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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots
Swaying slightly as it slices through the air on my right is a Spitfire. An authentic 70-year-old warbird. Mike Williams is in the rear seat. I can see him grinning. He looks like a man whose Christmas present came early. I must look the same to Mike. I am in an honest-to-goodness war-seasoned Spitfire and we are in formation 3,000 feet over the rolling Sussex countryside.
The Rolls Royce Merlin 66 engine driving the long 4-blade propellers of my plane shoots me through the skies at over 480 kilometres per hour, just 60% of its potential of more than 650 kmph.
My instructor, John Dodd, and Williams’ man, Russ Eatwell, both professional pilots, help ensure our two planes are in aerial lockstep. This gives Williams and me ample opportunity to enjoy the close-up sight of a Spitfire in full flight from a vantage point that very few people today will ever have.
We are in two of only six airworthy two-seater Spitfires in the world.
I am mesmerised by the beauty of the semi-elliptical wings and taut look of these aircraft and remember that its designer Reginald J Mitchell never got to see it in full production. Terminal cancer took that pleasure from him at age 42.
The late Eugene O’Kelly, Chairman and Chief Executive of KPMG’s United States unit, had a name for what I am experiencing.
A business Top Gun, O’Kelly’s dreams were shot down by an implacable foe: cancer. One day he was riding on top of the world, looking forward to becoming head of the entire KPMG organisation, the next, he was facing a life truncated to no more than 90 days by an inoperable brain tumour.
The 53-year-old turned what should have been dark days into a positive period. As he went about his post-diagnosis days, he sought out the people who mattered in his life and let them know how much they meant to him, closing a chapter in his and their lives.
With each call or meeting, he tried to concentrate on the present instead of the past or the future. Whenever he succeeded, this to him was “The Perfect Moment”.
O’Kelly describes it in the best-selling autobiography “Chasing Daylight”, written after his cancer diagnosis, as a sort of mental and temporal freeze-frame: “It is a time full of the present, when the past is left behind and the future is set aside. It is a special time of focused attention and heightened awareness. Interruptions and distractions are consciously excluded. Cell phones are off. Hearts are wide open. All that matters is this moment — the people I am with and the conversation we are having now.”
Like O’Kelly and the last meetings of his life, all that matters for me right now is this tactile conversation I am having with G-CCCA.
As Williams’ fighter plane, G-ILDA (bearing the markings KJ-I), drops a wing, I see the white underside, less than 30 metres away. The shape of the fuselage, air scoop and wings reminds me of the face of a great white shark. In its heyday, the Spitfire was just that: a predator to be feared and avoided when spotted from afar.
I tear my eyes away from G-ILDA and look inside G-CCCA, a Supermarine Spitfire which fought the Axis troops in France during World War II. It was flown in from its base in nearby Duxford the day before by professional pilot John Dodd for today’s event.
Although built in 1944, it bears the mark QV-I, representing a Mk I Spitfire flown by Duxford’s 19th Squadron in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Just an hour before, this moment seemed unlikely.
We four student pilots, Jeremy Paxton, Kevin Brewin, Mike Williams, and myself, arrived with some apprehension at the newly-established Boultbee Flight Academy in Goodwood Aerodrome, Sussex, Britain, for our Spitfire flight. Set up in July 2011 by property investor Steve Boultbee Brooks and professional pilot Matt Jones, after they purchased G-ILDA, the school is the only one approved by the British authorities to conduct training in Spitfires, and we are among the first to attend its Spitfire Introductory Course. Ours is Course 5.
Today, July 5, 2012, was supposed to be the culmination of our two-day introduction to the Spitfire but our lead-up training on the Tiger Moth and Harvard had been affected by poor visibility previously.
Those delays had a knock-on effect. We had pushed back our long-awaited Spitfire flights a half-day but there is another course around the corner and a queue of people waiting for their turn in these rare planes.
Will we have to re-join the queue, and I have to squeeze more time off work, and make another 11,000-kilometre trek to Goodwood from Singapore? There is an air of tension.
