The ATA was founded by British Airways Limited in May 1938 and was subsequently organised into an operational unit at the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. It was a civilian organisation which made an enormous contribution to victory by taking over from service pilots the task of ferrying RAF and RN warplanes from factories to maintenance units and front-line squadrons and back again from the squadrons if damaged or due for overhaul. ATA's HQ was set up at White Waltham airfield near Maidenhead in Berkshire early in 1940 although the organisation was originally established at Whitchurch Airfield, Bristol. In total, over 309,000 aircraft were ferried by ATA pilots during the war.
The idea of a kind of Territorial Air Force using civilian pilots who were not eligible for RAF flying service and RAF pilots unfit for operational flying was first put forward by British Airways in 1938. Initially, it was envisaged that the pilots would fly light aircraft to transport mail, dispatches, medical supplies, etc, but within six months the first recruits, both men and women, found themselves moving trainer aircraft, fighters and even bombers from factory and stores to RAF airfields. From the initial 28 pilots recruited in Bristol in September 1939, the numbers rose to over 650 pilots five years later.
ATA 's motto 'Aetheris Avidi' means 'Eager for the Air'. Eager they were, young and old, fit and less fit, men and women, British and foreign with 22 nationalities being represented. Depending on their level of experience and training, they could be called on to ferry any one of 147 different aircraft types from 'anywhere to anywhere'. Often they had never seen a particular aircraft type before being ordered to fly it and their only guidance was a thin volume of 'Ferry Pilots Notes' - a pocket-sized flip pad of basic do's-and-don'ts for every aircraft in service.
Immediately prior to the declaration of war on September 3rd 1939, Royal Assent had been obtained for the merging of Imperial Airways Ltd and British Airways Ltd. Civil flying operations ceased on 3 September, although limited services were flown to France. The collapse of France in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war disrupted most British air travel.
Communications, apart from military demand, had to be found and a route was established to link Britain with the Middle and Far East and Africa ver early in the war. Flying boats were used to carry Government-sponsored officials (including aircrew) through Lisbon to West Africa, then linking up with services through the Congo or northwards to Khartoum. The links with the existing flying boat services from the east to South Africa was made at Cairo. When the route through Malaya and Singapore was cut by the Japanese invasion, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), in conjunction with QANTAS, operated a service linking Ceylon with Perth, Western Australia. An agreement had been reached between Australia and Britain that this was the better route at that time, although it meant that Catalina flying boats had to operate the service. This was done with QANTAS crews and the flight involved a non-stop sector of 3500 miles by an aircraft with a cruising speed of not much over 100mph.
Links with neutral countries remained of the utmost importance, not least that with Sweden, where the return load was mainly high-quality steel ball-bearings, vital for the manufacturing war effort. BOAC, using a variety of unarmed aircraft in civilian markings, flew the 800 miles from Leuchars in Scotland to Stockholm. Originally with Lockheed aircraft, then Whitleys and Dakotas, the route proved too risky and eventually ex-air force Mosquito aircraft ran the service, operating overnight. Over 1200 flights were made.
An extremely important BOAC operation was the formation of the North Atlantic Return Ferry Organization (AFTERO). This service was formed to return back to the USA and Canada the pilots and crews who had delivered military aircraft from the manufacturers in the US to the UK for military operations. The service began in May 1941 and was eventually taken over by BOAC in September of that year, operating a two-way trans-Atlantic service. The experience and accumulated data proved invaluable in the post-war years. The service ended in February 1946 by which the 2000th crossing had been achieved.
The task of keeping communications open proved to be difficult and dangerous for the civilian crews of unarmed aircraft, and several times on routes between West Africa, Lisbon and the UK, aircraft went missing without trace. The Lisbon-Whitchurch route proved particularly hazardous and Boeing 314A flying boats were eventually introduced flying from Lagos via Lisbon to Foynes (Eire) and on across the Atlantic.
Despite their initial inexperience, very few aircraft were lost or damaged, although 173 pilots and 8 flight engineers lost their lives while operational in ATA service.
The business of ferrying aircraft was ATA's main task. Central Ferry Control at Andover in Hampshire allocated tasks to the 22 Ferry Pools operating as far apart as Hamble near Southampton, Belfast, Northern Ireland and Lossiemouth near Inverness in Scotland. When pilots (and flight engineers for four-engined bombers and heavy twin-engined aircraft) reported for duty each morning they received details of their day's ferrying. This could involve several flights and might mean staying away overnight. Aircraft taxis, usually Avro Ansons or Fairchild Argus, conveyed pilots to their first ferry job and, if possible, collected them at the end of the day. Flights were usually flown below 2000ft under visual flight conditions only, so there could be much sitting around waiting for the weather to improve, especially in winter.
ATA was much more than just its pilots. There were ground school instructors, ground engineers, crash rescue teams, meteorological officers, motor transport drivers, nurses and doctors, administration staff and so on. There were even air cadets employed as messengers and auxiliary crew members. At the outbreak of war the concept of the ATA was an idea whose time had come and without it the course of the war might have been very different.
After D-Day ATA pilots ferried operational service aircraft throughout western and southern Europe and the Mediterranean. They provided support for the ill-fated Arnhem operation and after the fall of Germany took large quantities of medicines and vaccines into Europe. White Waltham provided a base for the Air Movements Flight as well as ATA's own Advanced Flying Training School operations.
By this time, BOAC had flown more than 57,000,000 miles, uplifted 50,000,000 pounds of cargo and mail and carried over a quarter of a million essential passengers. Its fleet then numbered 160 aircraft with a route network of 54,000 miles.
At the end of the war, the ATA held a farewell Air Pageant at White Waltham in September 1945, at which Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, said the ATA had written 'a splendid chapter in British history'.