What about the chaps?
They were generally known at the time as the 'Ancient and Tattered Airmen'
One of the recent hot topics has been parity and equal pay for women in the workplace. Perhaps then, it should be remembered that 75 years ago one organisation paved the way for equal pay for workers of both sexes; the Air Transport Auxiliary.
Founded in 1940 to ferry new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants and active service squadrons and airfields, the demand for their services grew rapidly. As more women were recruited to join the growing organisation, in 1943 ATA Commanding Officer Gerard D’erlanger, decreed that women engineers, ground staff and pilots would receive equal pay to their male co-workers. It was the first time ever a British government organisation had offered such parity.
Perhaps though, it could be argued that in terms of historical record, there has been undue bias in favour of those female pioneers, particularly the women pilots who ‘broke the mould’. It is entirely right that that they continue to be remembered in books and TV documentaries. Their achievements should never be underestimated. But what about the chaps?
The focus on the women pilots of the ATA sometimes overlooks the fact that numerically they were in the minority. 166 female pilots flew with the ATA: in comparison, they had 1,152 male contemporaries, while the majority of the 180 flight engineers and radio officers and 2,786 ground staff were also men.
The male ATA pilots were inevitably those who were considered unsuitable for active operational service for reasons of age or fitness. One-armed, one-legged, short-sighted and oneeyed pilots all flew the hazardous ATA delivery flights, indeed the wartime nickname for the ATA had nothing to do with the female element. They were generally known at the time as the 'Ancient and Tattered Airmen'.
Age and infirmity certainly didn’t act as impediments to achievement. Gerard d’erlanger, who had before the war amalgamated a small number of domestic airlines into the fledgling British Airways, saw the ATA develop from a small group of pilots at their White Waltham headquarters (one of their original buildings today is home to the West London Aero Club and has lost none of its wartime character) into a nationwide organisation of fourteen ATA ferry pools as far apart as Hamble on the south coast and Lossiemouth, near Inverness in Scotland. After the war d’erlanger went on to help found BEA and become chairman of BOAC.
His heavily bespectacled deputy, Philip Wills, was a pre-war recordsetting glider pilot and went on in 1952 to become Britain’s first gliding world champion. In his role as head of operations for the ATA, he became a pioneer in accident investigation and prevention, developing methods that still form the core of the work of the Air Accident Investigation branch today.
Wills’s philosophy to accident investigation was elegant in its simplicity. Unlike earlier courts of enquiry, it focused not on apportioning blame, but simply to find out what happened, identifying lessons learned and using them to try to prevent repeat accidents.
Even with this self-analysis, casualty rates were high. Too many pilots succumbed to the pressure to deliver aircraft in all weathers, despite having only limited blind flying equipment and no radios. It has been calculated that twelve per cent of ATA aircrew were lost in accidents. It is sobering to note that even this figure, almost unimaginable by today’s standards, was still lower than the RAF’S fatality rate for nonoperational flying.
Of course, the skill, adaptability and capability of ATA pilots of both sexes is legendary. So was their variety of backgrounds and personalities. One such was a portly middle-aged Scot, Douglas Fairweather. He headed a littlementioned section of the ATA known as its Air Movements Flight, described as “a sort of go-anywhere, carry anything for anybody little airline” and was wellknown for his encyclopedic recall of the English countryside which allowed him to navigate the length and breadth of Britain without the aid of a map.
This brought him into conflict with the higher echelons who demanded a chart be carried. On a subsequent flight, he was found to be peering intently out of the cockpit of his Avro Anson, then at his map. A passenger who offered to assist was then somewhat bewildered to discover that he was comparing the landmarks with a map of Roman Britain!
Another notable character was Stewart Keith-jopp, who was better known merely as Keith Jopp. A veteran pilot of the First World War, he lost an arm and an eye during the conflict. That didn’t stop him flying for the ATA as a pilot. “He somehow got to Upavon and stormed a vacant Harvard” said a contemporary. “Neither commands nor protests could remove him. He continually plugged his claim that little was known to the RAF of disability flying and that he would demonstrate its safety”.
Meanwhile, a little remembered hero of the ATA is John Gulson, who joined the Auxiliary as a Flight Engineer in 1942, having previously served with the Royal Tank Corps and worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. When in June 1945 a Halifax bomber, fully laden with bombs, crashed at White Waltham, Gulson fought his way into the stricken aircraft to rescue its crew. He was subsequently awarded the George Medal for bravery.
“Ancient and Tattered” they may have been, but the male members of the ATA clearly deserve their place in history alongside the “Spitfire Girls”.