Bristol Blenheim

“A nice twin to fly, BUT…..”

In these words Diana Barnato Walker describes the Blenheim, which ATA ferried 8569 times, with a peak annual rate of 3512 in 1941-42.  Diana goes on:  ‘BUT its single-engine safety speed (115-120mph) was above its final approach speed of 90mph, which meant that if one engine packed up on finals and you were under the safety speed, then you simply went in – bang!  This happened to my friend Bobby Lowenstein (a millionaire Belgian killed at White Waltham on 29 March 1943)’.  Note: 4 other ATA pilots including an American and a Pole were killed in Blenheim accidents.

Diana devised the “Barnato Bomb Approach”, her way of pulling both engines right back, then gliding in from a great height; in this way with no power needed on finals, you wouldn’t drop a wing and stall in if an engine suddenly stopped on you.

On 12 December 1943 Diana flew a Blenheim IV from Cosford to Stoney Cross in the New Forest, one of 8569 delivered by ATA.  The delivery chit was marked “N.E.A.” meaning “Not Essentially Airworthy” or fit for one flight only.  The aircraft V6527 was destined to be used as a target on a bombing range!

Lettice Curtis is rather more formal in her description of the Blenheim, which had carried out the first wartime  reconnaissance over Germany on 3 September 1939 and dropped the first bombs of the war on a German target the following day.   This is an extract from Lettice’s book ‘The Forgotten Pilots’.

There was nothing complicated about the Blenheim, the most memorable thing being the quite remarkable inconvenience of the cockpit layout.  The majority of Blenheims had two position airscrews – pitch change being effected by pulling or pushing a knob.  The pitch change controls were sited on a panel behind the pilot’s seat, adjacent to a couple of similar knobs which operated the ‘idle cut-out’, the means of stopping the engines by cutting off the fuel.  Inevitably accidents occurred from time to time when pilots stopped the engines instead of changing pitch. The carburettor air controls and the handles by which the engine cowling gills were wound closed for takeoff and open for taxi-ing were also behind the pilot.  The plunger type controls which operated undercarriage, flaps and an hydraulic selector were crowded into a metal box between the two cockpit seats, on which one invariably skinned one’s knuckles and for good measure, the engine doping pumps and starter magneto switches were in the engine nacelle, the main ignition switches on the pilot’s instrument panel and the engine starter buttons in the cabin roof. Once one had got used to all this, it was pleasant and simple aircraft to fly.’

From Ferry Pilots Notes – Teach Yourself to Fly a Blenheim.

How to fly a Stirling bomber

Flt Captain Arnold Watson test flew new types before he prepared the famous Ferry Pilots Notes to assist ATA pilots. These extracts from his diary date from March-May 1943 and give a good idea of how thorough he was. Not surprisingly he is fairly technical, but read them and you’ll be ready to fly!

STIRLING, 26/27 March 1943

It is proposed in future that Class V pilots, instead of having a separate course on each machine, will take the basic 4 engine course on Halifax. Then later, two trips as second pilot before flying as Capt. on the other 4 engine types.

Accordingly, I went as second to Doc Whitehurst from Swindon to St. Athan. He had difficulty on take-off & landing due to a crosswind (about 40° 20 m.p.h.) on the starboard ( the worst side).

The enormous keel area which helps her head to wind, to run straight down the runway, is a disadvantage in crosswinds. I flew it for 40 mins & was much impressed by the lightness & effectiveness of the controls & trimmers. She feels right & is most restful to fly.

Next day I did the take-off & landing from the right hand seat & was lucky enough to do it well (head to wind). The following points were noted:-

Taxying Watch brake pressure – it builds up only slowly in flight. The brake lever is awkward (same hand as throttle) & the response is not immediate. More difficult to taxy than Halifax.

Take-off 1/3 flap out. Trim 4 nose down rudder neutral. Clear to zero & set 2000. All clear aft? Throttle levers are light but have over long travel. Brake so awkward as to be useless at start of run.

Climb: 140 – 150 m.p.h. Reduce power. Flaps up after u/c is up.

Landing circuit M = Rich

P = 2400 Prime exactor throttles

150 A.S.I. F = Flap 1/3 out.

140 A.S.I. U = u/c down. Maintain 140 m.p.h. about 2400 & +2.

She flies well with wheels down & 1/3 flap.

Approach Turn in at 140 m.p.h.

Full Flap 120 m.p.h. Trim tail heavy

Landing Maintain 120 & check gently a trifle higher than Halifax. The

throttles are so light they may be used with one hand.

Hold off normally, stick back, close throttles only when all descent has ceased. Stick right back. Watch carefully for swing owing to awkward brake.

