Winifred Joyce “Winnie” Drinkwater (11 April 1913 – 6 October 1996) from Cardonald was an exceptional Scot, and in my view, something of an action hero, as she was the first woman in the world to hold a commercial pilots license. Drinkwater joined the Scottish Flying Club near Renfrew in June 1930 when she was just 17, and amazingly she qualified for her private pilot’s license later that year, which made her Scotland’s youngest pilot, regardless of gender. When I was 17 I had only just about mastered the washing machine and how to cook pasta so I find this HIGHLY impressive.
She continued to fly and in 1932, aged 19, she was successful in gaining her Commercial license at Cinque Ports Flying Club at Lympne in Kent, which made her the youngest professional pilot in the United Kingdom, again regardless of gender. How have I never heard of her?! Regulations at the time required pilots to be 19 years of age, and Drinkwater was quoted in an interview as saying, “I decided to qualify for a professional license. I could not do that until I became 19 because of the regulations, and immediately after my birthday in April I started. I have been at Lympne for three weeks, and it has been a gruelling time.” The same year Drinkwater also gained her instructor’s certificate and she went on to become a ground engineer in 1933.
In September 1932 Drinkwater was awarded the Scottish Flying Club trophy for landings, and on the 11th October 1932 at Renfrew Aerodrome, she won one of the Club’s cups for air racing. It is unbelievable how much she managed to achieve in just one year and at such a young age!
In her obituary in the Herald in 1996 it was stated that “In the early days her career was confined to giving joy rides from Prestwick beach. During one of her last interviews in the late eighties, Winnie recalled that the director of Midland and Scottish Ferries, later to become British Midland, had serious doubts that anyone would wish to be flown by a female, but he desperately needed a pilot. ‘I was told that if I could make a go of it, the job was mine. As it happened people queued for the experience, her five shillings a flip bringing in around £100 a day. She remembered that only one young man protested about a girl being at the controls.”
After only 15 hours’ training, at a cost of £34.10s, she flew solo in her plane Gypsy Moth (what an awesome name) at Renfrew Aerodrome. Her father, also passionate about aviation, encouraged her to be intrepid, and she would apparently think of everything in daily life in terms of how to land a plane; “In my imagination, I used to land my bed, and make the jam spoon do a three-point landing on the jam dish.” Piloting twin-engined Dragons, she would become the first woman pilot in the UK to fly the inaugural Glasgow to London service.
Some of her later chartered flight work is the stuff great films are made of; she did more mundane flights like delivering newspapers to the Scottish islands, but my favourite job was flying photographers over Loch Ness as they searched for the Loch Ness monster. On a more serious note she was also a member of the air ambulance crew working in the Western Isles and during her posting, she was called upon to take part in an air search for a boat of kidnappers.
In the pioneering days of her solo flights Winnie apparently often had to clear fields of cows before she could land, by flying low and pointing her wing tip at them. She is quoted as saying, “You got used to that sort of thing, but yes, I suppose I took a lot of chances.” Understandably she became a bit of a star and received fan mail from around the world, some of which were addressed simply to Winnie Drinkwater, Air Ace, Scotland. Someone desperately needs to give this woman’s life the Hollywood treatment or at the very least a good old BBC Miniseries.
Her commercial career lasted only four years though, one day in 1934 she was dismantling an engine, covered in grease and wearing dungarees when Francis Short, director of Short Brothers, the Belfast aircraft manufacturers, visited Renfrew Aerodrome. He asked to be introduced to the infamous Winnie and within four hours the director and the world’s youngest aviator were apparently engaged to be wed. If this is true it’s better than fiction. Apparently desiring a quiet wedding, a fortnight later they were married secretly in a Dumfries registry office, but when they stepped outside the streets were lined with well-wishers throwing confetti. They went on to have two children, but Drinkwater was sadly widowed. However, she married again, to Bill Orchard, a fisherman, who took her off to Cornwall. Unfortunately, she was widowed for the second time and so she returned to Scotland to live at Malin Court on the Ayrshire coast near Turnberry. She had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and a few years before her death in 1996 she went to live in a small town in New Zealand to be close to her daughter from her first marriage. It was there that she died.
Today you can visit a bronze bust celebrating Drinkwater in Clyde View Park in Renfrew which was erected in 2005 Winnie Drinkwater is a role model we should definitely be teaching Scottish Youngsters about, and I’m so glad I found her and am in the privileged position to share her story with you.