This Story Doesn’t End the Way You’d Expect

Or maybe it does – I don’t know. Those of you who know me better than I know myself (and you know who you are!) will have to weigh in here.

But there I was: in this case, it was somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, and I’d still not been able to sleep. When I closed my eyes, I saw us dropping below the glideslope, the wings and engine somehow unable to arrest the plummet. When I rolled over against my pillow, I saw the gyros tumble as earth and sky spun in the Spitfire’s windscreen. Anxiety dreams? I wasn’t even asleep.
Somewhere, sometime after this – it might have been hours – I tried a decision out in my mind. Just to see how it felt. Immediately the spinning and plummeting stopped, and I felt myself drifting into sleep. A moment’s reconsideration, and I was wide awake again, tense from the neck down. No, no – this decision was the right thing. (Don’t worry, I’m gonna tell you, I’m gonna tell you!)
I waited until after I’d picked Al up at his hotel, after we’d had a look at the plane. I waited until we sat down to brief for the morning’s flight. Then I told him: “You know, I came here intending to solo. And I understood going in that, if I weren’t up to snuff, I wouldn’t second guess your judgment, or anyone else’s. If you said I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. But this is my last day of training here, and I’ve decided something: (here it is…), even if you do think I’m ready, I’d rather not have the pressure of planning to fly solo. Let’s do one nice long last flight and have a hell of a good time being Spitfire pilots.”
Al thought a moment before responding. He ventured that, modulo a few times around the pattern to check my insights from our last flight yesterday, he thought I was ready. His plan was to check my landings this morning and sign me off. But he also understood the pressure, and said he’d be delighted to just come along for the ride as my new best friend in the back seat. “And,” I added, “be ready to save my sorry ass if it turns out I need it?” “You won’t need it,” he assured me, “but I’d love to come along.”
So off we went, blasting into the sky one last time together. It felt good. It felt really good. I missed a few items (had some pitch oscillation as I adjusted the friction lock, and didn’t get the carb air filter into “Normal” early enough, so we had to slow down a bit to overcome the air pressure holding it closed). But by and large, I was on top of it. Al handled the radios as we crossed over to Cambridge. Got us a block of airspace from 4k-7k north of the city and I took it up to acro altitudes. Steep turns right (absolutely on the mark) and left (whoooops – pitch excursion! – but recovered). A few dives and wingovers, capping it with (if I may say so myself) the best victory roll I’ve managed in anything with wings. I knew how to fly this thing, I really did, and it felt good.

So – I could fly the Spitfire, but the final question loomed in my mind, as it must have in Al’s: could I land it?

We barreled south over Cambridge again, rolling downhill around 240 mph with the power back. I’d mentioned to Al that, in spite of all this flying, I’d only taken one picture from the air – that shot of our air-to-air C182 from yesterday’s post. So he offered to take the controls for a “run in and break” while I filmed our first approach, then hand it back to me for a couple of times around the pattern. It’s a bit of a favorite arrival technique at Duxford – diving to the deck under power at high cruise speed down the length of the runway, then popping all that kinetic energy back into altitude on a ballistic crosswind turn. Al loves to add a personal, uh, twist to his RI&B, and it looks gorgeous (video below).


Once we were shiny side up turning downwind, I had the controls again. Al reminded me: “From now on, I’m the passenger again – you’re the Spitfire pilot.” And I was. Turned in a little early over the village, but on speed, and rode the three degree line all the way down. Al started to cue me on round out, but caught himself, and we touched down gently on the grass with only a small bounce. Crosswind? Yeah, there was a bit of one, but (and Al may need to set the record straight here), it was a non-issue – I had it under control.

Al called “roll and go”, and I poked the Merlin to 6″ of boost. Tail started coming up too high, but I caught it and climbed away after a short skip. Throttle, switch hands, gear-down-hold-wait-then-up, switch hands back, flaps, prop, trim, and we were around for another circuit. This one? This one I’ll take the liberty of saying I nailed. It looked good. It felt good. Al was saying something from the back cockpit as I went through the post-landing checks, but I was lost in the moment – yeah, after three days of his patient instruction, I did know how to land this baby.

We taxied back to the ramp, past the museum’s P-51 out on the grass, past another Spitfire (there are something like a dozen of them here), past the Dragon Rapide, and past the crowd of spectators pressed up against the rail to take photos of us. I caught up with the moment, and started paying attention to Al. He was saying that there was still plenty of time. That if I wanted to reconsider, he could hop out and I’d be free to take G-ILDA around the pattern a couple of times on my own. He wasn’t going to insist, but he was sure I was ready.

I thought about it – hard. It was every schoolboy’s dream: climb into a Spitfire – all by yourself – and launch into the skies above Britain. It was every warbird pilot’s dream: “Yeah, I’ve flown the Spit. No, I’ve flown it solo.”  And here it was, right here and now, held forward in an open hand. All I had to do was say the word.

In my mind, for a moment, I said yes. I pictured myself at the runup, sweating bullets. Adding power, reciting the Astronaut’s Prayer to the divinity of the moment, trying to corner and catch everything that could go wrong. I imagined bouncing it, and bending the gear. Catching the prop. Balling it up in any possible manner. No, I wouldn’t get killed; I probably wouldn’t even get hurt – the Spit’s a sturdy gal. And insurance would cover the damage; within six or so months, she’d be flying again, with new gear, new prop, new whatever. That wasn’t the problem.

I imagined trying to face Bing after wadding his precious baby into a ball of twisted metal. Did I want it that badly, just to be able to say I’d soloed? Did I trust myself that much? No – I just couldn’t do it. I was sure I’d feel comfortable after a few more hours, but right now, I just didn’t feel the need.

Did you ever have that moment – in high school, in college, whenever – when you paused on the doorstep after a date and kissed her goodnight? You got the sense that, if you nudged just a little bit, you could get invited inside, with all the promise and perils of that unknown territory beyond? You think about it.

It had been a wonderful, wonderful flight there with G-ILDA. I didn’t want to ruin that memory. I gave her a little kiss on the dash and thanked her for the lovely date.





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