At the Spitfire school: A prayer for pilots who never landed

Tiger Moth and Chipmunk ready to roll

Paul Jansen and Sam Whatmough in a Tiger Moth and Mike Williams and David Ratcliffe in a Chipmunk start engines at the Boultbee Flight Academy for Spitfire pilots. Academy co-owner Matt Jones watches.

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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots

It is the end of Day 2 of what was to be a two-day Introductory Course to flying the iconic fighter aircraft of World War II, the Supermarine Spitfire. But an equipment glitch and bad weather over Goodwood Aerodrome, which houses the aircraft of the Boultbee Flight Academy, have prevented my course mates, Kevin Brewin, Mike Williams, Jeremy Paxton and I from completing our training.

There is talk about taking us by road to another airfield which plays host to another rare two-seater Spitfire, so that we will finally be able to fly one.

We set aside our disappointment and gather for dinner. It is at a delightful pub close to my accommodation, Goodwood Hotel, which like the aerodrome, sits on 12,000 acres owned by Lord March and his predecessors for 300 years. We are a raucous crowd. Students and family, and instructors. Bonded by a love of flying. Unique in our appreciation of the Spitfire. And privileged to be among the few who have flown them, or will soon do so.

The next morning, the skies are grey. The cloud base is so low, we can’t see the tops of the nearby hills. We wait. Lunch comes and goes but the clouds remain. Afternoon passes quickly as the students and families get to know each other better. Then, at about 3 pm, there is a small break in the weather over the coast.

RAF Wing Commander Willy Hackett, MBE, test pilot for the Eurofighter Typhoon and F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, does the flight line brief. This time it is Kevin Brewin and Hackett in the de Havilland Chipmunk. My headset works fine. Brooding clouds watch us as the Chipmunk leads the sortie. My instructor Sam Whatmough, in the back seat, hands over the de Havilland Tiger Moth to me again.

Up both planes go. I am soon closing with Brewin. I expect Whatmough to take back control for the formation. After all, my hours in a Tiger Moth is now just a grand total of 20 minutes.

Kevin Brewin gets set for a formation flight. He and instructor David Ratcliffe will fly their Chipmunk in synchronisation with a Tiger Moth piloted by student Paul Jansen and instructor Sam Whatmough.

Kevin Brewin gets set for a formation flight. He and instructor David Ratcliffe will fly their Chipmunk in synchronisation with a Tiger Moth piloted by student Paul Jansen and instructor Sam Whatmough.

Nothing. So. I ease G-BAFG up close to the Chipmunk from the 4 o’clock position. They see me and we begin the formation sequence. Slow turns to right and left. I edge closer. First 30 metres away. Then 20. I pick a perspective of their plane and stick to it. Though our speeds are slow, I fix my sight on the Chipmunk and correct the “picture” as it gets bigger or smaller. Everything else is scoped through peripheral vision. Steeper turns. Then I drop back to line astern and move to their left. 8 o’clock. Tight. Whatmough gives an encouraging: “Good.”

Soon it’s time for a change. I have enjoyed the formation but it is time to give Brewin a go. I peel away and take a straight and level course. The Chipmunk falls back and comes up on my stern. It’s the Chipmunk’s turn to follow the leader.

The Tiger Moth is a pussycat. It feels almost like the Quicksilver MX II Sports microlight I used to fly in Chonburi, Thailand and Nusajaya, Malaysia. Slow. Light. Responsive. Wind in your hair. Fabric-winged too.

I scan the instruments to confirm I am keeping to the numbers. But I also now have time to glance out the cockpit to see the rolling fields and farmhouses, much as they must have been in the dark days of the war, but now dotted with clusters of less attractive industrial offices. Rising smoke from machines mingles with smoke from heaths. Progress.

The Chipmunk and our Tiger Moth slip through wisps of cirrus as we continue our aerial ballet. After 10 minutes, we part company. They to the west and we to the east. Whatmough had asked me during the pre-flight what I wanted to do and I had outlined an aerobatic sequence beginning with a wing-over, then barrel roll, loops, a half Cuban 8, and, if we still had time, a final loop.

