Last week our very own Paddy Eason was speaking in Dublin at the Screen Training Ireland event VFX: Script to Screen and the next thing we know he’s back in blighty flying a Spitfire as a special treat from the producers of Our Robot Overlords.
Summer 2013 - we were shooting the movie 'Our Robot Overlords' on the Isle of Man, and the day's excitement was provided by the arrival on our location of a real honest-to-goodness Spitfire. Yes, a film about evil alien robots also features a Spitfire, and why the hell not? The producers of the film must have spotted the gleam in my eye as, by the end of the day, they'd promised to get me airborne.
Fast-forward a few months -
Saturday morning - the big question is ‘eat breakfast or not?’ The thought of puking inside £3m worth of historic aircraft is pretty bad, but not so bad as being hungry, so I allow myself a bit of toast. Easy to mop up, right?
Having arrived at Duxford airbase with an hour to spare, Finn (13) and I have time to kill. Toast turns into a bacon sandwich in the caff. We wander into the Imperial War Museum shop - ‘Sorry, can I help you, sir? We don’t open for another 20 minutes’.
Russell, the sound recordist for the day (charged with capturing the noise of the famous 12 cylinder Merlin engine from inside the cockpit) makes his rendezvous, and we head down to the Aircraft Restoration Company’s hangar.
A fairly modest building hides a cornucopia of rare aeroplanes. Bloody hell! It’s a vintage aircraft factory! A nearly complete Blenheim (when it’s done, it will be the only flying example in the world). A Lysander, tucked in a corner and shrink-wrapped like an Airfix kit. And most amazing of all, ARC’s speciality: Spitfires. Loads of the bloody things. Wings, bodies, cockpits, fuel tanks, engines. At least 5 identifiable Spitfires at various stages in their rebuilds, including a rather fabulous azure blue PR (Photo Reconnaissance). The U2 spy plane of its day.
I, and several other middle aged blokes are shown around the workshops by one of ARC’s experts. I feel like one of the kids in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (before things went bad for them).
A couple of fun (if you’re into old planes) facts from the tour... The oft-repeated notion that Hurricanes were easier to repair than Spitfires after being shot up in combat is apparently ‘horseshit’. The Hurricane’s cross-braced wood structure is much trickier to patch up than the Spit’s aluminium hoops. And - you can tell from old film of Spitfires scrambling which ones had the original manual pump-up undercarriage and which have the improved hydraulic system by the way the planes wobble in the air just after take off. Try pumping with one hand and flying with the other without wobbling!
So - yeah - pretty much a WW2 plane geek’s wet dream. Even Finn seems vaguely interested, and he’s only just entering puberty.
I'm slightly sobered by the comment from one chap in the know, when questioned as to whether he likes to fly in the vintage planes himself - ‘No, not the Spitfires, they’re time bombs’. Hmmm. Apparently, at the height of the Battle Of Britain, the life expectancy of a newly built Spitfire was 5 hours of active flying. 5 hours. Frankly - they weren’t built to last.
Still, the care spent on the rebuilds is reassuring - the place looks like a F1 workshop. I’d love to know how much it’d cost to get a Spitfire built. You can do that - you can order one. Takes about 3 years.
It's around this point that I am presented with my flying suit. Apparently they provide a few seconds’ protection from burning aviation fuel. Right.
Three of us who are due to fly sit at a little picnic table by the airstrip being given a pre-flight briefing by our extremely charming and avuncular pilot, 'Rats'. Day job - flying an airliner. Previous job - flying jet fighters, including Lightnings! He really doesn't look old enough for Lightnings, but is certainly the safest conceivable pair of hands. And here’s the lovely thing: he seems almost as excited as his passengers at the day’s flying ahead.
The briefing concentrates entirely too much on forced landings, baling out, bird strikes and collisions with careless Cessnas for my liking. Do I really need to know all this?
Then he starts to talk about controlling the Spitfire. Um - he’s not going to let some bozo (me) fly the flipping thing is he? I start to get in a bit of a tizzy. The bloke next to me reveals that he has had extensive flying lessons, stopping just short of a PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence). Has there been some misunderstanding? Should I speak up about my lack of flying experience since my 5 minutes in a de Havilland Chipmunk as an air cadet in 1982? Does a 40th birthday jaunt in a glider count? I decide to see what happens - the other geezers in flight suits don't exactly look like dashing pilot material, so I guess I’ll be safe. I mean - the owners of this piece of priceless aviation heritage aren't going to put it at any risk, are they?
