What about the chaps?

Pilot - - AIRMAIL - Steve Slater Stephen is CEO of the Light Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion, Vice-chair of the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion Aware­ness Coun­cil, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years help­ing re­store the ‘Big­gles Bi­plane’ 1914 BE2C replica

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”.

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