WWII FLIERS LIVED UNDER THE RADAR
Atlanta filmmaker uncovers intrepid heroes — including his father
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Something from World War II? Young William asked his mom if they had anything he could take to class as part of a history project.
She rummaged about and came up with a photograph that her husband, William’s dad, had from the war. It was a black-and-white image featuring a jowly gent. His eyes were stormy; his eyebrows, storm clouds. It was a famous face that had stared down a dictator and rallied a nation.
Young William took it to class the next day, where an astounded teacher stared at the artifact and read the inscription:
“To Bill VanDerKloot, my pilot, Winston Churchill.”
Was his father British? she asked. Well, no, said young William. A sixth-grader, he’d heard his dad’s stories about flying Churchill as part of a secret operation. But his teacher’s reaction prompted him to reconsider the role the elder VanDerKloot had played in the war.
“That was the first inkling I had of the bigger story,” said Atlanta resident William VanDerKloot.
The story is bigger now, and airing on Georgia Public Broadcasting on Jan. 25, repeating on Jan. 28, 29 and 31. “Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of the RAF Ferry Command” details a little-known operation that brought together daring people answering a dangerous challenge.
During the war, they piloted American-built airplanes from Gander, Newfoundland, flying over the North Atlantic’s restless surface. The airplanes lacked armaments or radio; they traveled in silence, vulnerable. Some vanished, lost in the ocean’s cold depths. Many more reached England, where they helped repel an unprecedented assault from Germany’s Luftwaffe.
It was a civilian effort, attracting pilots from as far away as Australia. They were commercial pilots, stunt pilots, crop dusters, all lured by extremely good pay. A pilot made $1,000 a month, a stunning sum six decades ago.
One was a commercial pilot from Illinois, whose son has made a film that is part homage, part history.
A dream come true
The son, William VanDerKloot, 56, is founder of VanDerKloot Film & Television. The film and production company works in a converted warehouse not far from Little Five Points. The firm has credits ranging from “It’s a Mean Old World,” a 1978 blues documentary on Pearly Brown, to 1987’s “Dead Aim,” an independent film starring Ed Marinaro as an Atlanta cop tracking the killer of four exotic dancers. For local consumption, it produced “Cumberland: An Island in Time,” a documentary detailing the history of the island off Georgia’s coast.
VanDerKloot also has produced shows aimed at children —- “The Big Train Trip,” “The Big Hotel,” “The Big Air Show,” and more. Along the way, he’s picked up plaudits: several CINE Golden Awards, recognizing exemplary video and film work; Emmys; and Peabodys.
VanDerKloot had long dreamed of a documentary about the Ferry Command, which debuted in 1940, before America entered the war. In 1990, he shopped around the idea for a film, but got no serious offers. That year he also interviewed his father, who’d retired to Florida after an aviation career. The elder VanDerKloot died in 2000.
“Like a lot of that generation, my dad didn’t talk about the war that much,” he said. But what his father said intrigued the son: tales of celestial navigation, clandestine meetings with VIPs, gatherings at bars to take an inventory of who’d not come back.
In 2000, the younger VanDerKloot learned that Ferry Command pilots were meeting for a 60th anniversary at the old airfield in Gander. Knowing he’d never again have that many pilots in one place, VanDerKloot hustled north. Those interviews gave his dream shape, and some real substance. A lot of those long-ago fliers, he said, shot 16-mm film during the war, and brought it with them. Those grainy images pop up throughout the film.
He also learned more about the flight that soared in his family’s history: the 1942 London-Gibraltar-Cairo-Tehran-Moscow trip. Summoned to see Churchill in the middle of the night, the pilot learned that he would ferry the prime minister on a secret trip that covered 15,000 miles.
VanDerKloot flew Churchill for three years. In 1945, he returned to America and civilian life.
His deeds followed him. A commercial pilot again, VanDerKloot flew to Oklahoma to pick up a corporate jet. There, he met another pilot, and, out of professional courtesy, let the man look at the jet. The flier, VanDerKloot noticed, had a German accent. The American introduced himself, and the other man started.
“VanDerKloot?” he asked. The German told his host that he was a former pilot with the Luftwaffe, and recognized the name of Churchill’s pilot. “It was my duty to shoot you down,” he said.
Against all odds
The filmmaker got various grants to fund the project, which he also helped bankroll. American Public Television is the syndicator, and WGBH in Boston is its distributor. “Silent Sky” has aired across the country, and has met with receptive audiences, said film promoter Nimmi Singh.
“World War II is a pretty popular topic,” said Singh, based in Portland, Ore. “A lot of stations have picked it up.”
The film opens with a long shot of heaving waves —- the North Atlantic Ocean, inhospitable, gray, deadly cold. Moments later, an airplane passes by, getting smaller in the distance. Six others trail it. They are computer-generated images of Lockheed Hudsons, the first planes the command delivered in 1940.
Against all odds the planes made it, proving it was possible to traverse the unfriendly ocean and keep Great Britain in a fight for survival.
In time, the pilots would fly an array of planes to the United Kingdom and beyond. The command delivered more than 10,000 aircraft. It came at a cost of human life, too: More than 500 died delivering airplanes across the globe. The command also expanded its duties to fly VIPs, which is how an American civilian came to fly one of the world’s great men over some of the most disputed airspace anywhere.
It’s also how a sixth-grader came to hold a photo of Churchill, and to make a movie about his dad, the war, and the people who risked all.
“Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of the RAF Ferry Command” airs Jan. 25 at 7 p.m., Jan. 28 at 1 a.m., Jan. 29 at 9 p.m. and Jan. 31 at 2 a.m. on GPB.