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A Dream Fulfilled

A Dream Fulfilled

Situated in the heart of Cambridgeshire, the airfield at Duxford must surely rate as one of the most historic aerodromes in England. There are many more historic names that I could mention, Biggin Hill, Kenley, Fowlmere, Hawkinge and Tangmere to name but a few, but a growing number of these are now derelict or have been returned to agricultural land leaving only the odd crumbling, weather battered control tower as a reminder of their glorious history and the achievements that took place there during the Battle of Britain.

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We pulled up at the Watch Office; the entrance into the airfield normally reserved for Officers, pilots and staff. I felt like a v.i.p. being waved through after having my name ticked off the ‘guest’ list. We were to meet on the perimeter in front of the Control Tower according to the extensive flight briefing notes, which I had received a week or two before. Today was the day I was going to fulfil a lifelong dream; take to the air in a Supermarine Spitfire!

As we arrived at the rendezvous point, I could see in the distance a lone Spitfire parked on the ‘live side’, facing into the wind, with only a trolley ack. for company.

This wasn’t just any Spitfire though, this was a T MKIX; two seats and this was going to be my mount for the morning!

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This particular Spitfire was built at Castle Bromwich in early 1944 as a single seat MK IXe, and served in the front line of battle throughout the last twelve months of WWII. It was accredited, with the first enemy aircraft shot down over the Normandy Beach head on D-Day

After the war and 176 operational sorties, Supermarine at Southampton remodeled the Spitfire for the Irish Air Corps as a two-seat trainer in 1951. It flew until 1960 when it became surplus to demands. After languishing in a state of disrepair for many years it was lovingly restored over a five year period to flying condition, on the 16th of April 1985, it was put back where it belonged; back in the air again.

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I was to be the first of 3 lucky people that morning who would be flying in the Spitfire. We first attended a flight briefing where we were issued with flight suits and parachutes. I had thought of bringing along the old coat hanger with a white silk scarf attached to it just for the laugh, I had also contemplated growing a handlebar mustache for the day.

Flight-suited and booted, we made our way out onto the ‘live side’ where that glorious and so distinctive little aeroplane was waiting, wings rocking gently in the wind disguising her true potential.

Peter Kynsey was to be our pilot for the occasion. An airline pilot and chief display pilot at Duxford, Peter has been involved with this aircraft since she was restored back in the 80’s.

I did at one stage make the rather silly comment that he “must hate having to give up his free time to fly this”. His answer wasn’t altogether unexpected; “someone has to do it I suppose” he pragmatically said – I was very envious. He went through the cockpit layout with us, explaining where everything was, what each dial indicated. This was more of a formality for me having spent years learning the layout of a Spitire cockpit off-by-heart.

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Before long, I was being invited to take my place in the back seat of this masterpiece (which would have originally been the instructor’s seat). I was helped into my harness (5 pointer, not unlike a racing car harness) and checked the seat height. We closed the canopy and there I sat; in a Spitfire for the first and probably the only time in my life.

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Everything was quiet for a short time, I was insulated from the wind and the excited gaggle of onlookers I had bought along, and I felt almost to have become part of this piece of living history. Then Peter, who in the meantime had strapped himself into the front seat, broke the silence as he piped up on the intercom;

“Ready for ops?” – Ready? I had been ready for this for as long as I could remember! The Trolley ack. was connected and a whirring sound could be heard as the oil primer pump was activated to pre oil the Merlin engine.

Peter went through the whole starting procedure with me then shouted out of his open canopy “Clear Prop!”

It is very difficult to put into words the feeling from within the cockpit as the legendary Merlin in front of us, spitting fire and smoke from its exhausts sprang into life.

A shudder went through the whole airframe then the engine settled into the smooth idle that any V12 would. The only difference being the pure unsilenced crackle exiting the individual ejector stacks!

Being the first in line for this special ‘Op’, we had to warm the engine up to operating temperature before we could move. This took far less time than I expected. With the temperature gauge reading 80° C, I could hear ghosts of days gone by shouting “Chocks away”. We were rolling!

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We taxied to the threshold of the grass runway two four (East - West) zigzagging as we went in order for Peter to see where he was going as from the cockpit all you can see is the cowling covering the Merlin and that huge four bladed prop!

We turned into the wind to carry out the final checks before take-off; magnetos, temperatures and pressures etc. then Peter opened up the throttle to +8Ib boost being ¾ of the available +12Ib boost, – 3000 rpm doesn’t sound much, but the acceleration was comparable to a 911 Turbo on full boost, so full throttle must be incredible! The sound, the noise – unique, menacing yet like music.

With a 26-knot headwind we were airborne in what seemed like 100 meters, gear up immediately after lift off as the extended undercarriage on a Spitfire sits almost directly in front of the radiators and greatly impairs their cooling efficiency.

We climbed a steady rate of about 2000 feet/minute, which is about half the climb rate it can do, but even this felt unbelievably fast (compared with a Cesna 150 that I was used to), the ground just seemed to shrink away from us!

Pete had very generously informed me that this was ‘my flight’ and I could basically fly as I wanted; straight and level, high, tree-skimming, aerobatic etc. I had always dreamed of ‘dancing in the clouds’ so that is exactly what we did.

