British Air Transport Auxiliary
A Brief History of the Air Transport Auxiliary
But d'Erlanger believed that war would create a demand for the service these pilots could provide, such as transporting dispatches, mail, supplies, medical officers, ambulance cases, and the occasional VIP. He contacted the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Air, Harold Balfour, and the Director General of Civil Aviation, Sir Francis Shelmerdine, and proposed the creation of a pool of peacetime civil pilots who could employ their aviation skills in service of their country.
As he was the one with the idea, he was given the job: to contact holders of "A" (private) licenses with at least 250 hours of flying time, and make arrangements to interview and flight-test these candidates with the goal of incorporating them into this newly created organization, which was given the working name "Air Transport Auxiliary."
About a hundred pilots responded to the offer, and they came from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, artists, innkeepers, journalists, factory managers, and farmers. War broke out on September 3, 1939, just as the first of these men were arriving at a base in the west of England for vetting.
Thirty were selected out of this group. At this time, it was decided to create two ranks in the ATA: that of Second Officer, for those whose abilities limited them to flying light single-engined aircraft, and that of First Officer, for those with over 500 hours' experience, and who could pilot twin-engined aircraft. The uniform would be dark blue, consisting of trousers, a forage cap, light blue RAF shirt, black tie, and a single-breasted jacket bearing the ATA insignia: a circlet enclosing the letters "ATA," superimposed on a set of wings. Gold bars on the shoulders would indicate rank. (Eventually there would be also Third Officers, Flight Captains, and three ranks of Commanders. Gerard d'Erlanger held the rank of Commodore.) At this stage, the ATA was under the direction of the National Air Communications and the Director-General of Civil Aviation, with British Airways responsible for clerical, personnel, and administrative purposes.
As England geared up to wartime standing, the ATA was given the urgent task of ferrying trainers, fighters, and bombers from storage units to RAF squadrons. Before the war, the RAF had thought it could handle all its own ferrying duties. But it was becoming apparent, even during the "Phony War," that more aircraft would be required to have a viable air force. The resultant workload was beyond the capacity of the RAF ferry pilots. If the war heated up, this situation would become a crisis. In addition, many more RAF pilots would be needed to fly operationally, and off-loading ferrying duties onto civilian aviators would free more Service pilots to Fighter, Bomber, and Coastal Commands.
Since most of the ATA pilots were limited to flying light single-engined training aircraft, it was decided to give them "conversion" courses to the single-engined fighters (primarily Hurricanes and Spitfires) and multi-engine types. This they would do, for the moment, at RAF Central Flying School in Upavon. The ATA would now be operationally under the control of the Air Ministry, in effect, the RAF, but British Airways would still oversee its administrative and clerical functions.
With its ever-increasing demand for ferrying services, the Under Secretary of State for Air proposed that the ATA open its ranks to women. There was a snag, though. The ATA was now operating out of RAF ferry pools, its pilots working alongside RAF transport pilots, and the Air Ministry was opposed to the posting of women pilots to RAF units. Politically and culturally, there was opposition, as well, the arguments falling broadly along two lines:
1. Aviation was an unsuitable profession for a woman.
The view taken by C. G. Grey, editor of "Aeroplane," was typical of the sentiment of the time:
We quite agree . . . that there are millions of women in the country who could do useful jobs in war. But the trouble is that so many of them insisting on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and yet can't cook her husband's dinner. There are men like that so there is no need to charge us with anti-feminism. One of the most difficult types of man with whom one has to deal is that which has a certain amount of ability, too much self-confidence, an overload of conceit, a dislike of taking orders and not enough experience to balance one against the other by his own will. The combination is perhaps more common amongst women than men. And it is one of the commonest causes of crashes, in aeroplanes and other ways.
Many people, men and women, voiced their protests to
these attitudes, and worked vigorously to promote the idea utilizing women
for ferrying duties, but none with so much energy and determination as
Pauline Gower, a commercial pilot with over 2000 hours' experience, and
a commissioner in the Civil Air Guard. In the latter role, she had been
responsible for overseeing the training and licensing of pilots in civilian
flying clubs. Her tireless efforts are too extensive to chronicle here.