Next up - a form to sign. Not much to fill in, except Next Of Kin. Ooookkkay.
Before I know it, Anna (ARC executive officer and a flying instructor herself for 18 yrs) is gesturing for me to come and get ready. Oh god oh god oh god.
I hand my camera to Finn, who promises to get a few snaps if he gets a chance. I peel away for a quick pee, acutely conscious that the sound recorder and mic that Russell has secreted about my person is recording it all.
The Spitfire sits outside the hangar, gleaming.
This plane was originally built in 1944, and, from what I read, spent the last year or two of the war strafing Nazi trains and dodging Messerschmitts. So pootling around Duxford making men very happy must feel like a holiday for the old girl.
And then I’m climbing into the cockpit. Hold on to this bit, step on the seat, slide in, feet on pedals, there you go. So now I’m sitting in the rear cockpit of this rare twin-seat Spitfire. The cushion I sit on is actually a parachute. There are two sets of straps. One (green) to attach me to the parachute. One (black) to attach me to the plane. If you need to bale out (bird strike, crash with a careless Cessna), then undo the black ones, not the green ones! Ok, got it. To open and close the cockpit canopy, lower the seat with this lever, and then wind the handle, pushing it sideways to engage the clutch. This bit here is to lock it open or closed. The red knob is the canopy jettison. Don’t push that lever, as it will raise the wheels and you’ll break the plane. Etc., etc.
T.M.I., man, I just want to fly around a bit!
The cockpit is snug, but perfectly comfortable. I’ve read accounts that emphasise the tightness of the Spitfire cockpit, but I think they exaggerate. If you’ve ever driven a small 1960‘s or 70’s British sportscar you’d feel at home here. Child-bearing hips might be a problem - sorry ATA girls! There is no floor, strangely. You wouldn’t want to drop your keys as not only might you never see them again, but they could well get snagged in the jungle of control rods and cables down there.
The funny thing about the look of it all is - even though this is all late 1930’s/early 40’s technology (and what does a 1940 car look like under the hood?), the look and feel of it seems much more 1960’s to me. Nothing fussy or leathery or fat. Everything is stripped down, aluminium, skeletal - almost Space Age.
Rats the Pilot climbs in, and once again I’m delighted with how excited and happy he seems himself. I suppose an Airbus is just a day at the office, whereas a Spitfire was never that. We check our comms are working - very good, I can hear him pretty well. He sits for a while, checking a few things (good! check all you like!) and then - ROOOOOOAR! The engine starts.
On the ground, the gigantic Merlin engine sounds quite agricultural. As the pilot says - like a Massey Ferguson tractor. There’s no concession to silencing or anything namby-pamby like that. Clouds of smoke roll back from the lines of exhaust pipes and the prop spins. He tells me that once a Spitfire engine is started a chain of events is set in motion. You can't sit and wait. The engine will overheat on the ground very quickly. Once you start up, you have to go!
A hiss of hydraulics, and we start to taxi. The plane seems surprisingly nimble on the ground - and Rats has to be careful to pivot the little plane past the hangar, round some shipping containers, past some other parked planes (including a little fighter bearing swastikas on its tail - I fancy it and the Spitfire exchange growls as they cross). I spot Finn, and he gives me a nervous little wave and smile, and then takes a pic (good lad!)
We head toward the grass (Rats telling me that they must always go from tarmac to grass at an angle to avoid the wheels getting caught on the edge and the plane tipping forward). Once on the grass, a little swerve, and we’re lined up ready for take off. He opens up the throttle, and - bloody hell, it sounds amazing! The loudest, sweetest, heavy-metal bastard engine noise you can imagine. A noise that would make Lemmy and all of Motorhead stand to attention. A noise to make a Harley Davidson give up and join the Mods.
Before I know it, we’re sprinting down the strip, the plane bouncing lightly on the grass. The G force pushes me progressively harder back in my seat. That’s 1500 horsepower, bitches. In seconds, the bumps stop, and we’re airborne, smooth as silk.
