By Andrew A. Rooney
Stars and Stripes Staff Writer
Dropping people at LaGuardia 30 minutes from a steak dinner is the only thing a civilian airline in the States has done that the Air Transport Group operating over the British Isles hasn't done more of in the last year.
Aerial Freight Trains
The group is an aerial carry-all which does the transport work in England, Scotland and Ireland. It carries mail, ferries combat planes, hauls cargo and passengers (VIP, the ATG men call them, meaning Very Important People).
When pilots talk about jobs they've done, they can tell you about Mrs. Roosevelt, whom they carried all over the British Isles, or about the 5,000 pounds of bomb fuses they rushed to half a dozen bomber fields the night before a mission. A major supply was held up en route here, and when the fuses arrived many bomber bases were so short that a rush call was put out. The transport group delivered.
Another time 27 VIP were about ready to board a C47 in Northern Ireland. A lieutenant ran out with a slip of paper in his hand. "Three of you will have to come off the loading list," he said curtly and read off the names of the lowest-priority passengers. The lieutenant gave no explanation, but in a few minutes two privates and a corporal walked out carrying several foot-square boxes, blood plasma badly needed at a station hospital. The plasma ranked two majors and a captain.
The Air Transport Group operates with seven C47s, a fleet of Lockheed Hudsons, three revamped Fortresses and a flock of Cessnas, Fairchilds and Piper Cubs. They count among their VIP, aside from Mrs. R, Gens. Eisenhower, Arnold, Devers, Andrews, Eaker and every other general who ever worked in the ETO.
The ranks of civilians they have flown are officials like Henry L. Stimson, Frank Knox, writers such as John Steinbeck and Raymond Clapper, and for glamour, Carole Landis, Yvette and Francis Langford.
Since last August ATG has carried 16,747 VIP almost four million passenger miles -- passenger miles being an airline figure meaning miles traveled times passengers carried. The outfit has hauled four million pounds of freight, and the fliers are among the few people here who get enough mail to weigh instead of count. They have carted 273,522 pounds of mail, much of it V-mail, around the British Isles since last summer.
Units of the command are spread all over the United Kingdom, and the group is split into several squadrons, each of which performs a specialized job. It is the function of one squadron to carry all passengers and freight. They operate with planes the Army calls C47s or C53s. A regular shuttle service is scheduled between five points in the United Kingdom and, weather permitting, they fly daily.
The transport's passenger lists and freight pile up so fast that pilots can hardly afford to miss a day's run ; consequently, they fly in weather that keeps combat planes on the ground. The printed motto tacked up in the through-these-portals spot in one transport field office reads: "If there is weather, we fly."
A second of the group's squadrons has a large pool of pilots from which it draws for ferrying work. The official title of the group has been changed from "Ferry and Transport" to simply "Air Transport," and one of its main functions is still to get combat planes from points of entry in the British Isles to operational bases.
"Say you got 50 P47s up there somewhere," one of them explained. "They pile 50 of us into a Fort called Slap Happy we got fixed up to carry that many -- its illegal -- and take us up there. We fly the P47s back down here to this modification center and another 50 planes we brought down maybe the week before are ready to go. We get out of the first 50 planes, jump into the 50 waiting for us and take them to the combat groups they've been assigned to. Then Slap Happy picks us up and we start all over again."
The transport group operates almost independently. Col. Leslie P. Arnold is the head man. Arnold, whose home is in Englewood, N.J., has a background which reads right for the kind of job he has and the kind of men he commands. The pilots under him are a heterogeneous collection of men who have done a lot of flying in their lives. Some of them are former flying-circus men. Lately, pilots who have completed an operational tour as bomber pilots have been assigned to the transport group, and a large number of them are RAF, RCAF and other Allied air forces transferees.
Arnold fits as their head man. He was in the Air Corps in the Rickenbacker-LaFayette Escadrille era of the last war and stayed with it for a few years after the Armistice. In 1924 he was aboard one of the six Army planes which made the first round-the-world flight. Shortly after the aerial globe trot, Arnold retired from active service and became vice-president for Eddie Rickenbacker in the Eastern Airline Co. He was recommissioned as a lieutenant colonel in 1942 and has been in air-transport work since.
The most fantastic flying career in his command belongs to a former 21-year-old general in the Mexican Air Force named Ira L. Sullivan, flying today as a first lieutenant, with bars instead of stars. Sullivan made his first solo flight when he was 12. He gave up barnstorming and aerial circus work in 1937 and at the request of the Mexican government went down there to help train a proposed Mexican air force. Quicker than you can say Pfc. Jack Robinson, Mexico made him a general. When the Spanish revolution was at its height in 1938 he packed his bags, and after a brief stopover at his home in Waco, Tex., left for Spain. When that war ended, he still wanted more and came to England and joined the RAF. With Bomber Command he flew Lancasters on five trips to Germany before he transferred to U.S. forces in 1942. In the early months of that year he flew 15 operational sorties with an anti-U-boat outfit working out of England at the time.
Second-ranking Air Transport character is 1/Lt. Roy S. Moore. He is the artist who, as a civilian, dreamed up the man in the glamorous purple underwear known to all Superman fans as The Phantom. Moore's greatest creation of the war is a caricature of his CO in The Phantom's garb.
Typical of the men with RAF backgrounds in the group is 2/Lt. Alvin R. New, of Frankfort, Ky., who finished 17 missions with the RAF in Bostons and Beaufighters before switching to the USAAF and air-transport work.
Most of the men taken off combat and assigned to the transport group are only fairly happy about it. Some of them, 1/Lt. Roy Ellis-Brown, of Hamilton, Mass., for example, have had their full share of combat work in this war. Brown was one of the first Americans to take part in a raid on Berlin. He completed 54 trips with the RAF in Lancasters and Stirlings before he transferred to the USAAF.
There is one thing that people who work for the Air Transport Group in England like to make clear. They are not the ATC (Air Transport Command) and have no connection with same. ATC is a worldwide organization governed by the Army but with a good number of civilians working for it. Many of the civilians are pilots who for one reason or another were not eligible for the Army. ATC brings trans-Atlantic passengers into the British Isles and takes them out again, but once inside the U.K. passengers are the Air Transport Group's worry. Recently ATC has established its own shuttle service into London.
Slowly the transport group is trying to ease the airline "luxury" touch into passenger planes, which at the moment are pretty bare. Passengers sit in metal-bucket seats lined along the sides of the ship. The group plans to equip its ships with regular and comfortable seats, adding other facilities, such as magazine racks. Culminating luxury probably will be WAC hostesses.