Among my fellow coursemates, Jeremy Paxton has kindly offered to postpone his slot on the Spitfire so that Kevin Brewin, Mike Williams and I have a greater likelihood of going up. Brewin’s wife Mary, Williams’ daughter Claire, and my wife Marjorie, who accompanied us, are also anxious, knowing how much their men are looking forward to the experience.
Later, we will learn that generous 52-year-old Paxton did not succeed in ticking the Spitfire flight off his bucket list: he dies unexpectedly a few months later, of a heart attack, before he can re-join the course.
The weather does not cooperate. We wait and there is talk of taking us by road to Duxford airfield where there may be better weather and a greater chance for takeoffs.
Then, there is a break in the gloom. A glimmer of blue skies to the south. The Boultbee Flight Academy team huddles outside the restored double-decker bus which serves as the Ops Room and decides to launch. But there is no rush, no skipping of procedures.
Russ Eatwell, an ex-Royal Navy pilot who once flew Sea Harriers, and now captains Airbus A320s for Monarch, leads the brief. He will fly with Williams in the Boultbee plane, G-ILDA, and I will fly in Historic Flying Limited’s G-CCCA with John Dodd, who has Boeing 737s under his belt, and now flies part-time with British Airways. We go over the area of operation and flight profile, re-check the weather, and do all that we need to, to ensure our flight is enjoyable but safe.
We break up. Our Spitfires are lined up outside the academy’s pristine Hangar 8. Elegant cheetahs compared to the grizzlie-like Harvards we flew yesterday. I climb up the wing and over the canopy sill, which has a little flap that drops down to make entry and exits easier. Straps for the parachute and seats done. Dodd is methodical, first checking my seat belts and then going over with me the procedures for evacuating the plane, before taking his seat.
The cockpit is mainly as it was in the 1940s. Utilitarian. There are no fancy veneers on the panel, side paddings to reduce noise or cushion impact, or even a floorboard. Looking down, I see mechanical linkages under my feet and the fuselage bottom.
The instrument panel has only a few gauges and switches, making my own plane back in Singapore, 9M-PRJ, a 1985 Piper Warrior II, look like a spaceship in comparison.
At centre-stage is the standard six-pack. Airspeed indicator marked in MPH with the maximum at 480, Artificial Horizon in basic black and white (no blue for the sky above and brown for the earth below) and Vertical Speed Indicator on top. Below are the Altimeter, Direction Indicator and Turn and Slip Indicator.
Directly beneath the panel, close to my knees, is a large horizontally-mounted compass. It is completely blocked from sight when I move the control column forward. This initially strikes me as odd as I will need to move the column out of the way and look down to determine my position and direction.
But the raison d’etre of Spitfire pilots was not to plough IFR routes. And with radar controllers and the good old Mark I eyeball directing them to their targets, I suppose the location of the compass was less critical.
Reminders of the vintage of this plane abound. To my right is a telegraph key for sending out Morse Code. The lever to adjust the pitch of the propeller is marked “Airscrew Control” instead of today’s “Propeller Control”.
Sitting in the Spitfire, I can also see what several wartime pilots said caused some heart-stopping moments for them.
The throttle is mounted on the left wall. The lever to raise and lower the retractable undercarriage is on the right. On take-off and landing, the pilot has to take his left hand off the throttle and use it to hold the control column. Then he has to take his right hand off the column and place it on the undercarriage lever to raise or lower the wheels.
It is easy in peacetime. But imagine trying to do this hand dance after scrambling to your plane, taking off quickly in formation, all the while thinking about the enemy planes you are rising up to meet.
Oh, one more thing. The undercarriage lever is right beside the main fuel cock. To lower the undercarriage, you pull the lever towards you. To shut off the fuel supply, you pull the fuel lever towards you. Wartime pilots said that it was very easy to mistake the fuel cock for the gear lever and shut off your fuel supply instead of lowering your wheels when trying to land.
One of the few “modern” installations is a TSO-approved Sigtronics Intercom SPA-400. This is specifically designed for high noise environment aircraft such as microlights and warbirds. Another reminder that I am in no ordinary machine.
And on that subject … odd… I cannot hear Dodd. Oh, oh. I stretch, tap his shoulder and signal that I am having problems with my headset. Over at G-ILDA, I see that Williams and Eatwell seem to be having the same difficulty. Headsets are replaced. All’s well. It’s time.
Dodd pulls the Control Column fully back and presses the Boost and then the Starter button as well. The propeller rotates and we count as the tip turns: One, Two, Three, Four.
Magneto switches On. Bang, the engine fires, and black smoke billows beneath us but is quickly dissipated by the prop wash. We go through the pre-take off checks methodically: Magnetos On … Main Fuel Cock On … Fuel Pressure Warning Light Off…
All that done, Dodd hands over the plane to me.
I push the Throttle lever to get us moving over the grass. We follow behind G-ILDA, weaving side to side to keep her in sight. The seating position and bubble canopy makes this a slightly easier task than when I taxied the Harvard the day before.
Near the end of the runway, I stop and hand back control to Dodd to test the engine and do the take-off checks. Oil temperature above the absolute minimum of 15 degrees Centigrade. Radiator temperature above 60 degrees Centigrade. Throttle set at 1,800 RPM. Magneto switches to Off one after the other. Prop pitch lever exercised three times with the drop in RPM showing less than the maximum of 300.
Finally, Dodd pulls the Throttle back to Idle, 550 RPM. He is satisfied and pushes the Throttle back up, to 1,100 RPM. G-CCCA trembles.
Williams and Eatwell are rolling. Up they go. Dodd moves us to the runway and then we are rolling. The Rolls Royce engine pounds out the sweetest heavy metal music I have ever heard.
The tail comes up, giving us better forward vision. Swiftly, smoothly, we are airborne, the Spitfire capable of climbing at 3,000 over feet per minute.
Dodd steps on the brakes to stop the wheels rolling in mid-air, tucks in the undercarriage, sets climb power, and says the words I have waited a lifetime to hear: “You have control.”
My right hand has not left the Control Column since we started the engine, only relaxing or increasing pressure as the occasion demanded. Now, it is wrapped tightly around the spade handle-like business end of the Column. We have been keeping an eye on G-ILDA and I head towards her. Minutes later, I ease up to her port side, a safe distance apart but Williams and Eatwell close enough to see their facial expressions.
I expect Dodd to take back control for this portion of our sortie – the formation flight. But he does not, intervening only to tell me to move in a little closer. His instructions are crisp. But his modulation is such that they come across as suggestions, bolstering my confidence. He makes a good teacher in this incredible “classroom”. When we first met in the morning, he had asked me about my experience. I had told him that I had clocked around 100 hours on two, three and four-ship complex aircraft aerobatic formations. He must have decided I was competent enough not to reduce the world’s tiny collection of flying Spitfires by two.
I keep my eyes on G-ILDA, glancing back inside my cockpit just quickly enough to see that nothing is amiss. As Eatwell banks their Spitfire in a gentle right turn, I move G-CCCA in tandem, riding up slightly above them as we curve south.
From my vantage point, G-ILDA is framed angled to the ground below. She seems frozen above a lazily moving checkerboard of farmland, cottages, country roads and blobs of suburbs.
A Perfect Moment.
We straighten and am level with G-ILDA again, putting it against a backdrop of grayish sky and wisps of clouds. I realize my hold on the Control Column is lighter. The inching of my spade handle almost a sub-conscious response to the movements of Williams’ Spitfire. This is an aerial embrace I will not soon forget.
I have been waiting for this all my life. Now it feels like I have been doing this all my life.
We do more gentle turns and I move from G-ILDA’s port to starboard side. Then, Eatwell calls for a switch in leader. He slides G-ILDA down and to the left. I keep G-CCCA straight and level. Eatwell comes up on my port side and a little below and behind. This time, the viewing pleasure is all Williams’.
I focus on flying my Spitfire as smoothly as someone can who’s never commanded one before, making sure there’s no traffic or clouds ahead while also keeping my eye on speed, height, yaw, and making small corrections as soon as I spot deviations. Dodd helps by suggesting when to turn, climb or descend.
This portion of Boultbee Flight Academy’s Spitfire Introductory Course is the optional “Formation Bolt-On”. With the course priced at 6,000 pounds sterling, the bolt-on’s fee of an additional 1,200 pounds sterling raises my outlay to 7,200 pounds sterling excluding VAT. It is no small change. But if the chance to actually fly a war-seasoned Spitfire sets you digging into your savings, the opportunity to do it in formation is a no-brainer, given how rare and expensive the airworthy ones are. Boultbee’s G-ILDA was bought at auction for 1.74 million pounds sterling.
Williams, Brewin, Paxton, and I had signed up for the full works.
Now, my formation reaches an end. Williams and I have savoured the sight of a Spitfire flying above, beside and below us. It has been just a few minutes but unforgettable ones. We part company, reluctantly.
I move my control column to my right and our G-CCCA flips away. We are now racing apart from G-ILDA at the rate of about 300 mph.
Our Mk IX Spitfires carry 91 imperial gallons (414 litres) of fuel in the main, inner and outer wing tanks, and an endurance setting will swallow this at 25 gallons per hour. So we have more than enough time for some fun.
Dodd calls for me to do a stall, so that I will know how to react later when I start on my aerobatics. A wingover shows there is nothing around and under me. Power down and a little back pressure to keep the plane level. A little tremble and the nose drops. I push it down further, keeping the wings level. The recovery is too slow for Dodd, who demonstrates the proper method and I do it again. Better the second time around.
He reminds me that I am still in control: “It’s yours.” Our transponder is set at 7004. I push “my” Spitfire into a dive. The Vertical Speed Indicator spools rapidly as I glance in and then out. Left, right wingtips slashing the horizon equally. The ground rushing up. My RPM gauge is below 2,650 and in the safe zone. As I inch the spade handle back to pull the plane in a circle, I reach the bottom. Snap glances left and right for wings level with the horizon and then continue pulling the spade back.
Unlike the Harvard T6 I flew the day before under the guidance of instructor Sam Whatmough, this 70-year-old Spitfire is like a butterfly to that bee. Less force is needed to move it through the sky. Then… I am at the top of the loop. Through the ungainly bubble canopy now pointing to the ground I see the rolling green Sussex countryside beneath my head flanked on the left by the English Channel. Above my feet is the sky with a scattering of clouds.
The first time I ever flew a loop was in a SIAI Marchetti SF260MS. I focussed hard on the technique, hoping for a judder at the bottom, meaning I had hit my slipstream as I closed the circle. This was supposed to be a clear indication that I had entered and exited at the exact same point.
My mistake was trying to do it by the numbers. Entry speed. G-meter reading. Height. My reward was breakfast almost making it all the way up and out my throat.
I can feel gravity plucking and unplucking my nerve ends. I can feel my bottom briefly detach itself from the seat and my shoulders transfer my 80 kg to the shoulder straps. I can see the world come rushing up at me, then swoop up and over my head and then come rushing up at me again.
My head is processing what is happening and what needs to happen next. But it seems like my heart is the organ giving me instructions and assurance that each movement of my hands and feet are appropriate. Instead of nausea, I feel elation. Perhaps, because this time, I have nothing to prove to anyone. When I roll out, it is not because my eyes and brain and notes tell me that I have hit the height and point I started from, but because, in my heart, it feels just … “right”.
I put the Spitfire in a barrel roll. Corkscrewing the air horizontally. Another wingover to ensure the area is clear before a slow roll and some steep turns. It is obvious that I need many more hours on the plane before I begin to match Dodd’s precision. But my mind turns quickly to how fortunate to be what I am, and where I am, today. A pilot in a Spitfire.
