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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots
Boultbee Flight Academy director of operations Brian Jones gives us a quick tour of Goodwood Aerodrome’s Hangar 8, and its jaw-dropping contents.
He begins with a vintage World War II British double decker bus which has been converted into a modern mobile Operations Centre. In the background, Vera Lynn sings the plaintive White Cliffs of Dover.
Jones then hands us over to David (Rats) Ratcliffe, a former RAF pilot who was in the Gulf War. Ratcliffe has flown English Electric Lightning Mach 2 fighters, Wessex and Chinook helicopters, and is now a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 pilot.
Ratcliffe briefs us on the four aircraft types in the hangar and available to the school’s students: the de Havilland DH84 Tiger Moth, the de Havilland Chipmunk DHC1, the North American Aviation Harvard T-6, and the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire TR-9.
Other than the Chipmunk which made its appearance after the War, these were the same types which the RAF used to turn teenaged earthbound dreamers into frontline aerial warriors within months before sending them into battle.
Boultbee’s Introductory Course (IC) aims to give us an abbreviated experience of those days.
We will receive safety and technical briefings and then fly a primary trainer, either the Tiger moth or the Chipmunk, in aerobatic formation and then individually. This will be followed by a flight on the more powerful Harvard.
Finally, we will fly the Spitfire, in formation and then alone.
Youngsters like Geoffrey Wellum, who wrote in his autobiography “First Light” about walking out the gates of his school aged 17 and then going into combat with veteran German pilots just 10 months later in 1940, would feel at home in Hangar 8, having trained in the same types.
Our course, Kevin Brewin, Mike Williams, Jeremy Paxton and I, will go through the same sequence of aircraft as Wellum but within the space of only two days. We will not get a rating for any of them but the hours we clock can be used should we decide to take a full rating for any of these aircraft.
Each of us is given a flight suit and flying boots. Then a Spitfire patch with our names embroidered on them. Momentos for the memories.
It is time for lunch. Sandwiches at the Goodwood Aero Club a few metres away. It has a fleet of brand new Cessna 172SP Skyhawk aircraft. I have no doubt that the members taking up flying lessons must be dreaming of the day when they will be in the old Spitfire taxiing right in front of their flight line.
The weather is still iffy after lunch but we help to push Boultbee’s Spitfire G-ILDA out the hangar so that we can position the Tiger Moth and Chipmunk for flight. My fingers tingle.
I have woken up sometimes with a dream ebbing from my consciousness like a fast receding tide. Often, I am left with a feeling of frustration as the evaporating residue of those night-time sensations holds just long enough to make think I am departing a better world for a lesser one.
Today, the opposite is true. With each touch of the Spitfire as I help heave it into the sun, I am solidifying contact with a world I thought had ceased to exist, or lay far beyond my reach.
G-ILDA is no scale model created by enthusiasts.
It is not a gutted shell good only for static display in a museum.
It is an airworthy Supermarine Spitfire built for the War.
And I will fly it.