Article: The Forgotten Pilots

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    March, 1976, Canadian Aviation
    by Neil MacDougall

    It’s been 35 years since the British Government found that civilians, many of them disabled or too old for combat duty, could ferry the most sophisticated warplanes from the factories to the air bases. Not a few of these pilots of the little-known Air Transport Auxiliary were Canadians, and women, like Marion Orr.

    When Marion learned to fly in 1939, flight tests were given by a stern Department of Transport inspector, not by an approachable flying club instructor. During her spin test, the engine of Marion’s Cub stopped. She made a dead-stick landing in front of the inspector, who allowed that it had been an acceptable performance.

    She instructed at Toronto’s Barker Field—since overrun by housing—and then worked in the Control tower of the civilian-operated flying training school at Golderich, Ontario. Then, with 400 hours in her logbook, she signed up at Dorval, Quebec.

    The Harvard was the first airplane Marion had flown with a constant-speed propeller and retractable gear. Its approach speed was as fast as the cruise speed of what she’d been flying previously. In England, she was given quick training in Magisters and Tiger Moths. Later, she would rate the Tiger as the trickiest of the 65 types she flew, more difficult than the Beaufighter or the 2,180 hp Tempest.

    Since pilots couldn’t be given courses in every type of aircraft, the 70 most common types were divided into six classes. Nothing special about that—until it was decided that if pilots were given flying training on one aircraft of each class, they should without further tuition be able to fly all other types in the class. How’s that for having confidence in people? The system worked because each pilot had a superlative Blue Book developed by ex-BOAC staff. Crammed into 4×6-inch sheets were vital actions and crucial advice on more than 70 types.

    Marion remembers sitting in the cockpit of a Spitfire reading the Blue Book after the instructor said, “You’re on your own.” Marion explains, “you just studied the book, started up and hoped for the best. We had been cautioned about overheating on the ground, so I hurried out. On take-off I was pressed so hard into the seat I couldn’t move. I was at four thousand feet before I knew it.”

    There was no time for practise or aerobatics. Just go from A to B and don’t bend the machine. Even so, Joan Hughes, a diminutive British girl, once impressed Avro workers by looping a 50-ton Lancaster over the factory.

    All flying was by Visual Flight Rules, however, in priority cases pilots were allowed to go when they liked. Of such a day, Miss Lettice Curtis writes in her fascinating description of the life of the ferry pilots, The Forgotten Pilots, “All (the pilots) had frightened themselves in a way that is known only to those who, of their own free will, pit their lives against the clearness of their thinking. And there can be few things more frightening than finding oneself committed to chasing through the sky, in an aeroplane from which the downward view is at the best of times not too hot, pressed on by greyness, knowing that if a reference with the ground is lost even for an instant, one’s chances of a safe return to earth are not worth the proverbial row of beans. Yet such is human judgement that in most cases the balance between ultra caution and undue risk was accurately hit.”

    Each morning the pilots gathered at the ferry pool for chits, which gave aircraft type and destination. Marion always tried to get a Spitfire because she loved its light controls. Pilots weren’t allowed to mark the position of balloons or new airfields on their maps. These positions were on a master map and pilots had to memorize such things before take-off. Once Marion forgot and was shot at as she strayed over a Royal Navy base.

    After her contract was up, Marion Orr returned to Canada and earned a helicopter rating, the 36th woman to do so. She bought Aero Activities and set up a flying school at Maple, northwest of Toronto. She later sold the school and followed her sister to Florida. But she missed flying, and after 10 years she has returned to Canada, regaining her instructor’s rating.

    This article originally appeared in the March, 1973, edition of Canadian Aviation magazine.

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