Sometimes ones dreams really do come true, but first of all one must always believe that, with a little bit of luck, anything is possible – if you keep trying for long enough. Surely I had proved this for myself yesterday, Sunday, 12th October 2014, – most certainly one of the best days of my long life – when one of my special dreams came true and I found myself actually handling a very precious two-seat SPITFIRE, flying some basic aerobatic manoeuvres, high above the Weald of Kent. My companion in the front cockpit offering me his words of wisdom, whilst closely supervising my cautious efforts in the rear cockpit, was a friendly and very experienced warbird instructor called ‘RATS’. Just a few breath-taking moments ago, we had been roaring along the grass runway at Lashenden Aerodrome, near Headcorn, Kent, and now we were cavorting around the Sky more than 3,000 feet above the same green fields, where Spitfires and Hurricanes had fought the Luftwaffe and then won the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Throughout my many years as a Flying lnstructor, there had been several other opportunities for me to fly in a two-seat Spitfire, but adverse weather conditions and broken promises, etc., had always prevented it from happening and often my hopes had been dashed; the only outcome for me had been further disappointment. Yesterday, even after I had climbed into this Spitfire’s rear cockpit, dressed in a black flying suit, complete with an ‘Aero Legends’ badge with my name on if sitting on a seat type parachute and strapped tightly to this superb flying machine, I still found it difficult to believe that this elderly-looking, trainee Spitfire pilot was really me. How could a Senior Citizen like me be about to fly this beautiful Spitfire, more than 60 years and 6,000 flying hours after learning to fly in Tiger Moth biplanes, during his Flying Scholarship Course at Cambridge Airport? Until we actually got airborne, it all seemed too good to be true, and I felt that something was bound to happen, at the very last moment, which would prevent my Spitfire flight. Only now, with my feet firmly back on ground and my head brimful of treasured memories, am I able to convince myself that I really have flown a Spitfire and be absolutely sure that one of my greatest dreams has really come true.
Although there were some Fog & Mist patches near the M.25 & M. 26, the Motorways themselves were completely clear so we managed to complete the 79 mile journey from Denham to Lashenden Aerodrome without delays, and we arrived well before the 9.00am Safety Briefing in part of the Museum Building where we were greeted by Aero Legends Staff and given a welcoming hot drink.
Afterwards, as the Staff scurried about outside making various preparations, I noticed that today’s Flying Programme had been displayed on a White Board and beneath the three column headings:
Were all of our names together with some ominous gaps. Thankfully, my name was on the board, but I was not scheduled to fly the Spitfire until 2.30pm and this was worrying because, having studied the Weather Forecast (T.A.F.), I knew that a huge deterioration in the Weather was expected at about 4pm (Local Time). Could ‘Sod’s law be about to strike me yet again? Perhaps at this point I should explain that ‘Aero Legends Ltd.’ offer something they call the ‘ULTIMATE PACKAGE’ which offers people a course of training on the Tiger Moth and Harvard, (Historically, the two default trainers for Pilots destined to fly advanced aircraft like the Spitfire and Hurricane). This training is followed by a cost share flight in the Spitfire T9, the ultimate Battle of Britain Flight Experience.
The weather at Lashenden yesterday morning was typical for a fine Autumn day; bright, calm, cool, dry, no low cloud, in fact, while we were waiting our turn to fly, it was entertaining for us all to watch groups of free-fall parachutists actually jump out of their aeroplane high above the Aerodrome, and then descend slowly into their Landing Area close to the far side of the Runway.
Our Flying Programme began on time and, by about 11.00am, all three aeroplanes had successfully completed their first sorties and landed. lt then transpired that none of the Aero Legends aeroplanes would be allowed to fly again, until members of the neighbouring ‘Tiger Club’ had flown a special formation sortie to scatter someone’s ashes over the Aerodrome.
