Daughter of Samuel Arthur Sayer (a chartered civil engineer) and of Elizabeth Emma [Mills], of Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey.
Betty's niece tells me that "They came back to England in 1916 or 17 because Elizabeth was pregnant and wanted to give birth in England. She was afraid of U-boats and so came on the trans-Siberian railway but it took a long time as they got caught up in the Russian revolution and spent days parked in sidings. I think they spent several weeks on the train. I think they ended up in Sweden and had to get a boat across to Scotland."
[Davd Cooke has discovered that Samuel Sayer headed the architectural department of a company named Republic Land Investment, which was responsible for designing the New Asia Hotel in Shanghai. This was opened in 1934 and is still a landmark building – see http://www.newasiahotelshanghai.com/ ]
Betty and her elder sister Kathleen then sailed, with their mother Elizabeth, from England to Canada in 1919, and back from Japan in 1927.
Elizabeth died in October 1932 in her early 40s (apparently "she died of cirrhosis of the liver, was most annoyed by it as she had never drunk alcohol") and in the following year Betty and Kathleen (by then 15 and 19) sailed to Shanghai.
"From all accounts Betty was a bit of a tearaway (possibly taking after her mother). I remember seeing a letter from my grandfather to my mother after Betty had come back saying how much he missed her and commenting on her lively behaviour.
As far as ships go I remember my mother (Kathleen) saying quite late in life that she thought that every ship she had sailed on had ended being sunk!"
Betty was then back in England for a few years, and took her Royal Aero Club certificate in 1937.
Prev. Exp: 37 hrs solo
Betty was an 'Assistant Passenger Agent', working for Messrs Butterfield and Swire in Shanghai in 1940, but she had gained her Royal Aero Club 'A' Licence 3 years before. So, when the call came for women pilots for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), she didn't hesitate; clutching this letter of introduction, she made her way back to England:
She explained to the ATA that her licence had, in fact, expired in August 1940; she had got half way through the course for a 'B' licence but abandoned this to return to Shanghai to join her father. She had 37 hrs 51 min solo, out of a total of 90 hrs 55min - "chiefly Tiger Moths and Gypsy I"
'Well', said the ATA, 'as you've come all this way, you'd better have a flight test.' Which she did, and it was satisfactory.
As quite often happened, nothing happened. When they finally did write, it was to say that there were no vacancies, and anyway, "nobody with less than 50 hrs solo can be accepted at the moment."
Betty was understandably, a tiny bit annoyed. She wrote to them, again: "I told you at the time about my solo hours... there would seem to be little point in my carrying out a flight test ... I have travelled here from Shanghai for the express purpose of doing something to help the war effort... Could you please let me know when I may expect to hear from you, as naturally I do not wish to do nothing whilst awaiting a communication from you... I might join the WAAF, although naturally I would prefer to become a member of the ATA."
They wrote back on the 28 March 1941: "You are on the first reserve", then on 5 April the long-awaited call came through: "Please report on May 1st".
Betty was keen, and started instruction; she was 'shaping well', but the next setback came on 9 May:
"We have sufficient pilots to cope with our work at present, and we do not require your services. You had slightly less experience than any of the pilots we have taken on so far."
ATA Senior Commander Pauline Gower was not best pleased, either; she wrote to her boss, "I have had to dispense with the services of Miss Sayer as a pilot ... You instructed me to bring our numbers up to 40, and this is what I have done."
Poor Betty was shunted off to the non-flying staff, as a Secretary on 3 pounds 10 shillings a week. There she languished for a few weeks until, on the 3 July 1941, in another triumph of long-term planning, she was ... put on the flying strength once again. She had another test, on the 17th:
"Miss Sayer is obviously inexperienced and requires more practice with forced landings and compass turns. Try her again after another 20 hours dual and solo"
By the 9th Aug 1941 they reported: "Better: her turns near the ground have improved... enterprising and sensible in her flying."
The final, bitter blow was only just round the corner, however; on the 15 Mar 1942, she (with Bridget Hills (q.v.)) was killed at 12.20pm on the 15 Mar 1942 when flying as a passenger in Fairchild Argus HM178, which stalled and crashed onto a bungalow when returning to land at White Waltham after bad weather.
Yorkshire Evening Post, 17 Mar 1942: "AIRWOMEN KILLED Ferry Pilots' 'Plane Hit Bungalow. The Ministry of Aircraft Production announces that Flying Officer Graham Lever, Third Officer Bridget Hill, and Third Officer Bessie Sayers lost their lives in a flying accident on Sunday. The accident occurred in the course of their duties with the Air Transport Auxiliary. The 'plane crashed on to a bungalow. A fourth passenger in the machine, also a woman A.T.A. officer, was injured. Twenty-six people were injured when they rushed to the house to extricate the passengers in the 'plane. It is believed that the petrol tank in the machine exploded.
Among the injured were children who were in the street. The petrol tank exploded some time after the crash, owing, it is believed, to contact with a fire in the kitchen. A man named Croft, living in an adjoining bungalow, was blown through a window into the street and badly hurt but a child in the front room of the bungalow was rescued almost uninjured. "
She was buried at Maidenhead Cemetery - Sec. D. Row K.K. Grave 19., and is named on the memorial at Stoke d'Abernon.
Pauline wrote that "she was a vey keen pilot, who had her heart in her work. She flew well and had the makings of a good ferry pilot."
Download ATA Pilot Personal Record (.zip file):