“Once-in-a-lifetime. Bucket list. Wish list.” Terms we often use to describe an out of the ordinary, incredible experience. While we toss these terms around quite frequently, how often do we actually experience something that deserves the moniker “once-in-a-lifetime?” I’m sure you’ll agree it’s pretty rare. Recently I participated in a genuine bucket list experience and, since it’s one that I think many of you can relate to, I thought I’d tell you about it. So grab yourself a pint and settle in to your easy chair—it’s going to be a long one.
Like many of the baby boom generation, I grew up on the histories and stories of the greatest generation and World War II. I devoured histories of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain, the air war, operations in the Pacific, and even the occasional paragraph or two on what the army did. Names like Captain (later Admiral) Vian, Captain Walker, Guy Gibson, Douglas Bader, Barnes Wallis, Lord Lovat, Winston Churchill, Adolf Galland, Pappy Boyington, Admiral “Bull” Halsey, and so many, many others were to me what superheroes are to the youth of today.
And their weapons of war… the workhorse corvettes of the North Atlantic convoys; battleships like King George V, Bismarck, USS New Jersey, and Scharnhorst; tools of the cryptanalysts like the “bombe,” Enigma code machines and Colossus (the first computer); aircraft like the Lancaster, the Hurricane (hero of the Battle of Britain), P-51 long range escort fighter, B-17 bomber, the twin-engined Mosquito, the distinctive gull-winged Corsair, and of course the ultimate symbol of WWII aircraft—the Spitfire.
If all was achievable my bucket list would include things like a tactics discussion with one of the great leaders of this conflict, or perhaps sharing a cockpit with Guy Gibson or Douglas Bader, heading out to experience a North Atlantic winter in a corvette, or firing the guns of a battleship like the Bismarck. While these experiences obviously lie within the realm of fantasy, a few are still possible. I’m referring to flights in vintage WWII aircraft made possible by organisations like Classic Wings at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, the venerable Commemorative Air Force, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, and several others. These organisations have kept alive the history of these important aircraft and to complete the experience have made it possible for ordinary people like you and me to experience what it was like to take to the skies in these amazing aircraft.
A few years ago I attended the 70th anniversary of the Spitfire Airshow at IWM Duxford. During the two days of the airshow I managed to get up close and personal with several of the Spitfires present. I broached the subject of how one could get a flight in one of the few two seat trainers that have appeared on the scene in recent times with the flight engineer who was showing me “her” Spitfire. She explained that while regulations didn’t permit them to actually “sell” flights, someone who “donated” to the upkeep of an aircraft might be offered a ride in exchange. This was all very under the table of course. Oh, and it seems that a donation of around $4,000 was what was required to get an invitation.
Fast forward a few years. The UK’s civil aviation authorities have changed the rules and now, under very strict conditions, operators of these warbirds can offer flights. I became aware of this and once I’d recovered from the mild heart attack suffered when I saw the price, I started scheming and saving—a bucket list item was now within my grasp!
Fast forward to June 1, 2019. I’d arrived in the UK the previous day and was now at my hotel in Cambridge trying to shake off the effects of jet lag while preparing for my big experience. I jumped in a cab and 20 minutes later I was at IWM Duxford. With the check-in process done, I had a couple of hours to kill so I set about wandering through the museum. All I can say is if you like military aircraft then Duxford is a must-see. I won’t get too far into what I did or saw; suffice to say it was an awe-inspiring experience to visit such a historical venue and see up close and personal the aircraft I’d previously only read about. And, of course, I was taking pictures to capture the sights of this memorable day.
I like to try to prepare for foreseeable problems, especially when travelling. Prior to leaving Victoria I’d bought new batteries for my camera however, when I checked the batteries in the camera they were showing at “100%.” Fair enough; at least I had spares. Uh-huh…
It was time. My great adventure was about to begin and I headed toward the control tower where I was to check in for my flight. When I got there I spotted the Spitfire I was to fly parked on the ramp. It was a perfect “Kodak moment” so I went to take a photo only to have my camera advise me “batteries are exhausted.” This must be a mistake so I tried again. Same message. Those spare batteries? In my luggage back at the hotel. What about the gift shop? Nope, only on air show days. I couldn’t believe this… my ultimate bucket list experience and I didn’t have a camera. I resigned myself to reality and headed off to check in.
