BACK to the FUTURE: UK’s First Female Controller

10 Min Read
Yvonne and her dog in Gatwick tower, 1964


by Philippe Domogala

IFATCA Industry Partner Coordinator


During WWII while many men fought at the front, women were recruited to take their places on the production lines and other many other traditionally male areas of employment. To be clear, women have always worked outside the home. But never so many, across so many strata of society or with such an impact as during WWII.

It is probably surprising to know that many of us in ATC were trained and acted as air traffic controllers during this period. In fact, as described in our 100 Years ATC Book (pages 73 to 76), both in Germany and in the UK, women were almost exclusively used as the first radar operators in both countries’ air defence systems. 

However, things changed completely after the war.  In 1945, society still considered women to be best suited to and utilised by staying at home raising children and taking care of their families rather than taking good paid jobs from the men.  A few of the women air traffic controllers could stay on in the military, but none were transferred to the civil side.  Training for ATC was restricted to men. This only changed in the early 1960s. Luckily, the first woman controller in the UK, Yvonne Pope Sintes, wrote her biography in 2013; it is called “TailBlazer in Flight”. Her story is a reminder of how women had to struggle to be recognized at the time.

Yvonne was a young Aero Club pilot who became a widow on the day her second son was born in 1957. As a 27-year-old single mother of two, she studied to become a commercial pilot while working as a flight instructor in an aeroclub, as there was no airline in the UK at the time that would employ a woman as a pilot. Because of that, she decided in 1959 to apply to become an air traffic controller. She was the first woman in a predominantly male workforce and an alpha-male culture, and she describes many obstacles in her book: “Initial training in Bournemouth was one of the least enjoyable periods of my life “. Fellow male trainees in her course said she was usurping a man’s place; she was subject to many derogatory remarks every time she entered the classroom. Despite having a commercial pilot licence, she failed her first theory tests with the other pilot on the course. And failed again one month later. She finally passed it and was sent to Southampton to do OJT in the Tower.

Unfortunately, the ATCO in charge in Southampton was the wrong guy for the first female controller to have. He already had refused female assistants in “his” tower. Confronted with the first woman controller in training, he did everything to dissuade her from continuing.  She was failed at her first checkout. She was assigned retraining, and one month later, she failed at checkout again and again a third time. The reasons were little to do with her ability and everything to do with her sex. She did not accept it and went to the London chief controller to complain about this injustice. Luckily, he listened. She was then transferred to Gatwick, where she says: “The supervisor there did not care what sex or colour you were, as long as you could do the job. The other controllers were pleasant, the woman assistants very helpful.”  

She was a controller in Gatwick from 1960 to 1964, first TWR and later Radar approach. Her radar course was again subject to prejudice. During her radar checkout, she almost failed for having said “Thank you, Sir” instead of “Roger” in response to a pilot report. She had to argue that both took exactly the same time on the frequency and that saying “Thank you” helped more.

She recalls this period in Gatwick as full of interesting encounters. Some of her anecdotes: she was the first female voice on the frequency, as there were no commercial female pilots either. One day, a French pilot, on hearing her, believed he was at the wrong airport and diverted to Biggin Hill. On another occasion, after a difficult argument with a pilot where she stood her ground, the pilot complained to her supervisor and said, “I’m glad I’m not her husband!.” On the frequency, pilots were not used to having a woman controller, and they replied: “Yes Sir” or “Goodbye Sir”. Later, they got used to her a few started to call her “Madam”. Once, an Airline chief pilot called the tower to apologize on behalf of one of his captains who had said “Sir” to her. And he said: “The Captain sends his apologies. He doesn’t know the difference.”

She then became involved in safety work as her experience as both a pilot and a controller allowed her to see things differently. And having had to fight hard to get her licence she knew how to work with the bureaucracy. In Gatwick at the time, they were no separate frequency for ground: “As a controller you had to monitor 4 frequencies at the same time: air, ground, fire and vehicle and there were quite a few taxi way and runway incidents as a result”, she writes.   She was instrumental in changing the taxiway marking and lighting systems to seriously reduce those incidents, something that all previous attempts made by her male colleagues had failed to do.  She also petitioned the air ministry to have more controlled airspace around Heathrow and Gatwick to prevent general aviation flying traffic from coming too close to those busy airports. At that time, General Aviation aircraft were not required to have a radio, and very few had one back then. The General Aviation Pilot Owner’s Association fiercely opposed this airspace change, but she finally won that one, too, and the TMAs were enlarged. 

But Yvonne always wanted to return to her dream of becoming an airline pilot.  She continuously sent applications to various airlines, but she was always rejected. No airline would employ a female pilot at those times. Finally, in 1965, a small airline called Morton’s did.  She had to use friends to lobby the owner of the airline, and she was finally accepted for her 3rd application. She left ATC in 1964 to become once again a trailblazer-one of the first woman airline pilots- the first at Morton’s on DC3s. In 1969, she applied and was recruited by DanAir as one of 3 women in the airline. She flew Ambassadors and later transferred to the Comet 4. She became the second woman in the UK to be First officer on a jet aircraft. She later became a Captain on the BAC 1-11 in 1975.  The first woman to the captain of a jet aircraft at the time.

Her Book “Tailblazers in Flight” is still available, published by Pen and Word Aviation , ISBN 9781783462674.

On the differences between being a Controller and a Pilot, she made this very nice remark: “As a Captain, I perhaps made a vital decision once a week or once a month, but as a controller, you do it at least once a day.”

 I never met her personally, but I had the pleasure of having her often on the frequency when she was overflying Belgium. There were very few women pilots in those days and I exchanged a few “Chug-a-lug” greetings with her. Reading her book revived a lot of memories of that time.  Sadly, Yvonne passed away in August 2021, just three weeks short of her 91st birthday.  Shortly before that, in 2020, she was invited by NATS to visit the London Air Traffic Control Centre. On that occasion, she said she still recalled the feeling of being an operational controller in the UK.

Farewell to a wonderful pioneer.

Yvonne visiting London LATCC Centre in 2020 (credit: UK NATS)