The First Civil Ferry Pool
by Lettice Curtis

In 1937, seriously concerned about the effect on the country of the air raids, the Government passed an Air Raids Precaution Act. The main worry concerned poison gas and incendiary bombs. They were so conveyed that poison gas would be used that pillar-boxes were painted with yellow, gas indicating paint. In 1938, 35 million gas masks were distributed and Sir John Anderson, remembered for the air-raid shelter that still bears his name, was appointed to take charge of civil defense. With conscription in force in Germany, it was already anticipated that war would come in the autumn of 1939. It was against this that Colonel (later Sir Francis) Shelmerdine, Director of Civil Aviation at the Air Ministry devised a scheme for using private pilots, ineligible for active service, for internal communication work. But to pay these pilots, treasury approval was needed and approval was not given until the summer of 1939, when it was given on condition that the Reserve was administrated by British Overseas Airways which was in the process of being set up by merging Imperial Airways with pre-war British Airways.

Gerard d'Erlanger, a Director of British Airways, was a keen private pilot who at the age of 32 was too old for active service in the RAF. He therefore offered to take over from the Hon. W. L. Runciman (Viscount Runciman of Droxford 19), Managing Director elect of the new Corporation, the job of selecting pilots for the Reserve-something for which one can only imagine, Runciman with much else on this plate must have been truly grateful. Authority for d'Erlanger to recruit pilots for what he named the Air Transport Auxiliary was given on 3rd September, the day war broke out.

Before this however d'Erlanger had contacted a number of pilots asking them whether in the event of war, they would be interested in communications work in light aircraft. Those, he had selected now received telegrams asking them to report to Bristol, Whitechurch, to be flight-tested in a Tiger Moth by A.R.O. McMillan, BOAC's chief flying instructor. On 11 September, 26 pilots signed contracts but with no bombing, there was no communications work for them to do.

Before the war, Squadron pilots had collected their own new aircraft from factories and training aircraft were delivered by two RAF ferry pools based at Filton and Hucknall. With the war, Squadron pilots could no longer be spared to collect their own aircraft and the work fell to the ferry pools. But for this they needed more pilots. Thus it was that at the end of September, the Air Ministry approached Col. Shelmerdine - the ATA still came under the Ministry of Civil Aviation - asking whether a few ATA pilots could be loaned to the ferry pools to help them out. They would, it was suggested, be offered to Reserve Command with a proviso that if communications became more important than ferrying, they would b e called back to the ATA. The plan however suffered from one large flaw. Most of the civil pilots had flown only light, single-engine aircraft; the ferry pools wanted pilots to move Hurricanes and Spitfires, Blenheims and Wellingtons. It was therefore agreed that the civil pilots would be sent to the RAF Central Flying School at Upavon where the RAF had somewhat reluctantly, agreed to let the Refresher Flight 'convert' them, making it clear at the same time, that no training would be given.

Thus towards the end of September, some 30 pilots received telegrams reading "REPORT TO CENTRAL FLYING SCHOOL UPAVON FOR TEST WITH VIEW TO FERRYING RAF AIRCRAFT". At Upavon, some of the pilots, who had expected to be called to fly nothing larger than Moths, found flying the Harvard an awesome experience. Nevertheless, 29 were passed out, 12 of whom were also cleared for Blenheims. Ten were then sent out to each of the ferry pools a Filton and Hucknall. Here they found they were expected to fly all available types of single-engine aircraft and for those who had been cleared on Blenheims, all types of twins. Those who had not been cleared by CFS were put on delivering Tiger Moths, which came in the main from Hatfield and the Morris Motors works at Cowley - a job that was shortly to be handed over to women pilots.

H. A. (Tony) Taylor, later a MU test pilot and aviation historian, was in charge of the ATA contingent at Filton where his first ferry trip took place on October 16th. He remained in the ATA for a further year by which time the RAF had raised the maximum recruitment age and after passing the required selection and medical boards, transferred to the RAF. He described his time at CFS thus: --

"The six days I spent at the RAF's Central Flying School were the most satisfying of any that I can remember. This was not just because I was doing something I had always wanted to, I had never been attracted by 'challenges' and after all, the conversion of a few ATA guinea pigs was only a part of the work that was going on at the school during the first months of the second war to end all wars. No, it was the atmosphere of the place."

"Here on the Wiltshire Downs were the instructors and ex-instructors who had been recalled or had volunteered for work with the RAF. Many were near middle-aged men whose last instructional experience in the service might have been in the back seats of 504Ns and whose recent instructing experience at the best, might have been in the front seats of the Club Gypsy or Tiger Moth. Now instructors of instructors were putting them through the mill of the new techniques. Not only had they to learn to fly a complicated advanced trainer, the North American Harvard, but they had to learn to instruct pupils in it both by day and night, using a back seat which did not by any means, provide the best view of the world at large."

"We the first pilots of the ATA, were no more than interlopers in this scene of cheerful effort and hard day and night routines, but the instructors gave us all the skill and attention they could spare and were surprisingly tolerant of our civilian background and training."

