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Why my 93-year-old gran is learning to fly

Posted by SDD Contributor on December 3, 2019 at 6:04 pm

Mollie Macartney‘s passion for planes began during her wartime service. Now she‘s taking to the skies herself – and passing on her appetite for adventure to her 12-year-old granddaughter.

On a bright but slightly cloudy day, 93-year-old Mollie is standing on an airfield near London, preparing to start her next flying lesson.

“Ordinary flying is very boring, I hate it – but this, you see so much,” she says, “England is so beautiful. I never realised that there were probably 50 shades of green.”

It is something she has done on major birthdays since she was 70 and just one facet of her active life (she‘s a keen horse-rider too).

Joining Mollie at the airfield for the time is her 12-year-old granddaughter Matilda.

“I‘ve heard all about her flying but I‘ve never been here and witnessed it,” says Matilda, “I hope she is a better navigator in the plane than when she is driving us here.”

Mollie‘s passion for flying began in World War Two. She was inspired by the women pilots she saw delivering planes from the factories to the front line.

“When I joined the Wrens [Women‘s Royal Naval Service] I didn‘t realise that women could fly,” she says.

“I was watching Pathe Gazette and they said this woman was bringing in a Wellington [bomber] and I thought, ‘Oh, why did I join the Wrens? I could have done that,‘ and ever since I thought I must go in an aeroplane and learn to fly.”

Aged just 16 when she joined, Mollie admits she forged her birth certificate, knowing the Navy would not take her if she was under 17.

“We all wanted to join up. We weren‘t going to let anybody come and take us over,” she says.

Her job was to look after the electrics and fuel of the ships that took supplies out to the warships.

“Mostly it had to do with bringing troops to ship or taking them off again depending on what they were doing.”

But one night proved to be exceptional.

Setting off in a small motorboat with just a navigator for company, she travelled into the English Channel in complete darkness.

Her mission was to deliver a letter to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was aboard the HMS King George V (KG5), which was observing radio silence.

“We went out and out and out and because of the blackout you couldn‘t see the land and you couldn‘t see anything else because there was no Moon,” says Mollie, explaining it was the only time during the war that she really felt frightened.

Eventually they found the battleship. A sailor waiting on a rope ladder took the letter from them as they passed the ship and they were then expected to turn around and return to shore.

“I thought ‘Dear God, where the hell are we?‘ You couldn‘t see a thing.”

During her time in the forces, Mollie saw many disturbing things.

She recalls she and her crew-mates having dinner on-board a destroyer with some of the male sailors who served on it.

“Little did we know it would set sail at about seven o‘clock in the morning and by half past eleven it would be back and a lot of them would be dead – all the top bit was gone,” says Mollie,

“They had been machine-gunned and torpedoed.”

But she also regards her time as a Wren as a privilege and credits the military with teaching her the importance of acceptance and making the best of things.

“If something terrible happened we tried to help and make things better and if we couldn‘t then that was life. There was nothing we could do.

“I mean literally there was nothing we could do, we had to accept an awful lot,” she says.

Like many women who served, Mollie lost her job when the war ended.

“We were chucked out, because sailors were coming back and our job was the most interesting of all jobs and they wanted them back again,” says Mollie.

“It was an extraordinary feeling. We had been necessary, we had been doing things, we were needed and suddenly no-one wanted us,” she says.

Leaving the Wrens, Mollie went on to become an au pair, a nurse and a chef. But she always had a hankering to take to the skies.

Back on the airfield, Matilda watches her grandmother‘s plane take off.

“It‘s peaked my interest and I would like to give it a go,” says Matilda, explaining that Mollie‘s encouragement has helped her make her the person she is now.