Battle of Britain Experience

The Battle of Britain experience offered by Aero Legends is based on the BBC program “Battle of Britain” starring Ewan and Colin McGregor that was made in 2010 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

The program outlines how RAF pilots of the period were trained – starting with dual time in the DeHavilland Tiger Moth biplane, then dual time in the North American AT6 – Harvard and finally being pushed off in your Spitfire to survive – or not. At the height of the Battle when the RAF was extremely hard pressed for pilots some new pilots had less than 50 hours basic and 10 hours in fighters when they went into combat.

The planes on the line in the morning.

On the Line

You get two flights in the Tiger Moth, one in the Harvard and one in the Spitfire.

My program was offered at Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent which was RAF Lashenden during WWII. Some of the old buildings are still used as a museum with salvaged wrecks and engines from British and German aircraft that fell in the Battle. We were in the Annex with a display of RAF and German uniforms and a display about the Great Escape with prisoner of war drawings and items that had been made in POW camps by imprisoned aircrew. Tea coffee and water were available all day and a lovely buffet lunch was laid on in the middle of the day which you could graze at between flights. Comfy arm chairs to sit in. It was slightly like a ready room where you sat hoping the phone would not ring to send you into a scramble.

The program is offered to four people at a time and you rotate through the aircraft. You are sent the DVD of the TV program in advance to view. On the day you get issued a personalized flight suit to keep - though I flew the program in 1942 issue RAF battle dress to see what it was like (works fine and quite comfy).

Battle Dress

The day started with an extensive safety brief.

Safety Brief

With some participants having never flown it covered some fundamentals about airport safety and not standing in front of propellers – went on to aircraft ingress and egress for each type and how to let the ground crew make sure you were correctly strapped into the parachutes (WWII seat type) and then your aircraft harness. It also didn’t pull any punches and covered forced ladings and abandoning the aircraft on the pilots triple “bale out” call. Though you were warned that the pilot might say it very quickly and your clue that it was time to leave was if you saw the pilot disappearing over the wing……

The Tiger Moth was got out the hangar. The Harvard arrived from Duxford and a few minutes later the Spitfire arrived and beat up the field with a low pass, a couple of Cuban Eights and an overhead break back up to pattern altitude before landing and taxiing in.

Mo and Cliff

Martin “Mo” Overall and Cliff Spink. Martin is mechanic on the Spitfire. Cliff was the pilot today. It was notable that any time a plane was taxiing past the Spitfire - Martin would subtly but definitely put his body between the two planes. He was clearly ready to take one for the Spitfire at all times! Martin is qualified on the Harvard and in the process of qualifying on the Spitfire. Cliff’s kneeboards have the pertinent boost and speed details for the Spitfire. He flies so many marks of the plane that all have different settings. There is no argument that he religiously uses the checklist to make sure he gets it right for the plane he is in that day. He verbalizes the whole list for your (and his) benefit every time he uses it. He absolutely encourages CRM and that you verify the GUMPS check for him on landing and sing out ANYTHING you think is relevant.

One difference from the TV program as offered by Aero Legends is that it is made clear that you can fly to any level you wish to experience. Just sightseeing over the battlefield – to out and out flying. My brief to my pilot/instructors was simple:

“Screw the scenery – lets go flying and aerobatics is an enormous plus”

All took me at my word.

So in summary:

Tiger Moth G-ANMO / K4259

Tiger Moth

The aircraft was allocated to the Royal Air Force as K4259 on the 24th November 1934 at Kenley and officially taken on charge on the 12th January 1935. It was then issued to 1 ASU on the 21st February 1936 before issue to 24 squadron 11 fighter group on the 5th June 1937. Its next unit was based at Gatwick and it then served with a succession of training units throughout the War such as 10 EFTS and 22 EFTS. It ended its service at 12 MU where it was sold to Mr A.J.Whitmore on the 1st December 1953. It was registered as G-ANMO on the 22nd January 1954 at Croydon where it remained until sold to a new owner in France on the 22nd July 1955 and registered as F-BHIU. It returned to the UK and was registered as G-ANMO again on the 15th July 1970. On the 30th July 1972 it was involved in a none-fatal collision with a Stampe at an airshow at Weston Super Mare and was withdrawn from use for rebuild emerging onto the register again on the 27th January 1987. It has remained airworthy ever since with a variety of owners until acquired by Aero Legends during 2014. K4259 is painted in a post war training colour scheme.

First flight in the Tiger Moth with Nigel.

Strapping in

I did some straight and level and turns and then the Harvard appeared alongside

Harvard to port

and challenged us to a dogfight. We went at it. We could always turn inside the Harvard and get on his tail. He would dive or zoom climb away. Any time he got on our tail – we would simply turn inside him.

Second flight in the Tiger Moth with Gavin.

