Anywhere to Anywhere
They’re doing a job and doing it superlatively well, these civilians who fly planes from factories to the fighting men
D. K. FINDLAY
WE WERE sitting on the edge of a field in the Midlands waiting for a new Beaufighter to be delivered. The Beaufighter is a fast, heavy twin-engined fighter and the boys who fly them have to be good. The new aircraft came roaring in to a perfect landing and rolled up to the waiting crew. The pilot climbed out and waved a hand to us.
“Why, it’s a girl!”
“Yes, one of the A.T.A. girls. Here comes her pal.”
A little Fairchild monoplane drifted into the field and ran alongside the big Beau. It also was flown by a girl. The first girl picked up her receipt for the Beaufighter, hopped into the Fairchild and away they went. The fighter boys accepted it as one of the commonplaces of the war; it was pleasant to feel their respect for these girl pilots.
A.T.A. is officially the Air Transport Auxiliary but the people in it usually call it Anywhere to Anywhere. Sometimes after a day of flying Spitfires into afield and flying bombers, or anything else that may be waiting, out of it, the pilots amend it to Anything to Anywhere. It is a civilian organization within the Ministry of Aircraft Production. It has its own schools and instructors, its maintenance shops, its own air fleet of taxis and trainers. Its personnel wear a blue uniform cut like that of the R.A.F. with gold shoulder bars denoting rank and golden wings for the pilots.
There are sixteen pools scattered about England, and by September of last year the A.T.A. had delivered 100,000 airplanes. They have flown 117
different types of aircraft, some of them across the Atlantic and to the Middle East.
It grew out of an idea conceived by Commander Gerard d’Erlanger, its present commanding officer, in 1939, the idea of an emergency liaison squadron to act if the ordinary means of communication were destroyed by enemy action. He and F. D. Bradbrooke gathered together a nucleus of forty civilian pilots, men who loved to fly but were too old for the Air Force. Fortunately the emergency never appeared, but in 1940 the hard-pressed R.A.F. asked them to help with the delivery of new aircraft to operational squadrons. Grown to seventy pilots they flew through the hectic days before the fall of France. They flew Battles and Hurricanes across the Channel. They took them over with empty guns, sometimes to find their field under enemy fire.
During the evacuation, they flew everything out of France that could be flown, packed with flotsam and jetsam of personnel. Three pilots who were sent over to collect Battles found no Battles but three new Hurricanes. The pilots had never flown Hurricanes. “Either fly them or burn them,” said the station C.O., “because the enemy will be here within an hour.” The pilots decided to take a chance. They delivered the Hurricanes safely back to England.
Delivery in the Blitz
THAT autumn, during the Battle of Britain, they took new Spitfires and Hurricanes to the fighter squadrons as fast as they came off the line. “That was quite a time,” said one of the oldsters, who had lost one eye and one hand in the last war
but still can fly a fighter. “The squadrons wanted aircraft in the worst way. We’d fly a Spit into a field and find the squadron had been moved, chase off to another and find it had been moved again. Sometimes the factory was blitzed as we waited for new aircraft. Once when I was delivering a light transport plane three Messerschmitts went by me. They went on with their work and I went on with mine.”
Girls were delivering, too, in those dangerous days, mostly training planes. Sometimes they arrived at a field along with enemy bombs, sometimes they were caught in our own anti-aircraft fire. But during the worst week, the week ending September 15, they flew 800 hours and ferried 400 aircraft.
With the fall of each conquered country, the A.T.A. grew more international. Poles, tCzechs, French, Greeks, military and civilian pilots made their various ways to England and joined. Not all arrived empty-handed, two Poles each brought in an airliner.
In the A.T.A. there are an Admiral, an Air Vice Marshal and three one-armed pilots. Grey hair and colorful rows of ribbons are common. Necessary qualifications are previous flying experience and noneligibility for the services. The A.T.A. no longer enlists men over forty-five but there is little emphasis on age; the pilot must be capable of learning—an absolute “must” for men who fly every type of aircraft used by the R.A.F. and may fly two or three different types in one day. It is hard for the layman to grasp the difficulties entailed by this, but it should be remembered that
in the R.A.F. if the pilot of a twin-engined Wellington is to fly four-engined Lancasters he will be sent on a conversion course which may last weeks. During the Battle of Britain, A.T.A. pilots had conversion courses on Hurricanes that lasted forty minutes. They must be wizard navigators for they fly in all weathers without the benefit of radio. They say that there are A.T.A. pilots who can fly to any field in England without even a map.