Three books provide excellent accounts of her work and accomplishments:
A Harvest of Memories, by Pauline's son, Michael Fahie, The Forgotten
Pilots, by ATA pilot Lettice Curtis, and Spreading My Wings, by ATA pilot
Diana Barnato Walker.
The women would be based at Hatfield, just north of London, and would fly their lanes from the nearby deHavilland factory to training airfields and storage units. As it turned out, these destinations would be located for the most part in northern England and Scotland. As it also turned out, this task would be done in the middle of winter. There were two reasons why the women were given this task:
1. Nobody else wanted it.
On January 1, 1940, the ATA officially accepted the "First Eight" into service: Winifred Crossley, Margaret Cunnison, Margaret Fairweather, Mona Friedlander, Joan Hughes (the youngest, at 21), Gabrielle Patterson, Rosemary Rees, and Mirion Wilberforce. All these women were highly experienced, each having more than 600 hours of flying time, and all were rated flying instructors. Pauline, at 29, was younger than most of the women she commanded. Yet she was a natural leader, and capably shouldered the responsibilities of her office.
Pauline had an iron will and a fierce determination to see women accepted on an equal basis with men. She was a mover and a shaker, but never was pushy or overbearing. She was gracious, tactful, gently persuasive, friendly, warm, and kind. She got things accomplished because people respected and admired her. Among all the ATA pilots that I have talked with, men and women, not one has said a negative thing about her.
This was the first time in history (in England, or anywhere else in the world) that women would be officially employed in ferrying military aircraft, and, despite almost overwhelming hardships of that first winter, they would do a sterling job of it. They knew that the fate of hundreds of women pilots, who desperately longed to be also allowed into ATA's ranks, depended on them. Of their own feelings at being tendered such a heavy responsibility, Pauline joked that, in their case, ATA stood for "Always Terrified Airwomen." Their spotless and efficient record made an impression on those with the power to make things happen, and more women were accepted into the ATA.
As with the men, they came from all walks of like. Some were accomplished athletes: a skiing instructor, an international ice-hockey player, and a ballet dancer. Several were mothers (and there was one grandmother!). They were wealthy socialites and working girls, whose pre-war occupations included stunt-pilot, mathematician, mapmaker, architect, typist, actress, and world famous record-setting endurance pilot (Amy Johnson, who was killed on a ferry trip in January, 1941).
A few weeks after the First Eight were installed at Hatfield, another separate, all-civilian ATA ferry pool was formed at White Waltham, west of London. It would clear aircraft factories in the Midlands and southern England, and eventually become the administrative headquarters and conversion school by the ATA.
While the women were courting hypothermia on their trips north, the male ATA pilots, who by now numbered 157, were kept busy ferrying RAF planes from factories and storage units to operational airfields. They also collected impounded civilian aircraft.
In May, 1940, the German army broke through the French lines and swept across France to the Channel. The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were cut off from the rest of France's military forces and forced towards the coast. The men of the ATA were given an urgent task: to fly much needed Fairey Battles to RAF bases in France. This would be the first time ATA pilots would fly to the continent, and it would be an all too brief endeavor. Probably none of them could imagine, at that time, that they would not see France again for another four years.
Even though the pilots were given just a moment's notice to collect their planes and fly straightaway to France, by the time they arrived, the tactical situation had deteriorated catastrophically. One group of pilots was stranded overnight. The next morning, with the German army only 12 hours away, they were pressed into service flying Hurricanes back to England. These planes would be needed in the coming Battle of Britain. The men of the ATA would continue their work throughout the desperate summer, ferrying Hurricanes and Spitfires to Fighter Command squadrons as aerial battles waged in the skies over England.
At this time, the women pilots were not allowed to ferry operational aircraft. Flying fighter planes was considered beyond a woman's physical and psychological capabilities, though some of the non-operational single-engined planes they flew were almost as powerful, and their handling almost as complex, as the Hurricanes and Spitfires they dreamed of flying. In the meantime, Pauline worked tirelessly to get her women recognized as competent to ferry more advanced aircraft, and finally the decision was made to allow women to fly Lysanders, which were light Army Co-op planes designed for short take-offs and landings, and twin-engined non-operational aircraft, such as Oxfords and Dominies. This was a step, a small one, but a significant gain nonetheless. This was followed by another modest victory: For the first time, women would train at the RAF Central Flying School in Upavon.
