The Flying Housewife

We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart. But don’t forget plucky debutante and aviation pioneer Diana Patten, says Melonie Clarke
ˆWhen you think of female aviators, who comes to mind? Amy Johnson? Amelia Earhart? Jacqueline Cochran? All were great pioneers. But there’s another, perhaps less well-known name that should not be forgotten: Diana Patten. This plucky debutante with a penchant for fast cars and planes became known as ‘the flying housewife’. She was also the creator of Headcorn Aerodrome.

Shenley Farm in Kent, where Headcorn is based, was initially used as a training school by the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. In 1927, the farm was acquired by the Freeman family and in the late 1950s Chris Freeman married Diana, prompting the creation of the aerodrome as we know it today.

Now in her 80s, Diana has told her full, fascinating story in a new book. ‘I am getting old and I thought that perhaps some of the things that are in the book are quite interesting for my grandchildren and people that know me,’ she says modestly.

But how did this debutante, who was born in 1934 in London, get a taste for flying? As she explains, it runs in the blood: ‘My father was a test pilot and my aunt was one of the first women pilots to do quite a lot of adventurous things like flying Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister, around,’ she tells me.

Aerodrome-Nov28-01-590Clockwise from left: Diana modelling for a Canterbury store. About to set off with her son Jamie and her granddaughters. Diana’s Aunt Paddy, wearing windscreen wiper goggles. Diana with son Jamie, eight, who’s having his first flying lesson. Pooley's Air Touring Guide to Europe

‘She wasn’t a very good navigator so she used to fly very low over railway stations and read the signs. She said, when I was with her before she died, “Diana, if you get lost, just do it [the same thing].” But my then husband, Chris [they separated in 1969 and she married Robin Patten in 1974] was a very good navigator so I was all right and I did swot up a bit on that.’

In 1951 she went to Canada to stay with relatives. And it was during this time that Diana’s passion for flying really took off. Inspired by her father and aunt, she began to take lessons at the Central Airways flying school on Toronto Island.

‘I learnt to fly in Canada because I was working out there and had a very good salary, and flying was cheaper there, so I got my Canadian licence,’ she says.

On her return to the UK Diana met and married former army officer Chris Freeman in 1958. ‘Chris’s family owned Shenley Farm, which was an airstrip during the war, so I decided we could use one of the fields which was fairly long as a landing strip,’ she explains.

After all, despite having her hands full with other daily duties – including 600 sheep, a milking cow and 12 acres of hop fields – she still hankered after flying. Initially, Diana kept her plane, an Auster 5, at Rochester.


‘But it got “hangar rash”,’ says Diana. ‘That’s when people keep bumping other planes into it [you end up with a plane covered in little dents and scratches, like a rash] so we decided to build a hangar at Headcorn.’

Diana’s plane was kept at one end of the hangar, the sheep were kept at the other. ‘At first we were only allowed to have my plane there,’ she says. ‘We couldn’t have anyone flying in because it was a private airstrip. But we had a lot to do with the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop and they helped us with the ARB (Air Registration Board) to get a better licence so other people could fly in.

‘After that, it became extremely popular,’ she continues. ‘We used to get barrels sent in for the fuel so I had all my own fuel… now I realise how spoilt I really was.

‘The atmosphere was amazing because there were lots of pilots around with their own planes. After it got more well known we extended the runway slightly, and now it’s been extended even further, it’s a mile long.’

Aerodrome-Nov28-03-590Shenley Farm – Diana flew with the doors off the Auster to get a good shot

It’s hard not to be amused listening to some of her fascinating aviation tales. ‘Before all the supermarkets had all these upmarket foods we used to fly into a little airfi eld owned by friends of mine in France… Then we used to borrow a car and go and do the food shopping, have a meal and fly home. The children used to ask why we couldn’t go on a train or a bus like other people. Now it seems funny that they said that,’ she laughs.

Does she have any regrets? ‘The thing I regret terribly is that I never went up in Concorde. I kept saying I would but I didn’t, which was absolutely stupid,’ she admits. ‘The highlights really were taking my two children up. I taught Jamie to fly when he was eight and I also taught Chris to fly – although he never got his licence. He always used to say, “Why bother when the old girl can fly anyway.”’

Once the family had outgrown the three-seater Auster, Diana purchased a four-seater Dauphin – asking for it to be painted a particular shade of orange to match the colour of her hair. The company she bought it from in Dijon liked the colour so much that it adopted it for its other aircraft. ‘I took the colour chart to London and eventually tracked down a suit in the exact shade in Harrods, too,’ she says.

But where are the aircraft now? ‘They’re both still flying. The Auster went to somebody in the Isle of Wight. The Dauphin I sold to an airline pilot.

Aerodrome-Nov28-06-590From left: With daughter Elizabeth after touching down at Torrance Airport.Diana’s flying badge. Diana piloting a Cirrus in California

‘When he came to get it I asked if he wanted to do a circuit with me because it had a tail wheel [instead of a nose wheel like most planes in Britain at the time] and you’ve got to land it in a different way. But he absolutely flew at me and said, “I’m an airline pilot! I can fly anything.” He was really quite arrogant.

‘So I didn’t say any more and then he crashed it. He got into the field but he couldn’t get out and he ended up hitting a hedge. But most other pilots were very ordinary and very kind.’

Today, Diana stills flies whenever she gets the chance. ‘I fly with somebody else now. My son who runs Headcorn is so busy that he isn’t flying as much as he should, but hopefully before I fall off the perch I’ll be able to fly more with him.

‘At the moment it’s just wonderful to be flying again and I’m so happy to be a pilot at 80!’

Redhead In The Clouds: How I Started Headcorn Aerodrome – The Colourful Life Of Diana Patten is available now, priced £10 (£12 including p&p), by calling at Headcorn Aerodrome near Ashford, Kent, or by phoning Diana on 01424-812479.