THE part played by women in the A.T.A. makes an interesting story—which brings us to Miss Pauline Gower, now Commander Gower, M.B.E. She is the daughter of Sir Robert Gower, M.P., a well-known English lawyer, who cut off his daughter’s allowance when she insisted on learning to fly. His daughter earned her money for flying lessons by making lecture tours, teaching riding and music. She became a professional pilot, taking passengers on sightseeing trips in her own airplane. In 1939 she and eight of her friends, all experienced fliers—one an international skater, one a skiing instructor, one a daughter of Viscount Runciman—hopefully offered their services to the Air Ministry.
The offer was received with precisely the degree of shock you would expect but the girls persisted and in January, 1940, the first section of the women’s A.T.A. was formed. There are ninety of them now and their number is increasing. Two delivery pools are “manned” entirely by women, with girl mechanics and girl drivers on their stations.
The women pilots wear the same blue uniform with gold wings and gold shoulder bars, blue slacks for flying, a skirt and black stockings for other wear. Most of them are English but there are girls from France, Poland, New Zealand, United States one, Helen Harrison, from Canada and two more on their way. There are actresses and musicians, wives and mothers. One of them taught her seventeenyear-old son to fly before she left the States. There are two married couples in the A.T.A. and some have husbands in the R.A.F. or the Fleet Air Arm.
Most of them fly in Category One or Two— trainers and fighters—some can handle twinengined craft and there is a small group in Category Four who deliver hervy bombers. One slim, blonde graduate of Oxford will shortly be ferrying the new four-motored Lancasters.
Their pay is twenty per cent less than that of the men, fixed by some inscrutable Government rule that a woman is twenty per cent less valuable than a man. When they go to work, each one lugs a heavy bag containing her parachute pack and, slung over her shoulder, an overnight bag. They never know where they may sleep. The weather may close in and ground them somewhere, they may stay the night in a W.A.A.F. dormitory or in some country inn. They may have to hitchhike to the nearest railway station, they may walk miles carrying their heavy flying equipment. When the schedule runs smoothly, they will be picked up by one of their own ferry planes and brought back to their home pool.
As a group they are distinguished by their keen-
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ness for their job—and their good looks. The women’s A.T.A. has a long waiting list. There are agencies in the United States and Canada (the R.A.F. Ferry Command at Dorval) where a girl may apply but she must have precious flying experience. Once accepted, she goes through the A.T.A. school from Tiger Moths to Magisters, from School Hurricanes to twin-engined jobs. It is a big day for any girl when she moves into Category Two and opens up the throttles of a Spitfire. Some boy will fight in that Spit and come rain, fog or balloon barrage, she is going to put it down safely for him.
There have been five fatalities among the women pilots. Amy Johnston was killed when her aircraft plunged into the Thames. The A.T.A. have had over 100 of their personnel killed in delivery flights.
Keeping Aircraft Moving
THE function of the Air Transport Auxiliary is to keep a flow of new aircraft moving to the services. Air Force squadrons send their requirements to a group which also receives reports of aircraft ready at the factories. These are passed on to the A.T.A. pools who also receive “Take ’em away” calls from the factories in their area. Headquarters pool matches requisitions with available planes
and gets on with the day’s work.
This is planned as far as possible on a shuttle system. A pilot will pick up a new airplane at the factory and fly it to a maintenance unit where he will pick up another and fly it to a squadron. He is now some distance from home—the trick is to find another delivery which will bring him back into the home area where one of the A.T.S.’s flying taxis will pick him up. A pilot averages about three trips a day. On a good day a pool may move 150 to 200 aircraft.
It is a bright, windy, sun-flecked morning at headquarters pool, with clouds moving briskly at 3,000 feet. The operations room is crowded with pilots going and coming, picking up their delivery charts. As each sheet is completed another pilot is called up on the loudspeaker.
Outside on the apron the scene is full of color and action. Cars dash up and disembark officers in smart blue greatcoats. Pilots in blue flying suite pile into the little vans which take them out on the field. Girls with their caps pulled down and their slacks whipping their ankles lug their parachute bags toward a line of fighter aircraft, while a row of girls with but one bar on their shoulders sit on the steps and look enviously after them. These are the girls waiting for advanced instruction. Around
the field are parked aircraft of all types.
“We’ve picked a good pilot for you,” says the station commander. “Captain Mollison will take you round in one of our Ansons.”
The famous flier shows me his work sheet with a list of fields. “First we are going to deliver a couple of crews to pick up heavy bombers. As passenger, you can have the fun of looking after our undercart.”
We climb into an Anson with its underneath painted yellow to show that it is not an operational machine. Pilots and flight engineers get in behind us, sit down where they can find room, open their newspapers just like commuters going to work.