"Fourth amongst the guinea pigs I managed in my turn to get through to the Blenheim. My log book says (impossible though it seems now), that I was let loose in the Harvard after a little more than an hour's dual - and that I flew it thereafter - without causing any apparent damage - for another hour or so. As a prospective soloist in the Blenheim I was probably a very near miss. My logbook says that I was given more than two hours instruction before anyone dared to let me go off in it alone. My solo Blenheim flying was the greatest experience of all. My total hourage at this time was 370 hours."

His story of an incident during the civil pilot's stay at Upavon became something of an ATA legend. At CFS, pilots returning from the dining room in the Officer's Mess helped themselves to coffee, laid out on a table in the anteroom. One day Bradbrooke, of whom more later, was pouring his coffee when the tap of the urn came off. Le Leaver, close behind him, was greeted with 'thank god you've come, give us a hand, quick!' All they could do was to continue filling coffee cups in the hope that the coffee would run out before they were all full. Subsequently, the ATA pilots clubbed together to present the Mess with a new coffee urn as a token of their gratitude for the help and kindness they received during their stay.

Geoffrey Alington aged 25, was another pilot who the RAF had rejected on account of coulour-blindness - in days of red and green very lights this would no doubt have been of some importance. Not amongst the first to join he had nevertheless, joined in time to be sent to CFS and the RAF ferry pool at Filton, where 'Tony" Taylor was in charge of the civil pilots. A de Havilland tech. Schoolboy and private owner, Geoffrey had when he joined, over 1,100 hours. At CFS his logbook shows, he went solo after 1hr 25mins dual in the Harvard and 1hr 45mins in the Blenheim. He too remarked on the extreme tolerance of civilians by the RAF instructors. At the ferry pool, Geoffrey's first task was to take a Lysander from Yeovil to Brize Norton. Subsequent tasks included a Magister, eleven Blenheims, two Queen Bees, a Swordfish, a Tiger Moth, a Bombay and a Hurricane. Two months later it came to his ears that a pilot was wanted for test flying in the Midlands. He applied and a few days later, was sent to d'Erlanger in his office in Bristol, to be told that he was to be loaned to Austin Motor's shadow factory at Longbridge for three months, to flight-test Battles. With three months over, Captain Neville Stack AFC the chief test pilot did his best to keep him but d'Erlanger insisted that he returned to the ATA, which now had its own ferry pool at White Waltham. In July when an ATA ferry pool was opened a Hawarden, Geoffrey joined Tony Taylor, Hawarden's first CO. But in the meantime, Stack at Longbridge had applied to the Ministry of Aircraft Production to get Geoffrey posted back. Thus, in August, Geoffrey returned there to test Battles, Hurricanes and later Stirlings.

Out of the 33 pilots who signed contracts with the ATA during October and November 1940, nine remained with the ATA until 1945. Amongst the early joiners were a number of who at the time were well-known names. Stewart Keith-Jopp, contributor to C.G. Grey's aviation magazine AEROPLANE had when a WW1 fighter pilot, lost both an arm and an eye. He had stormed his way to Upavon where they did their best to remove him claiming the RAF knew nothing about disability flying. After much arguing, however they agreed to give him a circuit in a Harvard which they felt such, would put an end to the matter. But in the event, SKJ's managed so well that his instructor had no option but to pass him. In the ATA, by the end of the war, he had ferried around 1,300 operational single-engine aircraft. Francis Bradbrooke, a keen and experienced pilot was barred by colour-blindness from getting a professional license. A senior member of the AEROPLANE staff, the ATA presented him with opportunities, which fulfilled his wildest dreams. From the start he assisted d'Erlanger in the ATA's organization and was the Commanding Officer of its first ferry pool. Later he became the ATA's Chief Ferry Officer and was acting as such when in 1941; he volunteered for and was accepted into BOAC. In August that year he was second pilot in a Liberator, flown by BOAC Captain E.R.B. White, one of BOAC's most experienced pilots, when after take off from Prestwick, it hit Arran killing all occupants. Philip Wills when he joined the ATA, was already the winner of numerous national and international gliding records. He became the ATA's Director of Operations and after the war, joined d'Erlanger in British European airways as their Technical Director. 'Len' Leaver and 'Bert' Yardley became heads of the ATA ferry pools at Bristol and Kirkbridge and Bill Hampton, who spent most of his time in the ATA instructing in the AFTS, continued for a time after the war, instructing for the West London Aero Club at White Waltham. C. S. Napier, son of the engine designer was one of those posted to the RAF pool at Hucknall. He became the ATA's Chief Technical Officer, a post which he held when eighteen months later, he was killed whilst ferrying - as was 'Wally' Handley, a pre-war racing driver and motor cyclist who was blown up on take-off.

