About Diana Barnato Walker
Diana Barnato Walker, an heiress to a South African diamond mining fortune who took up flying in the 1930s and became a celebrated aviator as one of a group of women who delivered new fighters and bombers to combat squadrons in World War II, died on April 28. She was 90.
Diana Barnato Walker set a speed record as a pilot in 1963.
Her son, Barney Walker, said that Mrs. Walker died in a hospital near her sheep farm in Surrey, and that the cause was pneumonia.
Mrs. Walker, a granddaughter of Barney Barnato, a co-founder of the De Beers mining company in Johannesburg, was 18 years old when she discovered her calling in 1936. Seeking a break from the social whirl of a young debutante in London, she paid £3 for a flying lesson in a Tiger Moth biplane at the Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit and never turned back.
In 1941, after serving as a nursing auxiliary with the British expeditionary force, which had been driven from France by the German invasion the year before, she passed rigorous tests and became a member of what The Times of London described in 2005 as “the pluckiest sisterhood in military history,” the women’s arm of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Only a little over five feet tall, Mrs. Walker often needed a special cushion to allow her to reach the controls of the aircraft she flew.
Known as the “Atagirls,” the transport auxiliary pilots — 108 by the war’s end in 1945 — joined more than 500 male pilots in delivering many of the most renowned aircraft of the war to squadrons across Britain. Mrs. Walker, like the other women in the group, flew Spitfire, Hurricane and Mustang fighters, as well as Wellington and Hampden bombers, though not heavy bombers; only male pilots were judged to have the physical strength to handle those.
Mrs. Walker alone delivered 260 Spitfires during her four years in uniform, according to wartime records. In one month, September 1944, she delivered 33 aircraft of 14 types. Pilots were often asked to fly in poor weather, without instruments, without combat weaponry and frequently without radios.
A total of 16 women piloting the ferry runs were killed in the war, nearly one in six, a ratio that aviation historians say was worse than that suffered by the Royal Air Force’s wartime fighter pilots.
Mrs. Walker, who survived many brushes with death, wrote in her 1994 autobiography, “Spreading My Wings,” that she owed her survival to a “guardian angel.” Twice the unarmed planes she was flying came were attacked by German aircraft, and she emerged uninjured.