A short promotional video for the Grace Spitfire, ML407. To support the Grace Spitfire or to find out more please visit Air Leasing Ltd.
As for so many, the Supermarine Spitfire is a thing of beauty as well as world-famous for its historical achievements in WW2. Long admired by me, my wife bought me Geoffrey Wellum's book 'First Light' some years ago and I was transfixed by his descriptions of learning to fly, first flight in a Spitfire, being vectored by radar at night onto an enemy aircraft at the very limits of radio reception, blind flying over the North Sea, flying off a carrier in the Mediterranean, the defence of Malta, and many more. I've re-read it several times since.
I said to myself "If only I could do that that someday" and as I knew 2-seat Spitfires were around I did some research, only to discover there were huge restrictions imposed by the CAA. However in 2015 these were eased and paid-for flights for members of the public became available. Originally I looked at the Boultbee Academy but I think in order to have a chance of taking control one had to have a private pilots licence. It's also a long way away for me at Biggin Hill.
Then in 2018 my wife bought me a Spitfire calendar and the photo for February was the Duxford 2-seater operated by Classic Wings. Mentioned it to my wife who said "Go for it" so started research in earnest. Two basic packages one of about half an hour and one about an hour ... and I was then told I might as well go for the longer flight! So that was it, booked for 28th July, and a long wait. However I was getting increasingly annoyed with Classic Wings as they seemed incapable of putting all the information together, culminating in discovering only two days before that instead of needing to be at the briefing at 10am as in the information sent, a phone call to them about something else told me I needed to be there 15 minutes before that, i.e. 15 minutes after opening, and people with afternoon flights were advised not to arrive until an hour after opening to avoid the queues! By this time I wished I had discovered the Grace Spitfire at Sywell and booked with them instead, as they sounded a much better group of people to deal with, and a more consistent and personal approach. Then came the day - the first break in the good weather in two months, and cancelled!
So quick as a flash I got my money back and booked with Carolyn Grace at Sywell instead, and they proved to be a much better group of people to deal with. Their aircraft is well named, because unlike many 2-seat Spitfires the rear canopy has been set at the same height as the front to give a much more 'graceful' appearance. Also the fuselage between the two canopies has been converted to Plexiglass which gives better visibility for the rear cockpit. The aircraft was originally a Mk IX built at Castle Bromwich and is credited with the first enemy aircraft 'kill' on D-Day at Omaha Beach. After the war it was converted by Supermarines to a 2-seat trainer. The fuel tank was moved from in front of the pilot to others in the fuselage and wings, so the pilot could be moved forward to make room for the rear cockpit whilst maintaining the balance. It also means that it has retained its original overall length, private conversions often have been extended to accept the rear cockpit. The rear canopy was originally significantly higher than the front which looks rather ungainly, and when Nick Grace restored the aircraft he decided to alter it to improve the appearance, and it has come to be known as the ‘Grace in line Canopy Conversion’ which some others have adopted. The Grace Spitfire:
The Aircraft Restoration Co. Ltd. Spitfire at Duxford - note the higher rear canopy which originally gave the instructor a better view:
Above pictures by Pen Pusher on FighterControl.co.uk. Compare that with a single-seat of the same era - note how the pilot sits further back:
Picture by Fred Taylor on FighterControl.co.uk.
I had to wait another six weeks for 13th September, and another complication was that being another morning flight travel down on the day from Solihull was simply not an option given the traffic chaos from first thing in the morning to quite late in the evening. For Duxford we had been at our son's place not far away, but Sywell has The Aviator hotel on site, so even better giving us the afternoon to travel down. The hotel celebrates its Art Deco origins with much period decor, furniture and posters as well as it's flying history which is another bonus for me as I have always loved the products of that period even before I knew it had a particular name.
It's a case of 'count the Spitfires' inside and out
And the entrance to the commercial area is no exception.
Another bonus was that due to rain in the morning they were operating all that day's flights in the afternoon, and we arrived in time to see three go off together - the Spitfire, a P51 Mustang and an ME 109 all with passengers, a formation flypast on their return, then another two go off in the Spitfire and the Mustang. They park right next to the hotel garden so a really good view of operations.
