Per Ardua ad Astra - Training for Aircrew in WWII

Per Ardua ad Astra -- roughly translatable as through hardship to the stars -- is the motto of the RAF and nowhere does it apply quite so perfectly as to the great difficulties encountered by individuals seeking to fly in any capacity with the RAF. Winning the aircrew brevet was never easy; earning pilots wings even more difficult and time consuming. 


Only one in ten of the men who served in the RAF during WWII actually flew. In other words, it took nine men to keep one man in the air. An estimated one third of the men on the ground would have liked to be flying, but mostly due to inadequate education failed to be accepted for aircrew training. Of those accepted for aircrew training, many "washed out" before qualifying. This was particularly pronounced among fledgling pilots, less than half of whom actually obtained their wings. 

Flying training in the RAF in WWII took as little as six months in 1940 but by the end of the war was taking as much as two and a half years. Much of that time was, unfortunately, spent cooling one's heels while awaiting a place in a training establishment, getting ground training in RAF culture, procedures etc. or traveling by slow boat to and from a training station in, say, South Africa, Canada or the U.S. Nevertheless, flying training nevertheless occurred in seven stages which cumulatively took roughly 70 weeks. Training required a certain number of hours to be flown or specific standards to be met, both of which were variable depending on the aptitude of the cadet -- and the weather. Poor weather conditions that grounded aircraft could result in a course being extended by many days or even weeks.

The stages of pilot training went by different names in the course of the war, but generally involved the following stages. First, "ab initio" or Initial training in which a pilot candidate was expected to solo on a small, light biplane after between 8 and 12 hours of flying, something that (depending on the weather) could take two to three weeks. Roughly eight weeks of "Elementary Training" followed by "Primary Training" each of which occupied about ten weeks, and finally "Service Training" which would last about twenty weeks. During these stages navigation, night flying, instrument flying, and aerobatics were gradually introduced, all on single engine aircraft. At each stage written exams as well as flying exams had to be passed to avoid being washed out. Only after between 200 and 300 hours of flying hours were cadets expected to take the "wings exam" which entitled those who passed to wear pilot's wings. 

It is notable that from the start of the war until December 1942 (when the USAAF needed all the available flight training capacity for its own training program) the RAF regularly sent entire classes of trainee pilots to elementary, primary and advanced — but not operational — flying training in the United States. The RAF also had arrangements with the Royal Canadian Air Force and with South Africa, Rhodesia and Australia for similar training in their home countries. The great advantage of flying training in the United States was that large parts of the Southwest (Southern California and Texas particularly) had stable, warm weather that increased the number of hours when fields were open for flying. The same was true of South Africa and Rhodesia. More opportunities to fly meant a trainee could more rapidly attain the necessary proficiency and complete a course. At its peak, the RAF had 333 affiliated training establishments outside of the UK for training prospective aircrew. Altogether more than 300,000 men trained in one of these associated schools.

Recruits who washed out of pilot training, were usually re-mustered to train as navigators or bomb-aimers, signalers or air gunners. Some men were re-mustered more than once. Navigator training was nearly as rigorous, lengthy and difficult as pilot training. Signalers and bomb aimers also required high levels of specialist training on the ever evolving technological equipment associated with their trades. While air gunners spent the least amount of time in training (roughly six months), flight engineers arguably had the longest training of all, although not necessarily after mustering for aircrew. The vast majority of flight engineers were former ground crew who had undergone extensive training as aircraft mechanics (fitters and riggers) before volunteering for aircrew. Pre-war ground crew had spent as much as three years in training as Halton apprentices, for example. During the war, Britain did not have the luxury to train for so long, but ground crew spent between one year and eighteen months obtaining the necessary qualifications. The flight engineer course as such, however, lasted roughly ten months including time in an aircraft factory making the engines the flight engineers would be responsible for as aircrew.

Upon obtaining the coveted air crew brevet in whatever trade, roughly one-third of the trainees were promoted to Pilot Officer -- regardless of trade -- and the remainder were promoted to Sergeant, but training was not over. After qualifying in their respective specialty, aircrew still had to undergo operational training on service aircraft. 

Pilots first underwent "Advanced Training" on twin-engine training aircraft, a course lasting roughly six weeks for those destined for fighters and eight weeks for those destined for bombers.  Navigators on the other hand were sent to training units in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK to adjust to navigating in bad and unpredictable weather. After completing this additional training, pilots and navigators advanced to Operational Training Units where they learned to fly military aircraft. For bomber pilots this usually meant mastering the small and medium bombers that had been in service during the first years of the war, the Wellington and Whitney. After twelve weeks with these aircraft learning more about operational procedures as well as the aircraft themselves, pilots finally went on to the final step in training: a Heavy Conversion Unit. Here they learned to fly the four-engine heavy bombers, the Sterling, Halifax or Lancaster. This final stage of training lasted between four and six weeks. 

Training was not only time consuming it was dangerous. By the end of the war, over 8,000 men training for Bomber Command alone had been killed in training accidents and an additional 4,200 had been seriously injured. Fully 15 percent of all crashes occurred during training. Sobering as this must have been for the participants, it had no apparent impact on the willingness of young men to volunteer. To the very end of the war, the RAF had more volunteers for aircrew than they could actually train or use.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, 

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at:







"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at:

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