Diana Barnato Walker climbing into the cockpit of a Spitfire whilst serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was the brainchild of a British Overseas Airways Corporation director, Gerald d’Erlanger. D’Erlanger approached the Air Ministry with proposals for a pool of civilian pilots, and when the Air Ministry decided that it was not viable to use RAF pilots to ferry aircraft, it was agreed to appoint d’Erlanger as administrator of the newly formed ferry organisation, the ATA. Aircraft were a precious commodity, and the ATA needed to ensure that its pilots were of the highest standard in order to minimise any potential losses. Therefore, the ATA cast its net wide when recruiting pilots, and in August 1940 a concerted effort was made to get skilled American pilots to join. This was not without success, and American pilots were the largest percentage of foreign pilots in the ATA.

The ATA provided a crucial service in ferrying planes from factories to maintenance units and then onto squadrons. Male pilots delivered much needed Fairey Battles to the Advanced Air Striking Force in France, and in May 1940, ATA pilots were used to bring some of the RAF’s planes back to Britain. During the Battle of Britain, male ATA pilots were responsible for delivering Hurricanes and Spitfires to squadrons – a vital contribution to the Battle. There were 26 female pilots in the ATA in 1940 – including the famous aviatrix Amy Johnson – and whilst they were not allowed to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes until 1941, they delivered training aircraft such as Tiger Moths and Avro Ansons which were an important part of helping to keep a supply of trained RAF pilots. The ATA pilots were highly skilled and had to adapt to many different types of aircraft, none of which were armed during the ferry flights. Keeping the squadrons and training schools supplied with aircraft during the Battle was crucial to Britain’s survival, and the ATA provided a vital service.