The world’s only female Spitfire pilot has died in a car crash, decades after losing her husband in the same way.
Carolyn Grace, 70, made her name with dazzling air displays in the fighter plane best known for its role in defeating the Luftwaffe in the Second World War’s Battle of Britain.
She performed at airshows for many years in ML407, a decommissioned RAF craft that offered air support during the Normandy landings, having learned how to fly the second-hand plane in tribute to her husband, Nick Grace, who died soon after he finished renovating it.
In a 2008 piece for The Independent, Grace wrote: “I simply had to learn to fly the Spitfire. My late husband, Nick, rebuilt this aircraft before being killed in a car accident ... I wanted our children to remember his legacy, and I wanted to keep a part of my husband alive.”
Before Nick’s death in 1988, the pair lived together in southern England with their children Richard and Olivia. The couple were keen pilots and flew together – Grace first took off in the Spitfire as a passenger.
She was met with opposition when she decided to take Nick’s place in the cockpit. “I had a lot of pressure not to go solo, and then not to fly the aircraft in displays, because I had two children and I was widowed. It was irresponsible,” she told The Independent in 1999.
“There were no other women flying displays. Men said, ‘You don’t care about your children, how could you do that?’ It was pretty hurtful.”
One male pilot took her aside to warn she was working against her interests. “He put his hand on my knee and said ‘You don’t really want to do all this airshow stuff. It would be too much pressure. You’re lovely looking, you’re much better off to just leave it alone’,” she said, adding: “I agree with them, because it’s easiest. Then I get in the plane and piss off! Ha!”
Though she laughed off the discouragement, Grace took seriously her role as the sole female pilot of a plane long claimed by the fantasies of boys who grew up in the years after it had helped to repel the Nazis.
“I’m representing women – I’m the only one currently flying a Spitfire. I feel that if I get it wrong they’re going to say, ‘Oh, it’s a woman.’,” she wrote in 2008.
Flight was part of life for Grace from a young age. She was raised on an enormous farm in the Australian state of New South Wales and, as she said, “we had a plane to go shopping in Sydney.”
She was prosaic about her relationship with the Spitfire she flew for decades. “It is not a piece of metal, it’s a living being.,” she wrote in 2008. “We seem to be playing together in the air. I love soaring, looping and rolling around white fluffy clouds in a blue sky.
“Bringing the Spitfire to the public through air displays is incredibly important. A lot of veterans say all they want is to be remembered because they don’t want it to happen again. Seeing a Spitfire ensures their gallantry and valour is not forgotten ... My aim is to ensure this aircraft is going for generations to come.”
In her later years Grace and her late-husband’s son Richard flew in airshows together. She said nothing made her prouder than this.
Grace died on 2 December from injuries sustained in a car crash near Goulborn, northeast of Canberra in New South Wales.
Daughter-in-law Daisy Grace announced the pilot’s death on Facebook, writing: “It is with great sadness that we must announce that Carolyn Grace has been killed in a car accident on Friday the 2nd of December 2022.
“This is a traumatic, and unexpected, loss to all of us and at this time we would like to request that you respect the family’s privacy.”