W.24  Flight Captain Eleanor Isabella 'Susan' Slade 

flag UK

b. 10 Jan 1904, Hong Kong  1 Nov-40 to Jul-44 

  1928   c.1935  susan slade ATA ATA, with Graham Head  

 

 

 The Sketch - October 1929

"The popular secretary of Airwork, Heston Air Park - Miss Eleanor Slade"

 

"Efficiently managing the day-to-day business [of the King's Cup] was dynamic little Susan Slade... herself a pilot of considerable ability who has her own Moth". C G Grey

Dutch Rally (L Everard, Susan Slade etc) In Holland, with Lyndsey Everard et al

 

Rallye Aerien Chateau d'Ardenne 17-19 May 1930 Susan Slade Rallye Aerien, Chateau d'Ardenne 17-19 May 1930 with Adelaide Cleaver

She won the first All-Ladies Race at Sywell, Northants in September 1931 (the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce was second).

The Bystander Special Aviation Edition, 1933

 

On one flight with her elder sister Betsy in 1938 over Germany, having missed their destination, they came down at the Berchtesgaden; Herr Hitler was away at the time, but the servants gave them a conducted tour.

 

On the 21st May 1940, Susan wrote to Cmdr Gerard d'Erlanger, the head of the ATA, whom she knew quite well from before the war. She said: 

"Dear Pops,
I'm writing to ask if you will have any vacancies for ATA girls - I did apply originally but I had to give up the idea as Airwork refused to release me under about three months & I could not even attend the flying test as I couldn't be spared on the day it took place.
The situation is slightly different now. It seems fairly certain that we shall be turned out of Heston at any moment & apart from running the show here the rest of my work should only take about one week per month, which I feel someone else could be found to do. I should have a certain amount of clearing up to do naturally & so, as the date of the evacuation is unknown, I cannot say when I would be free.
I also feel that having spent 11 years in learning something about flying, I would be more useful at the present moment making use of this knowledge. I have already filled in the forms & if you think you could make use of me I could probably come for a test any time.
I shall be very grateful for any advice you can give me."

Susan was, indeed, one of the most experienced women aviators in the country - on her original application form, dated the previous December (1939), she quoted a total of 579 hours (1 of them night-flying) on "DH60, DH80, DH85, Avro Avian, Cadet, Klemm, Bluebird, and Puss Moth, in the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Hungary, Poland and Switzerland."

HH Leech Clarkson Susan Slade Lady Runciman

In support of her new application, Airwork's Managing Director M D N Wyatt wrote this, in September 1940:
"Miss E. I. Slade was employed by this Company from February 1929 to June 1940. Her duties entailed the management of the Airport Hotel and Restaurant and she also had considerable responsibilities in connection with the Airport Club. During the time she was employed by Airwork Limited she carried out her duties satisfactorily, and we can confidently recommend her for any position of trust."

She eventually signed up on November 1st, and reported for her Flight Test on the 24th, with this outcome:
"Miss Slade is assessed a pilot of average ability. Her chief fault is inaccurate turns; difficulty is also experienced in settling down on a Northerly course."


Not brilliant, then, but at least Mr McMillan then went on to say "It is recommended that her appointment be confirmed".

Susan duly started, and by January 1942 was being recommended for promotion to Flight Captain by Marion  Wilberforce (Officer Commanding No 5 Ferry Pool, q.v.): "I have every confidence in recommending First Officer Slade to be considered for promotion on February 15th. She has shown great devotion to duty, accepted responsibility, and taken over command of the Pool when necessary."

This despite the first of her little mishaps - on 6 Aug 1941, she made a heavy landing in a Miles Master at Brize Norton, and was deemed to be 'at fault'.

The powers that be more-or-less concurred: 'First Officer Slade works hard, and in the absence of O.C. No 5 FPP (i.e. Marion Wilberforce) in fact takes over Command of the Pool. She is conscientious and hard working [I think you already mentioned that, actually], but hardly to be classed as a full time pilot".

["hardly to be classed as a full time pilot" is rather an odd thing to say, don't you think... what can they possibly mean?]

Her flying instruction report, unfortunately, makes less than inspiring reading; she "had considerable difficulty at first and her progress has been slow throughout. She has a temperamental nature and it was necessary to change her instructor."

I'm inclined to think that this was a clash of personalities between her and the original instructor. I haven't come across anyone else who thought that Susan was 'temperamental'; quite the opposite, in fact - for example, in December 1942, the replacement instructor reports that she is a 'keen pilot with a most likeable personality".

