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WWII Ladies of the Air - Air Transport Auxiliary

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a British civilian organisation set up during the Second World War and headquartered at White Waltham Airfield that ferried new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants, transatlantic delivery points, Maintenance Units (MUs), scrap yards, and active service squadrons and airfields, but not to naval aircraft carriers. It also flew service personnel on urgent duty from one place to another and performed some air ambulance work. Notably, some of its pilots were women, and from 1943 they received equal pay to their male co-workers, a first for the British government.

Woman Pilots from the ATA

The initial plan was that the ATA would carry personnel, mail and medical supplies, but the pilots immediately needed to work with the Royal Air Force (RAF) ferry pools transporting aircraft. By 1 May 1940, the ATA had taken over transporting all military aircraft from factories to Maintenance Units to have guns and accessories installed. On 1 August 1941, the ATA took over all ferrying jobs. This freed the much-needed combat pilots for combat duty. At one time there were 14 ATA ferry pools as far apart as Hamble, between Southampton and Portsmouth, and Lossiemouth near Inverness in Scotland.

Pilots at Hamble Air Station

“Without the ATA the days and nights of the Battle of Britain would have been conducted under conditions quite different from the actual events. They carried out the delivery of aircraft from the factories to the RAF, thus relieving countless numbers of RAF pilots for duty in the battle. Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”

One of ATA's Pilots Preparing for a Ferry Fight

During the war, the ATA flew 415,000 hours and delivered more than 309,000 aircraft of 147 types, including Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, Mosquitoes, Mustangs, Lancaster’s, Halifax’s, Fairy Swordfish, Fairey Barracudas and Fortresses. The average aircraft strength of the ATA training schools was 78. A total of 133,247 hours were flown by school aircraft and 6,013 conversion courses were put through. The total flying hours of the Air Movement Flight were 17,059, of which 8,570 were on domestic flights and 8,489 were on overseas flights. About 883 tons of freight were carried and 3,430 passengers were transported without any casualties; but a total of 174 pilots, women as well as men, were killed flying for the ATA in the wartime years. Total taxi hours amounted to 179,325, excluding Air Movements.

The Hamble-le-Rice ATA Memorial Spitfire

Initially, to comply with the Geneva Convention, as many of the ferry pilots were nominally civilians or women, aircraft were ferried with guns or other armament unloaded.

ATA Wings

However, after encounters with German aircraft in which the ferried aircraft were unable to fight back, RAF aircraft were ferried with guns fully armed.

The administration of the ATA fell to Gerard d'Erlanger, a director of British Airways Ltd, which was merged into the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1940. He had suggested a similar organisation in a letter dated 24 May 1938.

In late August 1939, the ATA was placed under British Airways Ltd for initial administration and finance, but on 10 October 1939, Air Member for Supply and Organisation (AMSO) took over. The first pilots were assigned to RAF Reserve Command and attached to RAF flights to ferry trainers, fighters and bombers from factory and storage to Royal Air Force stations. The ATA's Central Ferry Control, which allocated the required flights to all Ferry Pools, was based at RAF Andover.

Late in 1939, it was decided that a third and entirely civilian ferry pool should be set up at White Waltham, near Maidenhead in Berkshire. The operations of this pool began on 15 February 1940. On 16 May 1940 RAF Maintenance Command took control through its No. 41 Group. Then, on 22 July 1941, the ATA was placed under the control of Lord Beaverbrook's Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP). Although control shifted between organisations, administration was always carried out by staff led by Commander Gerard d’Erlanger CBE, first at British Airways Ltd, then, after the merger in 1940, at BOAC.

A unique feature of the ATA was that physical handicaps were ignored if the pilot could do the job, thus there were one-armed, one-legged, short-sighted and one-eyed pilots, humorously referred to as "Ancient and Tattered Airmen". The ATA also took pilots from neutral countries. Representatives of 28 countries flew with the ATA.

Most notably, the ATA allowed women. The female pilots, affectionately nicknamed "Attagirls", had a high profile in the press. On 14 November 1939 Commander Pauline Gower MBE was given the task of organising the women's section of the ATA. The first eight women pilots were accepted into service on 1 January 1940, initially only cleared to fly Tiger Moths from their base in Hatfield. They were: Joan Hughes, Margaret Cunnison, Mona Friedlander, Rosemary Rees, Marion Wilberforce, Margaret Fairweather, Gabrielle Patterson, and Winifred Crossley Fair. Overall during World War II, there were 166 women pilots, one in eight of all ATA pilots, and they volunteered from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, the Netherlands and Poland.

From Argentina and Chile came Maureen Dunlop and Margot Duhalde. Fifteen of these women lost their lives in the air, including the British pioneer aviator Amy Johnson. Two of the women pilots received commendations; one was Helen Kerly.

First Lieutenant Maureen Dunlop
First Lieutenant Margot Duhalde
Certificate of Commendation Ruth Helen Kerly

These women pilots were initially restricted to non-combat types of aircraft (trainers and transports), but they were eventually permitted to fly virtually every type flown by the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm, including the four-engined heavy bombers, but excluding the largest flying boats. Hurricanes were first flown by women pilots on 19 July 1941, and Spitfires in August 1941.


One of the many notable achievements of these women is that they received the same pay as men of equal rank in the ATA, starting in 1943. This was the first time that the British government gave its blessing to equal pay for equal work within an organisation under its control. At the same time, American women flying with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were receiving as little as 65 per cent of the pay given to their male colleagues.

The first ATA pilots were introduced to military aircraft at the RAF’s Central Flying School (CFS), but the ATA soon developed its own training programme. Pilots progressed from light single-engine aircraft to more powerful and complicated aircraft in stages. They first qualified on one “class” of aircraft, then gained experience in that class by doing ferrying work with any and all aircraft in that class, before returning to training to qualify for the next class of aircraft. As a result, pilots made progress on the basis of their own capabilities rather than according to a rigid timetable. This ensured not only that as many pilots as possible advanced, but that those who could not were still gainfully employed flying the aircraft types on which they had qualified.

Once cleared to fly one class of aircraft, pilots could be asked to ferry any plane in that class even if they had never seen that type of aircraft before. To do so they had Ferry Pilot Notes, a two-ring book of small cards with the critical statistics and notations necessary to ferry each aircraft. A pilot cleared on more than one class could be asked to fly an aircraft in any of the categories on which he or she was qualified. Thus, even a pilot cleared to fly four-engined bombers could be assigned to fly a single-engined trainer if scheduling made this the most efficient way to get the aircraft to its destination.

Ferry Pilot Notes

The ATA trained its pilots only to ferry planes, rather than to achieve perfection on every type. For example, aerobatics and blind flying were not taught, and pilots were explicitly forbidden to do either, even if they were capable of doing so. The objective of the ATA was to deliver aircraft safely and that meant taking no unnecessary risks.



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