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Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of RAF Ferry Command, $24.95

In mid-1940, Britain desperately needed aircraft. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt made American warplanes available to the British through Lend-Lease, shipping those planes across the Atlantic Ocean involved a long and dangerous voyage. The solution conjured up by British Minister for Aircraft Production Max Aitken was no less hazardous: He proposed that the aircraft be flown directly from Canada to England. This involved installing an extra fuel tank in airplanes not designed for transoceanic flight and flying them 2,000 miles, including 15 hours navigating by the stars (if the cloud cover allowed) over open waters in which a downed pilot could die in minutes—in the summertime. Flown by civilian volunteers, since the RAF initially dismissed the plan as impossible, the first batch of Lockheed Hudsons set out in November 1940, reaching their destination against daunting odds.

Adventurous airmen of Canadian, American and various other nationalities flew this grueling route until the RAF formally took over the program under the designation of Ferry Command. One of the U.S. civilians, Bill VanDerKloot, became the pilot for Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a distinction that led his son, film director-producer William VanDerKloot, to produce a documentary on RAF Ferry Command’s little-known history.

Released for television by American Public Broadcasting on November 1, 2008, Flying the Secret Sky interweaves rare footage of a deliberately unpublicized operation, stock footage of the aircraft types Ferry Command flew and CGI reconstructions of their flights with firsthand accounts by surviving airmen. The result: a well-paced “now-it-can-be-told” narrative of how Lend-Lease aircraft reached Britain when, to coin a phrase, “it absolutely, positively had to get there on time”—and how the stormy Atlantic was conquered for the regular airline flights to come.


Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here