I am something of a black sheep in my family in one respect; I am mostly bored by aeroplanes. If I'm not in one being taken somewhere nice, I don't really want to know, but I come from a family of plane enthusiasts. My Dad is an aeronautical engineer, who has spent his working life around planes and was a plane nut even before he started work1. My Mum loves planes too, and used to cry when she saw Concorde flying — not because she wished she was on it going somewhere exotic while sipping champagne, but because she thought it was so graceful. My brother is also an engineer — automotive rather than aeronautical — but he enjoys planes too. On top of that, I married a plane nut (special interest: float planes and US World War II aircraft). So I spent a good deal of my childhood getting bored at Farnborough Airshow, or freezing my nose off at Duxford, gloomily looking for birds through my binoculars on wind-swept, rain-lashed airfields.
I do, though, have a soft spot for one particular aircraft: the Supermarine Spitfire.
It was for this reason that I was keen to watch the Channel 4 programme, Spitfire Ace, in which four young men compete to be allowed to fly a Spitfire owned by Carolyn Grace. I was a bit worried that it was going to be yet another show with a spurious competitive element, but it turned out to include a lot of interesting historical information about the plane, and interviews with some of the pilots who flew them.
The Spitfire2 was designed from scratch by Reginald Mitchell, who took on a commission to build a fast, single-wing fighter aircraft for the RAF. The design is really inspired, and beautiful. On the ground, the nose tilts up in the air, and the up-swept wings make it look eager to get off the ground. The Merlin engine was hugely powerful for the time, and the engine note (a coughing growl) is unmistakable even today, like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Everyone interviewed in the programme had the same gleam in their eyes as the talked about the experience of flying the Spitfire. They described it as effortless ("like strapping wings on your back"), exhilarating and utterly 'right'. You could tell that these 60 and 70 year-olds would give their right arms to be able to fly one again. Despite the intuitive and natural feel of the Spitfire, like many old planes, it requires a good deal of skill to fly. When one of the 'contestants' got a bit over-aggressive with his manoeuvres while training in a Tiger Moth, his tutor burst out with, "Make love to the sky. Do not shag it!".
These young RAF pilots entrusted with the fate of the nation were — on average — only 20 years old. One man talked movingly of his horror at seeing German pilots he had shot down getting their parachutes tangled on the tailplane and going down with their aircraft. He said that he felt this was no way for a so-called civilised society to behave in the 20th Century. How sad that so little has changed in the 21st Century.
The Spitfire is a beautiful aircraft on its own merits, but I'm sure that part of the power of its image is due to the association with all those young men who risked or lost their lives in it, and the vital role it played in the Battle of Britain. The image of this plucky little plane somehow symbolises the huge odds against Britain at the time. I get a lump in my throat every time I see one.
It even inspired one of the most beautiful poems about the experience of flight. High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr3. The first two lines seem to capture the experience of flight in a Spitfire perfectly:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
I think the poem probably also captures the paradox of life as an RAF pilot in World War II. On the one hand, you were frequently terrified for your life, exhausted, or shocked and saddened by having to take the life of other young men like yourself, but there was also exhilaration and freedom in the skies.
1 A word of advice: do not sit next to an aerodynamicist on an Aeroflot aircraft. The excited commentary on all the engineering flaws of the aircraft — to which you are entrusting your life — will not make for a restful flight.
2 Names are so important. According to 'Spitfire Ace', the Spitfire was nearly called 'The Shrew'. Eeek.
3 He was an American who skipped over the border to Canada at 18 years old to join the Canadian Air Force. He ended up in the RAF flying Spitfires, and died at 19 when his Spit hit a trainer aircraft in thick cloud.