When I was young, I was told I could not fly. I did not accept this and worked my way up from little microlights, meeting like-minded characters Anthony Cheong, Domingo Molina and Dawson Lee who also refused to roll over and let their dream die quietly. We became pilots and friends along the way. Then, I was told I would not be allowed to fly a Spitfire as passengers were not allowed in these old fighter planes. Fortunately, Steve Boultbee Brooks and Matt Jones were told the same thing. There must be some DNA strands we share. Brooks and Jones went on to confound the naysayers and co-found the Boultbee Flight Academy.
Seated in this marvel of a machine, I am reminded of long-time political prisoner turned enlightened president Nelson Mandela’s words: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Midway through another roll, my eyes taking in the smoke spiralling lazily from the farmhouses below, the odd car or two moving down meandering country roads, fields stretching out and around villages and small towns, my focus is interrupted by an odd thought: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Concerto No. 3 in F major should be playing on my headphones right now.
I pick another soundtrack instead and put G-CCCA into a straight power run for a change, tracking a road far below, giving the mighty Merlin its head. The cockpit fills with a deep thrumming from the hardworking propeller and pistons. This was the “anthem” played by the pilots of 33 Squadron in the north of France who flew this plane and her sisters first from a base in Merville, in 1944, snd then deeper into Europe, strafing enemy troops on the highways and railways as the Allies rolled back the German occupation of the continent.
This is a machine built with a noble purpose and that gives it an aura no Lamborghini or Ferrari built for personal pleasure can ever trump.
Soon, it is time to return to base.
The weather remains kind. On the way back to Goodwood, we are told there is a short queue for landing. Dodd tells me to hold. I pull G-CCCA into a tight level turn, using a farmhouse as a reference point. Dodd says to keep it tight and I inch the spade handle back to my gut. It looks and feels like our Spitfire is spinning around the port wingtip like a ballet dancer en pointe.
We make two orbits and then the airfield is ready for us.
I set the power at 2,000 RPM and +2 PSI for a “run in and break”. This is one of my favourite manouevres and I am about to experience it in the world’s most desired aircraft. Just ask Actor Brad Pitt who has just bought one. Dodd takes control and does the landing checks. I sit back to enjoy the demo.
We approach Goodwood Aerodrome fast. Drop that iconic wing until it appears to be pointing almost straight down and swing around for a left downwind. Throttle back -6PSI. Gear down below 157 mph. Flaps down and throttle to idle as our speed falls to 100 mph. We are 95 mph in a curving base and final and 90 mph at 200 feet, then 85 mph as we finally line up for touchdown.
That curve enables us to keep an eye on the runway. Our landing is firm.
Dodd lets me taxi and as we trundle over the grass to the Boultbee Flight Academy hangar, I can see the welcoming committee. My wife, Marjorie, the other flight instructors, the Brewins, Williams’ wife and daughter.
We shut down the engine. The great prop stops. First up the left wing is Matt Jones, co-owner and managing director of the world’s only Spitfire school. He takes my helmet. Looks me in the eye and pats my shoulder gently.
“Take your time. All the time you need,” he says softly, and leaves me.
There is a moment when words fail. Even for someone who makes a living from writing.
Paxton, Williams, Brewin and I were told at the start of our training that a Spitfire is more than a plane to those who know its history and experience its beauty firsthand. We were told that a flight in one has moved many people to tears. I wondered then if a mechanical marvel could really be an emotional object. In any case, I do not cry easily.
But I take the moment that Jones has suggested.
It has been an exhilarating experience and my heart is a thundering kodo drum. I slow my breathing.
Seated in this Supermarine Spitfire from World War II, I think…
… about how it felt to fly it …
… the sunlight cutting through the clouds which Williams and I danced around …
… the pounding of the magical Merlin …
… the ache in my heart for Mitchell whose doggedness and ingenuity transformed the Spit from paper to protector but who saw neither its production nor witnessed its effectiveness …
… the passion of the folks at the Aircraft Restoration Company and Historic Flying who took a written off plane and restored it over three and a half years …
… and of the men of the Royal Air Force who drew a line in the sky and said to the Germans: “Here and no further.”
A hand comes into view. Marjorie leans into the cockpit and wipes a palm gently over my face. It is wet from my tears.
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2014. All rights reserved.
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