Air Transport Auxiliary Service

by Eric Vansittart Bowater
Eric Vansittart Bowater. The Director General of Aircraft Distribution, is one of England's leading industrialists. He served in the Royal Artillery in World War I, and now is responsible for the efficient operation of the Air Transport Auxiliary in the ferrying of new aircraft from the factories to RAF maintenance Units and Commands. He also is responsible for preparation. storage and dispersal of aircraft. mechanical transport. aerodrome and flying control. so far as the ATA is concerned. He reports directly to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In civil life he is chairman of several paper pulp mills.
"Air Ferry" delivers the goods. Civil pilots fly day and night in the shuttling of RAF aircraft from factory to aerodrome.

Air Transport Auxiliary is the official title of the Service popularly known as "Air Ferry" which today is responsible for the delivery of all planes within Great Britain used by the RAF except those flown across the Atlantic by the RAF Ferry Command.

In the expectation that war with Germany, if and when it came, would mean instant bombardment and probable dislocation of communications, a group of experienced pilots was formed in 1939, with the idea of building up a corps to act as a communication squadron between the Government's Headquarters and elsewhere. This idea originated with Commodore d'Erlanger, and, as Officer Commanding, he has developed ATA into the immensely important service it has become.

The original group of about 20 men were all experienced flyers, but ineligible for the RAF. Their offer of service was promptly accepted by the authorities and the group received its name. The pilots were given a uniform similar to that of civil aviation personnel; and a scale of rank was devised. From cadets upwards in the scale, their ranks are: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd officers, flight-captain, captain, commander, senior commander and commodore.

At this time, the group was administered by the British Overseas Airways Corporation under the auspices of the Air Ministry. Soon after the outbreak of war, the awaited bombardment having failed to materialize, it became evident that these pilots could be of great use to the RAF in ferrying military aircraft. They were given a test and passed fit to fly Service aircraft on non-operational duty.

first this was a comparatively easy job. But with the Battle and subsequent fall of France, when every aircraft and every man was so desperately needed, the ATA came into its own. The Air Ministry called on Commodore d'Erlanger to take over the whole of the ferrying of aircraft that had until then been done by RAF pilots. The original pilots were reinforced by hundreds of volunteers. As fast as planes could be built the ATA steered them into service.

When in August, 1940, the ATA was transferred from the Air Ministry to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the urgent need for more ferry pilots to cope with the increasing output necessitated continuous recruitment. Broadcast appeals both here and in the United States brought a tremendous response.

Over 250 Americans have passed through the ATA's ranks. Their contracts having expired at the end of a year, many have now returned to their own homes, but there are still nearly 100 American citizens in the service.

Women pilots were admitted to the ATA early in 1940. At that time they numbered less than a score, now 100 are on the roll. Their inclusion is largely due to the efforts of Commander Pauline Gower, CBE, who is in command of the women's section of the service. The women work side by side with the men under exactly similar conditions. Although in early days they were permitted to fly only trainers and non-operational types, their efficiency was such that all restrictions have now been removed. Cadets of both sexes on entering the service are given a series of progressive conversion courses on the advanced types of aircraft. The duration of this training is entirely a matter of the pupil's adaptability. Only recruits with actual solo-flying experience are accepted.

The ATA has had many famous names on its roll, and probably more survivors of hair-raising adventure than any other group of individuals of its size. Space is too limited to record any exploits here, but the names of Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison, among an impressive list, are known across the world.

It takes an all-around pilot to be able to handle any of 140 different types of aircraft, from baby Moth to Boeing bomber. That is what these people must be able to do. And flying over war-time Britain is no "slice of cake" — to quote the RAF.

You may think there's not very much in a hop across an island of such puny size, but every mile of the ground below bristles with danger. Ack-ack guns and barrage balloons for instance. The AA batteries are apt to take no risks with unfamiliar and unlooked-for trespassers in the sky.

Moreover landmarks are scarce. We have nothing as wide as the Hudson in the way of rivers and railways are such a close network that a particular track is not easily identifiable. Mountains don't exist, and even hills almost disappear in southern England. Britain, in fact, is no paradise for the ferry pilot, struggling to find one of its hundreds of airfields in weather that only one adjective can adequately describe. This British weather is desperately serious for ferry pilots flying as they do, by charts without radio. The air must be kept clear for operating squadrons, and the ferry pilot must fly alone.

One pilot from the United States had an uncomfortable experience in Scotland. Flying a small plane at dusk in the depths of winter, his engine suddenly cut out and he was forced to land on a frozen lake. The plane immediately caught fire, and while he was pluckily trying to rescue his log book, the ice melted and dropped him — and afterwards the plane — into the cold black water. He pulled himself out and somehow found his way to a crofter's cottage, where he found welcome and shelter for the night. In the morning he managed to find a railroad, jumped a slow goods-train and arrived at his base at the end of 24 hours, still in his sopping kit. "That's nothing," he said cheerfully, "I'm quite used to duck-shooting."

Every pilot, men and women of the ATA, doing a Herculean job with no fuss and no show, are there because they want to be. They have the luck to be doing a job they love for its own sake as well as for its value to the country.

Within the last few months, American women have come into the Service, headed by Jacqueline Cochrane (Mrs Odlum), who made history by arriving here with a bomber sent by the USA. Among several Polish women pilots now serving, is one who served her own country with great distinction throughout its tragic campaign, Miss Anna Lesics. Another girl from Chile, Margot Duhalde, has seen much service in the ATA.

The other day, three Spitfires were urgently needed at one of the fighter stations. Flown at top speed, one after another, by the same ferry girl, they were in battle in the sky within a few hours. This is merely an example of the ATA's daily round, which is linked so closely to the efficiency of the RAF.

But Spitfires are straightforward goods. Perhaps the toughest delivery job handed to the Ferry was a consignment of American aircraft destined for France. It was an order from the French Government, but at the fall of France the planes were diverted in transit to this country. Every instrument was labeled in French with unfamiliar technical names, and for some peculiarly Gallic reason, the throttles were reversed on each machine.

The Ferry service operates from pools dotted over the country and linked to a Headquarters which until recently included the Training School. This has now expanded to more spacious premises elsewhere. On a control board, the names of the pilots are starred with different colors indicating the number and grade of aircraft each is capable of handling. Orders for the day, streaming in from factories, salvage and maintenance depots, ports and RAF stations, are allocated according to available pilots experienced in operating the aircraft concerned. Infinite organization is required to man the various types and ensure minimum loss of time. The ATA's own planes are maintained by ground staff, men and women, attached to each different pool. Clerical staff and motor transport are also an integral part of the organization; many of their transport drivers have already seen hard service in France.

The King and Queen recently marked their recognition of the ATA's signal services by a visit to headquarters, where they met and talked to the pilots and showed special interest in the American men and women who have come over to take a hand.

Of all the multitudes of people giving of their best to this country today, none have gone about their business with greater pluck and determination than the ATA. They have been very fortunate in the leadership of a man — Commodore d'Erlanger — who has the respect and liking of everyone under his command, and in the example of Pauline Gower, whose friendly charm is only equaled by her immense ability. These two people have set the standard by which their achievement may be judged.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 172-173, 260.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author and 4 captioned photos.
Photos are not specifically credited, but seem to be from the British Air Ministry.

Photo captions: