23 MARCH 1943 – MY ATA DAY NOT TO REMEMBER!
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
I wrote this to celebrate the bravery of the ATA girls and boys ferrying brand-new aircraft to squadrons during WW2.
In the relentless freezing darkness of my small timber-boarded room, my frugal possessions career off my mostly bare wooden cupboard. They scatter in different directions across the threadbare rug, their unscheduled flight caused by my shivering and fully-uniformed body launching itself in the general direction of a near-invisible tin bucket close to my bed. I hope my aim is good. I am so sick.
I am sick so many times that my brutal vomiting has effectively rid my body of its rushed late-evening meal.
Sitting on the NAAFI’s hard wooden bench, I knew from the first bite that the greasy pork sausages doused in extremely lumpy and chewy onion gravy would push my well being’s luck – but I was absolutely starving. I needed a square meal after a long and stressful day ferrying three Supermarine Spitfires, two Hawker Hurricanes and an Avro Anson to four different and challenging frontline RAF airfields – one of which had just filled in several crater holes from a Luftwaffe bombing raid. I’m glad I hadn’t appeared in amongst that mayhem!
To date, as an ATA girl, I’ve delivered 437 newly manufactured aircraft of various types to active and frontline RAF airfields and repair bases.
The thought of my next ferrying flight in just over one hour, at 7.35 a.m., makes me retch even more, even though my stomach – surely – must be empty by now. My knees ache, and my body broadcasts that it’s had enough. This torture has to stop.
For some unfathomable reason, my aching brain is dreading this urgent delivery. Why? The process is always the same with any new type of aircraft to fly: first, the CO lectures us on discipline, then we discover the aircraft we have to ferry – both from and to where. Next, he makes us hold up our own personal copies of a spiral-bound flip pad entitled Ferry Pilots Notes. This publication lists the flying characteristics of all the aircraft needing to be flown, such as take-off, landing and never-exceed speeds. If we disregard the facts in our little bible by thinking we’re clever (stupid) enough to know what makes an unknown aircraft type tick, and how it stays in the air, then a swift introduction to the many ways of dying on the ground will be waiting for us – we ignore them at our peril!
Finally, the CO, after a cheery farewell, kicks us out of the room to get on with it! No dual instruction, no help, no nothing.
My mind reels in different directions. Am I delirious? Am I fit to fly? I feel strangely detached from my surroundings. Do I have proper food poisoning? Have my mind and body reached their limit? I panic – I really panic! Is my nerve evaporating before my eyes?
I think of poor Georgy. She fell apart within a few minutes – right in front of us! We were all assing about in the briefing room, waiting for our CO to join us, when, in an instant, she turned into this shaking, babbling mess. Georgy was scheduled to deliver a North American B-25 Mitchell and a P-51 Mustang that day. It just hit her – her brain couldn’t take the stress any more. It was awful to see a friend’s mind implode and instantly become a wreck. We comforted her, but she was gone. Oh, it was so unsettling.
My fellow pilots hadn’t experienced first-hand what long hours, hardly any sleep, immense stress and – sometimes – being shot at can do to a person. We thought Georgy was stable and robust as a rock. To see her like that was shocking, and since then, we knew that our minds could suddenly burst, overwhelmed by the stress and responsibility of our fantastic job. Fantastic? Well, how else could an almost-twenty-one-year-old petite girl fly new and beautiful Spitfire fighters nearly every day?
For our own wellbeing and sanity, we had to put Georgy’s breakdown into those deep recesses of our minds – and it was never spoken about again.
I vigorously shake my head. No! It can’t be! I know I am not doing a Georgy… It’s firm in my mind – I know I won’t let the RAF down. The squadrons need whatever they are throwing at me today and I must deliver the new planes. Those rubbish sausages are to blame for this! At least, I pray they are.
I close my eyes and breathe in deeply in preparation to stand up. I must see what I am doing. I feel the discomfort in my stomach as I edge blindly in the general direction of the black-out curtains. Found them! I pull them apart, hoping the window catch works – I need fresh air. My cold fingers drag the handle down and the window opens, its hinges squealing noticeably. My face floods with freezing, fresh morning air – oh, God, that feels good!
I stare across the darkness of the base.
My mind begins to wander to past assignments. I smile, thinking of one aircraft delivery to an American base. The weather was awful – it was truly atrocious, on the absolute boundary of safety. However, I was told (or, should I say, ordered), before I crashed out on my make-shift bed, that I needed to accompany Jilly, another ATA girl, to deliver two repaired fighter planes to a US base in Norfolk the next morning. As usual, just to make life interesting for us, we flew with no navigation aids – just a map, a compass and a stopwatch to find our way across the unfamiliar countryside.
We took off alongside each other and battled through the low-lying killer cloud and, astonishingly, we arrived together at the American base. Two jeep-loads of American techs came out to greet us. Their reactions at seeing my golden red hair and Jilly’s blonde curls appear from underneath our leather headgear were priceless. I think we became their new pin-ups, especially when they told us their American pilots had been banned from flying that day – the weather conditions had been assessed as being too dangerous for combat and yet we had made it through.
