Who was Diana Barnato Walker?
Diana was an English pilot who worked extensively during the Second World War transporting aircraft to the Royal Air Force. By the time she reached twenty two years of age, she had delivered 240 planes that were vital to the war effort. She was the first British woman to break the sound barrier.
Before the war, few people would have imagined the socialite Diana would have been involved in such dangerous war work. The girl pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary flew without navigational instruments and their aircraft were not armed.
As a débutante in fashionable 1930s London, she was known for partying and enjoying life plus careering round the city in her Bentley, a twenty first birthday gift from her racing driver father. She decided to try her hand at flying a year before war broke out – merely as an exciting pastime. She almost didn’t go ahead with it though.
Her flying lessons took place at Brooklands, the airfield attached to the motor racing circuit, and when she was about to embark on her first solo flight, a man came up to her. His face and hands were horribly disfigured by burns sustained in an aeroplane accident. He begged her not to fly, showing her graphically just what could happen to her. She wasn’t put off but said that the encounter made her determined to be ‘a very careful pilot’.
Diana was an extremely feminine pilot too. On her first solo flight she wore a leopardskin coat and when flying, she always had her powder compact and lipstick in her pocket.
The love life of Diana Barnato Walker
Diana was undoubtedly attractive and was bound to be noticed by the pilots when she delivered their new aircraft.In April 1942 she became engaged to Battle of Britain flying hero, Squadron Leader Humphrey Gilbert. Their engagement took place only three weeks after they’d first met. But just days afterwards, he was killed in a flying accident.
Two years later she was engaged again to another heroic war pilot, Derek Walker. Three years later, he too was killed when his plane crashed. Diana vowed to never remarry. She kept her word. But that didn’t mean that she didn’t have a steady relationship. She became the mistress (for more than thirty years) of American-born racing driver Whitney Straight and the couple had a son.
Whitney was also a pilot and had become a British citizen in the nineteen twenties and flew for the Royal Air Force becoming highly decorated for his missions. He had been married before the war and had two daughters and Diana never asked him to leave his wife and family.
In 1965 Diana was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for her services to aviation. Whitney had been made a Commander of the British Empire in 1944 for his war services. In 1967 he instigated the Whitney Straight Award to the Royal Aeronautical Society – an award to recognise the achievements of women in aviation.
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