A couple of days after my flight Carolyn Grace posted this on the The Peoples Mosquito Twitter page, almost certainly taken during the formation above as that was the only time all three were in the air together over the two days I was there:
We had spent the week before haunting several weather forecast sites, and it was looking good for the day, and getting better day by day. On the morning it was glorious! Clear blue skies and just a gentle breeze. The briefing room in the hotel to get kitted up with overalls, gloves and helmet, not to mention the sick-bag! Then out to the aircraft for the cockpit briefing from Carolyn Grace. A lot to take in, but several pages of briefing notes had been supplied beforehand which I had read through many times, so it was easy to put what I can now see in the cockpit into context - getting 10 out of 10 from Carolyn for my recall which makes things much easier for her. Why people would take up an experience like this and not put the effort in to get the best out of it I can't imagine.
Ryanair Captain Mark had come over to spectate
Mark and my ever-indulgent wife
My 'office' ...
... a surprising amount of space both below the rudder controls and in front ...
... and the front cockpit
Discussing the flight with pilot Alex Smee, where I would like to fly over (grandkids school at Kimbolton) and what I wanted to do by way of aerobatics - everything! Which pleased Alex greatly!
Parachute fitting - yes, in case of an incident that put the aircraft out of control. If I see Alex getting out I am to do the same!
Getting in, care needed to avoid catching the parachute on the front of the rear canopy.
Last minute checks with Alex ...
... I get my helmet on ...
... and Alex straps in.
By this time my canopy has been closed, for which I had to lean my head right forwards. If I had needed to open it myself (normally only in certain emergencies) I would have had to lean my head forward again whilst pulling back with my left hand on the release handle which is above one's head - potentially quite tricky I can imagine as one gets older.
Several operations of the hand fuel pump (a bit like tickling the carb on an old motorbike), then fire up - first time despite being cold.
A long taxi to the other side of the field ...
... weaving from side to side as that is only way to see what is in front of the aircraft.
Then a short hold to test the engine at take-off power, onto the runway, clearance to take off, open the throttle, and away! As we surged down the runway I wanted to laugh out loud, but as intercom silence had been requested for takeoff and landing I managed to restrict myself to the most enormous grin and shaking my head in wonderment at where I was and what I was doing.
If there had been one thing I wanted to see more than anything else, it was looking down on that beautiful wing with the patchwork fields beneath, and there it was. Then the most amazing 45 minutes I have ever experienced. The air is so clear we can see for miles in all directions, just fluffy bits of cloud above (we are at about 1200ft). To Kimbolton first and several circuits of the village where my grandchildren are at school. I've pre-warned the kiddies I'll be overhead, I can't see anyone outside (I wonder if they can hear), but I give the school a wave anyway.
Then Grafham water and a couple of circuits annoying the fishermen.
We then had time to go across to Duxford for a fast and low pass down the runway. The bank and dive down to the runway was like the best roller-coaster ride ever, and to see the clear outline of the Spitfire shadow speeding across the ground was fantastic.
Then it was my turn. I followed Alex on the control column for a while to get the feel of it. Then those immortal words - "You have control" to which I replied "I have control". Carolyn had explained just how little input was needed for turns, but it was even less than she had described. Gentle pressure on the spade grip to one side and immediately the aircraft banks, but rather than the control being very sensitive as I was expecting and having to make sure I didn't move it too far or too fast, it was more a case of applying a force rather than a movement, so easy to be controlled and smooth. One would have to push pretty hard to make a violent manoeuvre - in bank anyway. Alex was obviously happy as he told me his hand was now clear of the control column, and asked if I was enjoying myself ...
Moving the stick back and fore seemed to have less back-pressure, and did need more care not to overdo it. At one point I pushed the stick forward enough to make the carb-fed Merlin splutter a bit so concentrated on maintaining altitude and just doing gentle turns. Back to Grafham water to make my own circuit.
After what seemed like ages Alex took back control, and checked I was still OK with aerobatics (YES!). A diving bank to gain speed ...
... then a half-Cuban i.e. a loop to fully inverted ...
... then a roll out on the way back down, and a full victory roll.
Head back looking 'up' through the canopy to see the ground going past either forwards or sideways really was something else. Finally a typical 'display' flight with a group of trees standing-in for spectators, showing how passes were made at various attitudes to give the best view of the aircraft to those on the ground, and back to Sywell and a fast and low pass for my wife.
Banking round to get to the other end of the main runway ...
... final approach ...
... and gentle landing.
Taxi back ...
Carolyn pulls back the canopy ...
... and asks how I got on.
"I think he enjoyed it ..."
Probably where the phrase 'ear to ear' comes from.
What an absolutely fabulous way to spend an hour or so.
Oil streaks from under the engine covers, how 'classic' is that?