Armed Forces Day with a Warbird, RAF100 1/4/1918-2018
“Our Man” from St James’s received a “bucket list” gift from his family eighteen months ago, a flight in a Spitfire at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford on Armed Forces Day. To celebrate RAF 100, this is his report on what was a very surprising day. Ed.
A drive eastwards into Cambridgeshire is a very pleasant experience, especially early in the morning on a Saturday in mid-June. With memorials and remembrance being closer to the public consciousness than ever, a trip into the eastern UK offers some inspirational opportunities to embrace remembrance whilst acknowledging that no-one escapes its effect or has nothing to contribute in the support of our Armed Forces and Allies.
Cambridgeshire has a long and proud history as a location for the Military and our Allies, including, their commemoration and remembrance. Non more so than my first surprise, coming across the magnificent Cambridge American Cemetery at Coton. Donated by Cambridge University, this site was dedicated on July 16th 1956 (60th Anniversary next month) to provide a burial ground for American personnel in perpetuity. My early arrival meant it was closed, nonetheless, worth the return journey in the near future.
Arrival at IWM Duxford was a quiet affair, (it opens at 10.00 AM) only staff and student warbird pilots are allowed in early. I was given my orders by a very happy man at the gate. “Great day for it, turn left, go to the end of the hangar, turn right, drive to the control tower, park up, Nicky will meet you.” She did, and was as happily efficient as all our previous communications had suggested, when she laid out the schedule of the morning. My second surprise came during the briefings, when every new risk I was about take was explained and followed by Nicky saying, “you can of course opt out at any stage, right up to sitting in the aircraft!” I didn’t, and was fitted for my flightsuit, shown how to adjust it to my waist then ushered off to see “my kite” and pilot.
In all honesty, I had already seen “my kite” along with other members of the Classic Wings fleet. A D.H. Chipmunk, Dragon Rapides, Tiger Moths, a T6 Harvard and, of course, the Spitfire; an aircraft that was first seen by the Great British public on 27th June 1936 at RAF Hendon (80 years ago on Monday). The T9 Spitfire ticked all my particular boxes, it had seen action, it had all the right elliptical curves, beautiful camouflage scheme, a Merlin engine and, most importantly, a rear seat for me. Time to meet the pilot.
Rarely, do you meet someone, who you can have complete confidence in from the start. My third surprise came in the inspirational form of Anna Walker who is somewhat of a legend in warbird circles, a pilot as a teenager, a certified display pilot, experienced in aerobatic and formation flying, film and TV work, the list is very long and distinguished. My fourth, came in the knowledge that she is an expert on The Air Transport Auxiliary and believed to be the only female Hawker Hurricane pilot since the 1940’s. Safe hands indeed.
Anna did my pre-flight briefing at the Spitfire including, what not and what to touch, what we would be doing and what we wouldn’t and, my absolute favourite, it would be my choice as to whether the flight would include a victory roll. I decided it…
Warbirds are go
From closing the canopy, it was very powerful experience, the sound of a Merlin engine 20ft away and any view with a Spitfire wing in the foreground is enough to make anyone cheer loudly and drown out the engine. Once airborne, the exhilaration was interrupted by a list of questions, how did WW2 pilots cope, how did they manage to spot other aircraft and were they always in a state of such heightened senses? The answers came in a radio call from Anna asking me if I would like to take control? I took control (marginally), I coped (a sunny day over England for pure pleasure), I spotted a few (nowhere near as many as Anna) and I have never felt so chuffed with the world and life.
High over the tree lined avenues leading to the Wimpole Estate, we completed two life affirming wingovers and then came the decision…. my victory roll, we did it, it felt glorious and despite wanting to shout and cheer, I was speechless. Anna explained calmly that it was time to return to Duxford and that we would be doing one final flypast and wing waggle over the airfield. My last, in a day of surprises, was perfect; as we joined the circuit I could see two Tiger Moths on the move and my warbird pilot told the air-traffic controller to keep them still or we would open fire! He chuckled and as we started our flypast I heard in my headset very quietly,“dakadakadakadaka” I think!
A lot of what followed was a bit of a blur. I remember chatting to some of the Classic Wings team and seeing the passion, pride and love they have for these marvellous machines; reminding me, that is important to remember how the brave members of our services went into battle and the enormous character that was needed.
My enormous thanks go to Nicky Jiggins and the Classic Wings Team, aviatrix extraordinaire Anna Walker and Cambridgeshire for getting on my “bucket list.”
I have heard that “Our Man” will only believe this all happened when the DVD arrives. Ed.