With the end of the Blitz in May, 1941, the RAF went fully on the offensive - just in time for summer, the peak period for aerial operations. The ferrying demands for fighters and bombers would soon be far beyond the capacity of the male ATA pilots, so the women were at least cleared to fly Class 2 Aircraft, Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Four of the First Eight, Winnie Crossley, Margie Fairweather, Joan Hughes, and Rosemary Rees, took that first leap on July 19, 1941. Each did a short solo flight in a Hurricane, at their home base at Hatfield. Several more women checked out on Hurricanes over the next few weeks.
In September, 1941, eleven women ferry pilots moved to Hamble, then an all-male pool, to clear Spitfires from the Vickers Supermarine factory at Southhampton, on the south coast of England. They would also move Oxfords and Blenheims from other local plants, and ferry naval aircraft to and from the Royal Naval Air Stations in the area. All of the men, except for four, were posted to other pools. The four remaining men stayed for awhile to ferry aircraft that the women were not yet qualified to fly, and to provide orientation to the women, giving technical pointers and introducing them to the maintenance units, factories, RAF squadrons, and naval bases. Margot Gore was appointed pool commander, and the men readily accepted their status under her direction, a rare thing in those days.
In the early days of the ATA, the training on unfamiliar types was largely informal, mainly because the early joiners were highly experienced and versatile, and usually needed only a few pointers when they were assigned a plane they had not flown before. Sometimes pilots did go through standard training courses on more advanced classes of aircraft, such as at the RAF Central Flying School. Often, though, when faced with an unfamiliar type, a pilot would snag someone who had flown that particular aircraft and ask for information and helpful hints, or buttonhole one of the ground crew for particulars.
With the ever-increasing workload and influx of new pilots, who were for the most part less experienced than the pilots who had joined early on, it became necessary to institute a systematic training program for pilots as they progressed to more advanced types of aircraft. There had been several unpleasant incidents in which inexperienced pilots mistook one control for another. For instance, in the Blenheim, it was very easy to confuse he emergency fuel cut-off for the pitch control (they were located very close together, behind the pilot's head). Thus was born the ATA Conversion School, where pilots would be trained to fly various classes of aircraft.
Types of aircrafts were organized into the following categories:
Class 1: Single-engined light aircraft (primarily teachers)
Class 2: Single-engined operational aircraft (mostly fighters, such as Hurricanes, Spitfires, F4U Corsairs, and P-51 Mustangs)
Class 3: Twin-engined light aircraft
Class 4: Twin-engined operational aircraft (mostly medium bombers)
Class 5: Four-engined aircraft (heavy bombers, such as Lancasters, Stirlings, B-17 Fortresses, and B-24 Liberators)
Class 6: Flying boats (PBY Catalinas, Sunderlands)
Classes 2 and 4 also had plus ratings, for more difficult types within that class (Class 2 Plus included P-40 variants, Tempests, Typhoons, and P-39 Airacobras; Class 4 Plus included Hudsons, Mosquitos, rare or older twin-engined types, and twins with tricycle undercarriages, such as A-20 Havocs (which were also B-20 Bostons), P-38 Lightnings, B-26 Maurafers, and B-25 Mitchells.
Pilots were given classroom courses, then flying instruction - first dual, then solo - usually on only one or two representatives of each type. They were then expected to be able to ferry any aircraft in that class.
However, planes in the same class might have wildly varying control configurations and operational setting. So the Ferry Pilots Notes were created: 4x6 cards, bound on two rings, that contained everything a pilot needed to know about flying that particular aircraft - usually all on just one card, front and back. Settings and configurations were clearly indicated, as well as pertinent aircraft speeds: takeoff, climbing, cruising, landing, and (last but not least) stalling speed. Pilots also had access to maker's handling notes, which were generally on 8 to 12 pages and contained more detailed information. (Most pilots reported, however, that there rarely was time to swot up these handling notes before a flight, and the cards did the job just as well.)
