Yesterday, a long-held dream finally came true: I flew in a Spitfire. It was truly, absolute, fabulously incredible, but then of course it was; that goes without saying. Even now, a day on, I still can’t quite believe I’ve actually flown in a Spitfire. No, that I’ve FLOWN a Spitfire…
For days running up to this moment, I had been worrying that I would suddenly be struck down by some strange illness, or, more probably, that the bad summer weather would persist and that rain would scupper the flight, or that for some reason the day would be cancelled. However, the morning dawned with clear blue skies and I felt in the peak of good health, and when we reached Oxford Airport, Matt Jones, the pilot, was ready and waiting.
That I was there at all was entirely due to two men: Matt, and the Spitfire’s owner, the incredible Steve Boultbee. Both are two of the nicest, most lovely people you could ever meet – utterly charming men with passion, enthusiasm and sharing a mantra that life is to be lived. Steve had made contact last autumn and then a couple of months ago, Matt run out of the blue. He and Steve were, he told me, setting up a new venture – the Boultbee Flight Academy, and would I help with their launch? The idea was to offer pilots of varying degrees of experience the opportunity to train to fly a Tiger Moth, Harvard, Chipmunk, and even a Spitfire, and to solo in each. It meant pilots could experience of something of what it was like for those training during the war, as the Tiger Moth and Harvard were the most common aircraft flown on the journey to flying fighters such as the Spitfire. And no-one else in the world was offering such courses. The warbird world is a very closed shop with a lot of raging egos flying around; that Steve was willing to share his collection of aircraft and, especially, the Spitfire, was much to his credit and says a lot about the man.
He bought it a couple of years ago, and as the hammer went down, the auctioneer asked him whether he intended to keep the Mk IX two-seater in the UK. ‘Yes,’ Steve replied emphatically, to resounding applause around the auction house. Not only has he kept it in England, he is also very conscious of the iconic power of the Spitfire and the history that goes with it, and from the outset was determined that it should be enjoyed not only be himself but by many others.
It was his pilot, Matt Jones, who had the idea for the academy, however. Matt had originally worked in the city but decided to try and follow his dream of becoming a full-time pilot. After training, he was taken on by Steve, and then converted to the Spitfire after it was bought. I’ve always thought I have a pretty good job – if you can call it that – but Matt is truly living the dream, but there’s no sense at all that he’s taking it for granted. ‘To be honest,’ he told me, ‘I still get as much of thrill every time I fly the Spit as I did the first time. It’s an incredible honour and privilege.’ And so it is, as I can now testify.
My family had come to watch. Was I nervous, my son asked? No, not at all, just very, very excited, despite the briefing on how to use the parachute. Strapped in, my shoulders almost touching the sides, I began to understand what Geoff Wellum had meant when he said he always felt as though the aircraft was strapped to him rather than the other way around. It’s so tight, the cockpit so small – although quite comfortable – that you really do feel as one with the machine. Then a few coughs and suddenly the Spitfire burst into life with a gust of smoke and the airframe began to shake. Chocks away and we were taxiing out, Matt in front weaving the Spitfire in an effort to see ahead past the great nose of the engine cowling, and my my own feet, strapped into the pedals, following his every move. It was quite a long taxi to the end of the runway and I watched the radiator temperature climb quite quickly. One-hundred-and-twenty degrees is the absolute maximum, and by the time we ready to take-off, it was nearing a hundred. I thought of Michael Caine’s character in the Battle of Britain movie complaining that either they should take off or blow up.
And then we were off, thundering down the runway, the tail rising and visibility suddenly improving. A moment later, the shaking lessened and the shadow below parted company with the aircraft as we climbed into the sky. This was it, airborne in a Spitfire, those two famous elliptical wings spread out either side of me, more beautiful, more perfect than ever before.
The plan was to carry out some air-to-air filming. Steve and his step-brother, Sean Davison, a documentary film-maker, were in Steve’s helicopter, but I found it extremely hard to spot them. I could lean forward and turn my head, and just – just – see the elevators and tail plane, but visibility to the rear was limited to put it mildly, while all around all I could see were endless fields, little villages, the Blenheim estate and an English countryside bathed in sunlight and busy with the harvest. Matt spotted the chopper first and then I saw it too, but had this been wartime, I couldn’t help wondering whether I would have been too late.
A run past, a tight bank, the countryside swivelling and my stomach lurching, but what a thrill, as the Spit continued banking and turning. The chopper was gone again, now several miles away in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t dog-fighting, but it gave me a very clear impression of the disorientation that must have been experienced. And where were we? Somewhere over the Cotsworlds, but the airfield had vanished. Again, I realized how easy it would be to get lost and why so many during their flying training in the war had done so – and why so many had emerged from a dogfight and lost their way and then run out of fuel.
More passes, a few aileron turns, the landscape revolving, and my stomach lurching again, but the Spitfire seemed rock solid, the yellow blur of the propeller constant, those wings scything seemingly effortlessly through the sky. Those who flew her during the war often describe the Spitfire as a thoroughbred, and so she seemed: an elegant lady, athletic, refined, but with a deep-throated power.
After half an hour or more of formatting on the chopper, Steve and Sean headed home leaving Matt and I to ‘have a play’; moments later, I heard Matt say, ‘You have control.’ My legs were suddenly rigid and I knew I was holding the grip too tightly. I needed to relax. ‘Look outside, not at the dials,’ Matt told me. In no time at all, I had inadvertently climbed 1,200 feet. Then a couple of turns; during the first, I brought the nose to far up, but then the tension began to seep away and I brought her round a hundred-and-eighty degrees in a very gentle turn. The controls were light – very light, and the response instant. I could hardly believe it – I was flying the Spitfire, and it was every bit as wonderful as I’d expected.
Fifty minutes later, it was time to head back, but there was one more treat in store. Matt had gained permission to beat up the airfield. We thundered towards it, the altimeter needle turning backwards until we were only a hundred feet or so off the ground and nearing 300 mph. Hurtling over, the Spitfire then suddenly climbed and we were swivelling once more in a victory roll, and I was laughing, drunk on the thrill and overwhelming experience of the past fifty minutes.
When we finally came to a halt and the engine was shut down, I sat there in the cockpit for a few moments, barely able to move. The thrill of the ride, the history, the shared experience, the shape of those wings, the bite of the Merlin – all these things combined to make it one of the most incredible and unforgettable experiences of my life.
Steve and Matt – thank you. www.boultbeeflightacademy.co.uk