Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Air Transport Auxiliary and the British Women who Flew in WWII

by Helena P. Schrader

The Second World War did not explode unexpectedly upon an unsuspecting world. Rather, it arrived with the slow, clanking certainty of an advancing panzer. Practically from the time Hitler came to power until the German invasion of Poland, the world moved inexorably toward conflict. Yet, while the world marched consciously toward conflagration, it did so — at least in the West — with reluctance and foreboding.

The First World War had been won by the Western Powers at such immeasurable cost in both blood and money that it created a profound and widespread abhorrence of war. Even as Germany started down the path of militant Revisionism, breaking one after another of the bonds imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, British public opinion remained firmly pacifist. The policy of Appeasement was arguably the only policy that a democratically elected government could pursue given the mood among voters.

All this explains why, despite the evidence of massive German aggression coupled with the expectation that aerial warfare would be decisive in any future conflict, Great Britain responded only slowly to the growing air threat posed by the Luftwaffe. In 1934, Germany was producing nearly 2,000 aircraft annually; Britain less than half that amount. By 1939 German aircraft production topped 8,000, while British aircraft production lagged behind at less than 5,000. The situation with regard to pilots was similar.

After the Sudeten Crisis of September 1938, the British Air Ministry finally realized that the situation was critical. Among other measures instituted was the creation of the “Civil Air Guard,” whose purpose was to increase the available pool of qualified pilots by subsidizing pilot training of volunteers in a civilian context. Applicants had to be between the ages of eighteen and fifty and were trained at some sixty private and commercial flying schools. The program, notably, made no distinction between men and women.

Gerard d'Erlanger
Founder and Commander of the ATA

Also in response to the Sudeten Crisis, a Director of British Airways, Gerard d’Erlanger, proposed to the Director General of Civil Aviation a scheme by which pilots ineligible for active service with the RAF could assist the nation in wartime. D’Erlanger foresaw that pilots, like himself, who were too old or otherwise unfit for active service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) or Air Fleet Arm (FAA) might nevertheless render valuable service in a support capacity. He envisaged such tasks as carrying mail, news and dispatches, the transport of medical and other vital but lightweight equipment as well as VIPs and ambulance services. The scheme won almost immediate approval and the name of Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was adopted.

At the outbreak of the war, thirty qualified pilots unfit for active service were recruited, but it was not until the Battle of France that the ATA really took off. The RAF was stretched beyond capacity. It was losing pilots faster than it could replace them, and every pilot was needed on the front line. It asked the ATA to assume complete responsibility for transporting aircraft from factories to airfields and back again for factory refits and the like. The ATA assumed that burden and soon found that it was too small to fulfill it. The ATA made appeals over the media for older, qualified pilots to volunteer, but there just weren’t enough out there. So the ATA instituted its own training scheme for persons not fit for active service. By the end of the war, the ATA had delivered 309,011 aircraft of 147 different types, and numbered almost 800 pilots and roughly 3000 ground personnel — including 162 women pilots.

The ATA’s greatest achievement was not merely one of helping the Allies win the war by ensuring that the vitally needed aircraft were delivered to the RAF and FAA, nor was it one of relieving healthy young men for combat duty. What makes the ATA fascinating was the unprecedented, unorthodox and creative way in which the ATA mastered the problems it faced with human resources deemed “sub-standard” by all conventional measures. 

The ATA required a previously unheard of versatility of its pilots. ATA pilots were required to fly aircraft they had never seen before simply on the basis of a few hours “conversion” training in similar classes of aircraft and with “Pilot’s Notes” printed on four by six-inch cards. ATA pilots flew without radios and so without the benefit of radio navigation aids, in-flight weather advisories or emergency communication. Furthermore, the ATA initially provided no, and later only very limited, training in the use of instruments for blind flying. Unlike the RAF flying from their own stations, pilots of the ATA were expected to fly in and out of aerodromes they had never seen before all across the country. It expected its pilots to fly in airspace regularly invaded by enemy aircraft without any means of self-defense. Most remarkable of all, the ATA expected all this of pilots who were deemed “unfit” for military service. Flying for the ATA were men with one arm or one eye, men who were short-sighted, men who were over-weight, over-aged, several of these all at once — and (as I said above) women.

ATA pilot "mounting" a Spitfire

The utilization and integration of women pilots in the ATA is one of its most striking successes. Less than three months after the start of the war, on November 14, 1939 the first eight women pilots signed contracts with the ATA effective January 1, 1940. From then on, the number of women pilots grew until by the end of the war a total of 162 women pilots and four women flight engineers had flown with the ATA. 

Even more remarkable, by the end of the war, the women pilots were receiving equal pay for equal work — highly unusual in 1945. Furthermore, women had served as instructors of both men and women, as Operations Officers and as Pool Commanders, all with the corresponding authority over men. Equally astonishing, women had been qualified on virtually every kind of aircraft the RAF and FAA flew except the large flying boats but including the first jet fighter aircraft. They literally faced the exact same hazards as their male colleagues and earned the equal opportunity and remuneration grated them. Furthermore, they enjoyed, without discrimination, the accolades, praise and thanks awarded to the ATA as whole. In short, the ATA is an exemplary case study in eliminating sex discrimination and integrating women into an already extraordinary organization for the benefit of all concerned.


Helena P. Schrader published a comparative study of British and American women pilots in WWII, Sisters in Arms with Pen & Sword Aviation. The book is available in Hardback, Trade Paperback and Kindle editions. For more information about her non-fiction history books and historical novels visit her website at: http://helenapschrader.com.

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