Formed in 1939, the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was the brainchild of Gerard d’Erlanger, one of the founders of British Overseas Airways Corporation, now known as British Airways. Gerard’s plan was for experienced civilian pilots to take over the responsibility of ferrying new aircraft from the factories to front line squadrons to relieve the pressure on the RAF. By 1st May 1940 the ATA had taken over transporting all military aircraft from factories to maintenance units to have guns and accessories installed. On 1st August 1941 the ATA took over all ferrying jobs which included the ferrying damaged aircraft for repair.
On 14th November 1939 Commander Pauline Gower was given the task of organising the women’s section of the ATA. The first eight women pilots were accepted into service on 1st January 1940. They were Joan Hughes, Margaret Cunnison, Mona Friedlander, Rosemary Rees, Marion Wilberforce, Margaret Fairweather, Gabrielle Patterson, and Winifred Crossley Fair.
On 23rd June 1940, Ursula Mary Preston joined the ATA. Born in London on 23rd February 1904 she had 168 hours flying experience when she was cleared for flying duties following a spell with the ATA Training Pool. Posted initially to the female only 15 Ferry Pilots Pool at Hamble, she moved to 6 Ferry Pilots Pool at Radcliffe Hall in Leicestershire in November 1941 where she would be required to ferry larger more powerful aircraft.
On the 11th April 1942 Ursula was tasked to ferry a Blackburn Botha to the recently formed 4 Air Gunners School at RAF Morpeth. As the aircraft flew over Corbridge, on the final leg of the flight, Ursula was unable to maintain height and whilst attempting to make a forced landing in a field, the aircraft crashed in trees at South Clarewood Farm at Halton Shields and Ursula was seriously injured.
Following a refresher, commonplace following an accident, Ursula returned to flying on 15th June 1942 with a glowing report from her commanding officer, Peter Mursell, who recorded:
“Her accident does not seem to have affected her confidence or ability at all. Is wisely going slow on fresh types. An excellent officer.”
Ursula would continue to serve with the ATA until October 1943, when following her marriage to a fellow ATA Officer, she resigned her commission.
By the end of the war, the ATA would have ferried over 309,000 aircraft.