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Winnie Drinkwater

Winnie Drinkwater, Aviator
By Mary Simpson, Professor Emeritus of Classroom Learning at Edinburgh University in the Scottish Review

In Scotland there has been a sudden outbreak of interest recently in our own pioneer aviator, Winnie Drinkwater. Born in Cardonald in Glasgow in 1913, she qualified for a private pilot's licence aged 17. Two years later, she gained a commercial licence, making her the world's first female commercial pilot. By the end of 1933 she had also gained an instructor's certificate and a ground engineer's qualification, winning Scottish Flying Club trophies for landing and racing on the way.

One of Winnie's earliest jobs was giving joy rides from Prestwick beach. These rides were immensely popular, despite initial reservations that people would be wary of a female pilot in charge. Professor Dugald Cameron of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Glasgow, reflecting on her career, noted that at that time 'aviation was far more open and far more sensible about having females in it' and indeed there was no reason not to employ them – 'apart from the stupidity of men'.

But Midland Scottish Ferries not only employed her, they agreed and made redress, after she had complained that it was unfair that her pay per week was three pounds 10 shillings, while the men were paid four pounds. Winnie delivered newspapers to the Highlands and islands, was an air ambulance crew member, flew monster hunters over Loch Ness and took part in a sea search for kidnappers escaping by boat. Flying a de Havilland Dragon, she became the first woman pilot to fly the inaugural Glasgow to London service and was a regular airline pilot on scheduled flights thereafter. There is a memorial bust and plaque in her memory in Clyde View Park in Renfrew, and in 2023 it was announced she would have a place in a series of planned interactive street art murals in Cardonald.

She was so remarkable in her aviation achievements that Francisco Short, the head of aeroplane manufacturers Short Brothers, while visiting Renfrew Airport asked to be introduced to her. And that was how in 1934 her amazing and promising career and potential further achievements in aviation came to a sudden halt.

She married him – and of course back then, married women stayed in their proper place, in the home.

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