I didn’t look up the Spitfire school website. I could never afford it. For two years I just watched the video of Alex James flying the Spitfire. Here’s a rock star who once lolled in champagne with groupies in a hotel. And was awed to tears by a World War II fighter airplane, “The prettiest girl at the ball.” Lucky man.
Fly a Spitfire, pfft. It would never happen to me.
Carlo and I found Ardmore Airport at 10am. The Spitfire flight was scheduled for 12 noon. Already, I didn’t want the day to end.
Ardmore is just south of Auckland, in the beautiful North Island countryside of New Zealand. Carlo and I wandered around the ramps. Pilots fueled Cessna 162s at the Auckland Flying Club. Instructors hovered Schweizer helicopters over grass. A privately-owned Strikemaster attack jet ripped around the circuit.
We watched two hangars in particular. They harboured a matched pair of North American T-6 ‘Harvards’.
A pilot pushed one Harvard out. This must be Carlo’s airplane. Warbird Adventure Rides had offered us a Spitfire and a Harvard to fly in formation. Carlo and I meant to toss a coin for the Spitfire. But I had made an executive decision sans currency. Carlo, the English Professor, agreed to become a Harvard alumnus.
We hurried over. John “JK” Kelly, with 900 hours in Harvards, introduced us to the airplane. The Royal New Zealand Air Force once had 200 of these training airplanes. Ours, used for gunnery training, had a .303 machine gun in the starboard wing. That Pratt & Whitney R-1340 gulped seven litres of gas per minute. That’s seven times what our Cessna sips. Nomnomnom!
Carlo, in his Burberry, looked the RAF ace back from leave in Blighty, keen to get his ticket re-upped in a dicky op.
Other smiling pilots arrived. Liz Needham, CEO of Warbird Adventure Rides, is a B767 airline pilot. She has 20,000 hours in 37 years in aviation. She is #2 in the Harvard “Roaring 40s” flying display team and also flies the P-40E Kittyhawk.
I checked my camera batteries yet again. Then JK called out to me from the porch. She was here.
The prettiest girl at the ball.
I could only gawk. I took several photos. I wish I took hundreds. I should have walked around, propped my camera on the grass, climbed a ladder, taken close ups. The day was going too fast.
Safety briefing. Pull bumblebee to jettison canopy. Egress. Clear the aircraft. Pull parachute ripcord D-ring all the way out there.
Instructor pilot Gavin Trethewey would fly with me. Gavin is ex-Air New Zealand and flew military jets in the RNZAF. He stressed that, “This is your flight. It is all about you. We will do what you want to do.”
We briefed the op. Formation photo shoot. An aerobatic routine. And I would fly the Spitfire through a low-altitude corridor near the Firth of Thames. Down on the deck to evade Adolf Galland’s Jagdgeschwader 26.
Then we boarded the airplanes.
I was strapped to a Spitfire, cocooned in history. Twisting around, I watched Carlo clamber into his own cockpit. Carlo and I, who love airplanes almost as much as each other, were wingmen in this incredible adventure.
Too soon, it was time to go. Clear ‘round, switches on, starter button. The iconic Merlin V-12 engine was smooth and warm, like an old favourite song record. The headset crackled, Gavin checking in. But what I heard was a radio call for my childhood airplane models.
“Gannic Squadron, scramble, orbit station angels fifteen, bandits two-zero miles.”
Posted from Köln, Germany.
13 December, 2014
Warbird Adventure Rides, Ltd.
History of Carlo’s Harvard: The Royal New Zealand Air Force flew 202 North American Harvard T-6 trainer aircraft. This was the advanced trainer flown by pilots before moving on to high-performance fighter aircraft. This particular Harvard, NZ1057, served from the 1940s to the 1970s, then became a playground piece. It was fully restored to airworthiness in 1998.
Want to hear what a Merlin engine sounds like? Headset and medium volume recommended. I played this here in Köln, Germany. I thought the air raid sirens would go off. This is the exact same Spitfire I was about to fly.