As Key.Aero’s Assistant Editor, Tara Leggett has an aviation-themed bucket list. Right at the top of it? Flying in a Spitfire. She went to Biggin Hill and strapped herself in…
There is tight. There is very tight. And then there is Spitfire-seat tight.
Within seconds of lowering myself into the rear cockpit of Spitfire MJ627 outside the Heritage Hangar at Biggin Hill, I am about to understand just how cramped it was for these World War II pilots. And we haven’t even moved yet. The sides of the aircraft are jabbing into my arms and my parachute and seatbelt harness are pinning me tightly to the seat, making me aware of every rise and fall of my chest as I breathe in and out.
I hadn’t climbed into this aircraft. I’d had it strapped it to me.
Glancing around (I can still use my neck), it’s a gleaming, breezy, autumnal day. Then I look at the handful of dials and rudimentary control column, and think that 80 years ago, being strapped in tight to this seat was the least of a pilot’s worries. I’m about to experience one of British aviation’s greatest ever inventions in a two-seater experience, but they were flying off on their own, several times a day, often in the dark, freezing cold. And being shot at. Sitting here, the magnitude of what those men did hits me. It is hard to comprehend, not wondering if I’d ever come back. My chest tightens.
The solemn thoughts are interrupted by the roar of the Merlin engine being fired up, and my pilot, Don Sigournay, cheerily checking I can hear him over the radio. As the engine starts drowning out any trace of Don’s voice, a gust of air gives me a distinct whiff of the fuel that is powering this beast. It seems to cling to the upholstery around me… even when we begin moving and fresh air makes its way through the tiny gaps in the aeroplane, I can still almost taste it.
A short taxi ensues, with the chattering voices of the pilot and control tower in my ear. We gain speed down the runway, the landing gear hitting every single bump in the tarmac, reverberating around the aeroplane… then, just like that – we lift off, airborne, gaining altitude.
I am flying in a Supermarine Spitfire.
Many men in my family have either been in the RAF or commercial pilots, so it was only natural that I would take on the same love of aeroplanes as they had. I’ve had an adoration for Spitfires since I was so young that I can’t really remember when it started. To be honest, I’d been pretty nervous on the journey here. I was about to do something that I’ve wanted to cross off my bucket list all my life, but I couldn’t escape the fact that I was going to be flying in an aeroplane that had been designed 85 years ago. Even modern technology went wrong sometimes. Was I taking too much of a risk?
When I arrived at the airfield, I set eyes on the specimen I would be going up in. The first thing I noticed was how well preserved she looked, as though she’d been frozen in time back in 1944. The serial number on the rear of the fuselage read MJ627. Speaking to my hosts, I learned that this aircraft had flown with the Canadian Air Force from 1944 to ’45. She sported a Canadian Maple Leaf emblem underneath the front cockpit. Since her time serving, MJ627 had been converted into a two-seater for passenger flights. Oddly, as I continued to gaze at her, the nerves began to diminish. I felt at ease. It was like looking at an old friend.
But now, with the landing gear tucked in beneath us and the ground getting further away, I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of weightlessness. It’s as if I’ve unclipped my parachute and seatbelt; I can still feel them, but the tightness has been replaced by a sense that all around me is nothing but air. On my left, a small gap between the hood of the cockpit and the fuselage shows me rolling fields below without looking through glass. The engine is now simply purring away in the background, much quieter now, and the only sound breaking the hum is the occasional chatter over the radio. Ironically, given what Spitfires were built to do, it is serene. Peaceful. Beautiful.
As we pull up to the air van in front, Don drops the Spitfire down and to the right and we come up again on the opposite side of the van. He does this a few more times, swapping and changing between the right and left hand side of the aeroplane, my stomach dropping each time as though I’m going over a steep hill in a car.
Then, with an almighty surge, we peel away to the left, continuing over the Kent countryside as the warm sun beats down through the hood of the cockpit. I don’t even have to close my eyes to imagine the stark circumstances of this amazing flight in comparison to those who experienced the aeroplane at the beginning of its life. You hear a lot of talk about the Spitfire’s amazing agility and manoeuvrability, and now I can see what they mean. It is unthinkable that a machine this good, this responsive, could’ve been built over 80 years ago.
Before I know it, we’re into a victory roll. The ground and the sky become one as we twist our way through the manoeuvre, the force of which is just breathtaking. I can just see a corkscrewing whirr of fields and sky and fields and sky and fields and sky and if I wasn’t being filmed I would probably be shouting some naughty words as I laugh my head off.
Just before we head back to the airfield, Don asks if I want to take control of the aeroplane.
Er… hang on. Having a flight in a Spitfire was on the bucket list. Actually flying one was on the ‘Doesn’t-qualify-for-the-bucket-list-because-it’ll-never-happen’ list. “OK!” I shout gleefully, possibly sounding slightly deranged.
Nervously, I take the control column in both hands and remember my safety briefing: only use the slightest of movements. It’s really tough. It’s nothing like driving a car… one slight touch too far left and I can feel that the aircraft would change course drastically. I can now understand even more what people mean when they say how unbelievably sharp and manoeuvrable this aircraft is.
I’m at the mercy of this incredible machine, keeping my hands steady… I dip the controls slightly, the Spitfire instantly responds… I can’t believe that such a tiny action can produce such a massive swelling of euphoria. I’m flying a piece of history.
We cruise along as I push the column slightly to each side. It is unbelievably, almost ludicrously responsive. The rush, the emotion, the feeling of being in control of a Spitfire… I have probably flown it for about 30 seconds, but as Don takes the lead again and starts the descent back down to Biggin Hill’s airfield, it’s 30 seconds I will never forget.
With the London skyline in the background, the landing gear drops and we softly touch down on to the tarmac, soon coming to a stop. The canopy opens, my helmet comes off… I can hear again. I’m on such a high that I hadn’t even noticed the straps coming off. The tightness is long forgotten.
As I get rise up out of the cockpit and inhale fresh air, I already know that years from now I will tell my grandchildren about those 30 seconds, and they’ll say, ‘Not the Spitfire story again grandma!’ I’ll carry on, detailing the amazing manoeuvrability, feeling the control column as if it was yesterday, not caring that it’s the millionth time I’ve told it.