Anyway, the following January (1943), here we go again; she over-corrected landing a Mosquito, and the undercarriage collapsed. Again, she was deemed to be 'at fault'.

People were starting to get the (mixed) message; her confidential report from her Commanding Officer in February 1943 says she "has carried out her duties as Flight Captain in a very satisfactory manner. Her sense of discipline is good, and she is a capable organiser and can always be trusted to do her job efficiently and well. She should make a good Second in Command."

... followed by the usual sting in the tail: "An average pilot".

In March 1944, she was driving back in the dark to her billet after duty, turned a corner and ran into a lorry. She said it wasn't showing any lights (the driver said, oh yes it was) but in any case she hit some scaffolding which was sticking out of the back of the lorry and had some considerable injuries to her head and face, needing dental and other repairs. She was off work for a month, returning to duty on the 13th April.


Three months later, she was dead; on the 13th July, piloting Wellington Z1690, she crashed after take-off at Little Rissington. The aircraft "turned through 50 deg to starboard, lost height, crashed in a field and was totally destroyed."

vickers wellington

The Gloucester Echo reported it thus; "DIED IN SWERVE TO AVOID VILLAGE. RISSINGTON INQUEST A 40-years-old woman's dive to death in a service 'plane she was flying over the Cotswolds, and her swerve to avoid crashing on a village, were described at an inquest held at Little Rissington on Thursday.

The inquest was on Eleanor Isabella Slade, a single woman, who held the rank of Flight Captain in the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Coroner (Mr. J. D. Lane) recorded a verdict of "Death by Misadventure." Capt John Denys Mead, Air Transport Auxiliary, said that Miss Slade was the daughter of the late Marcus Warre Slade, a barrister, and of Mrs. Slade, of Minerva House Farm, Stanwell Moor, Colnebrook, Bucks. She was detailed on July 13 to take a 'plane to a certain R.A.F. station.

Dr. John Terence Gardiner, serving as a Flying Officer and medical officer at an R.A.F. station, stated that he was informed of a crash and, on arriving on the scene at 6.40 p.m. he found the aircraft on fire. He examined the body of the pilot and in his opinion death was due to multiple injuries and burns. After a number of technical witnesses had been heard, Police Special-Sgt. Sidney Taylor, stationed at Great Rissington, stated that at 6.15 p.m. on July 13 he saw a number of 'planes in flight, one of them flying low and heading for the village. It swerved, and Sgt. Taylor heard it crash about half a mile away in a field known as Whaddon, on Glebe Farm, Great Rissington.

CAUSE UNKNOWN A maintenance engineer was unable to account for the crash.

Recording his verdict of 'Death by Misadventure,' the Coroner expressed sympathy with Miss Slade's mother and her colleagues, and spoke of her courageous act in swerving to avoid what would almost certainly have been a crash on the village, involving perhaps the lives of several people. "

I have found references to this accident claiming that 'elevator trim' was suggested as a cause, but I have found no evidence for this; on the contrary, both the official investigation and the subsequent inquest found 'insufficient cause to account for the accident.' The starboard engine was being examined at one stage, but nothing seems to have come of that.

The wreaths at her funeral were from just about everyone she worked with:

"With love from Peter and Winnie Fair;
With deepest sympathy from Ken Howitt;
With love from Lois Butler;
With deepest sympathy from Engineering and Instruction Officers and Staff, ATA Thame;
With deepest sympathy from Station Officers and Personnel ATA Thame;
C.O. ATA & DWF on behalf of ATA;
Mrs Gerard d'Erlanger;
O.C. and Staff Officers No 5 TFP;
Pilots and Clerical Staff No 5 TFP;
Instructors, Staff and Pupils IFTS, and
O.C. No 12 and Pilots"

Brief Glory - The Story of the ATA - says "her death in the air was an irreparable loss to the Thame Ferry Pool and to civil aviation".

All of which goes to show that, even with her perceived limitations as a pilot, Susan Slade was a hard-working and trusted administrator, and an extraordinary, talented and much-loved lady.

Connie Leathart Lady Runciman HH Leech Clarkson Susan Slade 

r., with ??, Connie Leathart, Lady Runciman, HH Leech, Flt Lt Clarkson

 

Susan lived at Mallard's Court, Stokenchurch and is buried in Stokenchurch Church Cemetery:

 

She owned:

a 1927  DH.60X Moth (G-EBSA), then

a 1929 DH.60G Gipsy Moth (G-AAIW), and

a 1931 DH.80A Puss Moth (G-ABLX).


 Download ATA Pilot Personal Record (.zip files):download grey download grey

 

 

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