This, I realize, is what heaven looks like if you’re a pilot. I’m sitting in the front cockpit of G-ILDA, the Spitfire I’m going to be flying. It is, as Bing keeps reminding me, a frightfully designed knot of interconnected systems: four different intertwined radiators (oil, supercharger intercooler, and two for the glycol), pneumatic rubber bags inside the wheel drums as brakes, a gear lever that you have to first move in the opposite direction (“Count one, two, three, four, then move swiftly into the ‘up’ position”). But it’s a thing of beauty. In some ways, it’s like the human body – it’s a wonder that it works at all. And when you see a Spitfire pirouetting among the bubbling clouds over an English countryside, it’s as pretty (to some of us!) and improbable as when you’re lost in the beauty of a ballerina.
|Bing checks the front cockpit
Bing is my crew chief for the weekend. When I say “my”, I really mean it’s the other way around. I’m his student pilot for the weekend. As Al (“my” instructor) reminds me, Boultbee may own the plane, and the two of us may be driving it, but this aerial work of art really belongs to Bing and his crew – the people who make it fly.
Bing leaves me alone in the cockpit for a few minutes while he attends to some maintenance issue. I’m lost in the forest of switches and levers, but – after a moment – have the sensation of being watched. He’s an older gentleman, wearing the blue jumpsuit that the technicians here at Aircraft Restoration Co. favor. He’s leaning on the outboard section of the leading edge, right where the iconic curve of the Spitfire’s elliptical wing really starts coming around. He’s watching me with a gentle, appreciative smile that seems to say “You like it?” And I suddenly feel terribly, terribly unworthy.
These men preserve the planes as a living trust. They’ve devoted their lives to it. And why not? Sixty years ago, these planes – these actual planes – roared overhead, over this airfield, into the teeth of better-armed fighters and bombers determined to kill them, and to beat the civilians they defended into the ground. Bombs fell here, as did many pilots on both sides. And that man leaning on the wing? He was old enough to have lived through it, and to remember this. This machine is his living heritage – I’m just passing through.
I emerge from my guilt trip and realize that the way he’s smiling at me isn’t dismissive. Maybe he knows that I “get it”. Or maybe he’s just remembering the first time he sat in a Spitfire, and recognizes the goofy, childlike wonder he saw on my face. I don’t know – he doesn’t speak. But his smile says it all: “Yeah, she’s something, isn’t she?”
Anyhow, today isn’t my day to fly her. Before anyone trusts me with this precious baby, I’ve got to do some laps in Boultbee’s Harvard (what we Americans call a T-6) to demonstrate that all those pages in my logbook are more than creative writing. Riding with me today – and for the duration of my training – will be Al Pinner, MBE, MRAeS. Al grew up flying Harriers and F-18s for the RAF over Bosnia and Iraq before retiring to become a flight instructor and display pilot in Spitfires and Hurricanes. Before I touch anything historic, Al’s got to be convinced I won’t roll it (and him) up into a ball of twisted aluminum.
|(Sorry – I promise to get a
better picture of Al!)
Flying with a really good flight instructor is like ballroom dancing with a really good partner. Not only do they help you along and make you look good, they make you feel good. Al is, besides being a warm and wonderful human being, a really good flight instructor. He sets his expectations high (“You ought to be fine – you’ve got more T-6 time than I do.”), but doesn’t seem particularly fazed when I touch down prematurely on the first landing, and drop the second one in (“Nerves – don’t sweat it. Let’s do another.”). The third and fourth landings are lovely though, and apparently my rudderwork is enough to convince him that tomorrow morning, Saturday, is my day to become a Spitfire pilot. There’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.