“It’s all yours,” he reminds me. A wing-over will let me confirm visually no one else is in the area and set me up for a loop. Full power. A dip of the nose till I reach 100 mph, then up we go until my nose is 45 degrees over the horizon, followed by a slow roll to the right for a 100 degree angle of bank. I allow the nose to drop 45 degrees below the horizon and then take the wings level again.

Full power. Then I push the nose down 20 degrees for a 115 mph speed. Stick back smoothly. Check left and right to ensure my wingtips slice the horizon at a 90 degree angle and keep the stick back as I reach the fully inverted position. I tilt my head back so that I can see the ground above me now and and continue down the final quadrant of the circle I am making in the sky, the air clawing at my face. Aim to bottom out at the same height and speed I entered the loop. The altimeter shows I am off by 50 feet.

I can see why the RAF used the Tiger Moth to introduce people to military flying. Your instructor can lead you gently through the course. But de Havilland also made sure that more aggressive pilots are not left out. Despite its looks, it has a maximum speed of 160 mph and can take 7.5 G in the stall.  There are reports that the terminal dive velocity is 230 mph. Add things like a service ceiling of 15,000 feet, and you realise: Not bad for a 1930s-tech fabric and wood machine.

I follow the loop with a climb to regain height and then a barrel roll, another loop, and then more wing-overs so that I can enjoy the Sussex countryside. Whatmough appears content to leave me in charge.

The clock ticks on and my hour on the Tiger Moth is reaching its conclusion. I head back to Goodwood.

We do a curving turn on the base leg and I drop the speed to 55 mph. Whatmough reminds me to hold the tail up in the moments before touch down. This is counter-intuitive to the method I use when landing my Piper Warrior, so I am extra careful. It would be bad form to prang this aged beauty. The grass rushes up and I feel the front wheels trundling on it. Gently the nose comes down. My heart leaps up.

It took two days to complete a one-hour Tiger Moth flight due to bad weather and an equipment glitch.

It took two days to complete a one-hour Tiger Moth flight due to bad weather and an equipment glitch.

I have landed my first tailwheel. I hear Whatmough laugh and realise he is responding to my whoop of delight. That was his second surprise: letting me fly the plane from beginning to end.

It has taken me two flights over two days to complete my Tiger Moth hour. On next to the North American Harvard, also known as the Texan T-6. The Spitfire which rounds the course does not seem as close as it was the day I arrived.

But as I taxi the Tiger Moth to Hangar 8, it is not this, or the aerobatics in a biplane, or my being given command from take-off to touch down, that fills my mind. In a reversal of the dreams which gripped me and then evaporated, a thought entered my subconscious and then came to the fore while I was up in the air.

From my aerie, I can see the villages and small towns near and along the English coast. The Channel is white-capped. Seventy-three years ago, when the German High Command launched Luftschlacht um England, those residents suddenly found themselves on the frontline. How they must have cheered whenever they spotted an aircraft with the roundels which distinguished them from the German crosses. How they must have been shielded from the reports of the terrible losses sustained by the RAF and its allies as they held Germany at bay.

But even then, in the summer and autumn of 1940, there must have been days like this. When all that a pilot had to do was fly, not fight. When he could turn his gaze from the abyss to the men below tilling the earth as their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers did. When, gazing past the wire and wood, fabric wing and tiny engine, he could see himself as a progenitor of aviation, not a vessel of death.

On this day, as the sun slips its way between the clouds to land on my blood red Tiger Moth, and the cold wind weaves under my cap to tingle my scalp, I pray that the pilots of 1940 who never returned had a moment like mine: when war was in the past and to come, and all that mattered was the beauty of now.

Tiger Moth by Cam-ARA


Copyright: Paul Jansen 2013. All rights reserved.
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