Even within a particular type, there might be wide variations. In Mosquitos, the rudder trim controls migrated from the dash to the ceiling in later models. Also, the Mosquito's control column was configured differently in the bomber and fighter versions. The Spitfire went through 24 Marks, its engine rating going from 1030 horsepower to over 2000. Probably the most notorious intra-type modification was the "backwards" throttle in some P-40 Tomahawks originally destined for the French Air Force, well remembered by every ferry pilot who had to deal with it. These planes had been manufactured in the United States, to French specifications, which directed that the throttle be pushed forward to decrease power and pulled back to increase power, opposite to the way British and American planes operated. France capitulated before these aircraft could be delivered, so they were re-routed to England. To the pilots of the ATA, flying these planes was akin to driving a car in which one pressed down on the gas pedal to slow down, and eased off the pedal to speed up!
After their conversion courses, pilots would be "seconded" to a pool in a trainee capacity to gain experience in that particular class, then reassigned, usually to their "home" pool, to handle regular ferrying duties.
The success of the Conversion School, and the versatility of ATA pilots, is demonstrated by Lettice Curtis, who was the first woman to fly four-engined bombers. (Twelve women eventually attained a Class 5 Ranking.) In a single day, she flew Class 1 Aircraft, a Spitfire (Class 2), a Mitchell and a Mosquito (Class 4), and a Stirling (Class 5). Her experience was not unusual: Class 5 pilots were expected, at a moment's notice, to fly anyone of 147 types of aircraft. Class 4 pilots were capable of flying 138 different types. Almost half of the women pilots (82 in all) attained a Class 4 Ranking.
As the ATA grew, it became two unwieldy for British Airways (now BOAC) to effectively administer, and the ferrying responsibilities too complex for the Air Ministry to handle. So during 1940 and 1941 it gradually was turned over to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the civilian organization created by Winston Churchill in 1940 to streamline and maximize production and distribution of aircraft needed for the war effort. (RAF Fighter Command Chief Sir Hugh Dowding gave credit to the MAP for providing the steady stream of Hurricanes and Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain.)
ATA pools were sited near aircraft factories they were responsible for clearing. As various types of aircraft became obsolete, the pools situated near the factories manufacturing them would be relocated to sites closer to those making newer types. By 1942, there were 14 ferry pools, which were designated by numbers:
No. 1 While Waltham
Eventually, the ATA would have 22 ferry pools. Some pools, like Hamble, Cosford, and Hatfield (which in 1942 moved to Luton) were all-women ferry pools. Most of the others were "mixed," with men and women pilots working side-by-side.
Ferry movements were complicated by the fact that England was under aerial attack throughout most of the war. It was difficult to relocate major factories, or camouflage them. (The Germans knew where they were, anyway.) With aircraft factories under constant attack, it was vital to get planes out of harm's way as soon as they were flyable. So maintenance units, or Mus, were built, where the fine work (installing armament and radios, and making other minor modifications) could be carried out under safer conditions.
Mus were smaller units, and could be easily hidden around the countryside. The use of Mus followed, on a grander scale, the general principle of "dispersal" as practiced at RAF bases: Scattering aircraft around as much as possible and also camouflaging them, so as to minimize losses in the event of aerial attack. This protection came at a cost to ATA resources: A plane needed to be ferried twice in its journey from factory to RAF base, so ATA movements were doubled from the start. If the planes were damaged in combat and could not be repaired at squadron workshops, they were ferried back to the Mus, or in some cases factories, for repair (if the planes were flyable, that is, and often they were barely airworthy, another challenged to ferry pilots).
Regarding the enormous amount of ferrying work carried out by the ATA, Commodore d'Erlanger once remarked to a group of visiting dignitaries: "Every machine you see in the sky has been, or will be, flown at some period of its life by a pilot of the ATA."
Some MUs took over various existing structures for their work: workshops, garages, barns, and sheds. Other MUs were built from scratch, and an ingenious way was found to camouflage them. A site was found near the edge of a forest or within a clump of trees. Construction workers would chop out the foliage in a central area; then tie ropes to the tops of trees at the edge of this newly-made clearing, pull them down away from the perimeter, and anchor them to the ground. That done, the workers would build the workshops and other structures inside the clearing. When this work was finished, then they would cut the ropes holding down the bordering tress, and these trees would snap right up to provide cover for the newly-born MU.
The airstrips of these MUs were in adjacent fields or bits of open land. They were usually rough, and very short. ATA pilots had to do three-point landings in order to get their planes down with a minimum amount of runway.
