Our 2009 stamp honoured Vi Milstead Warren who has contributed to Canadian aviation in several areas. Designed by Ninety-Nines member Suzanne Wiltshire, the Vi Milstead stamp features a portrait of Vi in her Air Transport Auxiliary uniform. In the background we see a twin engine Mosquito, one of the 47 types of aircraft Vi flew during the war. The stamp was launched on October 17, Vi’s ninetieth birthday.
As a young teenager during the depression of the thirties, Vi worked long hours for four years, saving her money until she had enough to pay for flying lessons – quite a commitment for a teenaged girl at a time when very few females were interested in becoming pilots.
On September 4, 1939 Vi had her first flying lesson, just as war was declared in Europe. By December 14, she passed the flight test for a Private Pilot Licence. During this time Vi’s instructor Pat Patterson produced a film Learning To Fly which chronicled Vi’s flight training. Mr. Patterson planned to use the film to stimulate public interest in flying, hoping to gain more students at his Barker Field flight school. No doubt he chose a female student in order to show that even women could pilot airplanes. By the end of March, 1940, a little over three months after earning her Private Licence, Vi completed the requirements for the Limited Commercial Pilot Licence.
Vi became one of the first Canadian women to find employment as a pilot. The onset of war had stimulated considerable interest in flying among young men. With the rapid increase of men joining the air force, Pat Patterson found it increasingly difficult to find and keep instructors, so he promised to hire Vi if she got an Instructor Rating.
This sounded to Vi like a good offer. She completed her Instructor Rating in July 1941 and then instructed at Patterson and Hill at Barker Field. During this time she taught many students to fly, including a few women. Several of her male students joined the RCAF and went on to distinguish themselves during the war and afterwards with aviation careers. She continued to instruct until wartime fuel rationing brought a halt to all civilian flying, in late November 1942.
The loss of her instructing job led Vi to seek employment further afield when one of her students told her about the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain. Hired early in 1943 Vi flew with the ATA, delivering military aircraft from factories to maintenance units and to RAF bases. Achieving the rank of First Officer, Vi was the longest serving Canadian woman with the ATA. She flew more hours on more types of aircraft than any other Canadian woman, logging 47 different types of aircraft (74 different marks) including Spitfire, Mosquito, Hudson, Beaufort, Boston, Wellington and Welkin.
Following the war, Vi returned to instructing, though her parents had hoped she had “gotten that out of her system”. In 1947 Vi became Canada’s first woman bush pilot when she worked with Nickel Belt Airways in Sudbury. This work included flying surveyors to inspect mining sites or trappers returning home with supplies. She also flew men who had been recruited in beer parlours to fight local forest fires, and occasionally had to encourage the odd one to leave the comfort of the airplane and get on with fire-fighting.
Vi and her husband Arnold Warren moved to Colborne soon after their retirement. At first they spent summers in the Magdallen Islands and winters in Colborne, often flying back and forth in their Piper Cub or Mooney airplane. For several years they were active within the community through the Rotary and Inner Wheel clubs. Vi also volunteered at Second Helpings, the Colborne Elementary School and delivering Meals on Wheels.
Vi now lives near Colborne, Ontario in a log home featuring a wind generator and solar panels. Vi’s honours include an Amelia Earhart medallion 1975, induction into the International Forest of Friendship, Member of the Order of Canada, induction into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubillee medal.
By Marilyn Dickson