An aeroplane is an
immensely complicated piece of technology and the consequences
of an engine or equipment failure could easily be fatal for
the pilot and crew and possibly anyone else unlucky enough
to be caught up in the ensuing crash. Aeroplanes are easily
damaged by hard landings and especially by being riddled with
holes by machine gun bullets or having chunks blown away by
During World War I and World War II combat aircraft required
a lot of time to be maintained, checked, re-armed and re-fuelled.
In war time there is often very little time (if any) to get
this vital work done.To keep a squadron's aircraft airworthy
required a small army of specialists. These became fondly
remembered as Erks. By World War II this included at a minimum:
mechanics to service and repair engines.
armourers to service guns and replenish ammunition.
fitters and riggers to service and repair the air frame,control
systems and instruments.
R/T fitters and electrical artificers to service and
repair the electrical systems and radios.
All were vital in maintaining an aircraft in battle worthy
state and it was by no means a safe business even in peace
time. It was not unknown for unwary crew to walk into spinning
propellers as engines were run up and much of a planes fixtures
and fittings could also be lethal. To name but a few, World
War II fighters contained a potent cocktail of explosive material
including aviation fuel, pressurised oxygen, pressurised glycol,
explosive ammunition and/or bombs and pressurised hydraulic
systems containing hot oils.
During the height of the Battle of Britain the Spitfires
based at RAF Hornchurch were often participating in three
or even four sorties a day during which they were thrown around
the sky to the limits of their airframes and engines. Often
they would return battle damaged. During this difficult period
a few extra minutes servicing an aircraft could make the difference
between it being caught on the ground and a sitting duck during
an air attack or in the air and actively having a crack at
the attackers. Stinting on a service or missing something
vital could, however, effectively sign a pilots death warrant.
On at least 10 occasions during the Battle of Britain, RAF
Hornchurch was subjected to bombing, sometimes two or even
three times on a single day. Throughout these raids RAF Hornchurch
struggled to keep its flightways open and continue to fly
off its aircraft to do battle. The mechanics, artificers,
armourers and riggers worked assiduously throughout these
raids even as the bombs dropped around the dispersals in which
they worked on aircraft requiring re-fuelling, re-arming and
servicing. Essential maintenance, large repairs and vital
tests often had to be undertaken at night in blacked out hangars
in order to have planes ready for action during the day. The
Erks had little rest.
The pilots almost universally had nothing but respect and
admiration for the Erks on whom their own lives relied. Most
built up an easy familiarity with the maintenance crews and
didn't mind too much the inevitable tuts, intakes of breath
and on occasion even jibes should a plane be brought back
with holes in it or, heaven forfend! actually pranged in a
landing accident. For their part the Erks took fierce pride
in their work and the actions of the pilots whose planes they
were responsible for.
By World War II the RAF's Erks were some of the most professional
technicians in the world. Most had passed through specialised
apprenticeships or attended the specialised RAF Technical
College at Halton in Hertfordshire. By the time that they
reached their service squadrons they generally knew intimately
the workings and ways of the aircraft and aircraft systems.
This technical knowledge was usually far in advance of that
known to pilots. Their technical know how was also often put
to use making field alterations to aircraft and to draw up
solutions to technical defects to be incorporated into the
new planes being produced.
It was still the dream of many Erks to become pilots and
in the inter-war years it was by no means unusual. Indeed
their technical knowledge often helped them to become very
good pilots. During the Battle of Britain almost a third of
Britain's fighter pilots were Sergeants, many of whom had
originally served as fitters, riggers and engineers.
With the massive demands for man power required in the fighting
arms of the services during World War II it was soon common
for the Womens Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) to also train and
provide experienced technicians to maintain aircraft. These
women proved to be just as diligent, brave, hard working and
technically capable as the men alongside whom they worked.