In the early years of the ATA, ferry pilots invariably had to get back to their bases using ground transport, which usually meant a slow, tiring journey by train. Often they would ferry planes over great distances, making the return trip excruciatingly long. (A rail system in a war zone is a model of inefficiency and discomfort.) With the desperate shortage of pilots, the time wasted in traveling by rail meant a critical drain in ferrying resources. So two solutions were found.
The first was the taxi program. The ATA acquired several planes to transport ferry pilots to the factories or maintenance units to pick up their planes, then collect them at their destinations. Some of these taxi aircraft were small, single-engined transports which could hold a few pilots, such as Puss Moths, Stinsons, Airspeed Couriers, and American Fairchilds. These were not satisfactory for the most part, for often several pilots at a time would need transport to the same factory. The Avro Anson, a twin-engined aircraft, proved perfect for taxiing duties. The Anson was designed as a bomber, but by the time the war was in full swing it was apparent that it was too underpowered for an operational role. Fortunately, "Annie" found a new life with the ATA: It could officially hold 7 or 8 pilots (and many times 10 or 12 squeezed in).
The second innovation was the institution of a relay system for ferrying planes. For longer ferrying journeys, instead of one pilot delivering a plane to its final destination, he or she would drop it off at the next ferry pool along the way. A pilot from that pool would ferry it along to the next pool, and so on until the plane reached the end of its journey.
ATA pilots faced serious risks in performance of their ferrying duties. They were not trained to be instrument rated, so bad weather was a constant danger. Although they had to abide by very detailed bad weather flying restrictions, the changeable English weather made for rather dicey decision-making. Sometimes a few degrees' drop in temperature could turn clear skies into a cloud-filled nightmare. Barrage balloons and friendly fire from anti-aircraft batteries were also a hazard. Pilots were not allowed to mark their maps with the location of defensive positions, lest their maps fall into enemy hands.
In the early years of the war, the RAF did not have complete air superiority over England, and attacks by German planes were a continuous threat. Some of the Ansons were fitted with guns (which only fired backwards), but the vast majority of times pilots flew unprotected. The planes ferried by ATA pilots were more often than not devoid of armament; if they had guns or cannon, they were unloaded anyway.
In February, 1943, a taxi Anson filled with 12 ATA pilots and flown by Jim Mollison, Amy Johnson's husband, was attacked by a Messerschmidt 110. Jim made a dash into a cloud and lost the unfriendly pursuer, then put down at White Waltham.
ATA pilots flew without radio, and often with no more sophisticated equipment other than a compass and gyro.
Besides pilots, every ATA ferry pool had a ground staff, consisting of administrative officers in command, meteorological information, operations, maps, and signals. There were also secretaries, typists, drivers, and custodial and canteen staff. Finally there were ground engineers and mechanics, who performed superbly in keeping the aircraft the ATA pilots ferried in flying condition. The ATA developed its own handling notes for maintaining and repairing aircraft; these instructions were considered to be so clear and comprehensive that they were adopted by the RAF for its own riggers and fitters. Women served as mechanics, and in every other capacity as ground staff.
There were, in addition to pilots, other flying personnel in the ATA. The organization had its own Flight Engineers, among them four women, one of whom was killed in service.
The ATA also utilized Air Training Corps Cadets, boys from 16 to 18 years of age. They were initially brought in to help out in cleaning airplanes, as there was a severe shortage of hanger staff. As a reward, they were given the occasional flight. Once airborne, they would often be given the task of winding undercarriages. Many planes at this time had manually operated landing gear, and the work in raising and lowering them was much appreciated by ATA aircrews. The Cadets were issued RAF-blue uniforms with appropriate insignia, which made them the envy of their peers.
They did such sterling work that they were offered permanent jobs with the ATA. Some worked in the post department, sorting mail and acting as runners for urgent messages. They delivered aircraft spare parts and other equipment, traveling by car or by plane. Some worked as dispatch riders and were given motorcycles for their duties. They also acted as escorts and orderlies to visiting dignitaries, among whom were the King and Queen and Eleanor Roosevelt.