Strapped in again,

Some straight and level and steep turns then some aggressive aerobatics with the flying wires positively singing as we dived to Vne in order to get the energy for loops. Then Barrel rolls, Hammerheads, Aileron rolls. During the war the Tiger was spun in training all the time but they are all now fitted with anti-spin strakes on the back of the empennage and are placarded against spins. We flew a very aggressive hammerhead into a half Cuban finishing about 100ft over the grass strip at Fidd Farm which we beat up. I raised my eyebrow (figuratively) to Gavin whose only comment was that he used to rent a cottage from the farmer who loved the company! Someone waved at us (or was he shaking his fist) as we went by! We finished back over Headcorn with an overhead break into a loop and then dropped back onto the runway.

Harvard IV 1747 / G-BGPB


This Harvard was built by the Canadian Car Foundry in 1953 with the US military serial 53-4619. It saw service with the USAF in Europe and was then sold to the West German Air Force in 1958. It was delivered to the Flugzeugfuhrerschule (Pilot Training School) at Landsberg wearing the code AA+050. When the School closed in 1966, it moved to the Technische Schule 1 (Technical training School 1) at Kaufbeuren, becoming BG+050. It was then sold to the Portuguese Air Force with the FAP (Portuguese Air Force) code 1747. When the Portuguese disposed of their Harvard fleet 1747 was imported into the UK by Alistair Walker and Robs Lamplough and placed on the UK register as G-BGPB in the late 1970’s. The aircraft was painted as a Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft and flew as one half of the Harvard Duo, it later became part of the 1980’s Harvard Formation Team. It was then acquired by the Aircraft Restoration Company and underwent a full rebuild with a first post restoration flight on 23rd February 2000. It is currently painted in its original markings when used by the Portuguese air Force.

The flight in the Harvard with Dale was a blast.

As requested he made it an out and out aerobatics lesson. We found a space over the White Cliffs of Dover, cleared the area and then flew demonstration wing overs, aileron rolls and loops. Dale demonstrated while I followed then I got to fly them myself. My wing overs were not quite lazy enough, the rolls were on the money (thanks CC) and I pulled a little hard going over the top of the loop which got a smart intervention from Dale. The Harvard will snap out in a nasty spin if you don’t float her properly over the top of the loop. With a few minutes left we were upright again over Dover and Dale pointed out the only two towers left over from the Battle which strung the antenna for the Chain Home radar system that gave us the necessary warning of incoming German raids. You can just see them over the wing root in this shot.

Chain Home Aerials below

Back to Lasham (as Dale insisted on calling it on the radio as we were in a warbird) and a low pass and overhead break into the downwind to land. AWESOME!

Spitfire T9 2 Seater PV202


PV202 was built as a single-seat LFlX fighter at Castle Bromwich in 1944 It was delivered to 33 Maintenance Unit at Lyneham in Wiltshire on the 18th September 1944 where it was brought up to operational standard. The aircraft moved to No.84 Ground Support Unit at Thruxton, Hants, and on the 19th October 1944 and entered service with 33 Squadron based at Merville, Northern France, carrying the codes 5R-Q. The aircraft returned to the UK on the 14th December 1944 at 84GSU, Lasham when the Squadron converted to Tempests. PV202 had carried out 20 operational sorties during its service with 33 Squadron.

A move between M.U.’s took it to 83GSU at Dunsfold in January 1945 before being issued to 412 Squadron. RCAF operating from Heesch in Holland where it carried the Squadron identity VZ-M later changing to VZ-W. The Squadron eventually moved further into Germany itself, being based at Rhein and Wunsdorf forward operating airfields. On the 4th May 1945 Fg Off H.M.Lepard carried out the last of PV202’s 76 operational sorties with 412 Sqn. When the War ended 412 squadron returned to Dunsfold at the end of May and PV202 was flown to the famous 29MU at High Ercall for storage in July 1945 where it remained until selected by Vickers-Armstrong for conversion into trainer configuration in 1950 for the Irish Air Corps.

It was converted at Eastleigh and delivered to the IAC on the 15th June 1951 where it was given the identity IAC161. The T9 Spitfires were used to train pilots for the IAC Seafire. During December 1960 it was sold to Tony Samuelson, who was supplying aircraft for the Battle of Britain Film Company. Little or no work was carried out on IAC161 and in 1979 it was put up for sale and went to new owner Nick Grace, who moved it to St. Merryn in Cornwall along with ML407/IAC162. Nick kept ML407 for himself and sold PV202 to Steve Atkins who moved the various parts of the project to a barn on a farm at Saffron Walden, where restoration commenced. The aircraft was later moved to Sussex where restoration was completed as a two seater, the first post restoration flight was from Dunsfold on the 23rd February 1990.

So now the big event. By this point the ground crew and figured who were pilots and let us get ourselves strapped in and set up to our comfort – they then checked we had got it right. Demonstration as to how the hood worked and the seat could be raised after closing it to see over the pilot in front. It works remarkably well.

