Published on October 28th, 2022 | by FII Reader0
Flying the Legend
By David Fielding.
Ever since I was a little boy, I dreamed of flying and in particular one aircraft type, the Supermarine Spitfire. My family was steeped in aviation, with my father and uncle having started work with TWA and Air Canada at Shannon airport back in the late 1940s, and following in their footsteps, both myself, my brother and my cousin were all second-generation airline and airport employees.
However, growing up in Ireland, whatever about learning to fly it was very unlikely that I would ever fulfil my ultimate aviation dream, to fly in a Spitfire. During the preliminary organisation of a small airshow a few years ago I met Ben Perkins the MD of a company called Aero Legends. As we chatted, I expressed my interest in flying in a Spitfire but at the time never realised it would eventually be with Aero Legends. I did go on to learn to fly and also to instruct but deep down I always had that yearning to fly in a Spitfire.
On their website, Aero Legends has this mission statement; ‘Aero Legends’ mission is to provide our customers with the opportunity to relive the flight training and flying experiences of Battle of Britain pilots using authentically restored wartime aircraft from that era, including the legendary Supermarine Spitfire.’
Aero Legends operates out of two sites; North Weald in Essex and Headcorn in Kent. For the Battle of Britain experience, I chose Headcorn because of its close proximity to the White Cliffs of Dover and the English Channel. As I wanted to have a day on each side of my Spitfire flight, we made a weekend of it. My wife and I flew into Gatwick and from there hired a car and drove to Headcorn which is about a 1-hour drive. There are many lovely old villages in the surrounding area; Egerton, Pluckley (the most haunted village in Kent) and Smarden but to name a few and equally many quaint B&B’s, small inns and hotels are scattered around the vicinity so accommodation is not a problem.
We stayed in the George Inn in the small village of Egerton, it is a small hotel with 3 guest bedrooms restaurant and a bar which is owned by the Perkins family and used to be a haunt of pilots stationed at Headcorn (Lashenden) during the war. The fireplace boasts some of their signatures and copious aviation-themed prints adorn the public areas, consequently, the George Inn has a real historical feel to it. Headcorn airfield (six miles from Egerton) was officially commissioned in 1943 and was known as RAF Lashenden during World War II, it was initially home to two RCAF squadrons operating Spitfire IXb’s and later in 1944 to the USAF 9th airforce where several fighter groups operated P51D Mustangs.
Booking your flight is done through the Aero Legends website whereby you can choose your dates and preferred time. Your pilot and aircraft are allocated after your booking is confirmed. At the time of booking, you pay a deposit with the balance due 30 days before your flight. The flight times and associated experiences vary, I initially booked 30 minutes but when I expressed an interest in actually flying the aircraft it was recommended that a minimum of 40 minutes was optimum, given start-up, take off and transit time to the coast and back.
On the day of your flight, you are advised to arrive 3 hours before your flight as there is much to do before you actually get to fly. On arrival you, family and or friends are warmly welcomed by the Aero Legends staff who are all very knowledgeable, friendly and professional, you immediately feel that they genuinely want you to have a good time and to get the most out of your flight experience. The Aero Legends facility is actually a genuine World War II ‘dispersal’ hut, and though not very large has indoor and outdoor seating, access to toilets and plenty of tea and coffee! There is also an adjacent ‘Wings’ airfield bar and restaurant. The Aero Legends waiting area is adorned with period aviation prints (some limited edition) and themed books which may be purchased on-site.
Post reception, pre-flight activities are conducted in a designated briefing room within the dispersal hut. The mandatory pre-flight briefings consist of several detailed verbal and video safety briefs. As you will be flying in an ‘old’ vintage warbird, safety is continuously emphasised. In the safety briefing videos, you are shown how to get in and out of the aircraft, how to adjust your seat, open and close the canopy, strap into your parachute (the very same ‘bucket seat’ type worn by fighter pilots during the war) and the drills for various emergency procedures, for example; in the event of engine fire at start up, forced landing and aircraft abandonment while in the air.
