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By Paul Jansen
The message from the flying academy in Britain on June 30, 2012, offering flights in a Spitfire was almost a challenge.
Essentially, it said: “You can apply to book a ride but we can’t tell you the price till later. And if you do change your mind after we set the price, and we can’t find a replacement for your slot, you will forfeit half of your deposit of 1,000 Pounds Sterling.”
You cannot be a pilot without taking risks. I submitted my application and sent my deposit. When the bill came months later, there was a bit of a sticker shock among my flying friends.
With the deposit, and taxes, that seat in the 1944 Spitfire would slice 6,000 Pounds Sterling, or Singapore $12,000, off my savings. That is two thirds of what it cost to produce the aircraft during the war.
Add to that the price of air tickets to London from Singapore for me and my wife and hotel rooms just days before the start of the Olympics and my costs would zip pass the 9,000 Pounds Sterling Britain’s Ministry of Defence coughed up for each plane 70 years ago. I paid up.
My date with the warbird, whose brethren met the German aerial juggernaut in the skies over Britain and thwarted Adolf Hitler’s attempt to invade the country, has been set for July 4, 2012, just days away now.
I am in the academy’s two-day training course IC05 together with 3 other students. We will report to the Boultbee Flying Academy at the Goodwood Aerodrome in Chichester, West Sussex. There is a connection between Spitfires and the area. It was here, at what was then known as RAF Westhampnett, that Vickers Supermarine Spitfires raced into the air to defend the country during what is now known as the Battle of Britain.
The school was set up by property investor Steven Boultbee Brooks in London Oxford Airport and launched its first Spitfire Course in July last year. It moved to its current location recently.
Warbird fans who fancy a ride in the elliptically-winged wonder of the war must meet certain conditions, apart from having an understanding spouse and a decent savings account. For one thing, only pilots need apply. No “joyrides” for the ground-bound here.
For the 6,000 Pounds Sterling, licensed pilots get not one, but three rides in the Introductory Course: a choice of flying a Tiger Moth or Chipmunk, followed by a low-wing Harvard, and then the Spitfire. The sequence is designed to emulate the flow, albeit in a much condensed timeframe, of training which the Royal Air Force gave to its recruits.
The Chipmunk was designed to replace the Tiger Moth in the mid-1940s. As the open cockpit Tiger Moth biplane has a longer history, having first flown in 1931, I opted for it.
Our programme covers a full two days: with briefings on safety, technical information on the aircraft, operations, and then the walk-arounds and flights. On the first night, there’s a get together over curry and beer.
As these will be my first tail-wheel flights, the experience will be even richer.
Several people who asked me about the costs could not seem to get past the 6,000 Pounds Sterling. After learning that my airborne time in the Spitfire will be just about 30 minutes, their mental calculators start framing the event in Pounds Sterling per second.
I don’t blame them. Yet at the same time, I cannot empathise with them. For me, the opportunity to fly these venerable pieces of aviation history is incredible. They will not be around forever. There are only 35 or so flying Spitfires and six two-seaters left. And I am not getting any younger. A confluence of events has brought me to this door and I am going to go right through it.
Marjorie, my wife, once told me: “Do not confuse price with value.”
A few days ago, Nora Ephron, a brilliant writer and director who first came to my attention with her romantic comedies “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless In Seattle”, died of leukemia, aged 71.
In an interview with Reuters, she said: “At some point, your luck is going to run out … You are very aware with friends getting sick that it can end in a second.
“You should eat delicious things while you can still eat them, go to wonderful places while you still can … and not have evenings where you say to yourself, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here? I am bored witless!'”
Bored is not going to be in my vocabulary on July 4 when I take hold of the throttle and control column of Boultbee’s Spitfire G-ILDA. Stay tuned.