“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 and I’m putting it to the test. Firmly 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 Sywell Aerodrome swift. Within seconds we’re climbing away from the airfield through wisps of cloud, the Northamptonshire countryside falling away below us.
A family of flyers
Sitting in the seat in front of me, Grace is a man with historic aviation very much in his blood. At the tender age of 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 at airshows across the country.
Before take-off, in a hanger that resembles an Aladdin’s cave for anyone with an interest in classic aircraft, he explains the remarkable back-story behind the family business, Air Leasing.
“My father, Nick, was a pilot by trade and had always wanted to fly a Spitfire, partly because he remembered seeing them flying overhead when he was a small boy during the Second World War.”
By the 1970s and 1980s, however, there were very few airworthy specimens of the aircraft around and Grace senior realised the chances of anyone ever letting him fly their treasured Spitfire were slimmer 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 classic plane owners.
Choice of classic warbirds
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. “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 P-51 Mustang and a German Messerschmidt ME109.
These three aircraft have been converted to two-seaters, giving customers a unique opportunity to experience not only vintage-style formation flying, but also to find out first-hand what it might have been like to take part in a Second World War dogfight.
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 ME109 in formation with another ME109, then that is something that we can provide.”
Loops and barrel-rolls
Today, though, it is the Mustang keeping us company. Leaving the trim grass of Sywell behind we climb above the clouds in formation, a white carpet temporarily 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 is full of 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 for our companion. Then we are through the loop and diving away. I just have 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 peeling 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. Later, 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 from the aircraft, is something special. They’ll perhaps never feel more connected than at that moment.”
Into the blue
He adds that some customers also feel so inspired by the experience that they want to compare it straightaway with one of its stable-mates.
“The Mustang is awe-inspiring with its overall performance and the ME109 is a very different flying experience. People are blown away by having the opportunity to fly it. There’s only one original factory-built aircraft in existence and up until 2015 that had been sitting in a dusty barn in Texas since the 1960s.”
The company also benefits from a location that is clear of the airborne traffic focused on the capital’s airports.
“We like to show people the full performance envelope of the aeroplanes and we can do that almost from the off,” Grace explains. “We don’t have to fly for 20 miles to get away from the Heathrow zone, for example. It’s a great location.”
I can certainly agree with that. The experience of flying in formation through a clear blue sky, then looking down 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.
Photos: Darren Harbar