How ATA began

The idea of using civilian pilots as a kind of Territorial Air Force was put forward in 1938, when the Civil Air Guard was formed to offer subsidized flying training to people up to 50 years old. There were also many pilots who had learned to fly in the 1920’s and 1930’s who were either too old or unfit for RAF service but wanted to use their flying skills in some way in the impending conflict. Air Transport Auxiliary came into being in September 1939 as an adjunct of the airline BOAC.

Initially it was envisaged that the pilots would fly light aircraft to transport mail, dispatches, medical supplies, etc. But within weeks ATA started to help the RAF with the ferrying of aircraft from factories and stores to front-line squadrons. From February 1940 ATA took over the ferrying in its entirety, making a huge contribution to the war effort by releasing fully-trained RAF and RN pilots for combat duties.

ATA expanded rapidly and credit for turning it into a well-oiled machine goes to its Commanding Officer, Gerard d’Erlanger, a private pilot who was a director of the pre-war British Airways. He joked that ATA stood for “Ancient and Tattered Airmen”. The first recruits, though widely experienced, were either too old or unfit for active service, some having served in World War I. There was even a retired admiral, and Charles Dutton and Stewart Keith-Jopp both had only one arm: this handicap did not stop them flying aircraft such as the Spitfire and the Typhoon.