Diana Barnato Walker

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Diana Barnato Walker
Barnato Walker at the controls of an Airspeed Oxford
Barnato Walker at the controls of an Airspeed Oxford
Born Diana Barnato
(1918-01-15)15 January 1918
Died 15 April 2008(2008-04-15) (aged 90)
Nationality British
Occupation Aviator
Spouse(s) Derek Ronald Walker
(6 May 1944 – 14 November 1945)
Children Barney Barnato Walker (b. 1947)
Parent(s) Woolf Barnato & Dorothy Maitland Falk
Awards MBE

Diana Barnato Walker MBE FRAeS (15 January 1918 – 28 April 2008) was an English aviator and horse rider, the first British woman to break the sound barrier.[1]

Early life[edit]

Her father was the famous car racing driver Woolf Barnato who was Chairman of Bentley Motors and also a leading member of their racing team. Her mother was Dorothy Maitland Falk of White Plains, New York. Diana Barnato was a 1936 debutante at the age of 18 and was presented to King Edward VIII at Buckingham Palace.

From an early age, she became interested in aircraft and at age 20 she decided to become a pilot. Her initial training was in Tiger Moths at the Brooklands Flying Club, the aerodrome being located within the famous motor racing circuit in Surrey. She showed a natural aptitude for flying and made her first solo flight after only six hours of dual instruction.

World War II[edit]

Red Cross[edit]

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Diana volunteered to become a Red Cross nurse. In 1940 she was serving as a nurse in France before the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and later drove ambulances in London during the Blitz.

Air Transport Auxiliary[edit]

In early 1941 she applied to become one of the first women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and successfully took her initial assessment flying test at their headquarters at White Waltham, Berkshire, on 9 March 1941 with the ATA's Chief Flying Instructor, A.R.O. Macmillan, in the Tiger Moth's rear seat.

Barnato Walker climbing into the cockpit of a Spitfire while serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Diana was admitted to the ATA's Elementary Flying Training School at White Waltham on 2 November 1941. After a lengthy period of intensive flight instruction and tests in primary training aircraft, she joined her first ATA Ferry Pool (FP), No.15 FP at RAF Hamble, Hampshire, on 9 May 1942. She soon began to deliver low-powered single engine aircraft from factory or repair base to storage units and RAF and Naval flying units.

Further advanced training permitted her to deliver several hundred Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs, Tempests and other high performance fighter aircraft. After yet further training, Diana became eligible to deliver twin-engined aircraft and delivered Whitleys, Blenheims, Mosquitos, Mitchells and Wellingtons, normally flying solo when doing so. She continued intensive flying with the ATA until the organisation was disbanded in late 1945. By that time she had flown 80 types of aircraft and had delivered 260 Spitfires.

Post War[edit]

Women's Junior Air Corps[edit]

After the war's end, Diana continued to fly and gained her commercial flying licence. For many years she was a volunteer pilot with the Women's Junior Air Corps (WJAC), later the Girls' Venture Corps, giving flights to air-minded teenage girls to encourage them to enter the aviation industry. In July 1948, an aircraft that she was flying burst into flames near White Waltham. Rather than bail out and lose the WJAC's aircraft, she switched off the fuel and glided the aircraft back.

Air Speed Record[edit]

On 26 August 1963 she flew an English Electric Lightning T4 to Mach 1.6 (1,262 mph) after convincing the Air Minister to let her fly it with Squadron Leader Ken Goodwin as her check pilot, and so became the first British woman to break the sound barrier. She also established by this flight a world air speed record for women.[2]

Later life[edit]

Shortly after her record-breaking flight, Diana was found to have cancer, and she had three operations.

Diana Barnato Walker was awarded the MBE in 1965 for services to aviation, and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. She died on 28 April 2008, aged 90.

Personal life[edit]

She became engaged to Squadron Leader Humphrey Trench Gilbert DFC of No. 65 Sqn RAF in April 1942, but he was killed in a flying accident 2 May 1942 when Spitfire BL372/YT-Z crashed at Loves Farm, Cutlers Green, Thaxted, Essex. With him in the Spitfire was Flt Lt David Gordon Ross. They took off from Great Sampford, the RAF Debden satellite station, having consumed 6-8 bottles each of Benskins Colne Springs beer, according to the licensee of the pub. This info was not revealed until after the Court of Enquiry. The CO tried to borrow a Magister but his flight sergeant, realising that he was in no fit state to fly, told him it was u/s. The CO then took a Spitfire.

Two years later, she married Wing Commander Derek Ronald Walker RAF on 6 May 1944, the ceremony being attended by numerous RAF and ATA friends of the bride and groom. Derek Walker continued active flying operations until he was killed on 14 November 1945 in bad weather while flying a North American Mustang fighter between two UK airfields.

Diana vowed never to marry again, and later became the lover of married English-based American pilot Whitney Straight, who like her father had been a pre-war champion racing driver. The couple had a son, Barney Barnato Walker, in 1947, although Diana never asked Straight to leave his wife; her only comment was: "I was perfectly content. I had my own identity."[1]


  1. ^ a b Rennell, Tony (6 May 2008). "She flew Spitfires and was the first woman to break the sound barrier - the very racy life of the original fast lady". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 6 May 2008. 
  2. ^ "English Electric Lightning F1 Top Fifteen". nationalcoldwarexhibition.org. 2012. Retrieved 21 September 2012. 
  • Diana Barnato Walker (1994) Spreading My Wings: one of Britain's top woman pilots tells her remarkable story. Sparkford: Patrick Stephens ISBN 1-85260-473-5

External links[edit]