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December 2008 Newsletter

by John M. White |

Women In Early Aviation - "Ann Welch"
Ann Welch was a highly proficient aviator who worked tirelessly for more than 60 years to promote and encourage all forms of sporting aviation, in Britain and throughout the world. No challenge was too great for her, and she succeeded in her objectives by dint of a very strong personality and strongly held views.


Born Ann Edmonds in 1917, she enjoyed her first flight at the age of 13 in a Fairey Ferry, flying from Wadebridge in Cornwall. She found school a major distraction, preferring to look out of the window, and persuaded her parents to allow her to leave at 16.


Through the author Henry Williamson, who was a family friend, she learned to fly at Barnstaple aerodrome in September 1934, gaining her Royal Aero Club Aviator's Certificate and her A license one month later. In 1937 she attended a gliding camp organised by the Anglo-German Fellowship at Dunstable, the home of the London Gliding Club. The course comprised 16 German and nine British students, with Welch the only girl. A very pretty blonde, and a tomboy to boot, she was an instant hit with the others.

The German gliding High Command sent two of its most famous pilots, Wolf Hirth and Hanna Reitsch, to visit the students. In 1938 the British pilots were invited to Germany for a skiing holiday, during which they were exposed to some high-level propaganda when addressed by Rudolf Hess and Baldur von Schirach.


The following year Welch founded the Surrey Gliding Club at Buckland and very quickly developed it into one of the most innovative clubs in the country. In 1939 she married Graham Douglas, whose family owned Redhill Aerodrome and who had lent the club the £300 needed to buy the necessary gliders and a winch.


At the outbreak of war she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, that fabulous collection of amateur pilots of both sexes who collected from the factories and delivered to the active airfields the various types of aircraft in use. She flew many types, including Spitfires, Hurricanes, Wellingtons, Blenheims and Tiger Moths. By the time she had given up active flying, she had flown more than 150 different aircraft, including gliders.


In 1942 when her husband, by then a wing commander fighter pilot decorated with the DFC, was taken off operations before a posting to America, they decided that it was time to start a family. Welch flew her last Spitfire not long before the birth of her eldest daughter.


Ann Welch was the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Edmonds, a railway engineer. From an early age she excelled in drawing and painting, and she soon developed a fierce love of outdoor activities including sailing and studying the wind and tides; from those came a keen interest in navigation. This was ultimately rewarded when in 1997 she was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.


After the war, gliding became her first love, particularly the training of pilots and instructors. She was chairman of the British Gliding Association's examining panel for the next 20 years.


With Lorne Welch and Walter Morison, both RAF pilots and former Colditz inmates, she restarted the Surrey Gliding Club at Kenley before moving to Redhill in 1947. She married Welch in 1953, her marriage to Douglas having been dissolved five years earlier. From then on her achievements and involvements were stupendous.


She was a full-time mother and could often be heard ordering her children to go home and prepare for bed - not unusual, except that she would be flying an open cockpit two-seater glider, teaching a student and at the same time watching her two young daughters playing on the airfield below. She was also a prolific author and a painter of note.


In 1948 Welch was appointed manager of the British gliding team, entered for the first postwar international championship to be held in Samedan, Switzerland. Many more contests followed, with Britain winning the 1952 event in Spain and again in France in 1956. In 1954 the Welches competed in the World Championship held at Camphill in Derbyshire, flying the British-designed and built Slingsby Eagle two-seater. In 1965 she directed the highly successful World Contest held at South Cerney in Gloucestershire. She also acted as director and task-setter of the National Championships, then held annually at the Lasham Gliding Centre in Hampshire.


Welch excelled as a pilot, gaining her international silver badge in 1946 and her gold in 1969. During the World Contest held at Lezno in Poland in 1961 she beat the British women's distance record by covering 528 kilometres and landing only just inside the Polish-Russian frontier.


The British Women Pilots' Association twice awarded her the coveted Jean Lennox-Bird pendant for lifetime service to aviation, but she died just three days before the second presentation ceremony was due to be held in London.


Welch's wise counsel at team manager's meetings and her ability to get to the nub of any problem soon so impressed the international community that she was co-opted on to many diverse committees under the umbrella of the Fédération Aéronautique International. For many years she was the UK delegate to the FAI Gliding Commission.


In 1973 she was awarded the Lilienthal Medal, the highest FAI award, created in 1938 for outstanding contribution as an aviator or administrator to the sport of gliding. In 1980 she received the FAI Gold Air Medal, its highest award, so joining the illustrious company of Lindbergh, Cobham, Jean Batten and Frank Whittle.


For very many years Welch served as vice-chairman of the British Gliding Association, and with the chairman, Philip Wills, she formed the strong team that was able to persuade the Government that the gliding community was better able to understand and regulate its own affairs without outside interference.


By 1974 Welch realised that in order to encourage the young to take to the air, and make it possible at prices they could afford, new forms of sporting aviation were needed. She threw her considerable authority, enthusiasm and experience behind the new sport of hang-gliding. It was not long before she was described as the mother and father of hang-gliding and was asked to be the president of the British Hang Gliding Association.


When, in 1991, the hang-gliders and paragliders joined forces, Welch was appointed president of the British Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association. The help and guidance she was able to give this sport soon attracted the attention of the microlight pilots, and in 1978 she was installed as the president of the British Microlight Aircraft Association.


In all, her contribution to British and international aviation was enormous. Not only were her experience and views well respected, but she brought to aviation a level of energy, enthusiasm and fun that belied her years. She was appointed MBE in 1953 and advanced to OBE in 1966.


Ann Welch passed away in November 2002.


The above article appeared in the "TIMESONLINE" December 12, 2002.
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What's New
Human bones and driver's licence found at Steve Fossett crash site, In the 01 Nov 2008 Search crews scouring the area where Steve Fossett's crashed plane was found earlier this month have recovered what appear to be two large human bones along with the adventurer's shoes and driver's licence. The bones were found about half a mile east of the site in California's Sierra Nevada where the remains of Fossett's single engine plane were located, county sheriff for the area John Anderson told a press conference. The bones have been sent for DNA analysis to confirm they are those of the missing 63-year-old, who was last seen taking off from a small Nevada airstrip over a year ago. The results should be available within a week. Searchers also found the record-breaking aviator's tennis shoes, Illinois drivers licence and some credit cards. The shoes and licence had animal bite marks on them. "This reinforces our theory that animals dragged him away," Mr Anderson said. Previous bone fragments discovered near the wreckage were found to be either not human or too small for DNA tests. Investigators do not plan to resume search efforts, Anderson said. Fossett's widow, Peggy, said in a statement that the discovery of bones was "another step in the process of completing the investigation into the tragic accident that took Steve's life." The disappearance of the adventurer, who gained worldwide fame for numerous aviation records and in 2002 became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, triggered a massive search effort. In February, however, a judge declared him legally dead. The plane wreckage was found this month after a hiker came across Fossett's pilot identification cards west of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra. Authorities have said Fossett probably collided with a mountain side at about 10,000 feet and died instantly. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
Photo of the Month
Adventurer and Aviator Steve Fossett.



John M. White, Editor

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