You are then kitted out in your personal equipment which consists of a flying suit, boots, gloves and flying helmet. It’s not cold in the aircraft, so you should avoid wearing bulky clothes under your flying suit as the cockpit is quite tight and you will have seat and parachute straps on over your flying suit. Loose items on your person or in your pockets are strictly prohibited and this includes phones, this is because as with most military warbirds the Spitfire has no ‘floor’ therefore any loose items could fall into sensitive areas of the aircraft’s controls or electrics with the potential to cause control jams or worse!
Once kitted out, you sign a disclaimer in which you acknowledge and accept the risks of flying in an ‘old’ vintage warbird. Then your assigned pilot (which in my case was the highly experienced and affable Flt. Lt Anthony ‘Parky’ Parkinson) conducts a separate briefing in which he asks about your aviation experience if any, what to expect, and more importantly the do’s and dont’s of strapping yourself into a Spitfire and the operation of the aircraft while on the ground and during the flight. We also briefed on the duration of the flight, the route we would take and control handover protocols. Incidentally, the briefing is conducted on a large glass-topped table which is supported by an actual complete Rolls Royce V12 Merlin engine, the powerplant fitted to nearly all Spitfires!
So, what about the flight itself? This is where the true thrill begins. The weekend weather and day of my flight was hot and warm with light breezes and a blue sky reminiscent of the summer days in 1940 when the Battle of Britain was raging in these skies 80-odd years ago. The aircraft assigned for my flight was ‘Elizabeth’, NH341 DBE, a Spitfire MkIX T9, a two-seat conversion, originally built as a single seater in Castle Bromwich in 1944 and which had two combat victories to its credit. The aircraft is fully equipped with dual controls, all instruments, levers, buttons, switches and controls in the rear cockpit are identical to the front cockpit which enables the aircraft to be used for training and check out of ‘would-be’ and qualified Spitfire pilots. I did however note that the magneto switches were lock-wired ‘ON’ for obvious reasons!
Once installed you are required to demonstrate that you can open and close the canopy in both normal and emergency function, that you can raise and lower your seat (vital for emergency exits) open the small cockpit door on the port side and that you can undo your seat and parachute harnesses remembering to only undo the seat harness should you have to bale out in flight! Confirmation of intercom communications being established with ‘Parky’ it was time to start the mighty Merlin.
The ground crew withdraw and with the canopies open ‘Parky’ signals start. The mighty Merlin turns over slowly at first while gently rocking the entire airframe. A few coughs, bursts of flame and smoke and suddenly the massive four-bladed propeller becomes a blur as the Merlin roars into life, crackling and rumbling as it sings its famous and unforgettable signature tune. Temperatures and pressures spring to life and you are conscious of the sound, exhaust smells and the heat streaming past your cockpit as the 1600 hp engine stabilises. With an audible hiss of air as the parking brake is released, we immediately start to taxi as the Merlin can easily overheat on the ground.
As the nose is so long and forward visibility poor, we characteristically weave our way to Headcorns’ main grass runway 28/10, then with power and take-off checks complete we line up and ‘Parky’ instructs me to close my canopy. A thumbs up to confirm all is good and we are off! The Merlin rises in pitch to a thunderous growl and the aircraft accelerates like a thoroughbred out of its stall, the acceleration is phenomenal and within moments we are up and away climbing towards Folkstone and the South coast. The engine is throttled back immediately after take-off to set climb and to ease wear and tear but we are still climbing at about 180mph and about 2000 feet a minute!
We climb to 4000 feet and we cloud chase and wheel about over the sun-parched fields of Kent en route to the coast. I’m transfixed looking at the beautiful elliptical wings and the power and purpose at which the Spitfire flies, it feels like a living breathing thing and I can’t wait to have a go! As we progress ‘Parky’ points out the entrance to the channel tunnel at Folkstone off to our right, and then I catch my first sight of the famous white cliffs as we turn Easterly and fly over the Battle of Britain memorial at Capel Le Ferne. I can see visitors looking skywards as they get an unexpected treat on seeing a real Spitfire fly past!
