I have mentioned in The Job To Be Done how often I got “sidetracked” during my research, spending time digging into some arcane subject (like food rationing in wartime Britain, or types of uniforms worn by Bomber Command airmen) that had piqued my interest. One such subject was the autopilot, universally known to aircrew as “George” for some reason, a device almost all RAF aircraft were equipped with.
I was fascinated by the actual technology of the device (in WW2 a brilliant system involving gyroscopes) as well as being intrigued by possibilities of when it would actually be of use! I mean, I could picture its usefulness in peacetime, on a long trans-Atlantic flight perhaps, but in a combat situation....? I will tell three stories that will illustrate the range of uses that “George” was put to...or was allegedly put to I should say...
At one end of the scale is a memory I have of my Dad talking about the autopilot – he was adamant that he never used it. He told me that his attitude was that in the precious few seconds it would take to disengage “George” (assuming you were in the pilot’s seat, never mind in the cockpit....) and take control, he and his crew could be shot out of the sky and killed. Responding to a night fighter attack required instantaneous action. He had a similar attitude towards another “helper” offered, “wakey-wakey” pills, a type of amphetamine tablet handed out to those aircrew who wanted it by the Medical Officer before operations to increase alertness and wakefulness. Dad told me he could never understand how anyone could get sleepy or distracted while every night fighter and flak gun in Europe was trying to kill him.
The second story is on the middle of the scale: one aircrew memoir I read during my research related that the writer’s skipper (pilot) would sometimes engage the autopilot without telling the crew, and then wander through the aircraft front to back, visiting each of his startled crewmates in turn. Plausible I suppose, given the right set of circumstances...
The final story is one that beggars belief in my opinion. In the unpublished memoirs of an RAF tail gunner, shared with me by his daughter, he states that after dropping supplies to the French resistance he and his crew would head their Halifax bomber back to their base in North Africa. During the long trip back across the Mediterranean Ocean his pilot would sometimes engage George and they would all take a nap. Perhaps the story got “embellished” over time – I have certainly run across that phenomenon over the years, and likely engaged in it myself on occasion!
I remember a yarn I heard when I was travelling through the U.K. in 1982 that illustrates this. I was travelling by bicycle and had met another young Canadian who was backpacking – we decided to have a pint in the local pub. We were soon joined by what I would have described at the time as an “aging hippie”, an Englishman who regaled us with stories of his National Service days flying as part of a Shackleton (a four-engined maritime patrol aircraft) crew in the RAF.
We were then joined by yet another pony-tailed elder who had overheard our conversation about flying. He too had spent his National Service time with an RAF aircrew in the 60’s. The two “seniors” began swapping stories, and at one point one asked the other “Did you ever let your pilot fly sober?”. The other fellow feigned shock: “God no!....well, actually, we did once, but he nearly killed us, so we gave him a bottle part way through and he was fine after that.”
I remember telling my Dad this story when I got home from Europe – he wouldn’t even dignify the tall tale with a comment, he merely rolled his eyes and shook his head!