A Spitfire, a cup of tea… and a pioneering Canadian woman pilot

Stoke-on-Trent’s iconic Spitfire isn’t the only thing proving a big hit with visitors to its stunning new museum gallery.

While the restored fighter is the star exhibit, the new free-to-visit gallery is also home to a refurbished café offering a spectacular view of the aircraft, as well as a cuppa, and bite to eat.

But the café also reveals the less-well known tale of women pilots who played a vital wartime role in supporting the air battle against the Nazis – in particular, the amazing story of a pioneering Canadian aviator.

Separated from the gallery by glass panels, the newly named Violet’s Café gives visitors a chance to relax over lunch or an indulgent afternoon treat, and – at some tables – enjoy an unrivalled view over the lovingly restored Spitfire.

And its carefully chosen name offers a tribute to the work of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) – formed during the Second World War to ferry aircraft from factories to RAF bases – and its female pilots, who became known as the ‘ATA-girls’.

So, just who was Violet?

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1919, Violet Milstead set her sights on aviation and saved up money for flying lessons while working in her mother’s wool shop.

Earning her private pilot’s license in 1939 three months after starting lessons, she then qualified for a commercial licence just three months later.

A natural flyer, her aviation career included work as a flying instructor, as one of Canada’s first female bush pilots, and as the longest serving Canadian woman pilot with the ATA, achieving the highest rank, and flying more hours than any other woman pilot.

Her achievements were such that she was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010, four years before she died, aged 94, and was praised as a role model for women seeking careers in aviation.

She managed to make her mark, and leave a big legacy, despite her small size. At just over 5ft tall, Violet often had to sit on top of her parachute to see out of the cockpit window of her aircraft.

Violet’s story is told in a display board at the café, which also aims to honour, and commemorate, the service and sacrifice of the ATA as a whole.

Many qualified pilots, who were not allowed to join the armed forces, served with the ATA, including 168 women. Pilots from all over the world signed up, including from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Poland, the United States of America, China, Russia and India.

Violet herself joined in 1943 and flew a large number of newly built Spitfires between the Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory, near Birmingham, and RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire.

This was the same route taken by Stoke-on-Trent’s Spitfire, RW288, in July 1945.

Back in the city after more than three years of renovation, the Spitfire takes pride of place in the new 3,800 sq ft gallery, which features glass walls at the front and back, so the public can see the plane lit-up at night.

The gallery also reveals more about the story of the aircraft and its designer, Reginald Mitchell, who lived in Normacot and was educated in Stoke-on-Trent before becoming one of the greatest aeronautical engineers of his generation.

For more details about the café, visit www.stokemuseums.org.uk/pmag/visit/cafe/

For the Spitfire Gallery, see www.stokemuseums.org.uk/pmag/exhibitions/spitfire/

For general tourist information: www.visitstoke.co.uk

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