Saturday, 1 August 2020

Weekend: NCO Pilots in the RAF

The other day, somewhat en passant, a BTL comment was made on the surprise expressed by a senior America officer during WW2 that NCOs could be pilots in the RAF.  & I said I would post on the subject.

Well, it's a fact.  Most unusually for western airforces, the RAF - and Commonwealth airforces also - had sergeant-pilots up until the early '50s.   They were always in the minority, right from the start in the RFC in WW1.  However, such was the attrition in that earlier conflict that the initial requirement, of being a jolly good chap, on horseback and with tennis raquet, had to be waived.  (The same was true for Observers: initially the RFC used only expert Artillery spotters, all officers - but that supply-line ran dry quite quickly.  Another subject for a future post ...)  

There were "flying sergeants" in the USAAF into the 1930s, and just a few into the years beyond the war - that US officer wasn't exactly correct that there were no NCO pilots in his own service.  But by WW2 in the USAAF, and later, the USAF, almost all pilots were either commissioned officers or a special grade of warrant officer.  But the RAF sergeant-pilot survived in relatively large numbers, if not in proportion, into WW2 and beyond.

The legend we're invited to accept is that all ranks mucked in together as equals in those Battle-of-Britain Nissen huts.  Certainly, there's a strong strand of informality in the RAF which amazes brown jobs like myself (the Navy will never have anything to do with the RAF, but they'd be pretty shocked, too) - officers and NCOs being on first-name terms.  (I have encountered this right up to 1-star level, and all I can say is:  it's a different culture.  At Sandhurst we were taught: being 'one of the lads' is only a short step away from being 'just one of the lads'.) 

That's the legend.  In practise you can find evidence of things being rather different.  A couple of years ago I ran into an old boy who'd been a Spitfire pilot from around 1942, initially as a sergeant.  Although he was commissioned a couple of years later, and ended the war a Flight Lieutenant, his bitterness at what he considered unfair treatment of the NCO pilots was undiminished by the passage of 75 years.  He cited in detail the case of an officer who'd been awarded a DSO for a daring mission that was no more meritorious than several missions of his own - and he hadn't even been given the DFM ...   

To hear him tell it, although everyone shared the same crew-room before missions, and slap-up tea with extra jam on return, then it was the bus to the Sergeants' Mess, and no fraternising at weekends or off-duty in the pub.  (There's plenty of anecdotal evidence, BTW, that this last bit wasn't universally the case at all.)  Oh, he is a bitter man - even though he did get commissioned.  

Maybe it was just him?  Except ... a short while ago I was assisting with research into the case of an RAF WW2 Typhoon pilot - another sergeant pilot - whose grave, unusually, was at the roadside in a village in northern France, instead of on a CWGC site as would normally be the case.  The story was, he died after being shot down on the outskirts of the village: the mayor pleaded with the Germans for his body (and, interestingly, the propeller, which forms a headstone!) and the Germans agreed.  So there he lies.  

Looking into this most unusual arrangement, I came across a similar case of a Canadian pilot, likewise interred sur seul in France, near to where he fell.  This chap was also an NCO (a Flight Sergeant); and the paperwork showed that he was commissioned posthumously.  Initially I though that maybe his promotion had already been in the works; but it turned out that it was the habit (perhaps as an outright matter of policy, though I never established as much as that) of Commonwealth air forces - Canadian, Australian, NZ - to do this for their fallen NCO pilots.  Not least, their widows got a much better pension.  And in their scheme of things, all NCO pilots got commissioned eventually anyway.

This was a matter of bitter controversy, since the RAF had no such intention - but of course RAF NCOs inevitably knew all about what happened elsewhere.  The RAF's line was: we award commissions, not only for being able to do the job, but for displaying Leadership as well.   Many NCOs, however, were convinced it was a class thing.

So there you have it.  Maybe someone's written a book or a doctoral thesis on all this: but if so, I never found it.  By way of a postscript:  the RAF has for many years now been officer-only as regards pilots (and I'm guessing most other airforces too); and airforce-wise, there's an end to the matter.  However, in the more stiffly formal, but in some ways more meritocratic British Army, 'even' corporals can be helicopter pilots!



E-K said...

And I should imagine a helicopter requires at least as much aptitude to fly.

James Higham said...

Most interesting - there on merit alone?

Elby the Beserk said...

"h the Germans for his body (and, interestingly, the propeller, which forms a headstone!)"

Standard of dead pilots in many Moscow graveyards. Rather fine!

Nick Drew said...

Kev - helicopter requires more ability than conventional flight: three controls in permanent play (rather like playing an organ) as opposed to only two (rather like a piano)

Philip, Charles, Andrew, Wills and Harry may not be the sharpest knives in the emotional-intelligence drawer, but they sure as hell all score highly on motor-control intelligence

only thing more difficult to fly is a Harrier (and that's seriously difficult, crème de la crème)

E-K said...

I would think that the reason behind officer preference is that a fighter-bomber role carries with it far more risk of making a catastrophic diplomatic balls up. WW2 there wasn't any diplomacy to risk.

E-K said...

I should imagine that Charles, Andrew, Wills and Harry were closely supervised.

Philip is a perfectly capable and witty man who would have gone much further outside of Royal marriage. Take of that what you will about the Royal genes.

dearieme said...

"Charles, Andrew, Wills and Harry were closely supervised." I'm not clear what you mean by that.

Old Git Carlisle said...

My first flight was in 1955 at ATC camp in a Varsity the pilot was a WO1 . As a matter of interest my second flip was in a B29 which I value.

After this camp a result of theft of mail I was interviewed by a SIB NCO who was accepted for aircrew but failed officer selection .

I understand that in WW2 an NCO pilot was in charge of aircraft even if supporting crew member was commissioned.

I also understand that in RN and army the senior rank is in charge.

Also there is little comparison between flying a single engined light helicopter and even the next steps up in complexity.

Anonymous said...

There is a very readable book that includes some discussion of this. "The Paladins" by John James, subtitle "A Social History of the RAF up to the outbreak of World War II". In particular Chapter 8, "Officers and Pilots".
From the author biography: "In 1949 he joined what was then called the Air Ministry as a psychologist and stayed with it for 32 years".
abebooks have around 30 copies available.

Nick Drew said...

OGC - @ I also understand that in RN and army the senior rank is in charge

for the army I can say that I was many times in situations where someone has been in charge - formally - who was of a lower rank than myself

being in a helicopter flown by an NCO was one such category: but even more pedestrian and frequent, when firing on the range, the Range Conducting Officer was frequently an SNCO, and as they would never fail to remind everyone "while you are on this range, My Word Is Law!"

dearieme said...

I was put in charge of an undergraduate lab. I assembled the lads and lassies for a briefing just before term began. "I'm in charge" said I. They smiled. "I shall be assisted by my Head of Department and several postgraduate students". They looked slightly puzzled. "That says a helluva lot for the Head of Department". And it did.

patently said...

Nick - if you want to look into this in more detail and feel like some help, it might be fruitful to have a chat to Wg Cdr Gardner (

I (literally) haven't spoken to her since we were in the University Air Squadron together, but since then she has served in the RAF and moved to academia where she is researching early RAF history.