As the ferrying demands grew, the ATA actively recruited pilots to handle the workload, and limitations that might bar a pilot from service in peacetime were no barrier when every capable aviator was sorely needed. Most of the men who flew were in their thirties, forties and fifties. Many physically challenged pilots also found employment with the ATA. There were a few men who were color-blind, and one who suffered from narcolepsy, who but for the unfortunate tendency to nod off at the most inappropriate times was quite a good pilot. (On his ferrying trips he would take along an "assistant" to shake him awake if he happened to fall asleep at the controls.) There were several one-armed pilots, and a one-armed, one-eyed pilot, Stuart Keith-Jopp, who was one of the first 30 men to join the ATA at its inception. He was also over 50 years old, a veteran of World War I, and an extraordinarily skilled and capable pilot who flew with the ATA until the war's end.
Many foreign pilots also found employment in the ATA. In this aspect, the ATA was known as the "Flying Legion of the Air," as pilots from 30 other countries served in the organization. There were pilots from almost every occupied nation in Europe, most of whom escaped just ahead of invading Nazis. Soon after her country was occupied by Germany, Anna Leska of Poland managed to snatch a Polish Air Force plane at an airfield guarded by German soldiers, and fly it to Rumania. She made her way to France, and then to England, where she joined the ATA and rose to the rank of First Officer.
The 30 countries that contributed pilots to the ATA were: Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, Ceylon, Chile, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Ireland, Estonia, France, Holland, India, Malaya, Mauritius, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia (one Russian pilot was seconded from the RAF), South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United States.
The Americans formed the largest foreign contingent in the ATA. One hundred and fifty-four American men served, many of them joining before America entered the war. Since the ATA was a civilian organization, these men did not violate the American Neutrality Laws by joining it, even though they ferried military aircraft. (Americans who joined the RAF were considered to be breaking the law, and risked criminal penalties such as prison terms and loss of citizenship.) One American woman joined the ATA before the US entered the war, and in 1942 Jacqueline Cochran, the record-setting American aviator, recruited 25 more. Almost all of these women made the journey to England by ship, when the U-Boat threat was at its height. Crossing the Atlantic during that time was an act of courage in itself.
With America's entry into the war and the aerial battles over Germany at a fever-pitch, the demands for aircraft ferrying increased dramatically. After scrounging every available female, foreign, handicapped and over-aged pilot, the ATA still faced a serious personnel shortfall. Jacqueline Cochran had been asked to provide 200 American women for ATA duty. This she would not do, for Jackie had a dream of her own: to start up a women's ferrying program in the US. For that she would need a sizable pool of experienced pilots, and 200 was too tall an order. Twenty-five would have to do. (Jackie would realize her dream: Her organization, the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, would employ over a thousand American women in ferrying aircraft within the continental US.)
If the ATA could not find pilots, it would create them, and thus the ab initio program was born. Most of these notives came from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs), from non-flying RAF personnel, and from the ATA's ground staff. They did their initial training at Barton-in-the-Clay, in Bedfordshire, then moved to Thame in Oxfordshire for their Class 2 Conversion Course. (The Class 2 training had been shifted to Luton in 1942, then to Thame in the summer of 1943 because White Waltham had become so congested with training classes and ferrying movements. White Waltham continued as a training center for twin- and four-engined aircraft.)
Also during the summer of 1943, the women ATA pilots, who had previously earned 20 percent less than male pilots, were at last given equal pay. By now they were ferrying all classes of aircraft, with the exception of Class 6 flying boats. The women faced the same dangers as the men, the same long, grueling hours of flying, the same discomforts. Pauline Gower and some of the men on the Senior Staff of the ATA took their case to the MAP, to the Treasury, to Parliament, and finally won. Pauline's son, Michael, has done an extensive amount of research on the subject, and as far as he can tell, the ATA was the first major organization or corporation to treat men and women equally as a matter of policy.
After the Normandy Invasion, the ATA was given the task of helping to ferry aircraft to the continent. At first, ATA pilots delivered aircraft to Ground Support Units (GSUs) at White Waltham and Aston Down, from where they were off-loaded onto the RAF and delivered to France by RAF ferry pilots. In September, two male ferry pilots, Hugh Bergal and Maurice Harle, a Frenchman, delivered two Spitfires to an RAF airstrip near Dieppe. Thereafter, male pilots of the ATA made regular deliveries to the continent.