One hour with one engine out, 3 April 1943

My first solo Stirling proved rather exciting. Took off from Rochester in a flat calm, with seven air cadets aboard at 4.50. South of London smoke reduced visibility to about 3 miles but we cleared it at Guildford & had 12 miles under 5/10 at 3000 ft.

Passing Farnborough, about 15 mins. after take-off, I noticed the port inner engine was throwing out a lot of oil. I consulted with my Flight Engineer who thought it might run alright. But it seemed to me the leak was getting worse & we should soon have no oil left & wreck the engine. So I feathered it, & put the port outer up to 2200 & +2, leaving the starboard engines at 2000 & zero. This gave an airspeed about 150, & we had not much time to reach St. Athan. I considered landing at Farnboro, & would have done, except that the job was priority P1.

So we opened up all three to 2200 & +2 & gained height to 2500 feet & continued our journey. Levelling out she trimmed level feet off at 170 A.S.I.

Over the Bristol Channel, I decided to restart the dead engine & use it for landing since enough oil was remaining in it, & it was wiser than risking a 3 engined approach with no chance of mislanding, with wheels & flaps down.

So we warmed it up carefully: in full coarse she windmilled at 1800. I was glad we did for when we lowered the undercarriage, the port leg failed to come down. So I held height and did a couple of circuits at 2,500 feet & 140 A.S.I. while the F/E did his stuff. He finally got it down, without hand winding, by selecting up then hard down with all his weight on the lever.

Being worried by the possibility of the engine packing up with the wheels down, I turned in rather close for so light a wind, & made a straight approach at 120 rather overshooting. This caused me to close the throttles more than I intended to do before I flattened out. As a result, she sank on to main wheels & bounced once. Moral:

reduce power in stages, watching boost & revs, & keep sufficient power on until all descent has ceased. (Throttles sensitive at low power but not at high) We came to rest quite straight & easily with only a touch of brake.

Stopped the inners, dispersed the aircraft, made out the snag sheet & signed the flight log, & got out to look at the engine. It was covered in oil & so was the complete undercarriage on that side. They quickly covered the tyre to keep the dripping oil off it. A fitter who saw me on the circuit, said he thought the engine was on fire. I told him I’d had my finger on the fire extinguisher button, & opened its cover, just in case.

Well at least we saved the engine, got the undercart down, & delivered the aeroplane “priority P1”

Home in 50 mins from Llandau (13 in the Anson) landing 10 mins after landing time.


Practise with both Stbd Engines Feathered, 8 April 43

At St. Athan today I enquired about the engine trouble just described. The Sergt. Fitter told me that there was only 2 galls oil left out of the twenty galls. So I stopped it just in time. And they found a lump of piston in the oil filter, so the engine must be changed. Evidently piston failure was the cause of the trouble.

A.I.D. at Rochester said they had a piston go recently & are satisfied that the engine made two or three more flights thereafter – 4 or 5 hours in all. At St. Athan the Sergt Fitter remarked that sleeve valve motors will continue to run after considerable internal damage.

Our Stirling today was not quite ready, & on run up we found a defective oil gauge. Take-off at 2.30 in good vis. 10/10 at 3000 ft, light wind from N.W. Mr Campbell made a special record of head temps. during taxying take-off & climb. The inners went out of limits with gills closed: will experiment with inner engine gills 1/3 open.

At Alton cloud lifted to 5000 feet 5/10, so we climbed up to that level, & checked the performance with stbd outer feathered, then stbd inner as well. It was my first experience with two engines stopped on the same side. She needed about 2200 & +2 at 150 A.S.I. The rudder trimmer was excellent – fully adequate. No aileron trimmer is fitted; I had the wheel over about 70° to port. The total travel is 180° each way. We unfeathered near Salisbury & warmed up carefully before bringing them up to speed.

At Weston Zealand we went through a mislanding practice to check trim changes of flap, u/c, power. She was quite easy to hold. Thereafter, I found the elevator trimmer would trim forward but not back from neutral. F/Eng Gardner went aft & cleared the jam (which was noted on the snag sheet)

Weather at St. Athan was excellent with 15 – 20 m.p.h. wind straight down the runway. I did my circuit at 2000 feet +/- 100. After priming exactors, I shut down to – 4, put revs up to 2400, to reduce speed to 150 for ½ flap. Then u/c down, entering the downwind leg. Zero boost at 140 A.S.I. I allowed about 2 miles straight approach (which was not too much) turning in at 140, & then giving full flap which takes about a mile to come down at 120.

