They nicknamed it the “graveyard run”, those occasions they were presented with a near-wreck of a decommissioned plane to be flown to wherever it needed to go.
There might be a handwritten scrap of paper attached somewhere, warning “flaps don’t work” or “undercarriage dodgy”. Worst case scenario, they’d discover the fault midair.
But they flew anyway, because that was their wartime duty. And they did so without a radio, zero contact with the ground, unarmed, and possibly without ever having flown that model of aircraft before. It may have been the graveyard run for those beleaguered aircraft, but it could easily have been the pilot’s, too.
These were the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilots of World War Two, a British civilian organisation created in 1940 to support the RAF, ferrying brand new, repaired or damaged aircraft between factories or active squadrons.
They are the lesser-known airborne heroes of the war, unofficial motto ‘anything to anywhere’ – with 173 dead, a death rate of one in ten, as high as military combat units.
And lesser-known still, is the fact 168 women were among them – 16 of these young women were killed.
“I think they all had many near-misses,” admits Candy Adkins, whose mother Jackie Moggridge was, at just 18, the youngest of these alternative female ‘few’ whose stories have been largely drowned out by the propeller noise of courageous male tales of derring do.
“She landed more than a couple of planes where the undercarriage was not coming down. And they had no contact, so they would not know when the barrage balloons were going to come up in an aerodrome if there was an air raid.
“Once, she managed to get past the balloons and land, but couldn’t stop and was heading towards men in a gun tower so she veered off and ended up in a hedge. She clambered out.”
ATA pilots flew up to 149 different planes and couldn’t be trained on each model, although the women were only initially allowed to fly Tiger Moth biplanes – it was a year before they were deemed capable enough to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes.
They relied on their ‘ferry pilot’s notes’, tiny guidebooks they even consulted midair, a page per plane.
With lack of technology and contact, weather was a huge risk. “They had a map and compass,” says Candy. “They followed the rivers and the train tracks. If cloud came down they were stuffed.
“My mother flew to Scotland a lot and if they went above the cloud they could fly into a mountain.”
Jackie survived, but friends did not, including her heroine Amy Johnson, 37, a pioneering Yorkshire woman who was forced to bail out of her Airspeed Oxford into the Thames estuary near Herne Bay in January 1941, after going off course in poor weather. Her body was never found.
Others included First Officer Dora Lang, 29, and flight engineer Janice Harrington, 23, travelling with her, who crashed and died together on March 2, 1944.
They were forced to circle their de Havilland Mosquito Mk VI plane before landing, and it stalled.
They are buried together.
And Third Officer Lesley Cairns-Murray, 28, the last female pilot to be killed in the war, days before VE Day, when her Lockheed Hudson lost control.
Their names are commemorated only within all the ATA dead listed on a plaque erected in 1950 in St Paul’s cathedral.
Even there, Lesley’s name was mistaken for a man’s and misspelt Leslie; she was referred to as a “son”. A decade later, her family eventually succeeded in changing it.
It was only in 2008, the Veteran’s Badge was awarded to those ATA veterans still alive in recognition of their service; Jackie, who died in 2004, missed out. It was not awarded posthumously to those who lost their lives.
These heroes are now being remembered in a new exhibition Women & War: Hidden Heroes of World War Two, at the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum in Bromley, London, alongside those who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
“When we think of the war we don’t have an image of women in the air,” says Katie Edwards, the museum director.
“The ATA were often flying in terrible conditions with only their ferry pilot notes, it was not uncommon to see them going through their books before they took off or mid-flight.”
Women were only finally allowed to join the ATA months after the men, following lobbying from Pauline Gower, an accomplished pilot, daughter of the MP Sir Robert Gower.
They didn’t have equal pay initially, and never received it during training.
Many were wealthy and hobby fliers.
Jackie, however, real name Dolores, took to the sky in the most extraordinary circumstances.
Born in Pretoria, South Africa, her mother was a hairdresser, and her father died before she was born.
She decided as a child she wanted to fly and astonishingly, learnt via an American correspondence course and had her ‘A’ pilot’s licence by 15.
Her mother finally managed to arrange for her to go up in a plane for her birthday, and she piloted her first at 16.
In 1938, she was accepted to the Aeronautical College, Witney, Oxford to get her ‘B’ pilot’s licence and found herself there when war broke.
“Her mother wanted her to come home, she was beside herself,” explains Candy. “But she said she had offered her flying services to the RAF!”
Initially a post in the WAAF as a cook was only open to her. “She couldn’t boil an egg,” laughs Candy.
Then she worked at a radar station.
But in July 1940, she became the 15th woman to join the ATA.
She appeared fearless. Once, seeing a German buzz bomb in the air – an armed, unmanned aircraft – she chased it.
“She thought if she tipped the wing she might be able to get it off course,” describes Candy. “But she couldn’t catch it.”
After the war, she was awarded the King’s Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air, and married her sweetheart, army Lieut. Colonel Reginald Moggridge, who she had sweetly parachuted chocolate and love notes to, attached to hankies, when she flew over his barracks.
She had two daughters, but never thought of relinquishing her career.
She joined the Women’s RAF Volunteer Reserve, became one of the first five women to gain her RAF wings, and the first woman to captain a scheduled commercial flight.
After she died, aged 84, her family scattered her ashes from a Spitfire she once flew.
Jackie told one other notorious story of her ATA service. It involved giving a male RAF officer a lift.
The weather was terrible, but Jackie landed safely.
Met by a commanding officer, her passenger complained: “Not only did you send me a mere schoolgirl, but she was reading a novel!”
Indignant, Jackie replied: “They were my ferry pilot notes, I’ve never flown that plane before.”
Women & War: Hidden Heroes of World War Two is open at the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum in Kent.