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Aviation: Spitfire and Mustang; a vintage dogfight

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Flying with Legends

You didn‘t get into a Spitfire, you strapped it on. That was a phrase coined by Battle of Britain pilot Geoffrey Wellum in his memoir First Light.

F irmly secured in the rear cockpit of a rare, two-seat version of the legendary Second World War fighter plane, I can vouch for the fact there isn’t much space to spare. Indeed, my shoulders are touching the sides of the aircraft and my knees are tucked up snugly behind the seat in front.

Then I hear the note of the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin engine change as pilot Richard Grace opens the throttles. The surge of power is instantaneous, the acceleration down the runway at Sywel aerodrome swift. Within seconds we’re climbing away from the airfield through wisps of cloud, the Northamptonshire countryside falling away below us.

Sitting in the seat in front of me, Grace is a man with historic aviation very much in his blood. Aged 23 he became the youngest person to pilot a Spitfire since the Second World War and both his parents also flew the iconic British fighter plane on hundreds of occasions.

Before take-off, in a hanger that resembles an Aladdin’s cave for anyone with an interest in classic aircraft, he explained the remarkable back-story behind the family business, Air Leasing.

‘My father, Nick, was a pilot by trade and had always wanted to wanted to fly a Spitfire, partly because he remembered seeing them flying overhead when he was a child during the Second World War.’

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, there were very few airworthy specimens of the aircraft and Grace senior realised the chances of anyone every letting him fly their treasured Spitfire were worse than remote.

Fortunately, he was also a gifted engineer so when he saw the remains of two of the aircraft for sale he bought them, promptly selling one to finance the six-year rebuilding of the second.

Once the aircraft was back flying, in 1985, the firm began offering flights, supplementing its income by providing maintenance services for other owners.

My stomach falls away as we pull back into a rolling loop, a patchwork quilt of fields visible through the canopy above my head'

Growing up in such an aviation-focused environment had some interesting benefits, including trying his first taste of aerobatics in a Spitfire, an experience which is quite possibly unique.

Grace’s enthusiasm for the aircraft is palpable. ‘It’s simply the best flying aeroplane ever made,’ he says, ‘Personally, I can’t think how you could improve it. Compared to other aircraft of its era its speed range and handling are outstanding.’ Uniquely, Air Leasing offers customers the chance to put that statement to the test, because it also owns a number of other aircraft of the era. Inside the firm’s hangar alongside the legendary British fighter are an American P51 Mustang and a German Messerschmidt ME-109.

These three aircraft have been converted to two-seaters, giving customers a unique opportunity to experience not only an insight into vintage formation flying, but also a first-hand glimpse of what a Second World War dogfight might have been like.

The firm has a number of other aircraft from the conflict as well, both two seat and single seat, and including, for example, a Russian Yak-3 and a US Air Force P-47 Thunderbolt.

Grace adds: ‘Having access to such a range of vintage aircraft means we can offer some unique experiences. If you want to fly in a Spitfire in formation with another Spitfire and then take on your mate who’s in an ME-109 in formation with another ME-109, then we can provide that.’

Today, though, it is the Mustang keeping us company. Leaving the airfield behind we climb above the clouds in formation, a white carpet masking the fields below while the muscular-looking American fighter tucks in on our left wing.

It’s hard to believe this is actually happening. Gleaming in an authentic Second World War silver colour-scheme, the Mustang exudes speed and power, less graceful than the Spitfire, perhaps but an aircraft that exudes modernity and prowess. Seeing one flying, so close that I feel I could reach out and touch its wingtip, is an unforgettable experience, almost as memorable as being in the Spitfire itself.

We take up position behind and then my stomach falls away as we pull back into a rolling loop, a patchwork quilt of fields visible through the canopy above my head. I scan the sky the our companion, my head turning left and right. Then we are through the loop and diving away. Have a time to notice that a distant pine forest is getting a lot closer rather quickly before we are once more climbing into a loop, the silver shape of the Mustang now in the lead as we shoot upwards, before rolling away and straightening up.

For what must be 10 minutes we chase each other across the skies. Then it is my turn to fly the Spitfire. After a brief discussion I have control, looking out over the plane’s iconic elliptical wing towards the countryside below, the plane incredibly responsive to the most restrained of directions. I am half expecting the strains of Elgar’s Enigma Variations to start filling my headphones.

Safely back on the Northamptonshire grass, with the sound of skylarks now replacing the roar of aircraft engines, Grace tells me I’m not alone in finding the experience more than just a thrilling ride.

‘The Spitfire makes people very emotional,’ he says. ‘In fact, I’d say that 50 per cent of people come back with a tear in their eye. If anyone has a family history of a grandfather or father who flew in the Second World War then flying above the clouds, or looking down over the countryside is something special. They’ll perhaps never feel more connected than at that moment.’

I can certainly vouch for that. The experience of looking down from a clear blue sky over the top of that elegantly curving wing to the yellow and green fields of England far below is not one that I am ever likely to forget.

Air Leasing is based at Sywell aerodrome around one hour’s drive north of London. The aerodrome hotel provides overnight stays as well as original 1930s décor.

'The Spitfire makes people very emotional. In fact, I'd say that 50 per cent of them come back with a tear in the their eye.'

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2019

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