Maxi meets Mary
Part two: Having mastered the Mk VIII Spitfire, Maxi has a date with Flying Legends at IWM Duxford, and meets original ATA ferry pilot, Mary Ellis
Afew weeks after my first dance with MV154 I flew to Duxford, accompanied by Achim Meier in a Corsair F4U-5 and the late and much missed Marc ‘Leon’ Mathis in a T-51 Mustang, both aeroplanes also based in Bremgarten. Our objective was Flying Legends, the best airshow in Europe, if not the world, to which we had been invited.
Legends, the brainchild of warbird pilot extraordinaire Stephen Grey, owner-boss of The Fighter Collection based on this historic airfield, once a year gathers together the largest number of WWII fighters you can see displayed at one time in the air, along with a fair turnout of pre-war and Great War aircraft, all flown by highly experienced vintage and warbird pilots−apart from the odd newcomer like yours truly. It is a privilege to be asked and, although I owe it to MV154, I guess that my many years of attending formation flying schools at North Weald being taught by serving or former RAF instructors, plus a valid Display Authorisation, also played a part in it.
I landed en route in Le Touquet to refuel and clear Customs, then followed Achim and Leon in loose formation as we set course for England. Outbound over the Channel Lille Info asked me to confirm number of persons on board. “One,” I replied, but as the white cliffs of Dover hove out of the haze and grew across my windscreen I couldn’t help wondering if there weren’t perhaps more than me on board−thousands maybe, many of whom never grew old, seeing through my mortal eyes the most welcome sight they once beheld as they flew or limped back home from combat over foreign soil.
Once at Duxford I was in at the deep end from the word go. Ten o’clock sharp for the pilots’ morning briefing, a seemingly relaxed but brisk and thorough affair conducted in the main by Pete Kinsey, the Fighter Collection’s soft spoken, hugely experienced Chief Pilot. Some of the gathered pilots ranked to my impressionable eyes up there with the gods, with Steve Hinton probably at their head−but I will spare you the name-dropping.
Pete ran us through the display programme scheduled to start at 1400 hours and to run uninterruptedly for two-and-half hours, the gist of it being a dynamic choreography, honed through the years, that assures there will be aircraft performing in front of the spectators at all times, taking off, landing and displaying in front of them. We then broke up into our individual sections for a more detailed briefing.
I was in an eight-ship Spitfire ‘wave’, led by the genial and charismatic Cliff Spink, a former fast jet jock and warbird maestro, up there too with the Hintons of this close-knit flying world. “We’ve all been a virgin once,” he told me by way of reassurance when I fessed up to my inexperience, but just in case he had me take off from the hard runway, out of harm’s way. Once airborne I slotted easily enough into position, awed by the sight of so many Spits floating around me as Cliff took us through a series of dumbbells up and down the crowd line. I then split behind Christophe Jacquard in his Griffon-engined Spitfire XVIII for a two-ship low level tailchase over the grass runway, making sure of not busting the ‘contract’ line marked by the northern
edge of the hard runway while the remaining six kept well clear of its southern edge during their act.
Tearing along at 100 feet at 280 knots while bumping and rocking when accidentally slipping into the lead Spitfire’s wash was several orders of magnitude more fun−if at times heart-stopping−than any flying I had experienced before. Pulling up into dizzying wingovers at either end of our run, I had to cut the corner on Christophe in order not to end up stretched, but going downhill (and minding not to clip the end of the crowd line or overfly the village) I still had to call “power back” to my leader just to hold the gap. I landed on the grass and from then on I was taking off in pairs and vics on this hallowed surface just like the rest of them, soon learning where to pick the smoother patches of field and avoid the softer ones when touching down− provided of course the aircraft landing flow allowed it.
The following year I was ‘moved up’ to the six-ship tailchase act, this time led by Nick Grey in a Mk XVIII, followed by
My controls began to slacken... Unhealthy, I reckoned, and broke away
another Griffon-powered Spit, a Mk V, two ‘Baby’ Mk I Spits, and myself placed last, presumably where I could do least harm. As we split from the main formation for our act, Steve Hinton (no less!) called out a ‘technical’ in his Mk I and was returning to land. So now we were five.
