ATA Pilot from Chambersburg PA – Part One

In March of 2013 the Public Opinion newspaper posted a request for information on their Facebook page. Someone researching WWII era plane crashes near his home in England was looking for information on one of the pilots who was involved in a crash. He had the name of the pilot and his hometown and hoped to get more information on the crash from family members and a photo of the pilot for his book.

The Chambersburg pilot’s name was William Johnston Elliott and he only had his death date. After a search of the 1930 census in Chambersburg I found a possible matching family which led me to three of their burials in Harbaugh Church Cemetery. William was not there. Dead end for now. No pun intended.

Another local resident responding to the researcher verified my assumption and also told him that William had only one brother who died unmarried and that there were no living relatives. He also indicated that the brother, Jack, left his personal effects to the resident’s father who was deceased and that coincidentally he himself had purchased an old yearbook that belonged to William. He mentioned that one the schoolmates who signed his yearbook had drawn an airplane and described it this way, “The odd thing is that Bill must have announced to his buddies that he was planning to fly, because one of them signed the yearbook by drawing a little picture of a plane in the process of augering in and crashing, with some boyish caption that I can’t remember.”

In my later findings it became apparent that William liked to be called Bill so I’ll use that for the rest of this story. I first found Bill on an incoming passenger list for the Canadian Pacific steamship line. He had embarked from St. John New Brunswick and arrived in Liverpool on 18 March 1941 with Raymond Hoover, another Chambersburg man, along with two others in the care of the Minister of Aircraft Production, London. I later learned that Raymond Hoover attended Chambersburg High School with Bill but graduated a year earlier.

Bill grew up in Chambersburg very close to the hospital and not too far from where the high school was located at the time. The house is still there and probably hasn’t changed much. I imagine a young man would have walked to school in the 1930’s.  In 1931 it was a brand new building built on the location of the old school and Bill would have been in one of the first classes to attend the new state of the art high school. The building he attended now stands empty and is a shell of it’s former self.  A new high school was built a few blocks away that has also been recently upgraded and enlarged. Time marches on.

W. J. Elliott Science Club CASHS 1934In high school Bill was in the Science Club and appears in their group photos. In his senior profile he give his ambition; To be a “real” aviator. His hobby was building model airplanes.

W J Elliott Sr Photo CASHS 1935

In the 1934 yearbook there was an ad for flying lessons at a small local airport called Sunset Airport. This no doubt fueled a young boys dreams for his future career. Bill graduated in 1935 and the next we hear from him is in a news article from April 1940 telling us he is a 22 year old census taker and has an unusual method for getting around.

“Census Taker Flies to Work, Chambersburg, April 11 – Bill Elliott probably established a record among the nation’s 140,000 census takers Wednesday when thirteen minutes after leaving Chambersburg he was ringing doorbells in Mont Alto, ten miles away. The 22 year old enumerator didn’t violate Pennsylvania’s automobile speed law of fifty miles an hour to accomplish the feat. He simply went by airplane. Bill, whose more formal name is William J. Elliott and who holds a commercial pilot’s license, doesn’t have an automobile. Anxious to finish enumerating the town by Saturday of this week, he decided that rather then wait for the Mont Alto bus, which leaves Chambersburg at 9:40 a.m. he would make the trip by plane. Accompanied by George Cook, Jr., manager of the Sunset airport, north of Chambersburg. Elliott hopped off from the field there shortly before 9 o’clock Wednesday morning and eight minutes later landed the plane in a pasture along the Fayetteville Rd. in Mont Alto. Cook returned the plane to Chambersburg. Bill was seen off on his novel flight by his supervisor, Norland H. Martin, assistant supervisor  of the Franklin-Adams-York census district.”- The Gettysburg Times, 11 Apr 1940, page eight.

Eleven months later Bill was arriving in London as a member of the Air Transport Auxilliary. A young man with aspirations of a career as a pilot must have seen this as a golden opportunity. Since the U.S. had not yet entered the war he had to travel to Canada and join a civilian organization that was employing pilots to work with RAF ferry pools transporting aircraft. The ATA had taken over all of this ferry transport by August of 1941.

The Air Transport Auxilliary deserves a closer look and I will address this in my next post along with the conclusion of Bill’s story.


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