Take to the Skies

It’s the ultimate symbol of resistance, power, courage and pluck. The Spitfire, proud veteran of the Battle of Britain, is still revered by pilots today—and Annette Lynton Mason was lucky enough to take her for a dance

When it was suggested I write about a Spitfire for this article I thought, Spitfire? Warplane? Why? I had vaguely mentioned it to Captain Q, aka Quentin Smith (award-winning helicopter pilot extraordinaire, who’s flown around the world twice), as we chatted at Denham Aerodrome in  Buckinghamshire where our helicopters are based and beautifully tended. (The cleanest things I’ve ever seen—must ask them to come and do the house.)

As I dithered over whether revalidating my fixed-wing rating would be interesting enough or time-doable for the article, Q and I heard each other on the radio approach as we flew into Denham, and he introduced me to the pilot, Matt Jones, who could take me up in a Spitfire. He was charming, handsome and keen; I’m afraid I pursued it more because of that than for any interest in the Spitfire, which had seemed a bit scary.

I later heard on the radio that Mary Ellis had just turned 100 years old. In 1941 she had become one of the “ATA girls” after hearing a BBC Radio appeal for a select group of women pilots to join the Air Transport Auxiliary service and so release male pilots for combat duty. I hadn’t realized any women had flown Spitfires during World War Two, but there were 167 ATA girls and Mary had flown 400 Spitfires and 76 different types of aircraft including Wellington Bombers and Mustangs, delivering more than 1,000 of these aircraft to the aircrews of RAF Fighter and Bomber Command squadrons on the front line.

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Mary said the Spitfire was her favourite aircraft of all time—“a symbol of freedom and liberty” as they flew with that other centenarian Vera Lynn’s tuneful “There’ll be Bluebirds” echoing in the pilots’ ears over the White Cliffs of Dover. So I phoned Matt, who flies Spitfires for Goodwood-based Boultbee Flight Academy, and who had flown with Mary for her 100th birthday. Suddenly I was dying to go up in one; if Mary trusted him, I knew I would be in safe pilot hands.

More to the point, I would be going up in a two-pilot Spitfire TR9. The planes Mary delivered were single-seaters, so your first flight was also your first Spitfire solo … Unbelievable! Fortunately, they would already have earned their pilots’ licences before flying the Spitfire—an aircraft so loved by pilots it was considered the ultimate wind beneath your wings!

The most important aspect of flying for Visual Flight Rule pilots is checking the Met before you take off—most accidents occur in bad weather. Seeing a few wonderful days ahead, Matt kindly re-arranged his schedule to take me up the next day—the photographer and Ingo, my helicopter co-pilot, permitting. We needed Ingo to fly the helicopter alongside the Spitfire so that the photographer could take the adjacent aerial shot: the beautiful blue sky a dream come true.

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I flew from Denham to Goodwood in West Sussex, an airfield I know well, usually going there en route to Goodwood House to drive at the Festival of Speed or to race at the Revival Meeting. Walking towards the glass-fronted hanger at the end of the airfield, I saw the Spitfire, its canopy glinting in the sunlight, majestically facing me as if to say, “Here I am, aren’t I gorgeous?”

“You are beautiful,” I thought, “but I’m glad I am not taking you up on my own.”

A fter changing into the appropriate flying suit, complete with Spitfire pilot badge, I proudly listened to the pilot briefing. I have more than 200 hours of fixed-wing pilot flying hours, single and twin-rated, so felt quite relaxed about it. After all, it was just another aeroplane …

Interestingly, everything we went through proved to be invaluable. The first unexpected aspect was being asked to wear a parachute. Slightly alarmed, I asked how to exit the aircraft and land a parachute, mentally picturing soldiers jumping during the War. After climbing in, I was shown how to eject in an emergency—you pull on a red, golf ball-sized knob at the top right of the canopy. I had an almost irresistible temptation to pull it, but luckily, we moved on quickly and I forgot.

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The seat is surprisingly comfy and snug. Matt runs through the controls and I scan the instruments which are similar to the ones I am familiar with. The handles are easy to reach: a handle similar to an old, turning window handle moves the canopy forward and back; to do so, the seat has to be lowered by lifting a small under-seat lever. He starts the engine and a wonderful throbbing three-second show of flames from the engine as it catches tells me this experience may be very different.

As we roll along the taxi way, I wave to Nick, the photographer, as he accompanies us in a golf buggy with Scott, the art director. Engine checks at the end of the runway and then we’re off! I immediately feel the potency of the onomatopoeically named Spitfire’s 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as we gather speed along the bumpy grass runway. I feel the power, speed and an instant adrenaline rush as we lift off.

This is wonderful. Watching the 360-degree film footage provided by Boultbee subsequently, I see my hand fly to my heart, but actually, I’m crying. I can’t explain the extraordinary, moving, powerful excitement. Once described by Mary Ellis as a “symphony of engineering”, the Spitfire is like the most beautiful racehorse flying around the Grand National course.

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We fly past the coast near Goodwood and above the sea. Matt gives me the only aerobatic experience I have ever enjoyed. Having been told to look for the horizon, he does a loop-the-loop. Instead of fighting the g-force, I tilt my head back and watch the horizon appear. It is extraordinarily exciting and I think I scream. He then does a barrel roll and a few other aerobatic movements, plunging from 4,000 feet to 100 feet over the sea and along the coastline. I am so hopelessly overexcited I talk non-stop over the radio. Luckily, the film only records me visually.

Matt then lets me take control. What is lovely is that flying it resembles driving the best car you have ever driven: there is an instant response. It is so easy to control; nothing is frightening. That feeling of floating on the air gives you such confidence; it makes you appear a good pilot rather than someone flying a great aircraft.

We then pose for Nick, who is shooting from the helicopter (luckily not a war move, and no defence guns on this aircraft). We fly a low pass over the airfield and circle a lunch party outside Goodwood House. After coming in to land at 85mph, Matt said “You have control”, and let me taxi back to the hanger. My pat-on-the-back moment came as we were taxiing along the ground and Matt said, “You’re a natural.”

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Damn, damn, damn, I want to learn to fly one now … Don’t, I’ve got enough scars… But I’d be the youngest current female Spitfire aviatrix! Matt is such an enthusiast, I would follow him anywhere to sit in the co-pilot seat and be trained by him.

I f you like experiences, flying a Spitfire is one not to miss. If you love someone more than yourself, it is the best present for Christmas. It is worth every moment, so start saving now. I was asked what it feels like. My reply was: “Like the best sex you’ve ever had …”

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I suffered from helmet hair after the flight, which was a shame as Nicky Clarke had kindly fitted me in for a trim for the photo shoot. Mary Ellis rarely wore a helmet for the same reason. Can’t someone please design a helmet that doesn’t ruin a woman’s hair? I understand you need a tough motorcycling, riding or cycling helmet, but for flying you just need one for the radio, even with the canopy back.

www.boultbeeflightacademy.co.uk (01243 531 147)

From Vanity Fair En Route, published with the Summer 2017 issue of Vanity Fair, and on sale June 2

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