FEATURE: In awe of the Spitfire

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Graham Tebbutt looks at a new venture that allows aircraft enthusiasts to get close to the iconic fighter.

I like planes. I’m not mechanically minded, I don’t collect registrations and I can’t tell the difference between a Sopwith Camel and a Tiger Moth, but I do like planes.

I once got halfway to earning a pilot’s licence, got pretty good at flying in fact, until my tuition money ran out. So my relationship with aircraft nowadays is frustratingly restricted to holiday flights or watching the occasional air show.

And that’s where I unashamedly admit to having become inexplicably teary-eyed in the past, witnessing the speed of a shapely Concorde, the surprising grace of the monstrous Vulcan, the precision of the Red Arrows, and the majesty of the Lancaster bomber.

But one aircraft still steals the show, nearly 80 years after it first took to the skies...the Supermarine Spitfire.

Today’s fighter jets are incomparably fast and incalcuably more deadly, but they are clinical and mechanical. When you see and hear a Spitfire, it’s almost a living, breathing flying machine, full of character and hard to appreciate that anything has ever truly improved on it.

Historians will say that if Germany had anything to fear in the Second World War, then statistically it was the similarly-shaped, and actually more lethal, Hawker Hurricane.

But today, the speedier Spitfire is still the aircraft which carries the aura of romance, gallantry and fame, even after all these peacetime years.

Recently, I got the chance to spend some time with one of these iconic aircraft, thanks to the flights experience company, Aero Legends.

They have been offering flights in a two-seater Spitfire from Sywell Aerodrome, near Northampton, for a few years.

At a gallon a minute for fuel – plus other phenomenal maintenance and flying costs – trips are are not necessarily within the grasp of every enthusiast’s wallet.

In June, however, they began a more affordable venture, allowing people to get up close and personal with a Spitfire. People can meet the pilot, sit in the cockpit and then fly alongside one over the Northamptonshire countryside in another veteran aircraft, the de Havilland Devon.

To see a Spitfire at the mainly grass airfield at Sywell, it’s easy to imagine John Mills or Trevor Howard ‘scrambling’ towards them in an old black and white war movie. In those films, Spitfires looked tiny, but in reality, they are nearly 10m long (30ft), with a wingspan of about 11m ... there are smaller bungalows than that.

The pilots are all highly experienced – with a background as commercial pilots, RAF or members of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – and they talk about the Spitfire with such excited affection their enthusiasm is infectious as they give customers a tour of the aircraft and allow them to sit inside one.

But seeing one in the sky and getting a genuine bird’s eye view is what makes Aero Legend’s latest venture so thrilling.

On the day of my flight, the phone rang at 9.15am to tell me my scheduled 10am check-in had been delayed. The Spitfire was flying to Sywell from Duxford, and a 200ft cloud base had put that on hold. However, by 11.30am, the clouds had cleared and left a scorching, sunny day with perfect visibility.

After being given a lanyard ticket at check-in, we were taken out to our historic aircraft for the experience. Aero Legends’ Devon – the military version of the de Havilland Dove – entered service in 1946 and is believed to be the only one of its kind still flying today.

It only seats nine passengers and you are transported back in time when you enter its fuselage, with a row of five single seats on one side, four on the other, netting for luggage racks, and two hatches in the roof (should an unlikely emergency happen in water, we were informed).

The cruising speed of a Devon would be about 185mph but as a Spitfire’s top speed is more than 300mph, we set off first.

I sat at the rear, knowing I would have a view of the Spitfire as it closed, but I soon appreciated the difficulties the Luftwaffe would have experienced.

I knew it was right behind us, but its camouflage rendered it invisible against the county landscape, a mere couple of thousand feet below us.

And then it was there.

Unheard above the Devon’s engines, it throttled back and came along the right-hand side, and every man (and one woman) on board gasped, swooned and set off a volley of camera shutters. It then dipped below our aircraft before reappearing on the port side (I know the terminology) and gave us a view in profile, then above, then below.

The Spitfire pilot knew what every passenger wanted to see and signalled to us to get cameras at the ready before peeling away in that iconic, almost 180 degree turn, allowing us to see those famous wing shapes, almost in silhouette against the green fields below.

He repeated the moves several times on each side of the Devon, until after nearly 20 minutes we came into land back at Sywell, where the more rapid Spitfire was already back on the ground waiting for us. There were three flights that day, so nearly 30 people had enjoyed a trip they won’t forget, me among them.

Aero Legends has 16 planes in its stables – including a Harvard and Tiger Moth – but they hope to add to these and the range of flights they offer. Their philosophy is the only way for the public to enjoy these aircraft is to work the planes, and then put any money they can into getting more back to air worthiness.

A DC3 and more Doves are on their wish list and I can’t wait to see any of these in the skies above Sywell one day soon.

If you hadn’t noticed, I do like planes.

FACTFILE

AeroLegends are based at Headcorn Aerodrome, near Ashford, in Kent, but have expanded their packages to include Sywell, near Northampton.

Prices for flying alongside Spitfire TD314 in a de Havilland Devon start at £399, while a flight in a two-seater Spitfire will cost from £2,500.

Their ‘ultimate’ package (including a flight in a Tiger Moth, Harvard and Spitfire) starts at £5,395.

Spitfire TD314 was built at Castle Bromwich in late 1944 and saw service in the UK and South Africa.

It was acquired by Aero Legends in 2011, and after being restored at Biggin Hill, it returned to the skies in December 2013.

The de Havilland DH104 Dove was built for the RAF (which makes it a Devon) and it first saw service in June 1946 at RAF Hendon.

It was later based in France and became the personal transport for Air Chief Marshall Sir Basil Embry.

It was put in storage between 1975 and1985 before joining the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and later Air Atlantique, based at Coventry.

For details of flights, visit

www.aerolegends.co.uk or

www.goactionstations.co.uk