Last time I was in Duxford, I fell in love. Twice.
It was late morning, and the mist hadn’t yet broken on the long expanse of finely-mowed grass. Sitting there, about 30 yards beyond the tarmac was the shrouded silhouette of a shape I’d known since I was an adventure-hungry kid scouring my school library for anything I could find about the Battle of Britain.
It seems kind of silly now – the fourth-grade kid thing – but back then, I was consumed by it. I remember the bell ringing for study hall and proclaiming to my long-suffering and indulgent best friend: “It’s BOB time!” He looked at me, puzzled. “B. O. B.?” “Battle of Britain! We get to look for more stuff about the Battle of Britain!”
I remember the weary look he gave me, then the trepidation with which he spoke. “So, um, today? I was wondering if maybe – just today – we could look up stuff that was about something else? For today?” I also remember looking back at him with a polite lack of comprehension. Like he’d suggested that – as a lark – we try to go the day without using the bathroom. Utter incomprehension – why on earth would we want to do that?
But that was then, this was now. Er, the other now – the last time I was in Duxford. And the silhouette I was looking at was the draped but shapely form of ML-407
, a Mark IX Spitfire. I was in love.
The silhouette had something unusual about it, too. Behind the rise of the pilot’s canopy, there was a second curve: a second canopy had been fitted some time after the war, when it was converted to a “TR-9” – a dual control model, for training purposes. I’ll admit, the second cockpit disturbed the elegant simplicity of the Spit – while on a bigger plane, the bump might practically go unnoticed, on the tiny Spitfire, this addition was – I’ll admit it – a bit of a wart. But it meant something very very (very!) important, something that more than made up for the supernumerary bump: someone else could go along.
It was 1997, and as I watched, I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. An elegant woman with long, straight dark hair was walking purposefully across the ramp. Male pilot friends, please back me up on this: no matter how married you are, there’s something about a woman in a Nomex flight suit.
And then, something happened. I gazed discreetly but admiringly at this lovely lady as she strode past. I tried to come up with something clever, engaging to say, something like “Nice day for flying, isn’t it?”, only that it wasn’t, and by the time I’d come up with anything that didn’t sound stupid, she was well away, out of the distance of polite conversation., She was moving with measured purpose – probably hadn’t even noticed me as she went by at her pace, slowing only when she reached her destination – you know where this is going – the draped Spitfire.
I swear, she even did the “Charlie’s Angel” hair swish as she turned to confront it head-on, paused and placed a hand on the spinner. It was the look you give to your favored mount – honest, I still give the Deb a little pat on the nose, just like that, before (and after) every flight. And then…. and then… And then she started pulling off the canopy cover. She was going to fly.
While I watched her preflight, I figured I had the duration of about 10 minutes, to think of something clever and engaging to say. Volumes of poetry spun through my head. “Can I get a ride?” wasn’t going to do it. Finally she was done, and did one last walk around before heading back toward the ramp.
“Wow – she’s gorgeous.” (A safe opening – expressing appreciation is rarely out of place.)
“Thank you!.” (A courteous nod, but no sign of slowing down for conversation.)
“Uhhh, uhhh, uh….” (not going so well here – you can tell I made the best of my 10-minute prep.)
She paused to give me time.
“Uh… how does one, learn, um, I mean get, I mean….fly Spitfire?” The Hulk would have had no worse grammar, and probably would have drawn points for directnessI’m sure my grammar was no better than that, but she got the idea, and a sympathetic smile bloomed on her lips.
“Ah yes – it’s a bit difficult. The first thing you need to do if you want to learn to fly the Spitfire is get a hundred or so hours in a T-6. Then the Spitfire pilots will talk to you. After that…”
I thought she was going to say that you just had to be lucky, and that she’d been lucky. And perhaps for a moment, she was going to say that. But then a different look crossed her face, and she paused, and introduced herself. Carolyn. Carolyn Grace. Pleased to meet me, and hoped to see me around. Then she excused herself and headed in to fetch her lucky passenger.
[Sometimes the fates just throw you a bone. I wrote up the above musings around 3 a.m. this morning, when jetlag drop-kicked my sleep rhythm. That day at Duxford was 15 years ago. So this morning I was a bit startled to see a familiar form resting alone, out on the grass as I pulled into the airfield parking lot. Really? I asked the elderly gentleman standing at the rail. “Yes, that’s the Grace Spitfire – she just flew in from somewhere a few minutes ago. That’s her, over there, if you hurry, you might catch her…” And you, gentle readers, know better than most what a fanboy your writer is.]