But at other ferry pools, although the civilians did their best to fit in, there soon grew an underlying of tensions, the difference between the conditions of service of the RAF and their civilian counterparts a major cause. The civilians for instance had to pay in full service organization behind them. Service pilots on the other hand resented the relative freedom of the civilians from rules and regulations and to envy their 'high' pay, not realizing that with no organization behind them, they were for the most part, subsidizing this from their pockets. By November therefore discussions were going on between the military and civil sides of the Air Ministry to resolve the situation. Two possibilities were put forward. Either the civilians could be put into military uniforms and brought under military discipline, or they could be formed into a civil ferry pool. In the corridors of power, some favoured one and some the other but the weight of opinion favoured latter since it was recognized, that few of the civilians, ineligible as they were for active service, would be prepared to sign on for the RAF in what would inevitably be a 'poor man' capacity. "If a civil ferry pool is decided on", DGCA wrote to AVM W. L. Welsh, Air Member for Supply and Organization (AMSO), "it will be necessary for you to allot an aerodrome. d'Erlanger, has looked at a number which are at present occupied and is greatly in favour of Kidlington". On 12 December, AMSO made his decision. A civil ferry pilot's pool would be formed as a first step to 'civilising' the whole of the ferry organization. The question of allotting pilots to firms and storage units had been considered, and discarded as uneconomical. "Our proposal", AMSO wrote to d'Erlanger, "is if you agree, that whilst ferrying remains under the control of the Director of Equipment, we should ask you to manage the civil pool or pools. We would rely on you to select and arrange the training of pilots and to look after general discipline". The plan was that the civilian pilots would be withdrawn from the RAF pools and centered in Manchester/Liverpool area. Speke, Barton and Ringway were mentioned as possible bases but by now, d'Erlanger had come to tentative arrangements for the use of White Waltham. Thus on Friday, 9th February 1940 d'Erlanger took a train to Bristol, collected the Civil Aviation Tiger Moth G-AFSX that had been used to check out his pilots, borrowed a map from the Corporation's map department and set course for White Waltham. Here 43 pilots the majority of whom had worked for the RAF ferry pools joined him. With its first ferry pool - termed No. 3 at the time - the ATA was under way.

At White Waltham, the main building and hangar were fully occupied by No. 13 RAFVR Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS). The ATA therefore had to make do with a wooden hut situated on the tarmac at the east end of the hangar. In this, the end facing the airfield was made into an operations room and a small snack bar the remaining space as recorded in BRIEF GLORY was 'filled with parachute racks, lockers and an odd corner which served as a rest room whilst dotted about, were ancient coal-burning stoves, most of them in inconvenient places.'

The ATA's first ferry trips took place on 15 February. To start with they had to taxi aircraft, so after completing their deliveries, pilots had to hitchhike back or scrounge service warrants with which to return by train. Amongst the early taxi aircraft that in due course arrived were some very ancient Couriers, some Stinsons and a Leopard Moth and George Regan a BOAC engineer, was sent to White Waltham and with three assistants to maintain them. For this, the ATA were allotted a small area in the hangar marked off by a white line. Of an evening, after the RAF had packed up it is recorded; the ATA's taxi aircraft would be pushed into the hangar, more often than not with their tails encroaching the line. In the morning the aim was to take them out before the RAF appeared. The story goes however that each evening, the ATA engineers would move the white line a little further over. This extra space became even more essential when two ancient unflagged Ansons loaned by the RAF arrived, one of, which soon became unserviceable and languishing in the hangar, was robbed for spares.

By the summer, the ATA whose equipment was supplied by the RAF had a RAF Equipment officer attached to them to account for the loaned property. The new equipment officer, one Pilot Officer 'Pip' Morgan, was an excellent choice. He had already seen active service in France during the Dunkirk evacuation and had a reputation for making prompt decisions and cutting through red tape. In the early days in order to keep the ATA's taxi fleet in the air, he drove all over the country collecting vital spares with no questions asked. On Morgan's inventory, however, was the now stripped Anson and its demise had to be explained to the RAF accountants. When as related in the last chapter in July 1940 the aerodrome was bombed, on its second run, the Dornier had machine-gunned the hangar roof setting fire to a Tiger Moth inside. Using fire extinguishers, the ATA engineers at some risk to themselves, managed to put out the fire before it reached the petrol tank thereby saving the whole hangar. In the confusion of the attack, they then dragged the stripped Anson out of the hangar and placed it over a convenient bomb crater, providing a good excuse for deleting it from the inventory.

But to go back to the spring.

In its first three weeks of life, the new ferry pool moved 260 aircraft. The more they moved, the more tasks they were given until to do it all they needed more pilots. But before increasing the number of civil pilots, the ATA's official status - they still came under the Director of Civil Aviation at the Air Ministry - had to be resolved. The arrangement arrived at was that BOAC would take over financial responsibility for the ATA, and 41 Group Maintenance Command for its operations. The scene was set for the formation or the large expansion, which was about to take place. This became the massive and immediate growth of the ATA sometimes referred to as "The Ancient and Tattered Airmen and Women".

This article was written by Lettice Curtis for Aeroplane in 2002.

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