I suck in more cool air. I rejoice when the peculiar feelings whirling around my body begin to ebb away. I feel relief – I begin to feel normal. Time for light! I need to know the time, and I must see if my aim was spot-on and my – ugh! – rejected meal isn’t decorating the wall.
My finger fumbles in the dark for the light switch; a loud click heralds a harsh but weak light from the naked bulb in the middle of the varnished-yet-peeling boarded ceiling. My eyes object to it and shut tight. Immediately outside my open window, I’m bawled at by a patrolling MP.
‘Shut those bloody curtains! D’ya want t’get a bomb through that winda?’
Oh bugger – you twat, Silvia! I tell myself as I rush to close the black-out curtains. I hear the MP walk off, muttering about ‘idiot women pilots’.
Damn! Get a hold of yourself, girl, there’s only thirty minutes to the briefing.
The duty roster has me flying something different today – what, I don’t know – which is odd. I look at my watch and sigh heavily as the CO marches in. I fidget, my aching body struggling on the khaki-coloured canvas seat as I listen to another take on his ‘Remember, discipline is the only way to survive in this game’ lecture. Then I wait with a mixture of intrigue and trepidation for my new type to be announced. I am last to be put out of my misery.
‘Flying Officer Sheldon, today you have the privilege of flying to the Broughton factory in North Wales to pick up a new Wellington bomber and take it to RAF Honington. Expect this to be an overnighter, because the next morning, you will bring back a hush-hush Mossie to RAE at Farnborough.’
I don’t hear the CO’s next words: ‘It seems the Mossie is urgently needed for some boffin upgrade.’
I only hear my own thoughts, in thumping astonishment around my brain: Two new types? A bloody great Wimpy bomber and a Mossie? Surely not? Two engines on both. The possibility of an engine failure on take-off. An asymmetric power and trimming nightmare!
‘Flying Officer Sheldon! Flying Officer Sheldon! Are you still with us?’ My CO stares directly at me. ‘Wakey-wakey, lass, you’ve got to be on your toes with these new birds – 110% – for your safety. Are you fit to fly?’
Oh, God, why must I hear those words, ‘fit to fly’? I must look awful after my stomach’s battle with those sausages. I don’t want to be asked that question.
‘Absolutely, sir, no problems at all. I’m raring to go, sir.’ I lie through my dirty teeth – I had no time to brush them.
‘Excellent, Flying Office Sheldon – that’s the spirit. Right! I want to see everyone’s Ferry bible, please. Hold them up.’ The CO scans the room. ‘Excellent.’ He looks down at his notes. ‘If you haven’t all been asleep, you will all know that each one of you, except Miss Sheldon, is flying at least one new type today, so have your wits about you. I don’t want to personally scrape anyone off the tarmac.’ He laughs half-heartedly. No one else does. We lost Hatti and Barbara last week to bad weather, getting way off their course and running out of juice. Dead-stick landings in driving rain and low visibility are not recommended.’
The CO finishes off in his own inimitable way. ‘And you have the luxury of twenty minutes to soak up the info. Take off at 07.35 hours. Good luck, Godspeed, and – as always – look out for jolly old Jerry. Now, get on with it. Dismissed.’
Bastard! He’s a great officer, but does he always have to end his briefing with ‘as always, look out for jolly old Jerry’? The planes are brand new – straight from the factory. They bristle with guns, and now, thankfully, after several of our pilots were shot at, we have ammo for them! And yet, they still won’t let us be fighter pilots. Idiots!
I flip open my blue-covered Ferry Pilots Notes and begin trying to make my tired brain remember the Wimpy and Mossie specs as we head for the dispersal room.
Like a forced march of prisoners, we ATA girls – as we have become known – exchange no words, with each of us trying to ensure we don’t screw up on take-off and, more importantly, on landing our expensive and badly needed steeds.
I look up. I smile at a pretty red glow peeping through the low-lying clouds, and I decide this March day is going to have some sun. It’s going to be a fine day.
Oh boy! What a mistake it was to say that…
By the end of the first flight, I will regret every word.
I push the wool cuff of my sheepskin leather jacket up my wrist to check the time – it’s 7.38 a.m. I’m by no means religious, but today, being by myself in a vast and freezing-bloody-cold Wellington bomber, I wonder if I should be. I take in a breath of courage, but I breathe in too deeply and cough several times, waking up my stomach’s still-aching muscles.
I have to get on with the task at hand.
I get clearance to take off and begin my familiarisation with my Wimpy bomber. I chant my kite’s bible of take-off data, which is seared into my brain, as I push the plane’s twin throttles to their maximum setting. My eyes flit rapidly from one instrument to another, checking temperatures and pressures – all A-OK. I keep scanning the twin sets of dials for each engine, while my stomach aches and churns in a body readying itself for engine failure and all the fun stuff associated with the possibility of that fatal situation.
