WW2’s unsung flying heroes
...and how to fly a Spitfire
Blog by Susie Coreth of Ivory Wings
Who were the Air Transport Auxiliary?
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) were a group of remarkable people who flew war aircraft around the UK, delivering them to the RAF bases and maintenance units during WW2. Originally, the ATA was made up of men who were unable to work for the RAF either due to their age or a disability (yes, some of them had missing arms or legs!) But in 1939, an extraordinary woman called Pauline Gower was tasked with creating a women’s section. Not only did Pauline succeed in this task, with 168 women flying for the ATA throughout the war, she successfully campaigned for her women to get equal pay with their male colleagues: the first women to do so!
The ATA flew all types of aircraft; from gentle two seater Tiger Moths to four engine Lancaster Bombers to the legendary Spitfires. They would be flying different aeroplanes every single day, learning the crucial details of each plane, such as the stalling and landing speeds, from a cardboard book of handling notes which they’d tuck into their boots during flight. In other words, each day they flew something new: a bit like taking a car for a test drive… but that car is built for battle, is thousands of feet in the air and quite possibly has just come back from war, needing to get to the maintenance unit ASAP before it falls apart. Oh and be on the lookout for enemy aircraft who might just try to shoot you down.
Why write a play about them?
Because these women and men were extraordinarily brave and without them, a different picture of history would have been painted. They really were World War Two’s unsung flying heroes. And performing the part of a woman who flew Spitfires was too good an opportunity to pass up.
So here’s the real question:
How to fly a Spitfire?
Ok, full disclosure: I haven’t actually flown a Spitfire. But I have flown the Spitfire Simulator at Boultbee Flight Academy, which has a genuine wartime Spitfire fuselage and is used to train Spitfire pilots! So that’s just as good, right? The simulator at Boultbee is designed to fully represent flying a Spitfire; the glorious sound of the engine rings in your ears, the cockpit moves and feels like it would - every bump is felt, the controls get heavier or lighter whilst flying, the whole thing judders alarmingly if the plane is about to stall. Flying it is, supposedly, just like flying the real thing, but without the terror of crashing or the sense of g-force when putting it into a loop or barrel roll. Every button you press, lever you pull or movement you make on the stick or rudders has a cause and effect. Luckily, the headset is linked to a radio so the instructor, Simon Oliver, can tell you what to push or pull when.
For an inexperienced pilot like me, the simulator starts whilst flying. Taking off is notoriously tricky, partly because the Spitfire has a tendency to overheat if idling on the tarmac for too long. But that doesn’t matter; the flying is the exciting part. And wow, is it exciting to fly. Extremely fast, you cover the ground quickly and so have to be aware of where you are at all times, regularly turning circles in order to keep Goodwood airfield (where Boultbee is based) in view. A domed screen in front and over the cockpit projects real-life images of the world around you - rather like Google street view - so every house, blade of grass or roaming cow is visible. And when doing a loop, the world turns upside down.
Speaking of which, loops and victory rolls are surprisingly simple. Almost as if the Spitfire was designed to perform in this way?!
Make sure you’re high enough above ground. Push the stick forward so that the plane goes into a light dive to build up speed, then pull back, holding the stick steady and making sure the horizon stays level on each side, watch the world turn to blue, then as you see ground emerging again above your head, push the stick forward a little to keep it steady (whilst upside down!) then gently pull backwards again, slightly pre-empt the return to straight and level flight, and bob’s your uncle. (NB. I can’t remember any of the instrument details. I definitely wouldn’t actually be able to do a loop in a Spitfire).
To test me, and to help me prepare for a particularly tricky scene in Ivory Wings, Simon devised a way to recreate an emergency and resultant engine failure. The propellor chugged to a stop in front of my eyes and the usually loud Spitfire went silent. The heavy machine plummeted southwards. Simon rightly told me that there was no way that we’d reach the runway; I turned the plane into a nearby field, straight through some trees… and the simulator froze. I had crashed.
This represented a very real situation that the pilots would have faced. It was terrifying.
The thought that the ATA pilots had to fly planes they had never flown before, possibly ones that were war damaged to the point that they were labelled suitable for ‘one flight only’ (aka not suitable for flying at all, but it needs to get to a maintenance unit somehow), in weather that could be freezing, low visibility, rain, is beyond belief. Researching, writing and rehearsing a play about the extraordinary pilots of the ATA has been enlightening and invigorating. I urge you to read about them - they might just inspire you.