The Air Transport Auxiliary

The first pilots of the ATA Womens' Section pilots walking past newly-completed De Havilland Tiger Moths awaiting delivery to their units at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. They are, (right to left): Miss Pauline Gower, Commandant of the Women's Section, Miss M Cunnison (partly obscured), Mrs Winifred Crossley, The Hon. Mrs Fairweather, Miss Mona Friedlander, Miss Joan Hughes, Mrs G Paterson and Miss Rosemary Rees.
© IWM (C 382)

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a civilian organisation set up during World War II to ferry new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants, maintenance depots and so on to active service squadrons and airfields, as well as transporting service personnel on urgent duty and performing some air ambulance work.

Originally intended to carry personnel, mail and medical supplies, its pilots were soon in demand to work with RAF ferry pools in the transport of aircraft and by 1st August 1941 had taken all ferrying responsibility, freeing up much-needed pilots for combat roles.

In November 1939, Commander Pauline Gower was given the task of organising the women’s section of the ATA. The first eight women were accepted into service on New Years Day 1940, initially cleared only to fly Tiger Moths. They were Joan Hughes, Margaret Cunnison, Mona Friedlander, Rosemary Rees, Marion Wilberforce, Margaret Fairweather, Gabrielle Patterson, and Winifred Crossley Fair. Although at first seen as less-skilled than their male counterparts, in time they fly all types of aircraft, from Hurricanes and Spitfires to four-engine heavy bombers such as the Lancaster and Flying Fortress.

In World War II the ATA flew 415,000 hours and delivered more than 309,000 aircraft ranging from smaller planes such as the Spitfire and Mustangs to heavy bombers such as the Lancaster and American B17 Flying Fortress. 174 men and women pilots of the ATA were killed during the War – around 10% of the total who flew for the ATA. Initially, as the pilots were civilian and/or women, the aircraft were ferried with unloaded guns or other armaments. However, after encounters with German aircraft in which the ferried aircraft were unable to fight back, RAF aircraft were then ferried with guns fully loaded.

The ATA had women who were (almost) all young, and sound of mind and body, and were unsuitable for combat duty because of their gender, although many had as much, if not more, experience of flying than their male counterparts. According to one of the best women pilots, Gabrielle Patterson, there weren’t many of them because until 1938 “women pilots hitherto have consisted only of those with large enough bank balances”. Gabrielle Patterson helped to set up the Civil Air Guard which offered subsidised flying lessons for the less well-off, although hadn’t managed to complete their “A” licence before civilian flying was stopped at the outbreak of WWII.

The ATA was one of the few diverse organisations during the War – apart from accepting women as well as men, there were disabled pilots, older pilots and people of many nationalities, including from neutral countries. There were 28 different nationalities who flew with the ATA. Women were paid the same as men of equal rank – the first time that the British government had allowed equal pay for equal work for an organisation under its control. At the same time, American women flying with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) received as little as 65 per cent of their equivalent male colleagues.

The role of the ATA was vital to the success of the RAF in WWII and to the outcome of the war. As Lord Beaverbrook said at the disbanding of the ATA on 30th November 1945, “Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”

Allied women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary service. Their job done, four female ATA pilots (three Americans and one Polish) leaving an airfield near Maidenhead, 19 March 1943. They are from left to right: Roberta Sandoz of Washington; Kay Van Doozer from Los Angeles; Jadwiga Piłsudska from Warsaw; and Mary Hooper from Los Angeles.

Allied women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary service. Their job done, four female ATA pilots (three Americans and one Polish) leaving an airfield near Maidenhead, 19 March 1943. They are from left to right: Roberta Sandoz of Washington; Kay Van Doozer from Los Angeles; Jadwiga Piłsudska from Warsaw; and Mary Hooper from Los Angeles.  © IWM (CH 8945)



Source: Wikipedia entry for the Air Transport Auxiliary

 “A Fleeting Peace” website,

Comments about this page

  • Many thanks to John Webster for this answer to Eric’s question below:

    “I have just come across your website references to the Air Transport Auxiliary and noticed the posted query from Eric Rice about the ATA’s women flying heavy bombers.

    “I can confirm that 11 women were authorised to fly types in ATA’s aircraft Class 5 which included the Lancaster, Halifax and American B17.

    “Those 4-engined types did require a Flight Engineer and 151 were employed by ATA, of which, most notably, 4 were women!

    “No navigators flew with ATA, as the pilots were charged with flying below cloud using map and compass alone. Use of radio and the carriage of seconded RAF wireless operators only came into operation when the ATA started operating into Europe and beyond.

    “I trust that is helpful and that Mr Rice might welcome the details.”


    John Webster

    Secretary, Air Transport Auxiliary Association
    Volunteer Researcher, Maidenhead Heritage Centre

    By Linda Duffield (01/08/2022)
  • I feel much admiration for these brave female aviators. Also my family have an unusual tie to one of the initial 8 women, Marion Wilberforce. In 1929, she was the main supervisor of my grandad’s party of orphans as they were shipped to labour on remote and inhospitable farms of Western Australia. Fairbridge was the powerful organisation calling the shots with the two governments.

    By Wendy Booth (01/11/2021)
  • I have long wondered how many women crewed the heavy bombers to the front line in WW2.
    Spitfire and Hurricanes obviously one but didn’t the heavyweights require engineers and navigators?

    By Eric Rice (20/09/2020)
  • Thanks for your comment Eric. I don’t know what crew members were deemed necessary for a ferry flight in the heavies, but I do know that eight ATA Flight Engineers lost their lives during WW2. The ATA also had its own ground school instructors, ground engineers, crash rescue teams, meteorological officers, drivers, medical and admin staff etc. I would imagine they had navigators available as well, especially for longer flights. Please let us know if you find any further information on this.

    By Linda Duffield (20/09/2020)

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