Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From Spitfires To Mosquitoes


Flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II


During World War II, I was a ferry pilot, flying military aircraft for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ATA was a British outfit whose primary job was to ferry all sorts of aircraft for the Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm (Navy) and Coastal Command.

The group was formed in 1939; it was made up of a handful of male pilots who were too old or medically unfit for combat flying. In January 1940, the first eight British women were admitted, and by 1942, American aviatrix Jackie Cochran was actively seeking American women to join the ranks in England. The ATA served as the blueprint for Cochran’s (and Nancy Love’s) later creation of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Between 1939 and 1945, there were about 1,300 pilots in the ATA, of whom about 150 to 160 were women. As one of those women pilots, I was able to fly 50 different types of airplanes—fighters, bombers, transports and others—that started me on nearly 40 years of flying.

As a girl, I had been what they called a “tomboy.” I enjoyed sports, and I didn’t know that I was supposed to be doing “girly” things. But, I couldn’t be a football player, an auto racer or hydroplane driver, so I was thrilled when my brother suggested an airplane ride as my 16th birthday present. When, in 1939, the chance came to learn to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), I took it, and have never looked back.

Cochran was looking for women pilots with at least 300 hours, and I had about 450 hours from instructing. I had heard about the women ferrying airplanes in England, so I applied directly to Cochran in January 1942. A few months later, I left for Montreal for a checkout in an AT-6 Harvard, and then on to England. Until the telegram came, I never believed that I would actually get to go.

Training was more “transition” than actual instruction. It consisted of dual checkouts on perhaps four or five single-engine planes, ranging from trainers to fighters. New types, as 41 of my 50 ATA types were, were flown solo the first time up, with only the help of specially issued ATA handling notes.

In the ATA, there were no copilots. Every pilot flew as pilot in command, never knowing what kind of plane they would have next. Because Britain is a small territory, you could fly five different types of aircraft in one day, from light trainers to B-24s, and only log about two or three hours.

There were no radios in the aircraft, and therefore there was supposed to be no instrument flying, although it was impossible to fly in Britain without running into instrument conditions inadvertently. The unpredictable British weather caused a good many precautionary landings, and it could take as many as four or five days to complete an ordinary one-hour delivery flight.



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