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.
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.