Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From Spitfires To Mosquitoes

Flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II

From my notes back in 1942-45, I wrote the following. Pilots will relate!

On June 21st, 1943, I got to fly my first P-51 Mustang, one of the finest American machines in the world (built according to British specifications). I had watched them take off from the North American plant in Inglewood, Calif., with no inkling that I would one day fly one. But here it was. I was so pleased that I forgot safety in altitude. These Mustangs had a reputation for low-level attacks, so I dove down to 50 feet and hopped over trees and telegraph wires at 250-275 mph. Then I shot across the airfield, 10 feet above the ground at just over 300 mph. Fun, but not approved operations!

The Spitfire was my favorite fighter; flying it was a real treat. As you open it up for takeoff, there’s a surge of power. You’re forced back into the seat and must make a definite effort to retain balance. As you get used to this surge, you anticipate it, make the correction beforehand, and hardly notice it on the actual takeoff. The hand is fairly tense on the throttle; the head is set ahead briefly to notice the direction of takeoff and any correction to be made. In a Spitfire, you look side to side, as you can’t see ahead at all until the tail is up. The rush of air whips into the cockpit, blowing particles up and around. The right hand moves according to the feel of the plane—the tail coming up, the slight pressure back, and the feeling of becoming airborne.

It’s the singular joy of a pilot to let the imagination wander and enjoy scenes a landlubber rarely experiences. It’s a joy, too, to sit in a plane all alone, away from all closed spaces, all buildings, all dirt, all humanity, and breathe pure, clean air, free of any vice, any unfriendliness. Flying is an escape. It gives you freedom, courage, pride, strength, warmth, and it lets you see the earth in its natural beauty. You’re alone, and only you can see and feel as you do. There’s very little in the world to compare with it.

When somebody asks me for advice about flying, I don’t know what to say, since it’s a different world today than when I learned to fly. I was so lucky with my training and timing. Trying to be a pilot during these economic times is difficult, since you need enough money for good instruction. But, I still think it comes back to the old adages: hard work, determination and desire. To be a commercial pilot with a job, you have to add lots of luck and being pleasant, with a ready smile despite hardships. But, the main factor is desire—something that you want to do and will love to do. If you can feel the freedom in the air, it’s worth the effort to learn to fly. It’s hard for me to imagine how my life would have been without it.

Nancy Miller Livingston Stratford flew 50 different aircraft in World War II, and went on to accumulate some 8,500 hours in 103 different types of aircraft. In 1947, Miller earned her helicopter and seaplane ratings, and in 1960, she moved to Juneau, Alaska, where she and her husband started Livingston Copters. Miller just published her memoir, Contact! Britain! Today at 91, she lives near San Diego, Calif.

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