Imperial War Museum | DVD Review: Ferry Pilot

Reviewed by Matt Gannon

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Specs at a glance

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I began taking a keen interest in the employment of women in the armed services following a compulsory defence essay during one of my officer training courses. That, and at the time my partner was herself a Navy officer with whom I could discuss some of the issues encountered by women in the military gave me additional interest and passion in the subject.

During WW2 the Air Transport Auxillary or ATA was an area where women were eventually extensively employed to fly all makes and marques of planes. This first part of this DVD is a war time movie called ‘Ferry Pilot’. It is ostensibly about the ATA and how it functions on a day to day basis by showing you Ferry Pool 15.

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The ATA was a civilian organisation that coordinated movements of aircraft between maintenance depots, aircraft factories and aerodromes on operational RAF service. It used a structure and ranks that somewhat mirrored the RAF. At the time the film was made, early in the war, the ATA consisted of around 50 pilots who were dropped around potentially 100 aerodromes via a taxi service of Avro Ansons. Of course, carrying out the more routine and mundane tasks of moving aircraft from one facility to another meant operational RAF personnel could then be focused on fighting the war. Some of the ATA pilots who came from all walks of life could expertly fly up to 80 different types of aircraft…from single engine fighters to four engine heavy bombers.

Women’s involvement in the ATA was initially difficult. For example, despite having over 2000 hours as a commercial pilot, trail blazers such as Pauline Gower were relegated to flying Tiger Moths to Scotland in the depths of the bitter winter of 1939-40. It wasn’t until after the BoB that women began flying Spitfires and pretty much anything else with wings and an engine. Women like Diana Barnato-Walker impressed even the most hard-bitten Spitfire aces with their sheer flying prowess and navigational skill in weather that had grounded the RAF on many occasions.

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She was the first woman to fly across the channel during the war. She flew her Spitfire to Brussels with her husband WNGCDR Derek Walker following close behind…also in a Spitfire. In the last months of the war she even flew Meteor jets into Germany. Even in 1963 she managed to score a drive in an E.E Lightning fighter and blasted her way to Mach 1.65.

The film ‘Ferry Pilot’ itself is interesting and at times very funny. I found it historically interesting from the social and also the organisational perspective. After all, the behind the scenes work for those at the sharp end is worth knowing. One of the best features is some awesome stunting of a Spitfire by Alex Henshaw which stops the crowd at an aerodrome. The effect of no fuel injection on the Merlin is very apparent as he flys inverted quite a lot. The engine hardly runs at all. I’d imagine it must have been a very significant handicap during combat…perhaps more so than has ever been really emphasised. When inverted for even any length of time that Merlin runs like an absolute dog.

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The second part of the DVD is a film called the Big Pack. It focuses on the efforts of Maintenance Command when they prepare stores and conversions for MkII Hurricanes prior to the amphibious assault landings in Algiers. It’s fascinating from many perspectives and hey…Loggies have to have their bit of glory too I suppose.

The acting and the characters are delightfully cartoonish and clearly seem to love being in the film. It must have been a lot of fun making it because I had lots of laughs watching it. The RAF film production unit moves to various logistic centres around the country as the clock ticks away to H hour. Bombs from 500lb to Cookies are loaded in munitions trains from underground bunkers, stores of aircraft parts and wings, tropical hats, aircraft tyres galore are all loaded and packed.

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Overall it’s an interesting collection of classic movies on the one DVD. Having a particular interest of the role women can play in combat, and that the women ATA pilots flew all the hottest planes made it appeal to me especially. It was also quite an educational look at the chain of logistic efforts made behind the scenes for a major operation. Having been made during the war it also capture faithfully the vehicles, people and environment of the time…something even the most detailed re-creation just can’t hope to do. Overall, I’d say it’s well worth a look but I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy it as a potential source of reference material.

Recommended in that context. Enjoy the screenies.

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© Matt Gannon 2008

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This review was published on Saturday, July 02 2011; Last modified on Wednesday, May 18 2016