Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of the RAF Ferry Command on PBS World

Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of the RAF Ferry Command on PBS World

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 9:00pm

Pictured: photo taken on November 10, 1940, of DCT Bennett and the 22 original airmen who flew the first flight of seven Hudsons across the north Atlantic.

Photo credit: Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Center Libraries and Archives Canada.

A son follows his father's WWII adventures as Churchill’s Pilot.

Flying the Secret Sky tells a story of passionate risk-taking, of young men braving dangerous flights in primitive aircraft.  These “cowboys of the air” are forgotten heroes of the war, who flew without guns and embodied the improvisational spirit that was key to the Allied victory.  Their story includes the American civilian chosen to fly Winston Churchill to secret wartime meetings during the darkest days of WWII—a story the world never knew, until now.  A film by William VanDerKloot and a presentation of American Public Television, Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of RAF Ferry Command airs Thursday, July 22 at 9 p.m. on PBS World  (cable 524/DT21.2).

Filmmaker William VanDerKlootgrew up hearing his father make occasional references to Sir Winston Churchill around the supper table. It wasn’t until 6th grade, when his class was asked to bring in WWII memorabilia, that he fully understood what his father did during the war.

Says VanDerKloot, “My mother said, why don’t you bring this—and it was a picture of the Prime Minister signed, ‘To Bill VanDerKloot, my pilot, Winston Churchill.’ I brought it into class and the teacher was astounded and said, ‘Is this yours?’  Because the first question people ask is, ‘Oh, so your father is British?’  And I say, ‘No, he’s American— an American civilian.”

Driven by curiosity, VanDerKloot delved into his father’s wartime career and discovered that his father was part of a secret mission that involved hundreds of civilian and military flyers who risked their lives while pioneering global air routes. That mission was the RAF Ferry Command and it delivered tens of thousands of American-built bombers to the UK during the war’s darkest hour.

It’s been said that the weather was the deadliest enemy of the air war, and Ferry Command pilots battled that enemy with every mission.  These crews flew experimental, transoceanic flights in short-range bomber aircraft, fresh off American assembly lines. With few navigational aids, they braved ice storms, the undiscovered force of jet stream winds, and the constant risk of running out of fuel in flights that lasted up to 15 hours. Over 500 Ferry Command airmen lost their lives on these dangerous missions.

Their adventures branded them expert pilots as they improvised their way through countless dangers.  That experience delivered the filmmaker’s father, Bill VanDerKloot, to No. 10 Downing Street in July 1942, where he was asked by the Prime Minister himself to be his wartime pilot, heading a civilian crew of American and Canadian Ferry Command airmen. 

Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of RAF Ferry Command is the result of years of research in archives throughout the United States, Canada and the UK. Filming began in 2000 when VanDerKloot interviewed Ferry Command veterans about their experiences at a final Ferry Command Reunion held in Gander, Newfoundland, where the first Ferry Command flights departed from in their proving journey across the Atlantic on November 10, 1940.

Bill’s father, Captain VanDerKloot, passed away just months before the Gander 60th reunion, but he had already been interviewed by his son and had shared his personal collection of films of the Prime Minister in the co-pilot’s seat next to him.

“I think that Ferry Command was one of the rare circumstances where you have war heroes that never fired a shot,” says the filmmaker.  “They were, in many ways, heroes working behind the scenes.”

Shedding light on the operation, pilots like Captain VanDerKloot and Kirk Kerkorian talk about the secretive Clayton Knight Committee, which set up offices in fine hotels across the United States where they recruited American pilots for Britain before the U.S. had even entered the war.  Lured by the romance of the mission, pilots were offered a chance to fly the latest aircraft on dangerous flights across the north Atlantic and later to exotic locales, while contributing to the war effort. Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of RAF Ferry Command brings to life these first-hand accounts of this unknown wartime experience.

About the Filmmaker
William VanDerKloot is an independent director and producer whose 30-year career includes short films, television documentaries and theatrical features.   Over the years he has traveled the world producing films on a range of subjects from public sculpture to ethnic history, from southern blues to environmental science.  He has won over one hundred international film and television awards, including twelve CINE Golden Eagles and the George Foster Peabody Award. He created of the award-winning Little Mammoth Media® children's programs, The BIG Adventure Series®, which are licensed in over 30 countries.  VanDerKloot's projects have been distributed on such venues as PBS, Discovery, Turner Broadcasting, CNN, HBO, Showtime, domestic and international home video, as well as VOD and theatrical release. Based in Atlanta, VanDerKloot is the founder and president of Magick Lantern, a full service, 22,000 square-foot post-production house that offers editorial, design, CGI, compositing, animation, and audio services, along with a fully-equipped sound stage and television production studio.  He is also the founding director of the Atlanta Film and Video Festival and he has written about filmmaking for such industry publications as American Cinematographer.