Today the WW2 Spitfire pilot Joy Lofthouse has died and tributes are being paid from all over the country and beyond. This is my personal eulogy to a spirited lady who has touched me so profoundly that it has changed the way I look at life.
I will not write about her achievements - great as they were - as one of only 164 female pilots to have flown the Spitfire as a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Plenty of newspapers have published articles listing the flying feats, the bravado and the inspirational national treasure that the 94 year old veteran had become.
Rather, I would like to share Joy's humanity, her joy for life in its mundane form as an ordinary woman, as an extraordinary human-being.
I only met Joy once a few years ago at a gala dinner honouring Spitfire pilots held at the RAF Club in London. I was thrilled to find myself sitting next to her at the table (thanks to my friend who was one of the organisers of the evening). As a female pilot of the twenty first century, I am a long way from what it must have been like for Joy to do her job over 70 years ago. But sadly, women still struggle in aviation today and unlike the medical or legal professions to name a few, we are by far in the minority with great battles yet to win.
While some male pilots took to the microphone and talked about their experiences of WW2 and the brave and daring flights into German airspace, we chatted like two ordinary women about our joys and struggles in life. We shared our passion for flying and our experiences as mothers. We laughed about the way flight engineers can be sceptical about any technical entries female pilots make in the log-book, often dismissing them as "it must be because you are a girl and therefore don't know how it works". We exchanged how others view us - sometimes as daredevils sometimes just as devils. I wanted to soak up all I could. I couldn't get enough of Joy.
She was so extraordinary in her ordinary, down-to-earth way!
At some point I asked her what she did after the war. How she went about life after being a hero. I had been "grounded" after my second child was born and was finding it difficult to accept my "flightless" life that revolved around childcare and playing House. I needed advice from someone who could understand my frustration. Her mouth drew a smile and her skin that resembled an old riverbed with lines caused by the erosion of life, spread close to the sides of her face. She told me that her daily life after the war was about making butter, jams and bread, looking after her children, her husband, their home...
"Life threw a new challenge my way. I never flew after the war. And that was that."
There was such serenity in her statement. Such peace. As if that really was the challenge. And of course, it was. That is how Joy looked at life: a variety of challenges of different intensity to be taken on with ease, grace and joy.
I admire and feel empowered by various men and women for their different qualities, but I am grateful to Joy and the immense impact she had on me. I strive to look at life the way she did.
Here is to a spirited lady: Joy Lofthouse!