“Everybody was flabbergasted that a little girl like me could fly these big airplanes all by oneself,” Mary Ellis said at her 100th birthday party last year in Britain. But fly them she did, delivering British Spitfires and other warplanes to the front lines during World War II, reports the New York Times. Ellis' story—which the 5-foot-2 aviator chronicled in her Spitfire Girl autobiography—is getting attention again this week because of her death at 101 at home on the Isle of Wright. Ellis estimates that she flew 1,000 planes during the war as a volunteer with Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary, reports the BBC. Only three other female ATA pilots are believed to survive now. Remarkably, most of their missions were flown solo and without compass or radio assistance, notes the Washington Post.
Ellis' 2016 memoir recounts a flight in which a German fighter plane flew near her. “With one hand I waved at this pilot to move away and get out of my sight,” she wrote. “I can picture his grinning face now. Then he cheekily waved back again and again—and then suddenly he was gone. I wondered if it was my blonde curls that caused him to stare as I never ever wore a helmet during my whole career with the ATA. What was the point of a helmet when we couldn’t speak to anyone? It didn’t do much for the hairstyle either.” Ellis took flying lessons as a teenager but flew for pleasure until hearing a radio ad in 1941 looking for ATA volunteers. She signed up and flew through the entire war. (Read more obituary stories.)