The motors fire, we taxi to the line of aircraft waiting to take off. A girl control pilot halts us with a red light to let a Harvard trainer drift in over
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our heads and we are off—and I understand what Captain Mollison means about being in charge of the undercart. The undercarriage of an Anson must be wound up and down by hand—one hundred and something turns on a crank —by the time I have got it up, we have almost arrived at our first stop, and I must wind it down again.
This is a small field with a factory hidden somewhere near by and there is a four-motored Halifax bomber waiting. We run alongside, and drop a crew for it, a pilot and a flight engineer.
We are off again across the wind. Our passengers, who have glanced up for a moment, go on reading their newspapers.
England From the Air
THIS is a longer hop and I have time to see something of England, the green fields outlined by hedgerows and separate trees, narrow ribbons of rivers and the occasional solid-looking woods. The weather has changed, the sun has gone and the grey cloud base comes down squeezing aircraft out of the upper air. I count sixteen ahead of us, looking rather like a school of minnows until we come close. One of them, a big tough-looking Wellington, chases us off our course. Suddenly out of a cloud comes a squadron of Havocs flying in tight formation. They pass right under us looking excessively sleek and dangerous and are gone in a breath.
“Ouch !” says one of our passengers and we go lower where the air is less crowded.
Off on our right a dense ground haze reaches to the grey clouds. Captain Mollison puts his finger on the map under the name of a large manufacturing city.
“See the balloons.”
After a few moments I can pick them out. First they look like floating golf balls, then like silver toys, by Disney. Nobody loves a balloon barrage. We go carefully round in a long arc and drop into the field of a maintenance unit. New aircraft are not left to clutter up valuable factory space, they are flown off to one of these units for the finishing touches. Here we left our remaining passengers. They were taking away a Short Stirling. The Stirling is one of the two aircraft in the world which carries eight tons of bombs. This one looked big enough to hold a dance in. They usually carry a crew of seven. We thought our three passengers might be lonely in it but they said they would be too busy.
Our next stop was a big R.A.F. station, teaming with aircraft. We were through delivering now. We parked the Anson in a parking lot like a car and had lunch in the mess. Two A.T.A. pilots had telephoned in their estimated time of arrival. We would wait for them, to give them a lift back.
We sat in the Anson and waited while the rain squalls blew across the
field and the wind made it necessary to hold our tail down by the control column. A late model Hurricane came booming in. A blue-clad pilot climbed out, collected his maps, spotted our Anson and came over. Captain Mollison asked him where his friend was.
“I passed him on the way. He’s up there in one of those Wellingtons.”
A hitchhiker put his head in the door and asked where we were going. We told him and he climbed in. He was an A.T.A. pilot bound for London.
The missing Wellington pilot turned up and we set off, put down briefly at another field where another pilot was waiting and took off again. The rain had stopped but the cloud base was very low. A.T.A. pilots are supposed to fly contact (in sight of the ground) and we cruised along at 800 feet.
Home For Tea
WELL, here we are. That’s our home field.” We were back in time for a cup of tea in the canteen. Here the men and women pilots gather to talk over the day’s work. People who have to know a great deal about every type of aircraft talk shop all the time—it is one of the ways to learn. A girl came in looking extremely happy. She had just delivered her first fighter so we drank her health in tea. Someone asked her how it went.
“Scared to death the whole time,” she laughed. “The engine kept spitting at me.”
A woman pilot with grey in her fair hair, thousands of hours in her logbook, and experience that includes heavy bombers, came in and pretended to look dazed.
“It was a typhoon,” she explained. “And that tail wind. I was almost in Scotland before I could get my map unrolled.”
She asked if I had enquired about the traditions of the A. T. A. and everyone laughed. It appeared that this was one of their family jokes. A visiting journalist had once asked her if the A.T.A. had any special traditions. Now there is only one tradition in the A.T.A.—to put down the aircraft where they are needed, and they don’t talk about that. But wishing to be helpful, the woman said, “Well—er—we always lift our caps to the Wrekin” — the Wrekin being an odd-shaped hill they were passing at the time. The information was gratefully received and duly published. So now A.T.A. pilots loyally tip their caps to the Wrekin.
They have a wonderful spirit, these A.T.A. people. They work and play with zest and good fellowship. They are doing a necessary job and doing it superlatively well. There is no saluting in the A.T.A.; they are civilians and when the war is over they will go back to civilian jobs without pensions or medals. But each one of them can treasure the memory that he or she belonged to a corps d’elite—and all of us can remember that it was no small honor to have worn the golden wings.
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