In a way, the process is strangely familiar. It’s like every airliner take off you’ve ever done - the taxi to the runway, the sudden thrust of power from the engines, the release of brakes, the rocketing forward and the surreality of take off, when unfamiliar vertical parallax baffles the brain and roads and cars and houses suddenly look like toys. But, even though I’m one of the airliner passengers for whom takeoff is always a treat (how can you sit and read a book? We’re about to zoom up into the air: it’s mental!), this is such a treat my brain almost freezes with it all. I’m sat in an example of what is arguably the most iconic aircraft ever designed. Certainly the most celebrated, historically significant British vehicle and weapon ever made. And we’re flying through the air over Cambridgeshire at 200mph!
We climb amazingly fast. The wing dips and we wheel slowly to the right. I can’t believe how far up we are after just a few moments. This thing is a hot rod. And it’s 70 years old. Below the graceful ellipse of the wing with its red-white-and-blue roundel, green and brown fields stream past.
The clouds are low, their bases soft and tattered. A misty foggy lid zips low over our heads, making me want to hunch down. The pilot tells me we are at about 1400 ft, and he apologises that we may not be able to do any aerobatics today. To be honest, I’m OK with this, and maybe even slightly relieved. A little paper bag is folded and tucked in front of me, and I don’t want to meet that bacon sandwich again. Banking and swooping is just fine by me!
And now it seems the pilot is inviting me to take control. His voice isn’t very clear. Is he really saying.. is that... ‘You have control’. Fuck! My hands go to the joystick and I take it gingerly. I don’t want to grip it hard - everything I’ve read about flying Spitfires mentions the feather-light controls. I just hold it level. We’re not diving, we’re not climbing, we’re flat and steady. Ok. Great. Am I doing this? Can I be? We’re at 1400 ft, flying at 200mph in a Spitfire, and it’s me controlling it. I hear the pilot’s voice again - ‘Now bank to the right’. I thank my wife for that birthday gliding lesson, and lean the stick to the right. The wing dips gently, smoothly, effortlessly. I pull back a gnat’s and the horizon starts to stream by as we bank round. Forests and motorways spin below. This is just surreal. Reassuring noises come from the pilot. I think that this is going rather too well. I bet he’s got a finger on the controls - I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? I could be a nutter. He has to be keeping a hand on the controls. I answer him - ‘I can feel the hand of God, thank you!’. He laughs, says ‘No’ and - bloody hell! - I see him in front of me waving both hands over his head. So, for a few minutes he guides me in big lazy swings over the countryside. The control is gentle from side-to-side - banking - and super-sensitive in pitch - diving/climbing. As he says ‘balanced on a needle’. As we bank, I realise that we’re climbing a little, nearing the ragged cloud base, and I gently push down, and we nip back under. I’m actually making decisions, and the plane is obeying. Just totally, absolutely brilliant.
We fly, time flies even faster, and before I know it the voice in my ear is saying we’d better head back towards Duxford. A wall of mist and rain is heading in towards the airfield, and he doesn’t really want to run the risk of landing in poor visibility.
I relax and, feeling very official and competent, reply to his ‘I’m taking control’ with ‘You have control’. I briefly wonder what would happen if a stroppy or even suicidal passenger refused to relinquish control. Could there be a physical fight for control between the two people? I mean - it’s all interconnected cables and rods, isn’t it? Or is there some way to detach the rear controls? It seems rude to ask, so I don’t.
We lose height and soon Duxford appears before us, and we swing onto our final approach alarmingly quickly. None of that ‘line up a few miles in advance and fly in on a straight line’ airliner nonsense. The Spitfire’s long nose makes that tricky, so the preferred technique is to sidle up to the airstrip and swing round at the last moment.
We’re over the airfield, the engine crackles and backfires as we throttle back, the long, round wings sweep low over the grass and - wait for it, wait for it - we float, bump and bobble onto the field.
And that’s it. I beg a few moments to shoot some stills of the interior of both cockpits for work purposes, and then I’m climbing out.
I stagger back into ARCs hangar, find Finn, and join the rest of the people on the hangar tour, mooning over vintage planes and dreaming of flying.
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