With the fine weather ‘window’ shrinking with every passing minute, this totally unexpected development left me with very mixed feelings about everything. On one hand, respect and sympathy for the occasion – having carried out a similar airborne task myself – and on the other, serious concern for the adverse effect that this funeral event would have on our Flying Programme. I kept thinking to myself: “Why did this have to happen TODAY, of all days?” Suddenly, Victor Meldrew’s catch phrase came to mind: “l don’t believe it!”, but somehow l just managed to stop myself from saying it out loud.As a matter of interest, this particular flying funeral ceremony was divided into two parts. Firstly, a formation of three Stampe biplanes did a flypast to scatter this person’s ashes, then a ‘Balbo’ of nine various old aeroplanes did a final farewell, tribute flypast, in diamond formation. Overall, the event lasted about forty-five minutes, so the delay for us was not as serious as it might have been. To compensate for some of the time lost in the delay, it was decided to abandon the usual Lunch arrangements and as my instructor, ‘Rats’, so aptly put it: “We will all just have to eat on the hoof’.
By now it was 12 noon and, just as our second sorties got airborne, I noticed the first signs of the weather beginning to change for the worse. lt was about this time that my luck also took a turn for the better, because Aero Legends had revised the Flying Programme and brought the timings forward so that I was now due to fly at 1.00pm. I was also relieved to find that my two sons and their families had arrived safely, in time to join my wife for Lunch and, hopefully, watch me fly and try to spend some of their inheritance.
But now, having described the scene before the flight from Lashenden yesterday, let us leave those worries on the ground where they belong and return to my actual Spitfire flight in more detail. Once settled into the front cockpit and the essential Checks swiftly completed, ‘Rats’ lost no time in starting the powerful Rolls Royce ‘Merlin’ engine which obligingly burst into life with a roar, emitting the usual cloud of smoke and flames from its exhaust stubs. After more Checks, the engine settled to a low growl and we were soon taxying towards the Holding Point for Runway 10 – weaving as we went so that we could look past the long, high nose of this magnificent ‘Tail Dragger and see the way ahead.
Incidentally, a similar taxying technique is used for both the Tiger Moth and Harvard but, unlike the Harvard, the Spitfire has a narrow-tracked undercarriage so, as we bumbled along over the uneven grass surface its beautiful elliptical wings rocked gently from side to side.
After more Checks at the Holding Point, we were given our take-off clearance and lined – up on the Runway centre – line ready for take-off. As ‘Rats’ progressively opened the throttle to full power, the engine noise became deafening, despite me wearing a flying helmet, the airframe vibrated and the Spitfire surged forward with breath-taking acceleration. Almost immediately the tail raised to bring the aeroplane into a flying attitude and, shortly afterwards, we were airborne and climbing. All vibrations suddenly disappeared, together with the Horizon, as we climbed steeply and smoothly before levelling out at about 2,000 feet. With the Spitfire cruising along perfectly trimmed at this altitude, ‘Rats’ invited me to take control of the aeroplane and explore the effects of some small control movements in Pitch and then Roll. I was absolutely amazed, when l found out for myself, how sensitive and delightfully responsive this Spitfire was to fly. Unlike the Tiger Moth and, to a lesser extent, the Harvard which require much larger control inputs to manoeuvre them. lt’s no wonder that many Spitfire Pilots’ claim that, for them it was a matter of ‘Love at first sight’! I quickly began to feel at ease in this comfortable, snug cockpit and, as my confidence grew, ‘Rats’ allowed me to follow some satisfactory Medium Turns with some Steep Turns and then fly one of my favourite manoeuvres: the Chandelle ( Left and Right ).
At the time, I was astonished to find that I was enjoying so much success in handling this iconic aeroplane relatively well on my very first flight in a Spitfire. ln truth, more thanks to R.J. Mitchell, the brilliant designer of this beautiful aeroplane, than to my own flying ability.
After this ‘Rats’ asked me if I wanted to do more aerobatics and I replied: ‘Yes, please. I would be grateful if you would demonstrate some advanced manoeuvres”. He readily agreed to do so and allowed me the great privilege of ‘following through’ on the controls so that I could feel his control inputs as well as see them. Then, in fairly quick succession, he expertly and effortlessly demonstrated all the following aerobatic manoeuvres: Barrel Rolls, Slow Rolls and Victory Rolls. After this impressive display of manoeuvres and the Spitfire returned to an even keel once more, I took control again and, under his guidance, flew the aeroplane back to Lashenden Aerodrome. As we neared the Aerodrome, a response to a call from ‘Rats’ politely reminded him that my flight was meant to have been a 30 minute sortie, and it was suggested that we should stay airborne for a further 10 minutes before landing.
