The Crew - Flight Engineer

 It took a team to fly a bomber in WWII. Each man aboard had a job to do and veterans stress the degree to which they not only relied on one another but respected one another as professionals. While the pilot was the team captain, his closest assistant in controlling the aircraft was the flight engineer.


Above a flight engineer signals the ground crew to start #3 engine. IWM film material in the public domain.
In early 1942, the RAF concluded that they could not afford to have two pilots aboard an aircraft. It took too long and cost too much to train a pilot (up to two and a half years) to allow half of them to sit around idle during operations in which they might get killed. The second pilot on a bomber was effectively waiting for the first pilot to be killed or too severely injured to fly, but might die in the process himself, without ever contributing to the war effort. The position of "Second Pilot" (or co-pilot in American parlance) was therefore eliminated. 
Yet at roughly the same time that the four-engine "heavy" bombers were coming into service. These complex aircraft required a vast array of instruments to monitor the health of each of the four engines. Critical data such as temperature and oil pressure was displayed in the cockpit via a variety of indicators, dials and warning lights, while switches and levers enabled engines to be shut down or feathered, fires extinguished, wings de-iced and more. There were, in fact, so many dials and switches and levers, that there was no room for all of them on the panel with the flying controls in front of the pilot. Instead, the instruments were fitted into a large panel on the right-hand side of the fuselage. It was physically impossible for pilots to both fly and keep an eye on all these indicators, and so the new aircrew trade of "flight engineer" was born.

Fortunately for the RAF, there was a ready-made pool of talent from which to draw flight engineers, namely the men most intimately familiar with the engines that powered the bombers: the ground crews. As noted earlier in Per Ardua ad Astra, an estimated one third of the men serving on the ground in the RAF would have liked to be flying but failed to qualify. The creation of the air crew trade of flight engineer opened the doors for many eager aircraft mechanics to take to the skies. And they did. 

Flight engineer training per se lasted roughly ten months and included a period working in a factory building one of various engines in service with the RAF. Because flight engineers were not needed on  the twin-engine bombers in which aircrew trained at the Operational Training Units, flight engineers did not join the other trainee aircrew until the latter advanced to the Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU). Flight engineers and mid-upper gunners teamed up at the HCU with a core crew consisting of pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and tail gunner that had formed at the preceding OTU.

The flight engineer's position aboard a bomber was to starboard and slightly behind the pilot.   He worked either standing up or sitting on a small, fold-down seat. When seated for take-off and landing, he could put his hand on the throttles under the pilot's to hold them in place as the pilot put both hands on the control column. He could easily read all the flight instruments spread out before the pilot -- as well as his own panel of dials and indicators over his right shoulder. 
The flight engineer was the crewman physically closest to the pilot, sharing his windows to the world. If the pilot were injured, the flight engineer was the man most likely to see it and the man most likely to be in a position to respond -- including pulling the pilot out of his seat and taking temporary control of the aircraft. 

Some pilots developed very close, trusting relationships with their flight engineers, Flight Lieutenant "Stevie" Stevens recorded in his memoirs that after one very poor flight engineer (who remained nameless in his account) was removed from his crew, he found Eric Blanchard and, in Stevie's words, "it as like a miracle." [Cracknell, Jonny and Adrian Stevens.  Tomorrow May Never Come. Wing Leader Ltd, 2021. 79.] They were to have many adventures together and kept in touch until Blanchard died long after the war.
Because so many flight engineers had come up through the ranks, they tended to be slightly older than the average aircrew. Although less glamorous that pilots, gunners, and bomb aimers, the flight engineers had a vital job to do and like other aircrew enjoyed the general approbation of the public who viewed all aircrew as the sharp end of the spear striking back at Hitler for the damage, destruction and misery he had inflicted on the UK.

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. The flight engineer in Moral Fibre is the oldest member of the crew and called by them "Daddy."

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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  1. It's vey nice that Flight Engineers are now receiving their due, in some small measure.


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