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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots
I am anxious to strap into Boultbee Flight Academy’s World War II Spitfire. It is why I have travelled more than 10,000 kilometres to this rustic aerodrome in the south of Britain.
But, today, I am slated for an extended sortie in the Tiger Moth, the first plane Royal Air Force students flew on their way to the Spitfire.
My instructor is Sam Whatmough, a professional British Airways pilot, one of the few among those I meet at Boultbee who is not with the Royal Air Force or came from there. He is cheery, and his cherubic good looks belies the fact that he is a BA training manager for Boeing 777 and 787 pilots, and obviously knows how to teach men who will command crew. He goes through the lesson plan. We will fly formation with the Chipmunk before breaking off for individual runs.
I take an instant liking to him.
The crew on the Chipmunk is student Mike Williams and instructor David Ratcliffe. We gather in front of the double decker bus, which serves as Boultbee’s mobile Ops Room, to sign out our two aircraft and get a final briefing.
The air is nippy. But I have found a tattered sheepskin jacket to keep me warm in the Tiger Moth’s open cockpit. Mike has the comparative luxury of a closed canopy.
It is 5 pm. Whatmough and I strap on our parachutes and the seat belts of G-BAFG and I am amazed at how few instruments there are to guide us.
This restored 1943 trainer was one of 4,005 built during the war specifically for the RAF. All the instruments, apart from the modern radio which replaces the Gosport voice tubes for communication between instructor and pilot, are as the 1944 specifications, says the academy.
Arrayed in front of me in the front cockpit are an airspeed indicator in knots, an altimeter, an RPM gauge or tachometer, a turn and slip indicator, an oil pressure gauge, and a large compass mounted horizontally.
The flap lever is on my left and a control column rises from the floorboard between my knees. It is all very basic and I love it.
Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic from New York to Paris non-stop in a plane not much better equipped than this. And these same instruments were all that recruits had as they began their journey towards command of a Spitfire.
A mechanic gives us hand cranks on the prop. The first is for oil circulation and to ensure there is no hydraulic lock. The next cranks are to allow enough fuel to reach the cylinders. Finally, it is brakes set, throttle open and thumbs up. The last cranks fire up the engine.
The prop wash streams over me and I am glad I am wearing a jacket. It will only get colder when we are airborne.
As the 130 HP Gipsy Major engine warms, the oil pressure climbs to 35 PSI. Whatmough goes through the after start checks.
We have enough 100LL Avgas in the 19 gallon capacity tank over my head for our 60 minute sortie plus reserves. Less than 10 metres away, Williams and Ratcliffe are getting ready to roll.
Our two planes are from almost the same era, same make, same engine, but look worlds apart.
Mine is made with fabric, has wood parts, and is a bi-plane braced with wires. The cowl shines in the sun and the bright red body, restored in 2006, is an eye magnet.
Togged up as I am in my jacket, head cover, gloves, goggles, and snuck in my seat, I look and feel like a trainee from the 30s.
Unlike the Tiger Moth, the Chipmunk has a metal frame and mainly metal skin, a covered cockpit, and a monoplane profile, and, fits visually into the family of planes that came from the drawing boards after the war.
It must have seemed like a giant technological advance in those early post-war days.
The Chipmunk leads. It rolls ahead and weaves, as all tailplanes do, to see what’s in front. The angled fuselage, because of the smaller tailwheel, causes the front to block the pilot’s view. Se we have to look out the side as we move from left to right and back again. We zig zag behind the Chipmunk.
I am enjoying the scenery when Whatmough surprises me. “You have the controls,” he says, matter of factly. My feet have been lightly following his movements on the pedals. Immediately, I press down harder and reply: “I have control.”
G-BAFG responds to my commands now, turning in response to my inputs. I have crossed a line. I am now in charge of the Tiger Moth and responsible for the plane and the safety of the crew. Whatmough has another surprise in store, but keeps mum for now.