On reaching 6000 ft. we had trimmed out the aeroplane and reached cruising speed (about 250 knots). Pete flew the aircraft with such grace and prowess, I was surprised at how smooth the ‘ride’ felt, I had been expecting a lot of turbulence as it was quite windy.

Pete said, “Would you like to fly her?” A simple question, one might think, but it was and probably, will remain one of the most significant questions ever put to me! My answer needn’t be written here.

Then those unforgettable words came over the intercom – “You have control”

This is really were I run out of words to describe this graceful Warbird. One could say that it felt like I had strapped the Spitfire to my back rather than me being strapped in her. I was astounded how responsive she was, I could almost think a turn and she would bank gently one way or the other. I had to put very little input on the stick to have a large effect and the controls were delightfully light.

“I was flying a Spitfire, I was flying a Spitfire.” These words were all around me like ghosts floating around the cockpit.

Having started flying lessons, I am aufait with the principals of flight so it was a case of learning the ‘type’. As this was probably going to be the only time I got to fly such a type, I made the most of it. I was able to try various maneuvers myself with Pete talked me through them.

I moved the stick the tiniest amount to port - over she went in a slow roll. Just a tiny check to starboard with the stick and the roll was arrested. Then moving the stick again to starboard brought her back to level flight, with the same check on the stick to stop the roll. The response was comparable to a well set up racecar or racebike; extremely sensitive, yet extraordinarily rapid reacting.

My thoughts then turned to the young hero’s who fought (a lot of them to the death) in these Chariots of fire. Young airmen; 15 years my junior climbing into these aircraft and fighting for our freedom. Knowing that they may not return yet flying all the same. It is the closest I have come to experiencing what they did and imagining what must have gone through their minds, fear, excitement and I am sure sometimes elation. It was becoming a very emotional experience!

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We chased the wind in and out of the broken clouds and performed all the aerobatic maneuvers that I had seen this aircraft execute at the airshows; loops, Cuban-eight’s, barrel-roll’s, and wing-over’s, the difference being I was up there doing it. This was breathtaking. Although this Spitfire is operated to an average of +4 G to help preserve her airframe but also for the consideration of the passenger – which was fine by me as having never experienced high G forces even 3 G felt enough! What did surprise me was how well I had felt throughout the aerobatic maneuvers, I had expected to feel ill having done so in the much slower, more lumbering Cessna I had had my lessons in. I was left free to enjoy this experience with a clear head!

Time seemed to go into slow motion up there, I seemed to fall into a state of mesmerisation, but before I knew it (after half an hour of flight) Pete was on the radio to the Duxford tower and we were on our way back.

At about 3 miles out to the north-east of the station, Pete stood the aircraft on her starboard wing as we half rolled and started a very fast decent towards Duxford which would end in a ‘run and break’ which is also sometimes referred to as ‘buzzing the tower’.

We accelerated to about 310 knots and Duxford was approaching very fast. We roared down the flight line, beating up the tower at 50 feet, then Pete pulled the nose up 45 degrees and bought the flight to a climax with a beautifully slow ‘Victory Roll’ in front of all the onlookers I'd bought along with me to share this experience (which I am glad to say recorded the occasion on video, cellulose and digital chip)!

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Turning to port and skirting the perimeter we lowered the landing gear and then the flaps to reduce our speed, trimmed the aircraft into landing configuration and turned onto finals, which in a Spitfire is a curved approach in order to see where you are going as the forward visibility when landing, as with taxiing is extremely low!

Because the Spitfire wing is really designed for high-speed flight, it can be tricky when coming in to land. Pete advised me to put my hands by my sides so as not to obstruct the free movement of the stick. Good thing because at landing speed, a lot more input is required to keep the aircraft on the straight and level. Pete seemed to wrestle the aeroplane down but on watching the video footage taken of the flight, we had made a perfect ‘3 pointer’ landing. Most of this ‘wrestling’ was in part due to the high winds we were experiencing that day.

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There I was, back on the ground; stunned by my experience I felt a great sense of melancholy and on opening the canopy as we zigzagged our way back to our parking slot, I imagined the thoughts in the minds of those young war time pilots; shear relief at having not ‘bought it’ or joy at being privileged enough to fly such wonderful aircraft – probably a bit of both!

For me this flight represented more than a flight in a historical warbird, it was the fulfillment of a dream I had kept for years, it was something that meant the world to me and had resigned myself to never achieving it.

Think of the wildest, most unattainable childhood dream you had; then watch as it comes to fruition – that’s how much it meant to me. The memory of the 29th May 2002 has been permanently etched on my mind.

It also made me think beyond my own desires and needs - further out into the greater scheme of things as to what this aircraft really represents; this Spitfire, along with very few others like it changed the course of history by keeping a powerful enemy at bay in 1940 – This achievement and others like it is hardly even talked about these days, we have a very small number of men to thank for our freedom today - the 'Few' as they are known.

I consider my flight in the T Mk IX and this account as a thank you to its owner and my small tribute to the ‘Few’.

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Author
EdwardL
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