I called out – 2 just before giving full flap, then – 4. I noted that revs began to drop about – 5, so set 2200 by throttles, then immediately 1,500 since we were in an overshooting position at about 800 – 500 feet. Throttles were now almost closed & the attitude of descent very steep, trimmed tail heavy (trimmer well forward!) The check was immediately followed by the hold off, as I was bringing throttles back the last bit gently, she touched smoothly down on the main wheels and it was a perfect wheeler. I shouted “Close” as the tail came quickly down & she slowed up quickly & straight almost stopping in 900 yds without break.

This pleased me so I decided that 1,500 is the minimum sensible revs entering the aerodrome. Probably – 4 (giving 2400) is more desirable. This would give a less steep attitude, & I guess this produces a very slight trust (as distinct from a drag) from the propellers. Static run up needs about zero boost to give about 2400.

Home in 1 hour (wind behind) by Fairchild – to test Barracuda.

My only mistake this trip was exceeding 100 on the climb with flap 1/3 out.

STIRLING in the Rain, Sat 1 May 1943

A lovely clear morning and the Met. Said fine all day but they were optimistic. The first Mk ΙΙΙ Stirling was ready at Rochester to go to Oakington near Cambridge. The C.T.O., Campbell & F/E Cooke came with me in an Anson for test. Near Gravesend the port motor started misfiring & was no better in Rich or after changing tanks. But it kept going. At Rochester at noon but found them just starting the daily inspection. So we had lunch after

Mr Campbell had made his notes & took off at 2.45. There was a light wind from the North & 10/10 at 3000. The Mk ΙΙΙ has cable operated throttles etc. instead of exactors & +8¼ boost instead of +5¾.

We recorded certain figures on run-up (revs against boost in steps of 2 lbs) All heads after run-up were between 150° – 200° C. After taxying gently out they were 150° C, which was nicely cool.

The take-off was much more pleasant than the MkΙ but it is necessary for the F/E to hold the throttles open like a Halifax, since the ratchets have been deleted. The break neck? ratchet was good on take-off but not so good throttling down for landing.

As soon as the wheels were up, we note that all heads were 250° — comfortably under the max of 270°. We crossed the river at Gravesend – Tilbury & soon passed Burtonwood at 190 – 200 m.p.h. cruising at zero, 2200 in weak.

At Bishops Stortford the ceiling came down & we flew at 1000 feet in rain which steadily increased. The windscreen was badly obscured & the only view was sideways. Passing Cambridge, I decided to fly up the railway beyond Oakington to see whether the rain was local. But at St. Ives I could see no break & it seemed likely to get worse rather than better. Therefore I decided to try a landing & turned back to Oakington & flew slowly (140 m.p.h.) with 1/3 flap at 220 & -3.

Having seen the North wind was straight down the runway I increased to 2400 & +4 and went up to 1,500 feet, & lowered the wheels. Then we had difficulty opening my direct vision panel. F/E reported Port outer gill motor failed. Approaching at 120, I found the Mk ΙΙΙ throttles a great improvement, especially throttling back during the hold off. Owing to the rain, I did not attempt a complete three pointer but made a satisfactory wheeler & stopped easily with a little brake at the last. Since we could not open the gills on No.1, we stopped before taxying to dispersal.

Coming back in the Anson, we gave a lift to Capt. Dlugaszewski (Polish, aka Captain Double Whisky) & his crew. At Letchworth the port motor started missing again, but it kept going so I continued, throttling it back on sighting Maidenhead & landed using the starboard only.

VE Day and ATA

On the 75th anniversary of VE Day the contribution of the men and women of ATA to the war effort must not be forgotten.  For almost 6 years ATA ran a conveyor belt of serviceable aeroplanes (over 309,000 of them) without which the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm could not have fought the battle in the air.  Not without reason did Lord Beaverbrook (first Minister of Aircraft Production) say that ATA had contributed as much to victory as if they had been fighting in the front line.  Nor must we forget that 173 ATA flying personnel, 14% of a total of 1250, lost their lives in ATA service. 

What was ATA doing on 8th May 1945?  Not flying much!  We have trawled through all the 140 logbooks in our collection and have failed to find a single pilot who flew on 8th or 9th May. Peter George was flying in and around Belgium around that time, while Peter Garrod flew 2 Tempests and a Mosquito on 7th May.  Joy Gough (Lofthouse) was at Thame converting to Class 3 twins (Oxford/Anson) and Cecile Power was at White Waltham for a course on Class 4 twins such as the Hudson and the Wellington.  As for celebrations, the only mentions in any of the many ATA pilot autobiographies are from Lettice Curtis (The Forgotten Pilots) and USA pilot Nancy Stratford (Contact! Britain!).  

