I Was There! - They Call Us 'Ancient and Tattered Airmen'
Some of the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots who ferry aircraft from factories to R.A.F. stations are women – it was on this service that Amy Johnson lost her life – and here one of them describes her work in detail.
"Welcome to an Ancient and Tattered Airman", shouted one of the R.A.F. men as the new trainer plane touched down on the field.
The pilot smiled, bulky and shapeless in flying suit, with helmet and parachute. Out on the ground he came in for a lot of hearty slaps on the back and a good rowdy R.A.F. welcome. At last, in desperation, and to the confusion of the unofficial reception committee, the pilot pulled off his helmet.
The "Ancient and Tattered Airman" was a woman – and very far from being either ancient or tattered. I should know, because she is one of my colleagues, one of the first women members of the Air Transport Auxiliary, recruited to help the men in this big job of ferrying new aircraft from factories to R.A.F. stations.
Don't blame the R.A.F. for the title "Ancient and Tattered Airmen". The men pilots of A.T.A. themselves decided that this is what A.T.A. stands for. The reason is that they are all airmen debarred from service with the R.A.F. for reasons of health or age.
And the way to recognize a ferry pilot's sex has become an important part of the R.A.F.'s unofficial training. I gather there is one infallible rule – wait till the pilot takes off his helmet, and if it's a woman – even with a closely-cropped head – she will shake her hair loose!
Although we are the only women in this country whose war work takes them up into the air (even the W.A.A.F. are still earthbound), we do not regard ourselves as heroines and our lives are not one great adventure.
Flying may sound very excited, but long before the war most of us were earning a living in civil aviation, with the result that piloting a warplane is no more unusual to us than driving a car.
And as to adventure – well, our job is to keep out of it. When you are delivering a brand new plane worth several thousands of pounds you don't dawdle about in the sky on the look-out for a Messerschmitt.
On the other hand, flying in wartime is a very different proposition from peacetime aviation. We have none of the usual aids to navigation to help us. We can't pore over meteorological reports and postpone a flight for a day or two if we don't fancy the weather. We were "delivering the goods" right through the winter of 1939-40. And that was one of the severest winters for fifty years.
We have to keep an eye out for prohibited areas, balloon barrages and other devices, and it is advisable to make quite sure before touching down that we have been recognized and are expected! R.A.F. stations have their own kind of welcome waiting for unrecognized planes in wartime...
So far the women's unit of the A.T.A., which is attached to an aerodrome quite near London, ferries only trainer planes.
Spitfires and Hurricanes, heavy bombers, and all the new planes now in production are still delivered by the men, though we have hope of promotion. Every one of us is just longing to get at the controls of a big bomber or new fighter, for no matter how long you've been a pilot, there is no thrill in the world like flying faster than you have ever done before.
We report for duty every morning at nine. By that time Pauline Gower, chief of the women's unit, is already receiving instructions for the day's work from Central Control.
Planes are waiting to be picked up from a factory in the north of Scotland, from another in the west of England. They have to be delivered to, say, the Midlands or the South Coast.
Do not imagine because we have all been flying for years that we did not need any training when we joined the A.T.A. Every member goes through a course, for the bigger the machine the more complicated the controls.
When you first come across the panel of an Anson or a Magister after the simple dashboard of a Puss Moth, you think you've walked straight into a nightmare. Yet in a day or two you find you know all the knobs and handles, the wheels and clocks and gauges, more or less by heart.
There is one thing of which we are justly proud. It is not the excitement and the glamour, but the simple fact that we have delivered hundreds of new planes to the R.A.F. in the last fifteen months – delivered them safely and on time – "Daily Herald", copyright Cecil Brooks, Ltd.
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