war. But the trouble is that so many of them insisting on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and yet can’t cook her husband’s dinner. There are men like that so there is no need to charge us with anti-feminism. One of the most difficult types of man with whom one has to deal is that which has a certain amount of ability, too much self-confidence, an overload of conceit, a dislike of taking orders and not enough experience to balance one against the other by his own will. The combination is perhaps more common amongst women than men. And it is one of the commonest causes of crashes, in aeroplanes and other ways.” 

Despite this somewhat widely-held perspective, Pauline Gower – a commercial pilot with over 2000 hours’ experience and a commissioner in the Civil Air Guard – was charged in November 1939 with the unenviable task of forming a female contingent of the ATA, consisting of a pool of eight women pilots to ferry Tiger Moths, which were small, slow single-engine open cockpit trainers. Pauline was appointed commander of this first batch of women flyers, and, like d’Erlanger, she would hold the post throughout the war.

The women would be based at Hatfield, just north of London and would fly their planes from the nearby de Havilland factory to training airfields and storage units. As it turned out, these destinations would be located for the most part in northern England and Scotland. As it also turned out, this task would be done in the middle of winter. There were two reasons why the women were given this task:

1. Nobody else wanted it.
2. Light trainers would be cheapest to replace if broken by a woman. As Pauline herself remarked on this attitude, “(“It’s assumed) that hand that rocked the cradle wrecked the crate.”

Margaret joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1940 with the other initial seven ladies who formed the First Eight (Joan Hughes – the youngest of the group at aged 21; Mona Friedlander, Rosemary Rees, Marion Wilberforce, Margaret Fairweather, Gabrielle Patterson and Winifred Crossley Fair). They were appointed by Pauline Gower, now officially the Commandant of the ATA’s women’s section. All these women were highly experienced, each having more than six hundred hours of flying time, and all were rated flying instructors. This was the first time in history (in England, or anywhere else in the world) that women would be officially employed in ferrying military aircraft.  As with the men, they came from all walks of life. Several were mothers (and there was one grandmother!), including the world-famous record-setting endurance pilot Amy Johnson, who was killed on a ferry trip in January 1941.  At this time, the women pilots were not allowed to ferry operational aircraft. Flying fighter planes was considered beyond a woman’s physical and psychological capabilities, though some of the non-operational single-engine planes they flew were almost as powerful, and their handling almost as complex, as the Hurricanes and Spitfires they dreamed of flying.

Margaret was the leading instructor at Hatfield Aerodrome, with responsibility for evaluating and training the new pilots. She signed off on the American women pilots at Luton. As a result of this role, Margaret mostly flew light aircraft. Margaret trained most of the women in the A.T.A.

In the meantime, Pauline worked tirelessly to get her women recognized as competent to ferry more advanced aircraft, and finally the decision was made to allow women to fly Lysanders, which were light Army Co-op planes designed for short take-offs and landings, and twin-engine non-operational aircraft, such as Oxfords and Dominies. 

Eventually, the ATA would have twenty-two ferry pools. Some pools, like Hamble, Cosford, and Hatfield (which in 1942 moved to Luton) were all-women ferry pools. Most of the others were “mixed,” with men and women pilots working side-by-side

With aircraft factories under constant attack, it was vital to get planes out of harm’s way as soon as they were flyable. So, maintenance units, or MUs, were built, where the fine work (installing armament and radios, and making other minor modifications) could be carried out under safer conditions. MUs were smaller units and could be easily hidden around the countryside. The use of MUs followed on a grander scale, the general principle of “dispersal” as practiced at RAF bases: scattering aircraft around as much as possible and camouflaging them, to minimize losses in the event of aerial attack. This protection came at a cost to ATA resources: A plane needed to be ferried twice in its journey from factory to RAF base, so ATA movements were doubled from the start. If the planes were damaged in combat and could not be repaired at squadron workshops, they were ferried back to the MUs, or in some cases factories, for repair (if the planes were flyable, that is, and often they were barely airworthy, another challenged to ferry pilots). [1]

Margaret married Major Geoffrey Ebbage in 1943, at which time she left the Air Transport Auxiliary. The couple were married at Glasgow University Chapel, possibly because of her father’s connection to the university.

Geoffrey, twelve years older than Margaret, was a doctor – following in his father’s footsteps – and the author of several works in areas of his clinical field. Geoffrey had previously been awarded the Freedom of the City of London in 1924 and served during the war as an ophthalmic surgeon with the Royal Army Medical Corps. The couple lived in or around the Highgate area of London from 1946 to at least 1965 and Geoffrey died on 05.09.71 in London, leaving behind an estate to the value of £18,555.

Margaret and Geoffrey had one child, Ian, born in 1948. Margaret herself passed away on 04.01.2004, in Haddington, leaving a son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.  Her legacy is, however, an extensive one.

A bus company in Hatfield, Hertfordshire named its eight buses after the “First Eight” of the Tiger Moth pilots in the ATA, including Margaret.

In 2008, four years after Margaret’s death, the fifteen surviving women members of the ATA (and one hundred surviving male pilots) were given a special award by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

In 1953, five women (Jackie Moggridge; Jean Bird; Benedetta Willis; Freydis Leaf and Joan Hughes) were the first women to be awarded their wings.  Jackie Moggridge (nee Dolores Theresa Sorour) had been recruited by Pauline Gower – see above – into the ATA at the age of 18, not that long after Margaret, making her the youngest female pilot at that time.  The next female pilot to be granted her wings was Julie Ann Gibson – in 1991.  Without the ground-breaking achievements of the First Eight, none of this may have been possible.

Research by Sue Gibson

Reference:

[1] Much of this information was garnered from the British Air Transport Auxiliary site

 ATA History (airtransportaux.com)

THE AIR TRANSPORT AUXILIARY, 1939-1945. (C 382) The first pilots of the ATA Womens’ Section pilots walking past newly-completed De Havilland Tiger Moths awaiting delivery to their units at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. They are, (right to left): Miss Pauline Gower, Commandant of the Women’s Section, Miss M Cunnison (partly obscured), Mrs Winifred Crossley, The Hon. Mrs Fairweather, Miss Mona Friedlander, Miss Joan Hughes, Mrs G Paterson and Miss Ros… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205211860
THE AIR TRANSPORT AUXILIARY, 1939-1945. (C 389) Pauline Gower (far left), Commandant of the Women’s Section of the ATA, stands with eight other founding female ATA pilots at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, by newly-completed De Havilland Tiger Moths awaiting delivery to their units. The other pilots are; (left to right), Mrs Winifred Crossley, Miss M Cunnison, The Hon. Mrs Fairweather, Miss Mona Friedlander, Miss Joan Hughes, Mrs G Paterson, Miss Rose… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207477

Margaret Cunnison, Rosemary Rees, and Gabrielle Patterson, 1940. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)
Pauline Gower, Winnie Crossley & Margaret Cunnison as 2nd Officer