Bodney, Beans and Biggin on the Bump

'You can't fly a Spitfire and forget about it... it stays with you forever'

'You can't fly a Spitfire and forget about it... it stays with you forever!'

Those words were spoken by Geoff Wellum, RAF 92 Squadron as he talked about his days flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain as part of documentary on the legendary Supermarine Spitfire.

While Geoff was in his late nineties, his eyes shone full of youth has he talked about Spitfires in a tone that can only be described as reverenced excitement. In fact, in all of the narratives I read and videos I watched about pilots that flew the various marques of Spitfire, they all had this inexplicable glint in their eyes when talking about this aircraft. What was it about a Spitfire that brought forth such emotions regarding what was to me just another WW2 aircraft? This notion of a Spitfire being just another WW2 aircraft changed for me in July 2017…

Our family was in England on holiday after my daughter was wrapping up studies at Exeter. A few months previous, Alex Walsh (Air Marshall, CAF Dixie Wing UK Detachment) had graciously worked with Alex Monk of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar to fit me into their flight schedule while I was in the UK. In the weeks before, as part of preparations for this flight, I wanted to get more insights on what to expect in terms of flight characteristics of the Spitfire. This prompted a call to John Mazza who flies the Spitfire Mk9 for the Fighter Factory in Virginia. I also wanted to solve the mystery of what brought forth these emotions when pilots like Geoff Wellum spoke of the Spitfire. Due to our schedules, John and I managed to connect over the phone about an hour before I was to board a flight to London. As I sat down in a comfy chair in the Concourse F Sky Club, I expected to hear a few words of wisdom and a closing “go have fun!”

After nearly an hour on the phone and having to dash to my gate, John shared the same passion and excitement that was evident with other Spitfire pilots. I lost count of his use of superlatives such as “magic,” “amazing,” “dream,” “electric,” “superb,” and “..you are going to fall in love with it.” As I boarded the plane, I was still mystified regarding the excitement around the Spitfire. What made it so different in how people reacted to Spitfires compared to me seeing it as another warbird?

After visiting Bodney with Alex, we headed south back down the M11 towards Heathrow where we were to stay the night before our morning trip to Biggin Hill for the Spitfire flight. I recalled while leaving Bodney a discussion I had with Bob Powell several years back about his experiences flying a Spitfire in WW2. While Bob could talk for our hours about his adventures in a P-51, his response about the Spitfire was much more introspective. He got quiet, thought for a bit and beamed a big smile. After a few moments he said “…its really hard to describe…you should go fly one sometime…”

Following a hearty English breakfast (yes Alex, I do have an affinity for baked beans in the morning now), we headed to Biggin Hill, south of London. The Kent area is quite different than the rest of England with many rolling hills that offer a magnificent view of London and the surrounding countryside. Biggin Hill, as the name states lies on a Kent hilltop. Its use as an RAF airfield dates back to WW1. Since then, all manner of aircraft from Bristol bi-planes to first generation fighter jets have operated from its runways. Also informally known as “Biggin On The Bump,” it still has a bit of vertical rise in elevation in the middle of its main runway that resembles a large asphalt speed bump!

Upon arriving at the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, one is impressed with the size and scale of their operation. The lower level of the main hangar houses aircraft while the second story is a lounge for aircraft riders as well as their families and friends. The second story has a wrap-around porch from which you get a get view of the airport as well as the surrounding skies. That day, despite a typical set of UK July recurring rain showers with pockets of sunshine, the BHHH operation had a non-stop schedule of Spitfire flights as well as tours of their hangar and restoration facilities.

After watching the videos showing safety and emergency procedures, I met Don Sigourney, the pilot for my Spitfire flight. Don was a highly experienced Royal Navy aviator with many hours flying Sea Harriers. He like many others was bitten by the warbird bug and spends a fair amount of time doing Spitfire rides and displays. Don shared his valuable perspective on Spitfire flight characteristics, airspace regulations, emergency procedures as one would expect before a training flight in any aircraft. What was quite different was the level of exuberance and the bright gleam in his eyes describing these commonplace fundamentals. Noting that I was a Commemorative Air Force member, we departed the briefing room with his closing “…lets go have some Big Fun!” ringing in my ears.

We walked down the stairs to the ramp and there sat Supermarine Spitfire T9 MJ627, gleaming from the recent rain shower and the sun starting to poke through the clouds. MJ627 started life as a regular Mk9 Spitfire that was flown by a Canadian pilot, Syd Bregman as part of RCAF Squadron 441. Unlike many warbirds flying today, this aircraft has a WW2 combat history that includes a victory over a Luftwaffe Me109; the combat film of this victory survives today.

Built in 1943, it was one of the many fine examples of the Spitfire that was built in England during the war. It’s designer, RJ Mitchell literally died from overwork in getting the Spitfire to full operational status before the Battle of Britain. On prior trips to Germany he had seen what the Luftwaffe had in store for England and worked non-stop for months to bring the Spitfire to life. Its design incorporates many features such as the classical elliptical wing that enabled it to hold its own in turning battles against the onslaught of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. Given his passion to create an aircraft to successfully defend England, it’s said that a little of RJ Mitchell’s spirit is found in every Spitfire.

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As we strapped in, Don shared that our route departing Biggin Hill would take us to the east and slightly south to avoid airliner traffic from Heathrow and Gatwick. The recurring rain showers and spots of sun continued to prevail as Don energized the starter and the Rolls Royce Merlin became alive in a cloud of exhaust smoke. As we taxied out in the usual side to side weave to improve visibility, I started to notice a few key differences between the Spitfire and other warbirds…with more differences to be revealed when we took flight.

