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!