Australia’s Mardi Gething and the Women of the ATA (Int’l Womens Day)

MARDI Gething, the only Australian among about 80 women pilots who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in Britain during World War II, died in 2005. She was 84.

The wartime role of ATA pilots was to ferry military aircraft from British factories to RAF air bases around the country for use by operational squadrons. They flew in radio silence and often in bad
weather, dodging balloon barrages and at risk of attack by enemy fighters.

Between 1942 and 1944, Mardi ferried 42 different aircraft types, including fighters such as Spitfires, Hurricanes, Tempests, Typhoons and Mustangs, as well as Wellington and Blenheim bombers.

Margaret ‘Mardi’ Helen Gepp was born in Melbourne, the youngest child of Sir Herbert and Lady Jessie Gepp. Perhaps the 10 years separating Mardi from her next sibling contributed to the freedom of choice allowed her by her hitherto strict father. Light aircraft flights with him sparked her lifelong dedication to aviation.
By her own account, Mardi was not a highly committed scholar at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School and Merton Hall. However, despite her diminutive size she was a gifted sportswoman, excelling in events as diverse as diving (she was a schoolgirl champion) and dressage on her beloved 17-hand horse, Royal Archer.

Soon after leaving school in late 1938, Mardi, with eldest sister Kathleen as companion and chaperone, embarked for Britain to be ‘finished’; by a social season in London that was to culminate in her presentation at court. However, on the voyage she became close to RAE Flight Lieutenant Richard Gething, the navigator and relief pilot of a Wellesley bomber that had just set a new non-stop long-distance flight record of 11,526 kilometres from lsmalia in Egypt to Darwin.

On arrival in Britain, Mardi switched her plans for a London season; with permission from her father, she enrolled in a flying school. After earning her A pilot’s licence, Mardi’s further training was interrupted by the approach of World War II. No passages to Australia were available via the Suez Canal or the Cape, so Mardi and Kathleen took a ship to New York, and then travelled by train to San Francisco, where they stayed for three months
until berths across the Pacific became available.

Mardi took advantage of this delay to enrol in night instrument flying and instructor’s courses at the Boeing School of Aeronautics. Despite having gained all the necessary qualifications, she was too young to officially qualify for her B pilot’s licence, commercial licence and instructor’s rating until late that year, back in Australia, when she turned 19.

Mardi’s plans to train other young Australian women in flying and to organise a flying nurses‘ corps were cut short when Richard telephoned from Canada, where he was involved in setting up the Empire Air Training Scheme, to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Mardi and Lady Jessie soon were on their way to Toronto, where Mardi and Richard were married in May 1940. At the end of 1941, Richard was posted briefly to the Air Ministry in London, and then to Karachi. He spent the remainder of the war in the Far East, his last war posting involving army liaison in Burma. Left behind in Britain, Mardi applied to join the ATA but was initially rejected because she was considered too short. But her persistence won out. Towards the end of the air war, Mardi’s ferry pool was disbanded and she returned to Australia, where in early 1945 she joined the crew of Lancaster bomber ‘G for George’ (now on display at the Australian War Museum in Canberra) as public relations officer on its tour of Australia to raise money for the Third Victory Loan Appeal.

In the 1940s, Mardi also worked briefly for The Age as a society reporter.

When Richard returned to the Air Ministry in late 1945, Mardi joined him to resume life together in a small village south of London. Their two children were born there in 1947 and 1949, and Mardi continued her flying career as a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve until Richard was posted for two years to Singapore. Later the family was stationed in Northern Ireland and then in Scotland before Richard, now an air commodore, worked a final stint at the Air Ministry in London.

In 1959, the family returned to Australia, settling at Red Cliffs, near Mildura, where Mardi and Richard’s interests turned from powered aircraft to gliders. They became enthusiastic members of the Sunraysia Gliding Club, joined during school holidays by their children, who became solo pilots soon
after their 15th birthdays.

Mardi, a keen member of the Australian Women Pilots Association, became the first female licensed gliding instructor in Australia, and for a time held the women’s altitude record for a glider flight (13,000 feet).

Mardi and Richard both became nationally accredited gliding instructors and taught new club level instructors around Australia. In 1966 they moved to the Gepp family property at Kangaroo  Ground near Melbourne, from where they continued their Australia-wide gliding activities. In retirement they travel led widely overseas and in Australia, visiting war time and service friends and colleagues and dropping in on any gliding centre on their route.

When Richard died, their wonderful partnership in aviation had lasted more than 64 years.

 

(Courtesy of Obituaries Australia http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gething-margaret-helen-mardi-18717)

For more great stories of the women of the ATA, the Maidenhead Heritage Centre has this page http://maidenheadheritage.org.uk/ata-news-events/