Understandably, I had lost all track of time while we had been having so much fun so I believe that this news came as a complete surprise to us both. Then I suddenly realised that my marvellous flying experience was about to be extended. Oh, Joy of Joys, could this really be true or was I dreaming again?
‘Rats’ handed over control to me again and, while I was climbing back to 3,000 feet, he asked me what I would like to do next. When I requested some more aerobatics, including a Loop with a Roll off the top, ‘Rats’ explained that, usually, he tried to avoid doing any ‘Negative g’ manoeuvres – in kindness to the aeroplane – but he would be pleased to demonstrate a Loop with me following through on the controls again. The Loop proved to be very thrilling especially when the Spitfire was diving vertically and accelerating downwards to gain speed before and during the recovery. Following some very enjoyable ‘fun and games’ around the high, white tops of some attractive, heaped Cumulus clouds, and a Run and Break over a nearby friend’s private airstrip, I took over control of this superb Spitfire again and, with directions from ‘Rats’, I flew the aeroplane back to Lashenden and positioned it high and about a mile downwind of Runway 10. From this location ‘Rats’ took control for his most impressive and very exciting Finale : diving steeply towards the Runway threshold to produce sufficient speed for the very fast (300mph), low-level pass along the full length of the Runway and zooming upwards into a tight climbing turn for the Circuit and Landing. Throughout our final, curved approach, landing and roll out ‘Rats’ handled the Spitfire with great skill and precise judgement, as one would have expected from a pilot with his vast flying experience of other types of aeroplanes and helicopters – including the past nine years of flying and displaying Spitfires, in his spare time.
As soon as our feet were back firmly on the ground, most thoughtfully, Aero Legends had arranged for a staff member to take some souvenir photographs of the two smiling pilots, standing in front of their Spitfire, shaking hands and celebrating their very special flight together. I believe that these photographs and possibly, a cockpit video recording of the flight will be sent to me in the very near. Undoubtedly we were very fortunate with the weather, yesterday, because the forecast rain
held off long enough to actually complete the Flying Programme. The first large drops of rain started to fall about 3.30pm, just as the Spitfire took off for its return flight to Duxford and we began our journey home.
As we made our slow return journey, in the pouring rain, l found myself reflecting on various facets of my very special Spitfire flying experience. While we were flying the Spitfire, somehow it seemed that Time had been compressed or distorted, for, although our 30 minute flight seemed to have been over so quickly, in fact, there had been ample time for us to fly far, high and perform lots of aerobatics, etc., in this magical aeroplane. Most impressive was the ease with which this sleek, high-powered aeroplane was able to exchange one form of Energy for another i.e. Altitude (Potential E.) for Speed (Kinetic E.) and vice versa, to achieve its astonishing Rates of Climb and Descent Performance.
From inside the cockpit, sometimes, the Spitfire’s High Speeds were very deceptive, unless you were flying close to the ground our near a cloud formation. However, to the ground observer, drawn by that unmistakeable sound of a Merlin engine to watch a wonderful Supermarine Spitfire as it streaks across the Sky, there can be no doubt about how fast this legendary machine is flying. But, uppermost of all the lasting feelings which remain with me, after flying such as classic Warbird as the Spitfire, is the immense pleasure and personal satisfaction which this experience has given me.
Now that my dream has been realised and I have flown a Spitfire, if you were to ask me whether or not it was worth all the heartache, previous disappointments, years of waiting – let alone the considerable cost, without any hesitation my answer would be Yes, of course it was! Thanks to ‘Rats’ and the Staff of Aero Legends Limited, this short but exhilarating Spitfire flying experience was far above all of my expectations, quite priceless and truly beyond all my wildest dreams!
By the most amazing coincidence, within an hour of arriving home, we all found ourselves watching and enjoying a 90 minute, Channel 4 Television programme entitled ‘Guy Martin’s Spitfire’, which actually featured Spitfire PV 202 and lots of camera shots of this well-known TV Presenter and
T.T. Racer flying in very same immaculate cockpit that I had occupied earlier that day!