I know. I can’t believe it either.
But about an hour after I had taken this shot, I had flown her from here (Oxford Kidlington) to Farnborough with a couple of visits on the way to show her off to deserving people. You’ve got to share something as beautiful as this, haven’t you?
Back into the hangar for a moment. We haven’t even pushed her out onto the pan yet.
In the far left of the picture (above), with his back to camera, is the aircraft commander for the flight, Al Pinner. He’s pretty well qualified for this job. He’ll be talking to camera at the end of this piece, answering my questions about what it’s like flying - not just G-ILDA – but other Spitfire marques.
Meanwhile (below), that’s me, proudly sporting my military flying kit for the first time since my last working sortie at RAF Linton on Ouse in 1978.
In his present incarnation as v-p operations at TAG Aviation Europe, Al’s task that day was to ferry G-ILDA to TAG UK’s Farnborough base to to operate a display sortie from there the same evening. The display was to be overhead nearby Tylney Hall, where a large bunch of TAG senior pilots were gathered for their annual briefing. What a way to fire them up. More of that later.
Al briefs me: on the way to Farnborough, we are going to salute a friend a few miles to the south west of Oxford with a victory roll or two, call overhead Tylney Hall to locate it and do a couple of passes to work out a display line for the evening, and head for our destination which is expected to be active on runway 06. To get there we’d have to pass by RAF Odiham and, as I am about to find out, when Al’s flying G-ILDA he offers any base he communicates with at least a low pass.
With help from the ground crew, who handle G-ILDA with a reverential deftness, Al and I push the aircraft out of the hangar into an afternoon of dappled skies, light breezes and gin-clear visibility.
I climb into the rear cockpit and Al leans over the side, pointing out all the controls and answering my questions about what I should expect to see on the engine instruments. Actually the picture below is the forward cockpit, slightly roomier than mine.
The cockpit’s a very close fit. The instrument panel was invented before ergonomics were: dials are inserted wherever there’s a space. All black-and-white, no “proper” compass, just one of those directional gyros that operates in the horizontal. Al warns me not to snag the un-guarded gear lever by mistake because the undercarriage would retract on the ground if I did. When I want to open or close the canopy I have to lower my seat one click because the vertical adjustment lever snags the canopy handle; then raise it again when the canopy is where I want it.
Having checked I was strapped snugly into my ‘chute harness and seat, Al climbs into the front cockpit. Controls full and free, electrics on, clear prop, and the big Merlin roars into life, blasting an exhaust-charged slipstream past my open canopy. The Spitfire rocks gently with the torque. I’ve never felt more alive.
There’s an intercom, but it’s intermittent and totally outvoiced by Messrs Rolls and Royce. Al can see me in his mirror, I can see his face in it, and hand signals can substitute.
I follow through on the controls while Al taxies out to runway 19. She’s a beast on the ground, you can’t see ahead, and steering’s the weirdest form of differential braking you could possibly conceive. I look right and left and see rapt faces on the pan, in the tower, in ops room windows. G-ILDA’s a star: life’s on hold for everyone she passes, which she does with her nose in the air.
We hold short for power checks. Brakes on, power up, rpm set, let the big machine’s oil warm up. Mag drop’s a bit dramatic, so give her a bit more running time to clean the plugs.
Then clear to line up and we’re away like a greyhound out of the traps, the huge Merlin singing loudly but much more sweetly now she’s been given her head. Likewise, the beast on the ground becomes a bird, light as a feather once she’s slipped the surly bonds of earth.
We head south west at about 3,000ft to salute Al’s friend. When close, Al increases the boost and rpm, sets a gentle descent before pulling up firmly and, with nose high, into a victory roll. I watch, knowing it’s my turn next.
When I ask Al how much nose-up before starting to roll, he doesn’t give it to me in degrees: “Put your feet on the horizon.” And, he adds, keep the g positive all the way over. So I do that, imagining I had just made a kill and was performing a celebratory roll above the runway back at base before being hauled into the Flight Commander’s office and told to behave.
I get a word from Al on the way over the top because I relaxed the back-pressure, allowing the g to drop away. With a soul in the back seat, the tandem Spit’s centre of gravity is pretty far aft which makes it twitchy in pitch, so a relaxation feels more like a reversal. So he makes me do it again, the bastard.
I should have cocked up a second time so I’d get a third!
Anyway, off to Tylney Hall for Al’s dry run. There it is, a beautiful manse surrounded by lawns and woodland. And more of those rapt faces, alerted by the sound of the thrumming Merlin, gazing up as we steep-turn to show off the Spit’s glorious wing profile.
We wing away, and Al calls Odiham. They take Al’s offer of a pass above the runway, and as we pull up they hand us over to Farnborough.
This is the only disappointment of the flight. We want to run in for a victory roll, or at least a run-and-break to downwind, but Farnborough says traffic is holding for us so we have to go for a straight-in to 06.
Have they no soul?
Straight-in for a Spitfire is no joke. From a curved final approach you can see the runway. I can’t see it at all over the high nose until we are flaring and the edges enter my peripheral vision.
But we have both rolled back our canopies for a wind-in-your-hair final approach, so at least we get that.
Rapt faces everywhere as we taxi in. They clearly all expected us.
I climb out and Al clears the rear cockpit, removing ‘chute and harness in preparation for his solo display over Tylney this evening.
Off to the hotel for me. Out of the TAG car at Tylney, still in my flying kit. The guests’ awed glances say they think I’m the guy that did the mini-display overhead an hour or so earlier. Sorry Al, but I enjoyed that moment!
Change for dinner and out onto the evening terrace to await G-ILDA’s arrival.
The rising Merlin growl signals an imminent appearance, and Al roars over, then swings into exquisite aerial ballet above the darkening tree-line.
I am one of the rapt faces. But this time I’m different. Now I know why we won the Battle of Britain.