Heading East along the coast out over the channel with Dover to our left ‘Parky’ points to France, clearly visible to our right and a mere seven minutes flying time away by Spitfire, it makes you realise just how close to England the opposing forces were during the battle!
We route up to the highest point of the cliffs around the corner at Margate and pull up to perform a classic wing-over to reverse our course back towards Dover. We do a victory roll over Dover, Capel Le Ferne and then turn inland, a barrel roll and complete loop follow and then for the highlight of my flight…those immortal words for anyone lucky enough to fly in a Spitfire…’You Have Control’. I take the classic spade grip (complete with gun button) lightly in my hand and feel the aircraft responding to my gentle inputs, gentle in roll but sensitive in pitch, it goes where you want, I gently climb and turn and then ‘Parky’ instructs me to try a steep 70-degree turn to the left and then to the right, they work out fine but the Spitfire does most of the work, it is a dream to fly and I can scarcely believe that for this pilot, my dream has come true! All the accounts you read or see about flying the Spitfire are true…it is ‘superb’, it is a ‘pilot’s aircraft’, it is a joy to fly, and it is…simply fantastic! Given how long ago the aircraft was conceived, designed and built, R.J Mitchell and his design team at Supermarine got it right.
In total, I was on the controls and flew the aircraft for about 10 minutes but it seemed much shorter. On the re-join over Headcorn we did a hesitation roll and two victory rolls in either direction…and then into land. The approach, again, because of the lack of visibility over the long nose is a classic curved ‘taildragger’ type approach, starting at the end of downwind, slowing to about 120 mph then to 90mph and in over the fence at about 80 mph followed by a gentle touch down and roll out, again the characteristic hiss of air from the pneumatic brakes as we slow, ‘Parky’ makes it look easy, but then, he is one of Britain’s most experienced Spitfire pilots with over 1500 hours on type! You can read his impressive bio on the Aero Legends website.
We taxi back to dispersal pausing for a moment by the viewing area where my wife Grainne (my personal paparazzi) is waiting with other enthusiastic onlookers, she is juggling two cameras to capture the huge grin etched on my face after my flight. We then taxi around to our parking spot and stop, ‘Parky’ pulls the idle cut off and while the Merlin winds down and the massive four-bladed propeller slows to a stop, I sit there trying to take in what has just happened over the last 40 minutes, the greatest aviation experience of my life, a boyhood dream realised and a bucket list item ticked.
After shut down, two family members or friends are allowed out to the flight line for photographs and to see the aircraft close up. You return to the dispersal hut and (in my case) ‘calm’ down after the experience of flying in this wonderful aircraft. Even if you have only a passing interest in aviation, this is one flight I would urge anyone to take and for those, like me, immersed in aviation as a career and a pastime, it was an unforgettable experience, a memory I will undoubtedly cherish for the rest of my life. Post-flight every guest pilot receives a frameable souvenir poster of ‘Elizabeth’ which gives a brief history of the aircraft and is signed on the day by your pilot.
So, what does it cost? It’s not a cheap adventure with (at the time of writing) prices starting at £2975 sterling for about 30 minutes, my flight cost approximately £4000. There are also other packages available ‘The Ultimate Spitfire Package’ (from £5395) which includes a trial lesson in a Tiger Moth, a T6 Harvard and a flight in a Spitfire and the ‘Formation Spitfire Flight’ (from £3250) which comprises of flying in formation with another Spitfire. But whichever package you might choose, it is definitely worth every penny! And for me, the final icing on the cake…I now have a signed entry in my pilot logbook which shows 40 minutes dual in a Spitfire MkIX T9!
Aero Legends can be contacted on their website: www.aerolegends.co.uk or by phone: 0044-1622-812-830.