Tailchases are quite straightforward if all aircraft are the same, as we used to be in North Weald flying Yak-52s. But with planes of varying weight and power, hence kinetic energy, it becomes trickier−even if all are Spitfires.
We peeled off our perch in good order, me behind John Romain and followed him downhill, soon having to power back not to overtake his lighter Mk I. Ground rush is exponential, so all of a sudden I was in a green blur, light aircraft on the far side of the field flashing past my canopy while I grabbed the stick with both hands to fight back the vicious washes left by the leading planes and pulling hard so as not to be rolled and spat out into an incoming Me 109 zipping past the corner of my right eye like a missile on the north side of the runway, with a Spitfire in hot pursuit.
At the apex of the next wingover, and looking down over my shoulder, I saw the two lead Spitfires swooping earthward and shrinking fast to go mate with their shadows. ‘Crazy,’ I thought, only to find myself moments later doing the same as I followed John once again earthward, slamming shut the throttle to stop the overtake while struggling to stay in clean air. Uphill once more, I found the Mk I climbing to the point that my controls began to slacken while he continued his merry way up into angel territory. Unhealthy, I reckoned, and broke away, calling “Six is out”.
Such a shame. But my blood was up and, suddenly, my mind surprisingly cold and focused. I could still rejoin if I pulled lead on John, which I did, and soon I was
calling “Six is back in”. From there on it flowed. I somehow figured out how to keep out of the invisible washes lurking close to the ground, and eased a wingspan out of John’s flightpath so as not to shred his Spitfire’s tail should I briefly overtake him, which I didn’t.
By comparison, the closing act of the Balbo seemed a tame affair, even if we were now 24 aircraft and that the mass formation takeoffs in vics and pairs did concentrate the mind. I was in the second-to-last section, lined up behind Stu Goldspink in a P-40 Warhawk and with a Spitfire on each wing. Way ahead, Pete Kinsey led us in a Sea Fury with his usual smoothness and aplomb, keeping us well clear of the airfield while waiting for everyone to come on board. This can be a lengthy business, but meanwhile Stephen Grey kept the crowds entertained with his signature ‘Joker’ act over the field in his magnificent navy blue Bearcat.
It all went according to plan and we ran in perfectly positioned for a couple of flypasts over the runway. I had to force myself to stay concentrated, not so much for the flying but not to be overawed by the sight in my windscreen of so many iconic fighters, conjuring a distant age of collective courage and sacrifice as Duxford slid underneath and we tilted in concert over England’s green fields for a second pass.
The image stayed with me. Straight after landing from the Sunday Balbo and a hasty refuelling we set off for Bremgarten, once again via Le Touquet. It was a busy arrival, with several Duxford participants also heading home in France and jockeying for a quick turnaround: Christophe Jacquard and Patrick ‘Marchi’ Marchaisson heading for Lyon, Fred Akari further south to Avignon. We only had time to exchange brief comments on Legends as we attended to our aircraft, then scattered towards far horizons, almost like gypsies, our wanderlust sated for a while.
We chased the sunset home. Once down in Bremgarten and checking round the Spitfire for anything amiss, I scooped up a handful of grass from a radiator intake. Duxford clippings, some still fresh. To my nostalgic heart they smelled of England. Brought all this way to a corner of a foreign field, in peace.
Meeting Mary Ellis
In September 2015 the Goodwood-based Boultbee Flight Academy, run by Matt Jones, organised the biggest flypast of Spitfires and Hurricanes since the war in order to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Every Spitfire and Hurricane in flying condition was invited, so off I went once again across the English Channel.
It was then that I finally met Mary Ellis. At the time aged 98, it was not surprising that they brought her up to MV154 in a golf cart with a small retinue of respectful fans and a Channel 4 TV crew. Tiny and smartly turned out in a tailored navy blue suit reminiscent of her wartime flying tunic, and sporting her ATA wings, she sat regally upright. When introduced, I was
So many iconic fighters, conjuring a distant age of collective courage
Fabulous MKI restored by John Romain’s ARC tucks away its wheels after taking off — Maxi had problems in reining in his more powerful MKVIII to stay in formation
Maxi demonstrates the MKVIII’S agility and performance, here climbing away from Goodwood