I reach the sunny blue sky above the low-lying clouds at three thousand feet, the nose of the bomber pointing towards Honington. Suddenly, my ears react to the unexpected and frightening staccato sound of bullets tearing right through the Wimpy’s frail aluminium skin and structure.
Before my brain can react, a German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter shoots diagonally in front of me from below, its pilot instantly rolling and looping over to line up for a full-frontal shot at me.
Christ! I’ve had it! I’m a sitting duck!
I try not to panic. But I do!
For some unfathomable reason, I visualise the third page of my delivery papers, stating that there are no operational armaments on board today. ‘Thank you very much!’ I shout at no one. Then in a flash, I remember I can’t fire them anyway – I’m by myself.
I slam the control column fully forward, my simple delivery flight turning into a survive-or-die situation.
Oh, why won’t this plane move? I’m so used to having instant responses from a Spitfire or Hurricane – this Wimpy is deciding itself whether to go into a dive. Come on – move!
I watch in horror as I follow the 109, which is completing its killing manoeuvre, and I dive for the safety of the clouds beneath me. I have only seconds to make it.
. My heart is racing.
The 109 comes within firing range of me and sprays his bullets through my tail-end and the rear gunner’s turret. I don’t hear a thing (thank goodness!), since it’s a long way back to the tail, and it’s bloody noisy in here! I check the elevators and rudder - everything still works! Thank you God!
I can’t see him now. I panic even more.
I’m 15 seconds from the safety of the clouds.
I’m 10 seconds from the clouds. And then I see him to my right, closing fast, lined up with my cockpit and my head! I’m dead! I close my eyes.
I don’t hear the swear words or see the utter frustration on the German pilot’s face as he screams past me, fifty feet above the Wimpy’s glazed cockpit, his plane’s guns silent and empty of ammunition.
I open my eyes and see white. Am I dead? Am I in heaven? What happened? Am I still alive?
I fight the controls. I’m in thick cloud now. Which way up am I? Now I’m flying blind, using only my instruments. I pull back hard on the control column and – thankfully – manage to stabilize my flight without tearing my wings off.
I reluctantly emerge from the safety of the cloud, thoroughly scanning the sky for my killer – but I see no fighter. My head slumps forward; my eyes close, and I breathe in deeply.
Once more, I thank someone for saving me.
I take another deep breath as I line up my Wimpy for its first landing those Ferry Pilots Notes scrolling through my mind once more, with some rudder and aileron control to counter the slight cross-wind – and here we go.
The runway boundary marker passes beneath me, then a few seconds later, I hear the squeal of the tyres on the ground. I reduce power and tell my trembling feet to push hard on the brakes.
I see three blue RAF vehicles race over in my direction as I climb down the spindly aluminium ladder to the moist and beautiful green grass. It’s funny how I yearn to kiss the ground after every landing – especially this one!
I duck under the fuselage and look back at my cockpit, walking backwards in disbelief. I feel my weak stomach welling up with nausea once more as my eyes stare at a diagonal line of eleven bullet-holes climbing the aluminium skin from just below where I was sitting. I follow them as they snake up the fuselage a few inches from the back of my seat.
My knees give way, and I crumple on to the wet grass. I can’t help it – my body feels weak. I’m kneeling, and I begin to shake uncontrollably. I stare at the holes in disbelief, but I manage a weak smile.
I think to myself: It’s not this ATA girl’s day to meet her maker!
My eyes well up with tears.
I kiss the wet grass.
NAAFI – the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes. The British government formed the NAAFI company in 1920 to manage the provision of meals, recreational buildings and the sale of everyday items in shops required by the British Armed Forces and their families anywhere in the world.
Luftwaffe – the name of the German air force, part of the Wehrmacht from 1933 until its disbanding in 1946.
ATA – the Air Transport Auxiliary. Founded in 1938 by British Airways Limited, a civilian organisation of men and women, including pilots that ferried more than 309,000 RAF and RN fighters and transport planes from their factories and maintenance units to front line squadrons. Before the organisation disbanded in September 1945, it had over 650 pilots. These extremely brave men and women, chosen from over 22 nationalities, ferried back and forth new and damaged aircraft of 147 different types, with little training on each one and in the foulest of weathers. The men and women of the ATA should never be forgotten.
CO – Commanding Officer.
MP – Military Policeman.
Wellington – a twin-engine heavy RAF bomber designed by Barnes Wallis, featuring a unique geodetic structure which was hard to manufacture, but could absorb a huge amount of damage.
Mossie – a pilot’s nickname for the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito fighter/bomber.
RAE – the Royal Aircraft Establishment, a research facility.
Wimpy – a pilot’s nickname for the Wellington Bomber, so called after the 1940's cartoon character, Wellington Wimpy.
Juice – a pilot’s nickname for aviation fuel.
Jerry – the British nickname for any German military personnel.
Ammo – ammunition for the aircraft.
Kite – a pilot’s nickname for any type of aircraft.
If you would like to find out more about the wonderful ATA, visit http://www.airtransportaux.com/history.html