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Flying alongside a spitfire in the skies above Goodwood

PUBLISHED: 10:06 08 August 2017

Spitifre RR232 (Photo by Jayson Fong)

Spitifre RR232 (Photo by Jayson Fong)

Jayson Fong

More than 80 years since their first flight, Spitfires are an enduring emblem of British courage. But how does it feel to fly alongside them?

It’s a hot, limpid summer day in 2017, but the ghosts of World War II aviation are all around us. Entering Goodwood Aerodrome (formerly RAF Westhampnett), one is greeted by the statue of Sir Douglas Bader, the flying ace who flew his last sortie from here before his capture by the Germans.

During the war, RAF Westhampnett was a Battle of Britain station, home to 43, 129, 145, 602 and 616 Squadrons. The nearby village of Tangmere was commandeered by the RAF as its own airfield became strategically important.

The aircraft and aviators based here quickly became legendary. But nothing would capture the public imagination quite as effectively as the Supermarine Spitfire, which had its first flight in 1936. More than 80 years on it is just as beloved, partly because ordinary people dug into their own pockets to fund its production. Charles Osborne of Flying with Spitfires, a subsidiary company of Boultbee Flight Academy, explains: “The Spitfire is not just a beautiful aeroplane and an amazing piece of engineering, it’s very much part of this country’s identity. During the war a lot of money was raised, not just by big cities but also small towns and villages – proto crowd-funding in a way – to fund the production of Spitfires.

“A lot of people have a very personal connection with them, even if they don’t have someone in their family who flew them – which a lot of British people do. Because of their iconic shape and sound they became very much associated with the freedom of the nation. I think today, particularly as we all explore what Britishness is, the Spitfire endures as a symbol.”

The Battle of Britain was won over Sussex and Kent and seeing these extraordinary warbirds in our skies is special. Now Boultbee Flight Academy is offering the opportunity for paying helicopter passengers to fly in formation with a Spitfire and Hurricane. It is, says Charles, “about keeping history alive”. Ranging in price from £399 to £749 (depending on seat position), the experience is more accessible than their flights in a Spitfire which cost £2,550. There are also plans to build a simulator which will have a very much lower price point.

With us today is a man who loved Spitfires so much he bought one and spent 11 years lovingly reconstructing it – in a mission that took him all over the world. Obsessed with Airfix as a boy, Devon-based Martin Phillips was given an aircraft rivet for his 40th birthday by friends. He explains: “The note read: ‘May this be the first part of your aeroplane.’”

Helicopter interior (Photo by Jayson Fong) Helicopter interior (Photo by Jayson Fong)

Of course, actually acquiring one wasn’t that easy: as Martin puts it, he began by knocking on the door of Exeter Airport. Finally he got a lead: if Martin could be at a roundabout near Shoreham-by-Sea at six o’clock that Sunday morning, he could see a Spitfire that was being offered for sale by Jim Pearce of Sussex Spraying Services. So in 2000 Martin bought the hulk, the fuselage and wings (in fact, the latter turned out to have been replaced by a previous owner).

And so began an odyssey to find Spitfire parts. After World War II the aircraft had been sold to different air forces and they were scattered all over the world. Martin went to Sweden to pick up a fuel tank; to Israel where he found numerous parts; and to America to buy a seat. “Each part was a journey, with its own story,” says Martin. “Every bit is a piece of history. But all of these components originated in Britain: now they’ve come home.”

Spitfire RR32 is now known as ‘City of Exeter’ in honour of a presentation Spitfire donated to the war effort as a result of local fundraising. That aircraft was presented to the Royal Air Force at RAF Westhampnett almost 75 years to the day before RR232 arrived at its present operating base where she flies off the very same grass runways, now known as Goodwood Aerodrome. It took Martin 13 years to restore her to glory, but while he was working on this plane, Martin bought another Spitfire – and he hopes to see her flying by March 2018.

That aircraft was shot down over France and her Polish pilot interred as a prisoner of war in the notorious Stalag Luft III – made famous by the 1963 film The Great Escape. Piotr Kuryllowicz is now 98 and living in Canada, and Martin hopes he will be one of the first to fly in the BS4210.

Martin says he wept when he first saw his Spitfire in flight. Charles Osborne calls flying one “a visceral but also emotional experience”. It is a very sensory affair: from the unmistakeable rattling hum of the Merlin engine to the tang of avgas. As our helicopter rises on this perfect summer’s day, we begin our route: to RAF Tangmere – now mostly greenhouses – to Pagham Harbour and the Solent coastline, over Chichester Harbour and Thorney Island, a former RAF station. We are in the air for 20 minutes, but the novelty and specialness seem to stretch that time. The Spitfire and Hurricane fly alongside our helicopter, then perform their manoeuvres over the sea. Seeing them up close, in the air, is surprisingly moving – especially against the backdrop of a beloved landscape.

Hurricane R4118 is an important piece of history, being the only surviving airworthy Hurricane that saw active service in the Battle of Britain in 1940. She flew almost 50 sorties from Croydon, shooting down a total of five enemy aircraft.

Hurricane R4118 (Darren Harbar Photography) Hurricane R4118 (Darren Harbar Photography)

Warbirds like these shouldn’t just be museum pieces. This experience brings history to life, allowing us to empathise with those brave pilots who waged a war for Britain’s soul. And looking down over the beautiful Sussex landscape, one is reminded of everything they were fighting for. As Winston Churchill said, moved to eloquence by his visit to the Battle of Britain bunker: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” And as the last of that generation pass on, this is a timely reminder of the magnitude of that debt.


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