The Spitfire cockpit has a few things that make it stand out from other warbirds. It does not have a traditional stick but what is called a spade grip; a control stick with a circular handle that rotates left and right to move the ailerons. In fact, the spade moves over your calves at full rotation. The rudder pedals have two footrests; one for normal flying and a raised set for high-g manoeuvres during dogfights. These and other features present the Spitfire as a unique fighting machine that is focused on a turning battle approach to dogfights.

After the runup and mag check, we taxi into position for a moment and then Don turns loose the 1300+ horsepower of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine. We roll down the runway and at about the same airspeed and runway length as a light aircraft we launch into the showery skies. I’m amazed at how quickly we are in the air and climbing more quickly than other warbirds. The gear comes up with 2 “clunks,” propeller to climb rpm and Don turns left into a downwind departure to the east. At the airfield boundary he calls out “you have the controls”….and so does the journey to solve the mystery of the Spitfire.

In initially trying some climbs, dives and steep turns, the Spitfire did not live up to its mystic expectations. It felt a bit clumsy, heavy and off balance during these manoeuvres. Like any good flight instructor, Don quickly chimed in and said “…Kevin, it’s a Spitfire..it does not really need a pilot. As opposed to trying to fly it, just think about flying it.” With this Obi Wan Kenobi-like guidance, I swung into a very steep turn. At that moment, the magic about the Spitfire started to come to light.

By not trying to fly the Spitfire like an airplane, it really began to shine. During the subsequent set of manoeuvres, I felt as if angels had lifted me into the clouds with no visible means of support; in essence, the Spitfire and I had become as one.

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I dove and zoomed climbed while attacking imaginary squadrons of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers over the Kent countryside. All during this time, its felt like I was in a three dimensional re-make of the Battle Of Britain movie; sounds of “Rabbit squadron tally ho…,” “Red Section attacking now..,” “help yourselves everybody, there is no escort…” were ringing in my ears. Don brought me out of this trance by saying over the intercom “…ah, much better Kevin. Let me take the controls for a bit.” “You have the controls” came my response and Don took us a bit more to the east over the Brands Hatch Racetrack. Down below a vintage British motorcycle race was underway with many enthusiasts in attendance. As we passed by the racetrack, Don took us into a wingover to give crowd a look at some other vintage British machinery in the skies above.

After a few quick clearing turns and wingovers, the Big Fun got even Bigger. Following Don on the controls, we launched into a barrel roll and other aggressive dogfighting manoeuvres . The English countryside danced around the windscreen as we and the Spitfire owned the skies.

And then it was time to go back…where more of the Spitfire magic came forth…

After taking over the controls, I entered the pattern with an overhead break into a right downwind to a Runway 21 approach that had the city of London in full view…just like the Battle Of Britain pilots saw when returning to Biggin Hill from sorties during the summer of 1940. Don took back over the controls to lower the undercarriage (see Alex, I got that right, not “landing gear”), flap and throttle back to descent airspeed…which produced another massive surprise. We slowed to almost Cessna 172 landing speeds which brought a quick query to Don of “…are we too slow?” His quick response was “…no worries, normal airspeed for landing.” The two main wheels let out a light chirp as we touched the runway, tail coming down lightly after that. Much to my surprise we had hardly rolled out and made an easy turn at the second taxiway entrance. Once clear of Runway 21, I chimed in on the intercom to ask “Don, how can an aircraft go 350+ miles an hour and then land like a Cessna 172????” His amusing response quickly came back of “…well…I guess RJ Mitchell got it right when he designed the Spitfire…”. I leaned back in my seat to look skyward to take in this perspective and all of the aerial spiritual experiences over the past half hour. This was not just an airplane…it was something more than that.

After exiting and going back up the lounge, the BHHH folks gave me a signed plaque as well as a flight suit patch, a copy of the original pilots notes and video memory cards of my flight.

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I thanked Don profusely, increased the balance on one of my credit cards and then Alex took me north to meet my wife and daughter in downtown London. As with the visit to Bob’s P-51 base at Bodney, I felt like I had taken a journey to another place…one that made me feel as kin to the young men defending freedom over the skies of Britain in 1940 when all looked lost. I had entered the realm of a very unique group of pilots who have flown the plane that saved England…all the time with Syd Bregman up in the skies looking over my shoulder in his former aircraft chuckling “well, here comes another Spitfire pilot…”

Nine days later, I was in a hotel at the Edinburgh airport waiting for a departure on the next leg of my trip after seeing Jenny and Caroline off to the US from Glasgow. Checking the time in the US, I reached for my phone and dialled John Mazza’s cell phone number. After hearty hellos, I asked if he had a few minutes to catch up on my Spitfire flight. In a reversal of our original conversation about the Spitfire, it was I that launched into an endless parade of excited narrative about the Spitfire that was only interrupted by John saying “see…I told you so!” To this day on Facebook posts about Spitfires, John gets inundated with my endless comments. Some religions believe that even non-living objects have some form of spirit, perhaps gained from reincarnation of a life gone by. That day of my Spitfire flight in July 2017, I started to think that a key part of what makes a Spitfire different is that is has inherited something from the likes of RJ Mitchell, Syd Bregman and other Spitfire pilots.

From that day forward, even if I never spend another minute as a pilot of any airplane, I can take solace that I had the incredible opportunity to become one with a Spitfire. In retrospective, I do think Geoff Wellum got it right when he was talking about flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain….it does stay with you…

forever.