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By Paul Jansen
It was until now an impossible dream: the opportunity to fly the aircraft which almost never was, which slowed down a German army which seemed unstoppable, and which is burned in my mind as a symbol of how a few can do so much for so many.
The Supermarine Spitfire was designed by R.J. Mitchell as a short-range interceptor. It did not impress the British Air Ministry at first, and production was planned to stop after 310 were built. But the Government was persuaded to go beyond that. Eventually, way beyond that. But Mitchell did not see the impact his high performance streamlined fighter would make on the world. Piloted by eager young pilots, often with less than 30 hours of experience in the type, their sparse numbers met the German aerial armada head on and prevented the Axis forces from gaining air supremacy as a prelude to a cross-Channel seaborne invasion. The rest, as they say, is history. Mitchell died of cancer in 1937.
Although more than 20,000 Spitfires were rolled out the factory door, less than 40 remain in airworthy condition. And as far as I could determine, there were only two two-seater trainers still flying. Both operators did not respond to my queries. Understandable, given the restrictions on the owners by regulators and insurers, and so on.
But I kept searching. Forums on Spitfires were not encouraging. One even sneered that even if a two-seater was available for flights, there would firstly, be a waiting list of years, and secondly, a bill of six figures. There was evidence of the truth in this. The charge for a flight in a McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom is over US$12,000, and a MiG 29 trip to the edge of space will set you back US$25,000.
Friends chipped in with sightings of Spitfire flight ads. But these turned out to be nothing closer than a flight “near” a Spit, with you in a helicopter chasing a Spitfire. So tantalisingly close, but you may as well be watching a movie, so disconnected is the dream and the reality.
Then, in October last year, my unrelenting prowl of websites, forums and magazines, paid off.
I read of an aviation fan who bought a 1944 single-seat Spitfire, and then started painstakingly restoring and converting it into a TR9 two-seater trainer. He died before completing the job. But this was taken up by its new owner, property investor Steven Boultbee Brooks, who also offered to allow licensed pilots to fly it.
The purchase and maintenance of a Spitfire is a weighty undertaking. Although they were initially produced at a cost of about 9,000 Pounds Sterling, today they would set you back more than 2 million Pounds Sterling.
The new owner invited pilots to join a queue on payment of a deposit of 1,000 Pounds Sterling. Many did, even though the actual price of the experience had not yet been set, dates of flights not yet scheduled, and the price for pulling out for any reason was the loss of half of the 1,000 Pounds Sterling deposit.
The call of the iconic Spitfire was too strong. I accepted the conditions and wired the deposit.
I have been given a July date for my turn, which includes flights which follow the pattern of training for the novice fighter pilot during the dark days of World War II and shortly after: from Tiger Moth or Chipmunk, to Harvard, to the Spitfire.
I will keep you posted.
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2012. All rights reserved.
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