The world’s only school for Spitfire pilots is a picture of professionalism
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By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots
One metre in front of me is the glass and steel door of the Boultbee Flight Academy, the only school for Spitfire fighter pilots anywhere on this globe. Beyond that door is the academy’s lounge, briefing rooms, and, further in, the capacious space that holds the aircraft which formed the heart of the Royal Air Force’s World War II Spitfire fighter programme. The jewel in the crown: a rare Mk IX.
It is 7.30am, summer, and the month when the tourist season peaks. July 3, 2012. Many come to see the castles, manors and museums. I am here in West Sussex for a taste of history too. But the period that interests me is a time when Britain faced its darkest hour, and the fate of the world hung in the balance. What glory there was, would not be recognised till much later after many young men lost their lives. I am interested in the machine that those men used to tilt the balance in World War II, the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire.
After admiring it from afar – in books, movies and museums – the opportunity to fly one finally presented itself, thanks to two men, developer Steve Boultbee Brooks and his employee Matt Jones. Boultbee bought one for about 2 million pounds sterling and started learning to fly it. Jones, his chief pilot, came up with the suggestion of allowing others to do the same. Inspiration met generosity and the Boultbee Flight Academy was born in July 2011.
One year later, and here I am, with Marjorie, my wife, on the doorstep of the flight academy in Hangar 8 at the Goodwood Aerodrome.
This is a grass airfield on the Goodwood Estate near Chichester, 85 kilometres south of London. It was RAF Westhampnett during World War II, a satellite field for RAF Tangmere, a bulwark for the country during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
I enter the building and am now officially a student in the school’s fifth introductory course (IC05). There are two others: Mike Williams and Kevin Brewin. We gather in a lounge and sink into the deep leather chairs. A fourth student, Jeremy Paxton, is missing. He had planned to fly to the aerodrome in his personal helicopter from his home on the banks of the Thames but poor visibility has thwarted his departure.
A phalanx of men in green flight suits await us. Each of them wears a name tag and the Boultbee Flight Academy patch. They are our instructors and outnumber us almost two-to-one. I am impressed.
Brian Jones, whose company, Aeronautics, sells Hawker Beechcraft aircraft, introduces himself as the Director of Operations and begins briefing us about safety. I soon learn that Jones and the other instructors are all skilled professionals who work there part-time, not for the money but the opportunity to be around legendary aircraft and to share their passion for these with others. Their resumes include flight hours in the most sophisticated military and civilian aircraft, and have been involved in operating vintage warbirds of one type or another.
To a man, the Spitfire, and the chance to fly and instruct in one, represents a major milestone in their lives.
Jones introduces us to Matt Jones, the co-owner of the academy, and chief flying instructor Russ Eatwell, a former Royal Navy pilot who flew the Sea Harrier, and served on the frontline in Bosnia, before becoming a Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 pilot.
We are then asked to talk a bit about ourselves and our flying experience.
Brewin, a distinguished-looking retired police officer, says he took up flying recently, and has flown the Tiger Moth, a 1930s bi-wing trainer, which I have picked as my lead up to the Spitfire. Brewin and his delightful wife, Mary, own a vintage Bentley car and enjoy attending the Goodwood Revival, a celebration of classic cars and planes, with many visitors adding to the atmosphere by coming in period costumes.
Williams was a Royal Air Force technician before moving to the private sector. He is as reserved as Brewin is gregarious. His air force days saw him tinker with a host of military aircraft and sent him to far flung places. His Private Pilot’s Licence is relatively new, like Brewin’s and mine. He is accompanied by his adult daughter.
Paxton, the youngest, is a property developer who has logged over 5,000 flying hours, mostly in helicopters, making him by far the most experienced pilot among the students. He joins us later in the day.
I tell them about the 400 hours I have clocked in microlights, single engine pistons, and military jets, as well as my interest in experiencing flights in warbirds anywhere in the world.
While we talk, I cannot help looking through the large glass window between the lounge and the hangar proper. There, just metres away, is a World War II Mk IX Spitfire converted into a TR-9 trainer. The twin-seater is one of only six airworthy two-seater Spitfires, and one of only 30 flying Spitfires of any model in the world. It is not a replica. It is the real deal. And in just 24 hours, I will be flying it.