Born Stella Joyce Peterson in Beckenham, Kent, her father was an Australian trader and her mother, also called Stella, an Oxford Science graduate (1907). Stella was always nicknamed ‘Jaye’ to differentiate her from her mother, or sometimes ‘Pete’ (from her surname).
Jaye was a real tomboy. She was always outdoors, scaling walls, climbing trees or riding her bike. “I think I was a bit wild”, she admitted later in life.
Her love of flying came from two incidents. On a bike ride she saw a ‘barnstormer’ in a field. Soon afterwards she saw her mother climb into a biplane to fly to Paris. Jaye was hooked by the idea of romance and adventure.
Her only sibling, a brother called John, shared her passion for planes, as their parents took them to watch barnstormers and the aerial circus.
Her heroine was New Zealander Jean Batten (‘The Garbo of the Skies’), who flew from England to Australia in 1934 and then from England to her New Zealand homeland in 1936.
In 1939, Jaye saw an advert for women to join the National Women’s Air Reserve. It was a small unit – but it gave her the opportunity to learn to fly. They only trained their women pilots on Sundays.
Jaye approached her mother. “I said to mother, ‘What would you think if I was going to fly?”
Her mother was not impressed. “Mmm…We might have to think about that.”
But Jaye had just turned 21 and could now make her own decisions. She learned to fly in a De Havilland Tiger Moth – the same plane Jean Batten flew.
And she persuaded her parents to pay for the lessons.
Her pilot’s licence came through the post on the 4th of September 1939 – the day after war was declared.
Initially there was no call for women to fight. Jaye got into childcare, then trained as a nurse.
But she still wanted to ‘do her bit’, especially as her older sister was already a wartime nurse.
In 1943 she saw an advert for women to join the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary). She applied – and being a qualified pilot was immediately snapped up.
The ATA was a civilian air force who supported the RAF. Their job was to transport planes around the UK. Initially it was for men who were too old to fight, or the war wounded. Many pilots were severely disabled. They were often nicknamed ‘Ancient and Tattered Airmen’.
Then, as the war continued, the British Government realised women pilots could make a significant difference. Pauline Gower was put in charge of recruitment. She was a circus flyer, whose father was an MP.
Out of the 1,500 ATA pilots from 28 countries, Pauline recruited 168 women (including Jaye).
Initially Jaye was just transporting mail or supplies, but soon she was taking planes around the country to where they were needed, often from the factories where they were built.
Jaye loved the job. “It was just the fascination of getting off the ground – you ride a bike; you climb a tree – you’re off the ground. I would say that’s mostly it. A new outlook; a new life.”
She flew whatever plane she was asked to, always solo. She flew 20 different planes. Her favourite was the Hawker Hurricane. The hardest was the twin-engine Avro Anson which was extremely heavy. Unlike other ATA pilots she was never particularly impressed with the Spitfire – “Well to be honest, they were just another plane”, she said.
She wore a white flying suit. Each flight started with a visit to the meteorological office. There, the women were given their route and destination, a map with no names on it (in case it fell into enemy hands) and a manual for the plane they were to fly, which they strapped to their leg. If the weather was projected to be poor, they could postpone their flight. Jaye never did.
Although once she got so much ice on her wings, she had to land in a field.
She never received a grand reception when delivering a plane. “They were always busy. We were always welcome, but they didn’t fuss over us. They were doing their job. We came with our job and they would see that we would have a meal, but we weren’t fussed. It was just as it went”.
Jaye believed in flying from A to B. “No drama!” She did not believe in fancy tricks and aerobatics. This was because during her ATA training an instructor had insisted on performing stunts and it made Jaye violently sick.
Her only indulgence was breaking the rule that said they must not fly over 2,000 feet. Occasionally she would soar above that – it made her feel free. She said, “You always know the sun’s up there to guide you.” She found flying both frightening and exhilarating.
Jaye hit a tree during her only crash landing and lost a tooth. She was amazed an ambulance turned up and took her to hospital – for a tooth. This was her only war injury (although she did crash land once more).
She flew hundreds of hours. “I enjoyed it so much I didn’t really think about the war.”
She never saw an enemy plane, although she heard them.
But after D-Day, Jaye and the other women had to fly planes to France to the front line.
The women of ATA were paid 20% less than the men. When there was a public outcry, pay was levelled up (but after the war it emerged the Government had lied, and the women were paid just 65% of what the men received).
During the war, ATA flew 309,011 flights and 150 of the pilots were killed.
At the end of the war Jaye had mixed emotions – joy at the thought of no more lives being lost, but sadness at the thought there would be no more flying.
And sure enough, the women of the ATA were discharged because there were no jobs for women pilots.
Jaye became her friend’s nanny, following her to the South Pacific. From there she moved to Singapore where she became a secretary.
Then she moved to British Columbia in Canada, to become a teacher. There she met Bill Edwards, a former lumberjack turned electrician. They got married and had one son, Neil.
She then took up hiking and skiing.
She did not fly again until the 1980s. A passenger in a small plane over White Rock, the pilot realised who she was an handed the controls over to her.
Her brother John’s daughter-in-law, Margaret Eames-Petersen, became Mayor of Hatfield in England.
On the 30th of November 2020, there was a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the disbanding of ATA. As it was in lockdown it was done by ‘Zoom’ – so Jaye learned it specially. She was the only former pilot able to contribute – and was immensely proud of her service.
Jaye died in Lynn Valley care home in North Vancouver. She was the last surviving British ATA girl, although First Officer Nancy Stratford is still living (although she isn’t British).
Jaye said of her time as an ATA girl, “It was just fun. It was just an opportunity. I think one of the things about it was that I was doing something that no-one in the family did – and that was the chief aim of my life – to do my own thing.”
RIP = Really Intrepid Pilot