Strapped In

Pilot Cliff then came down the wing to check what you wanted to do. I was emphatic about aerobatics and he smiled and said “OK - we will fly one of my airshow routines.” We taxied out with the coolant temperatures rocketing as we really needed to get going. One of the limitations of the Spitfire on the ground. She needs lots of air going through the radiators to keep her cool. You need to get her into the air fast. We did and as soon as the gear was up I was handed the stick and told to climb out to 3,000ft at 160 mph. On the way up I was to try some simple turns and when we made 3,000ft I followed while we got an show routine. Then poor Fidd airfield got another visit. We went down the runway so low that the tops of the trees on either side were above us. I commented that I don’t suppose anyone ever called in a Spitfire for low flying. Cliff agreed. Some more flying for me and then back to the airfield. As I said elsewhere – she was a completely harmonized delight to fly. No wonder pilots love her. Then pictures:

Photo Opportunity

Grin and Grip

and a really nice logbook entry from Cliff:

"First Flight in a Spitfire. Well done Graeme. nicely flown - so nice to fly with someone who really enjoys aerobatics.
Best Wishes,
Cliff Spink"

That would be RAF Air Marshal (Ret) Clifford Rodney Spink, CB, CBE, FCMI, FRAeS.

Squadron Leader Smith after his flight!

That Was Fun

Then I got the bonus for quietly playing the pushy American who had come a long way to do this card (“but PLEASE don’t tell the others”). I came back the next day (so other new people who would not know) to “finish up” (that was the cover story).

Back into the Spitfire with Cliff. Only this time I was to get to fly a simple routine – roll and a loop, roll and a loop. Cliff talked me through it.

Talk through

I sat in the cockpit while he leaned in and showed me where the stick was best placed for each part of the routine. We talked it, we pushed and pulled it in the cockpit, we talked it again then he got in and off we went. He got her in the air but I was handed her immediately. Climbed out and cleared the area. Then Cliff flew the routine while I followed on the controls. Just as he was finishing the last roll and we were half way around I guess I was tested as he announced – “your controls finish the roll”. I came out bang on level. “OK” he said – “go for it.”

Your Controls

Dive level to 250 mph. Gently pull up in a 2G pull to 30 degrees above the horizon. Smoothly snap neutralize the elevators, smartly and smoothly apply full aileron and round she rolls. Smoothly level her – dive to 300 mph – the constant speed prop took care of the throttle – then 3G pull and up you go and check wingtip for orientation in the loop on the way up and look up through the bubble canopy for the horizon – make sure you are level going over the top and ever so slightly - so hardly think it – float her a moment and then come around the backside of the loop and level – check everything is together and everything is green, nothing is hot and you have not lost ANY altitude and then immediately go again. Our brand newly overhauled – just broken in Merlin 61 – never missed a beat as it hauled us around the sky. “Nice” from Cliff. It was AWESOME for me. He was “off controls” and I was “on”. Then followed Cliff in a couple off barrel rolls and then head for home. Curved approach on a right base and another low pass down the runway for the plane spotters. Then a pull up to a 45 degree climb and a 4 point aileron roll on the way up though only three points and while still on our right side – pull her around onto the downwind and in to land.

I wasn’t smiling as broadly as some people expected after that flight. Frankly I had a lump in my throat and was pretty teared up. John MacGee’s “Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” never had more meaning at that point.

In for lunch and another logbook entry:

“Flight in Spitfire with aerobatics. Nice Flying Graeme - particularly the aileron roll and loops

Cliff Spink”

Cliff then regaled us over lunch with tales of flying warbirds on the airshow circuit. Our T9 Spitfire for today was particularly sparkling apparently. Some of the others have pretty run out engines. The day Cliff lost it while allowing a Belgian vet who had flown Spitfires in the war to sit in the cockpit. He was setting up a static display and saw an old man hanging on the fence. “There was something about him” Cliff said and he went over to say hello. Next thing Cliff was hauling him over the fence. The Belgian who had not flown a Spit since 1945 went straight into the cockpit routine while talking about his lost friends from the war. Cliff had to walk away and spend 5 mins composing himself before he could go back and talk to him. The time he was on the way to Austria for an airshow with a Spit and a Me109. He was flying the Me109. They had a fuel stop actually in Germany and a family approached him and asked if they could bring their father – a WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilot to come have a look. Apparently the 90 year old German was very correct – almost clicked his heels and got in the plane. He then told Cliff he had wrecked three 109’s during the war. He decided flying was too dangerous and asked for a transfer to something else. He went into U-Boats instead! (German U-Boats had a 75% casualty rate!).

Kids on the fence

Cliff also showed any kids hanging off the fence the Spitfire. Like me he believes that sitting kids in cockpits is an important part of bringing on the next generation. Though here in this shot he is making sure the kid doesn’t accidently knock the undercarriage lever. Spitfires have no squat switch/interlock. Knock the lever while it is sitting on the ground and you have a Spitfire sitting on its belly!

Then everyone shook hands, swapped cards and promised to send each other photographs.

Afterwards – I went for a run to try and calm down…………