The Spitfire I was about to fly in is a true WWII veteran and it served with a Canadian Squadron. It even has a Bf109 to its credit.
I was met by a very nice volunteer in the office and she started me on the process by collecting various bits of information. I explained about my battery situation and she immediately undertook it as her personal mission, dispatching her daughter in search of batteries and asking other volunteers. Two other gentlemen showed up, Mark and his father, Rick. Mark is an A320 captain from Australia and his dad, while not a pilot, has had some flight experience. We watched two videos, one all about the risks associated with the activity we were about to undertake (“so we can make an informed decision”) and another on the safety procedures. Our pilot, Barry, stopped by for introductions and then it was time to fit me out for a flight suit and head out to the line. On the way out the ever-helpful volunteer offered to take photos for me with my phone so now I was going to have some pictures. Yay!
It now started to become surreal. I had no problems getting in, a bit of fiddling with straps, etc. to get all buckled in, then we reviewed the safety procedures and Barry hopped in. This was one of those times when I wished I could have made time pass more slowly. I wanted to savour every action and step in the process. Barry made some checks—controls, intercom, etc.—and then he hit the button and that big Merlin engine started turning over. In a few seconds it was idling smoothly, the prop turning, and Barry was completing his final checks. A quick call to tower and we started to taxi.
While we were taxiing, I took a good look at the panel in front of me. It’s pretty much as all those pictures I’ve seen suggested it would be and that’s much different from a modern cockpit. I eventually identify the basic flight instruments… they do look different from their modern counterparts…and no “six pack” in this panel – the instruments are placed more on where they fit than in a way to permit easy scanning.
After a short pause at the threshold to allow an incoming Dragon Rapide to land, we were cleared for takeoff. Barry opened the throttle, the Merlin answered with its characteristic rumble, and it wasn’t very long before the tail was off the runway and we were airborne! Airspeed came up very quickly and then we were climbing at close to 2,000 feet per minute. We leveled off at 2,000 feet and pretty soon the airspeed came up to about 250 kts. And now I started to take in my surroundings. I didn’t have a great forward view—other than Barry’s helmet, that is—but off to each side I was sitting just far back enough that I had a full view of those iconic elliptical wings. There’s no doubt about it: I was flying in a Spitfire!
“Would you like to take control?” Barry asked. “I have control” said I and with that I was flying a Spitfire! The controls were amazingly responsive; you really don’t have to do much more than think of where you want to go and it takes you there. Straight and level flight was a challenge at first. You see, my forward view was essentially the back of Barry’s helmet and the arrangement of the flight instruments made it hard to set up a scan so I had some quick learning to do, but eventually we were straight and mostly level. Barry suggested some turns, which I did without much effort. I must have done OK, as he then asked if I thought I could do 45-degree bank turns. “Yup!” said I and this time I had it under control. We did a 360-degree, 45-degree bank turn in each direction and at a constant altitude. I was starting to get used to this airplane!
Barry took control again and asked if I’d like to experience a “Victory Roll”(an aileron roll). Like he had to ask! We did a couple of those in fairly quick succession and they were absolutely as much fun as they look to be. Unfortunately, because they operate these Spitfires under very strict regulations I wasn’t able to try a roll. And, for the same reason, Barry wasn’t able to do any other aerobatics other than a couple of somewhat shallow wingovers.
Control passed back to me and Barry took me on a tour of the local countryside, including an orbit over the American military cemetary just outside of Duxford. Sadly, all things must come to an and pretty soon Barry was calling Duxford tower to let them know we were on our way back. Barry lined us up on final and shortly after put ‘er down in a perfect three-point landing. We taxied back to the ramp in front of the control tower and Barry shut that magnificent Merlin down. My once-in-a-lifetime flight had come to an end.
The helpful volunteer met us and took a few more photos for me and then it was inside to turn in the flight suit, pick up my flight suit “Spitfire Pilot” badge, pay for the video that I can’t live without, and write up my logbook: 0.5 hrs of “exercise 3.” And with that I was done.
I wandered around the field for awhile (had to have just one more “ice cream with a flake”) and then I went out to catch a cab back to Cambridge. While waiting for the cab I had a great conversation with several Commemorative Air Force pilots who had just flown in from the States. But that’s another story…