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The University of Southampton

Sky's not the limit – Britain's youngest ever female pilot eyes new record

Published: 23 January 2024
Pilot Ellie Carter flying plane
Britain’s youngest ever female pilot Ellie Carter

Aviator Ellie Carter is Britain’s youngest ever female pilot – but she doesn’t have her head in the clouds.

Just 17 when she got her licence, she has clocked up thousands of air miles, flies her plane into Europe, and will soon star in a BBC documentary about her life in the sky.

Now the University of Southampton student, 21, has set her sights on making more history – becoming the first woman to pilot a century-old biplane used in World War One.

But the young aviator’s remarkable career very nearly failed to take off when authorities mistakenly accused her of being a spy at the age of nine.

“I’ve always had a fascination with the U-2 spy plane since I was a young kid,” said Ellie, who got her pilot’s licence on her 17th birthday.

“So, I wrote to the US air force asking to see it up close – but the letter got intercepted by the Pentagon, and then my parents started getting calls from the CIA.”

After tracking her down, Ellie was invited to the US airbase at RAF Fairford, near Gloucestershire, which houses the famous Cold War planes, to meet the pilots and see the spy craft.

She added: “At 3am, my family and I were waiting on the tarmac at the airbase surrounded by big dogs and machine guns. I was allowed to sit in it for an hour – there’s an embarrassing video of me somewhere on YouTube telling the crew everything I knew about the plane.”

Pilot Ellie Carter

Flying solo

So launched her ambition to reach for the skies and one day fly for the U2 Dragon Ladies – a secret aerial reconnaissance squad in the US air force.

“I don’t come from a flying background or a wealthy family,” said Ellie, who commutes to Southampton from her home in Devon. “I joined a gliding club as a teen and realised I was good at it.

“My first solo fight was in a glider at 14. Looking back at it now makes me laugh because I went back to school the next day and I wasn’t allowed to use a glue gun.”

But it’s not all smooth flying – Ellie has had her share of turbulence along the way.

“I’m a young girl in aviation so sometimes it’s hard to feel at home,” said the undergrad, who is studying for a degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Southampton.

“And I wouldn’t call myself a pioneer, there were women flying in the 1920s, but hopefully people see what I do and get inspired. My co-pilot is an 11-year-old called Lily who’s almost a better pilot than me.”

Near misses

Now in her final year, Ellie still finds time to get into the air while finishing her coursework – but she insists she’s not just winging it.

She said: “I was a bit of a geek as a kid – I was really good at maths, so when I heard Southampton was great at aeronautics, and obviously has an airport nearby, it was a no-brainer.

"Very few of my friends know what that I can fly - but my licence allows me to fly 20 passengers, so I might take them up when we graduate.”

There have been some near misses along the way.

“I had engine failure a few years ago,” Ellie said, who has recently been mentored by easyJet pilots.

“The aircraft’s engine stopped mid-air and I went from 500 feet to the ground in less than 30 seconds. I didn’t really stop to think, it was just another flight but it taught me a valuable lesson.”

Ellie standing next to plane

Breaking world records

Being Britain’s youngest female pilot has propelled her into the limelight – and last year Ellie was approached by a BBC documentary team to help her break another record by flying a century-old warplane.

In doing so, she will become the first woman to pilot a refurbished Sopwith Strutter aircraft which helped the British to victory in the First World War.

“I’d be stupid if I said I’m not nervous,” Ellie added. “It’s a very old biplane but it’s a beautiful aircraft and it’ll be an incredible opportunity.

“It’s also something of a role reversal as it was built by women in 1915 and flown by male pilots, so it’s amazing to be the first woman to fly the Strutter.”

The record-breaking attempt will be captured on the BBC documentary and aired later this year – but, to Ellie, it will just be another flight.

“There’s a famous saying that you’re born to fly,” she added, “and that’s how I feel every day – being in the sky is freeing and there is something very beautiful about it.

“It would be nice to see more young female pilots – I’m proof that you don’t need to come from a flying family or have lots of money to start.”

See Ellie in flight on her X account.

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