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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots
The Grand Old Lady I am taking for a walk on a grass field in West Sussex, England is behaving well. I slow down to ensure she is not too taxed. After all, she is 70.
“She” is G-BAFG, a lovely Tiger Moth bi-plane, which starts students at the Boultbee Flight Academy on the path to command of a Spitfire fighter aircraft.
The Tiger Moth bounces like a feather in the wind as I taxi her to the runway at Goodwood Aerodrome in Chichester. My Piper Warrior II, 9M-PRJ, is 25 percent heavier.
The whole biplane exudes an airy feel. Her two-stack silver wings look gossamer-thin. The instruments are sparse. The uncovered interior, apart from the ample cushion over the dash, adds to the utilitarian image of a machine designed not for comfort but for the singular purpose of moving those who master it onward to the next stage of flight training.
Goodwood Aerodrome’s grass takes our weight easily.
Soon, we are at the holding point of the runway which once catered to Spitfire fighter aircraft – when the field was known at RAF Westhampnett and the skies were the frontier of Germany’s attempt to rule the world.
When I signed up for Boultbee’s fifth Introductory Course to flying the Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft, I was informed that there was an option to do formation flying. This was to be one flight of a Tiger Moth and Chipmunk, and another of two Spitfires. All conditional that the other three pilots on the course also signed up for this. They did.
I had suited up and been briefed on the elements of the first formation. Now, I am in the Tiger Moth and my course mate, Mike Williams, is in the de Havilland Chipmunk, already on the runway and starting to roll. My instructor Sam Whatmough takes back the “control” he had given me to do the taxi-ing and does the pre-takeoff checks himself. Then, he says five magical words: “You ready? You have control.”
Trepidation and thrill.
I have never sat in a moving tailwheel plane, much less flown one. I hope I won’t embarrass myself but am excited at the opportunity to take off. I have spent countless hours reading about tailplane characteristics. What to look out for. How other pilots have come to grief in them. In the milliseconds that my synapses process this, I make a decision. I can tell Whatmough I would rather him get us airborne as it is my first time in “tails”. Instead, I say: “I have control.”
Early in the morning, we had talked about our flight profile. I know the numbers: speed for stall, take-off, climb, cruise, barrel rolls, loops, Cuban 8s. I push the throttle up and roll onto the runway. The Chipmunk is in a slow right turn to give me time to catch up. Full throttle and the blast of air from the propeller increases on my face.
We start rolling.
The ground in my peripheral vision looks smooth but I can feel bumps through my bottom as G-BAFG picks up speed. I push the stick down slightly to raise the tail and I can see the runway in front at last. In a snap, we pass 55 knots and the Tiger Moth separates from the grass.
Airborne, and I am responsible.
I adjust the nose and throttle for a 57 knot climb, while intersecting the curve of the Chipmunk, with its crew of Mike Williams and instructor David Ratcliffe.
I have lost communication with Whatmough in the rear seat. I maintain my turn but point repeatedly to my helmet and make the zero sign with my left thumb and forefinger. I can hear him but my mike is dead. Whatmough says: “I have control.” My reply is to give him the thumbs up with my right hand. I feel down.
We have been in the air for barely 20 minutes. Whatmough takes us back.
He lands. I switch headsets but the problem persists. It is getting late and Whatmough decides to call it a day for us. We were supposed to have completed the Tiger Moth and Harvard, formation and single flights in preparation for the Spitfire tomorrow. Now I will have to repeat the Tiger Moth flight and hope the weather will hold for me to follow up with the other two planes.
I am due to leave West Sussex for London in three days. Even if I can stay, there are other people in the Spitfire queue, so I will have to take another date later in the year and make the long trek from Singapore to West Sussex again. Fellow students Kevin Brewin, Mike Williams and Jeremy Paxton live in Britain.
Paxton, whose extensive media coverage sometimes gives the impression of a man who insists on his rights, kindly offers to be rescheduled so that all instructors and planes can be devoted to Brewin, Williams and me. I guess it is true that you can’t always believe what you read in the press.
Boultbee Flight Academy’s Chief Flying Instructor Russ Eatwell walks up to me and says: “We will make sure you fly the Spitfire.”