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Who were the misfit pilots of WWII?

<< Back 20 May 2019
Who were the misfit pilots of WWII?

When we think of WWII pilots, we more often than not think of the courageous fighters of the Battle of Britain, the precise destruction of the bombers or the astounding accuracy of the gliders involved in operations such as Pegasus Bridge. But there were a huge number of pilots conducting far less glamorous missions that were equally important to the war effort, many of whom were women.

This band of pilots were deemed to be misfits by many but are now recognised as trailblazers who were way ahead of their time.

It all began with the Auxiliary Transport Authority (ATA). Set up as an organisation of civilian pilots, their original purpose was to transport military personnel and supplies. It soon became apparent that their services were required more as a ferry service for RAF aircraft, moving them from the factories where they were manufactured, to maintenance depots, and from base to base.

As a result, this band of civilian pilots flew most of the aircraft used by the RAF, including the Hurricane, Lancaster and the iconic Spitfire. Their work meant that crucial personnel could be freed up for vital combat roles.

The idea to hire women was the brainchild of ex-air circus pilot Pauline Gower. Unsurprisingly for the time, Gower's idea faced some opposition, but she was eventually put in charge of the women's branch of the ATA, and in 1940 she selected the ATA's first eight female pilots. By the time it was disbanded at the end of the war, there had been 168 female pilots among its ranks.

American pilot Jackie Cochran volunteered to serve with the ATA, and brought with her 25 female pilots from the USA. After gaining experience within the ATA, Cochran pushed for a similar service to be established in the USA, and went on to form what would eventually become the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), who performed the same role as the ATA did in Britain, flying all classes of US aircraft, including B-26 Maruders and Douglas C-47s.

The ATA was populated with pilots who had been deemed unfit for the RAF - as long as a pilot could perform the required duties, their physical limitations were seen as irrelevant, meaning that pilots with bad eyesight and missing limbs were able to contribute to the war effort.

As a result, they became known as the Ancient and Tattered Airmen. They may have been mocked by many, but it was this lack of restriction that allowed the admittance of female pilots into the service.
The idea of female pilots was met with distrust by many, and downright hostility by some. The women's piloting ability was doubted by a lot of the male personnel, and the WASP pilots were even prevented from flying while menstruating for a time, because their male commanders thought they were "less efficient during menses."

The female pilots in both the ATA and WASP were paid significantly less than their male counterparts, although in 1943 the ATA began paying their male and female pilots equally, in a landmark decision that marked a first in the history of the British government. The women in both organisations had to work harder and longer for a fraction of the recognition received by their male colleagues, in a world that was not designed for them.

Despite not being in combat, there was still danger for these pilots, and both WASP and the ATA suffered fatalities. Women were not generally encouraged to pursue such dangerous pursuits, and so this job seemed to attract a certain kind of character, with an ice hockey player (Mona Friedlander), a ballet dancer (Rona Rees) and an Olympic skier (Lois Butler) being amongst the first eight female pilots selected for the ATA.

The ATA in particular had more than its fair share of eccentrics, such as Naomi Heron-Maxwell, the granddaughter of the Earl of Macclesfield, a parachutist and glider pilot who, on hearing of the outbreak of WWII decided to travel from Europe to India on foot. She apparently made it no further than Egypt.

There was Diana Barnato, the daughter of a racing driver who once landed a Typhoon despite the floor of the aircraft having been ripped out during the flight - the women's branch of the ATA was full of characters. There's no doubt that being a female pilot in an era when women just didn't do that sort of thing took a remarkable kind of person.

The ATA and WASP were a new concept for WWII, and they performed an invaluable role. Aside from the groundbreaking ruling that female ATA pilots be paid an equal amount to their male counterparts, the pilots in these organisations helped to break taboos around gender and physical limitations, whether those limitations were a result of disability, or as a perceived result of a person's gender. Through hard work, bravery and skill, they dismantled misconceptions whilst doggedly contributing to the success of the Allied war effort.

When the ATA was disbanded in 1945, Lord Beaverbrook, who was Minister of Aircraft Production during the war, gave a speech that summed up what an important role the ATA played in Allied victory:

"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."