Lettice describes VE Day as ‘something of an anti-climax taking away incentive, our very raison d’etre and putting nothing in its place’.  Nancy was based at Prestwick at the time and wrote that ‘It was the slowness of an actual clear-cut announcement that made V-E Day less important than it otherwise would have been.  Many went to work on V-E Day, not having heard Churchill’s announcement, but they soon fell into the swing of things.  At Prestwick itself, it was fairly quiet.  I was rather glad I wasn’t in a big mass of humanity in Glasgow or London.  Prestwick had its celebration at The Cross, where more people congregated that I knew existed in that town.  There was cheering and dancing and smiles spread over all faces.  The Americans there did little celebrating though, because as most of them said to me, “This war isn’t over yet”.  So a group of us went out and played volleyball at the American Red Cross Club. It was just a sort of an anti-climax, for the European war had been over days ago. But there was no doubt that inside we all heaved a sigh of relief.’

ATA pilot Monique Agazarian recorded her rather different memories of VE-Day in an interview for the Imperial War Museum.  Click here to listen to Monique.

RAF Upper Heyford remembers American woman ATA pilot

A total of 56 TAB-V or Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), proof against a direct hit from a 500 lb high explosive bomb, were built at RAF Upper Heyford as part of a scheme to upgrade the base so that it could continue to operate after attack by conventional, biological or chemical weapons, or after contamination by radioactive dust.

Each HAS was intended for a single General Dynamics F-111E nuclear-capable strike aircraft, although two aircraft could be accommodated by making use of the F-111’s variable geometry (swing) wings.

The first batches of HASs were originally open ended weather shelters, made from interlocking metal parts and held together with 24,000 nuts and bolts. Later these were ‘hardened’ by adding a thick concrete skin and doors.

‘HAS 20’ was completed in January 1981 and handed over to the 55th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

In 1986 personnel of the four squadrons based at Heyford were asked to nominate names for each shelter. HAS 20 was  named in memory of Air Transport Auxiliary pilot ‘Jacqueline Cochran’.

Jacqueline Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pitman on 11 May 1906. In about 1920 she married Robert Cochran, and they had a son, who was to die at the age of 5. The marriage was not a success, but the change of surname and the adoption of ‘Jacqueline’ or ‘Jackie’ as a first name allowed Bessie to rewrite history and refer to the Pitmans as her adopted family.

Working as a hairdresser in Pensacola and New York, Jackie met Floyd Bostwick Odlum, founder of the Atlas Corporation and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Odlum was believed to be one of the world’s ten richest men. He financed Jackie’s cosmetics company, and promoted it through Jackie’s new interest in aviation by suggesting the renaming of ‘Wings to Beauty’ cosmetics and aviation advertising tours across America. Odlum and Jackie married in 1936.

In 1934 Jackie was one of only three women to take part in the England-Australia MacRobertson Air Race which started at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Concentrating on speed records, Jackie entered the famous Bendix Race in 1937 and worked with Amelia Earhart to open more aviation competitions to women. By 1938 Jackie was considered the best women pilot in the USA, and went on to establish speed, altitude and distance records, still holding more than any other pilot at the time of her death.

In September 1939 Jackie began agitating for a women’s division of the US Army Air Corps. Before the USA entered the Second World War, in December 1941, Jackie worked for Wings for Britain, ferrying American-built across the Atlantic. She became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic when she delivered a Lockheed Hudson. In March, 1942, Jackie led a party of 25 American women pilots to join the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain, and report back on the ATA’s successful employment of women.

The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron was created in September 1942 and Jackie returned from Britain to lobby for the creation of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment so new pilots could be trained. In August 1943 the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) was formed with Jackie as director. The Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to Jackie in 1945 in recognition of her achievements.

Postwar Jackie continued to set aviation records, becoming the first woman to fly supersonic, in 1953. She joined the USAF Reserve in 1948 and retired as a Colonel in 1970.

A sponsor for the Mercury 13 space programme, Jackie campaigned for women astronauts, but later admitted that winning the ‘Space Race’ against the USSR was the priority.

Colonel Jacqueline Cochran, possibly America’s greatest woman pilot, died on 9 August, 1980.

International Womens Day

On March 8th, International Womens Day, we salute the women of 10 different countries who flew for ATA and make inspiring role models for women of the 21st century. Beside the British pilots, the largest contingent came from the USA in 1942, recruited by Jackie Cochran. The other nations were Australia, Canada, Chile, Eire, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and South Africa. They all contributed immensely to the success of ATA. Apparently crew room conversations at Hamble often included Spanish voices (Margot Duhalde from Chile and Maureen Dunlop who grew up in Argentina) and Polish voices (Anna Leska and Stefania Wojtulanis – known as Barbara!) along British, American and South African voices.