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OBITUARIES : Diana Barnato Walker

Pilot broke sound barrier in 1963

May 19, 2008|From the Associated Press

Diana Barnato Walker, a World War II veteran who was the first British woman to pilot an airplane at supersonic speed, died April 28 in England. She was 90.

Her family did not disclose the cause of death.

A granddaughter of Barney Barnato, a co-founder of the De Beers mining group in South Africa, Diana Barnato was a spirited debutante and party girl who volunteered to be a Red Cross nurse in France in 1940.

Though she had less than 10 hours of flying experience, she passed the test in 1941 to join the Air Transport Auxiliary, which recruited civilian pilots to ferry new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between British factories and assembly plants during World War II.

Her wartime assignments included delivering some 240 Spitfire fighters.

Walker made her supersonic flight on Aug. 26, 1963, piloting a Lightning fighter jet that reached a speed of Mach 1.65, or 1,262 mph.

Immediately afterward, she spent several months in a hospital being treated for cancer.

In "Spreading My Wings," her 1994 autobiography, she wrote about flying upside down in a Spitfire and being unable to right the aircraft.

"While I was wondering what to do next, from out of my top overall pocket fell my beautifully engraved silver powder compact. It wheeled round and round the bubble canopy like a drunken sailor on a wall of death, then sent all the face powder over everything," she wrote.

After landing, she recalled, she made a strong impression on a "very tall and handsome" flight lieutenant.

"His mouth dropped open. 'I was told,' he gasped, 'that a very, very pretty girl was bringing us a new aircraft. All I can see is some ghastly clown!' "

It was dangerous work, and Air Transport Auxiliary women flew without navigational aids.

Of more than 150 women who served, 16 died in service.

Walker attributed her survival in part to a man with horrible burns on his hands and face who approached her as she was about to make her first solo flight.

"In those days, girls like me didn't see horrors, so it was a nasty fright," she wrote.

"He looked at me and said, 'Don't fly, Miss Barnato. Look what it's done to me.' After that, I was a very careful pilot."

In 1942, Barnato became engaged to Squadron Leader Humphrey Gilbert, a combat pilot, after a three-week romance. He was killed two days later.

She married Derek Walker, another pilot, in 1944.

He was killed in a crash four months after the war ended.

Her survivors include a son from a three-decade relationship with a married man, U.S. racing driver and businessman Whitney Straight.

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