With the return to the continent, and the Allied front line moving constantly eastward, supply considerations became a critical issue. The ATA's original purpose had been the transporting of supplies and personnel, but the demands of war soon made the task of ferrying aircraft its almost sole priority. After four years the ATA returned to its initial role as a transport service, and the Ansons filled the bill perfectly. ATA Ansons carried ammunition, small arms, mortar bombs, petrol, radios, spare parts, food, newspapers, and medical supplies. They also ferried passengers: military personnel, civilian VIPs, medical teams, wounded servicemen, ENSA entertainers. On the return trips, freed Allied POWs and war orphans were transported to England.
For the first time, Ansons were fitted with radio, and the ATA was given the call-sign Ferdinand. Shortly thereafter, in the proud tradition of aircraft nose art, the overseas Ansons were emblazoned with the Walt Disney character Ferdinand the Bull.
The women at this time were not officially allowed to ferry to the continent, though in late September of 1944 Diana Barnato Walker managed to fly a Spitfire to Brussels, following her husband, a Wing Commander in the RAF, in another Spitfire. At the time she was on a short leave from the ATA. Her husband Derek got permission from the Headquarters of the Second Tactical Air Force of the RAF to allow her to travel to Brussels. (In the autumn of 1943, RAF Fighter Command was split into the Second Tactical Air Force, which was to assist on offensive operations over the continent, and the Air Defense of Great Britain, which was charged with defending the skies over England.)
Shortly after Diana's trip, ATA women pilots were officially cleared to fly to the continent. In the final days of the war, some made it to Berlin. Also during this time, a few women were given the opportunity to ferry Meteor jets.
But the women of the ATA knew their days as professional aviators were numbered. With the war winding down, their services would no longer be needed. And with the huge surplus of pilots created by the war effort, their opportunities would be limited. Once again, women pilots would be viewed as "taking jobs away from men."
A few women managed to carve out professional and commercial roles. In 1963, Diana Barnato Walker became the first British woman to break the sound barrier, in a Lightning jet fighter. Monique Agazarian started her own air charter service. But most of the women found the employment doors closed.
They refused to be grounded. They would fly whenever they could, wherever they could, for as long as they could. Ann Welch traveled around the world, taking part in glider competitions. Roberta Leveaux also flew gliders, then turned to Ultralights, and in her seventies spent hours soaring above the Arizona desert. Some women, like my mother in law, taught their children to fly.
Tragically, the one person who did so much to promote the cause of women pilots did not live long enough to indulge her passion for flying. Pauline Gower died in 1947, shortly after giving birth to twin boys.
The ATA began as a way to give unemployed and idle pilots a chance to do their "bit" in the event of war. It became a huge organization, whose work was vital to the war effort.
ATA pilots delivered over 300,000 aircraft, of 51 different types. The ATA's total pilot complement comprised 1,152 men and 166 women. Other aircrew included 151 flight engineers, 19 radio officers, and 27 ATC Cadets. One hundred and twenty-nine men and 20 women were killed in service. Thirty-six pilots, among them two women, received Certificates of Commendation from the British government. Four women pilots, Pauline Gower, Margot Gore, Joan Hughes, and Rosemary Rees, were awarded MBEs (Members of the British Empire).
As this century draws to a close, most of the former ATA pilots are now in their late seventies and eighties. Many have grandchildren who are the same age that they themselves were when they flew over a war-torn England. Many are no longer here. Each year the ATA Association Newsletter chronicles the thinning of the organization's ranks.
At this time, the American contingent of the ATA Association is headed by Philip Rogers, a "youngster" of 73. He was one of the cadets, those eager teenagers who happily washed planes and cranked undercarriages in exchange for a few hours of "airtime" a week. He became a pilot in the RAF, then went on to become a flying instructor with the Oxford University Auxiliary Air Squadron. Another former cadet, Eric Viles, leads the British contingent of the ATA Association.
For all the pilots, from those who joined the ATA as seasoned aviators with hundreds of hours of flying time, to the "infants" of the ab initio program, and for the flight engineers and cadets who also took to the skies, the ATA's motto would become a lifelong aspiration: Aetheris Avidi - Eager for the Air.
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