Elspeth Russell was born in Montréal but spent most of her life in Matane (Qc). At the outbreak of WWII, the young woman wanted to assume an active role. She heard of a British organization called the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) which, unlike Ferry Command, accepted women pilots to ferry warplanes. But there was only one problem: Elspeth had never flown an airplane! Also, since gasoline was rationed, civilian flying schools were essentially inoperative. Determined, the young woman managed to fly dual and accumulated about 150 solo hours. She then applied in 1943 to the ATA and successfully passed her flight tests on a Harvard training plane at Dorval. However, she had to lie about her age since she was not yet 21… Transferred to an Initial Flying Training School in England, her instructor noted that, while being inexperienced, Elspeth was already an above average pilot. Typically, ATA pilots started by ferrying light aircraft and fighter planes such as the Hurricane, then went on with bigger airplanes including four-engine bombers. Only five Canadian women became ATA pilots. In that select group, Elspeth Russell was the only Quebecer
Only five Canadian women became ATA pilots. In that select group, Elspeth Russell was the only Quebecer.
In 1945 in England, Elspeth married another ATA pilot, Gerry Burnett. The young couple arrived in Canada in 1946 and settled in Matane, where an airport had just been erected. They decided to form an airline to be called Matane Air Services. Operations started in 1948 with a Stinson 108 and a Piper PA-12. In 1950, they acquired a twin-engine Cessna Crane to fly across the St.Lawrence River. Other airplanes soon followed: a de Havilland Dragon Rapide, five more Cessna Cranes and four Lockheed 10s. In 1958, they acquired their first DC-3. Finally in 1965, they sold the company to Québecair. Only Québec-born woman to fly in the ATA during the war, Elspeth Russell was for years the only commercial woman pilot to fly in Québec.