ATA Pilot from Chambersburg PA – Part Two

The ATA was formed shortly before the war was declared by Gerard d’Erlanger, the Director of British Airways. He foresaw that the war would make it impossible for commercial and civilian pilots to continue flying due to air travel restrictions and the inability of older and less able pilots to join the RAF. He realized these experienced pilots could serve their country by providing other air transportation services. By the time war was started in September of 1939 they had begun forming the organization and selecting pilots.

The war heated up quickly and the demand for ATA pilots increased. There were not enough men to fly all of the ferry trips and they decided to allow women to fly. There is a great website dedicated to the memory of the women who flew for the ATA called British Air Transport Auxiliary . It’s focus is on the female pilots but includes a lot of background information on the services and sacrifices these pilots made. There is also an excellent book by one of the pilots, Lettice Curtis that gives a lot of details of the day to day lives of the pilots.

The ferry pilots were assigned to pools located near the factory they would be ferrying planes from. Bill would have been assigned to one of these pools and most likely moved from one to another as needed. On the day of his accident, February 8, 1942, he was flying from Sherburn-in-Elmet Airfield in North Yorkshire, where there was an aircraft production factory. His destination was Kirkbride in Cumberland. He was flying alone in an Avro Anson.

We know from existing accident reports that Bill crashed en route at Buckles Heath, South Stainmore near Kirby Stephen in Cumbria at about 2:30 p.m. It is noted that the aircraft was flying over the Pennines in bad weather and collided with the ground due to poor visibility. The Pennines are less than 3000 feet in altitude and are more like large hills or high ground known as fells rather that what we would consider mountains. Lettice Curtis wrote about visibility problems when flying in her autobiography. She wrote that they relied entirely on maps for navigation and coal smoke from factories and home heating that turned haze to fog made for perpetually bad visibility in Winter. She noted that cloud would form above the fog making matters worse. They were prohibited from “flying over the top” and were encouraged to keep sight of the ground at all times. She said they needed to know every detail of the area so they could pinpoint their location in reference to the airfield with a glance at a road or factory along the way. These pilots also flew without radio communication. In other words, they were totally reliant on what they could see.

From what we know about the difficulty they had with navigation in the difficult weather conditions in the area we can understand how Bill’s crash may have occurred.  He had been flying with the ATA for nearly two years by that point. Hardly a novice since we know he held a pilot’s license in the U.S. as early as April 1940. In fact his obituary noted that his accident occurred on the eve of his discharge. Bill reportedly did not survive the crash and the plane was damaged beyond repair. He was buried with full military honors at Atrincham Bowden and Hale Cemetery in Manchester England. At the time of his death they would have been unable to have his body shipped home. His parents did receive his personal effects and

Bill was one of 154 American men who served in the ATA and he joined before the U.S. entered the war. They would not be violating neutrality laws flying for a civilian organization. While it is incredibly sad that he died at such a young age we know that he died doing what he loved and always aspired to do. I don’t know if his parents ever traveled to England to visit his grave but I hope they did. His schoolmate Raymond Hoover apparently survived the war. His obituary tells us he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force for a little over a year piloting planes between Canada and England.

I think of Bill when I pass the old high school and the house he grew up in and it makes me happy to think that someone else might read these brief notes on his short life. My friend, the researcher in England who started all this asked me if there was a plaque or anything else in Chambersburg that honored his memory and service. Sadly there is not. I provided the obituary for him on Find A Grave and asked that his parents be connected to him and this has been completed. Where his hometown has not memorialized him the internet has given me the ability to keep his memory alive in a different way. Please stop by his memorial and leave a note.

First Officer William Johnston Elliott 18 Apr 1917 – 8 Feb 1942

A photo from a collage in his senior yearbook.

A photo from a collage in his senior yearbook.


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.

The Need to Know and Share

I don’t think I have found a subject I am not interested in learning more about. History is my favorite subject to investigate and dive into and it’s hard to find something without a history. I don’t even need to be directly connected to the event, person or topic for it to interest me. I’ve followed the trail of an old marriage certificate, a letter, a newspaper story, a WWII missing crew report, a song, as well as my own genealogy and that of others.

One thing will often lead to another and before you know it I’m so deep into the rabbit hole that I find it hard to get back out. Most of the time I never get to the absolute end of the path I’m led down but I learn a lot along the way and a lot of it is worth sharing.

Everyone has a story and so often the only ones that get told are those that had the family with the means to record them and share them. For every story we hear there are countless others that never get told. I am mostly interested in these stories. They should be told.