Pilot Debrief: Anthony ‘Parky’ Parkinson
Former RAF fast-jet, Red Arrows and BBMF pilot Parky’s new job is demonstrating- and taking paying passengers for rides in Aero Legends’ Spitfires
A conversation with the former RAF fast jet and BBMF pilot who now flies Aero Legends’ Spitfires
Parky joined the RAF in 1983, aged eighteen, as an aspiring fast jet pilot. The main phase of his training took place in the US, firstly on the T-37 Tweet primary jet trainer and then the supersonic T-38 Talon. Back in the UK, he continued his weapons training on the Hawk T1. Tours on the F-4 Phantom and Tornado F3 followed, before a three-year exchange posting to the Royal Netherlands Air Force to fly the F-16. Another stint on the Tornado F3 came next, flying as an instructor on the Operational Conversion Unit, and also being the display pilot for the 1999 and 2000 airshow seasons.
His next position was flying with the Red Arrows for four years, before joining the Typhoon force at RAF Coningsby. While at Coningsby, Parky became involved with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as Operations Officer, a post he held for eleven years. Recently, Parky decided to leave the RAF and has joined Aero Legends at Headcorn, Kent as chief pilot. Founded by Keith Perkins, Aero Legends offers a range of historic flight experiences to the general public, including flying alongside single-seat Spitfire IX TD314, and flying in two-seat Spitfire IXT NH341 Elizabeth. We spoke to Parky at Headcorn earlier this year.
Pilot: You were the first pilot to achieve 1,000 hours each on the Phantom, Tornado, Hawk and Typhoon, and are now the first full-time civilian Spitfire pilot. Do you see yourself achieving 1,000 hours on Spitfires?
Parky: Well yes. Five would be greedy, but also wonderful and probably the best badge of all! I got to 500 hours in the Spitfire probably about two years ago and I have 650 Spitfire hours at the moment, so maybe in three years; we fly about 100 hours a year. 1,000 hours Spitfire is pretty special. There are a few guys with that and it’s probably quite a select club, but it’s an honour, to be honest. Any time you fly a Spitfire, it never loses the magic.
You’ve flown several different Spitfire marks, do you have a favourite? That’s almost like picking between your children! I would definitely say that the Mk IXS that Aero Legends fly are ridiculously good Spitfires. They are just so fast; they run and handle beautifully. But my favourite has to be the Mk IIA Spitfire I flew in the BBMF with its incredible history. She starred in the film the Battle of Britain and she’s got a known history.
The first Spit I flew was actually MK356 (the BBMF’S Mk LFIXE) but then I flew P7350, which is brown and in battle colours. I flew her when she was QJ-J on one side and QJ-G on the other side, which was Geoffrey Wellum’s 92 Squadron Spitfire.
I read First Light and I met Geoff many times and called him my friend. There is so much about that Spitfire that connects me with the history of the RAF and the history of this country, and it is just the most wonderful Spitfire to fly. She is absolutely perfect in everything.
My last trip in the RAF was in ‘P7’. I flew with the Lancaster then did a solo display and landed. That was my 180th flight in P7, so I definitely hogged her as much as I could for my eleven years on the Flight. She will always be my special favourite. She’s an extraordinary aircraft and an important part of this country’s history, but it’s wonderful that any Spitfires are flying, and the people coming to fly today enable TD314 and
NH341 to keep flying. Headcorn will hopefully have the busy sound of Merlins all day and that is great. Aero Legends is lucky to have two absolutely fabulous bits of machinery.
How did you first become involved with Aero Legends?
It was around 2013-14. Keith Perkins had bought the singleseater TD314 and was looking around to gain experience about how to operate a Spitfire, and he came over to the BBMF. Although it’s Royal Air Force, the BBMF works quite closely with the civilian world and is more than happy to offer advice and guidance and say “This is how we operate Spitfires. It might not be the right way, but this is how we do it, how we teach ground school, how we convert pilots, how we fly, everything”. So I met Keith and I remember showing him around the hangar at Coningsby and talking, and he asked would I like to come down and fly TD314. Well, you never turn down an opportunity to fly a Spitfire, so I went and flew TD314 at Duxford. I remember thinking ‘what a fabulous Spitfire’. I mean we’ve got great Spitfires with the BBMF but I thought TD314 was gorgeous; a lovely Mk Ix−so original with the gunsight and some touches. I’d never flown with a gunsight before. We actually don’t fly with them with the BBMF even.
I would take days off from the RAF and do ‘fly-withs’ with the single-seater and then Keith bought the two-seater NH341, so I did a bit of two-seat flying.
You never turn down an opportunity to fly a Spitfire
I was so fortunate to do eleven seasons with the BBMF but my time there was coming to an end and it was a choice of−sounds very spoiled−do I go back to the Eurofighter Typhoon to fly it, maybe become a ground instructor, because that’s good money and it’s also a great team who teach in the simulator there, or Keith’s offer “What about becoming my chief pilot here and do that?”
I chatted to my wife about it and my gut feeling was that if I didn’t take this opportunity I would always regret it. It’s a lovely team here at Aero Legends. We really try and make the whole experience enjoyable, whether it’s the fly-with or in the two- seater, and a very personal and very pleasurable experience.
We’re massively fortunate, I think, at Headcorn because of the play area we have. It’s eight minutes for me to fly to the White Cliffs of Dover, so in twenty minutes you’ll see an elliptical wing, fly over the Battle of Britain monument at Capel-le-ferne, and see the White Cliffs of Dover, then you can come back and maybe do a barrel roll and even a loop if you want to. It’s a breathtaking backdrop, and it’s a grass runway which is quite close, so you get to hear and see and smell the Spitfires taking off and landing. It’s a great set up.
What do you find are the most rewarding and the most challenging parts of flying with Aero Legends?
While the main thing is to operate the Spitfire safely in formation, be it single- or two-seater, I think most attention will always be on the landing. A Spitfire needs to be landed just so. It was never really designed for crosswind landings; it’s got quite a tight gear. It’s absolutely lovely, and it’s a very satisfying aircraft to land, but I will always be watching the weather forecast from two days before I’m flying, so I know if it’s going to be a fifteen-knot crosswind. That concentrates the mind. You’ve got to get that right
without a doubt, and when you do just squeak it down it’s great!
As an ex-military and ex-red Arrows pilot, formation flying, I guess, is my bread and butter. That is something that I love doing, and to fly an aircraft safely next to another aircraft again is just another satisfying experience−and it is wonderful for a civilian to realise just how close you are. You can fly through cloud on the wing of another aircraft, and you can look at each other and into each others’ eyes.
Flying the two-seater, you’ve really got to try and gauge how much the passenger wants to do, because it’s their flight and for them to get the max out of. Essentially, you always take it gently at first because it’s a different world, jumping into the back of a fighter aircraft. It may be a 75-year-old one but it’s still a fighter aircraft, which means it’s got performance but it’s not built for comfort and is quite hot. It’s almost a sensory overload: it’s noisy, I wouldn’t describe it as smelly, but it’s definitely got that aura of a vintage machine, and you know most people are probably slightly nervous because they’re in a Spitfire. So you take it easy at first. Even taking off in a Spitfire is going to be noisy. You bump down the runway and get airborne, and that is a fabulous thing, quite an adrenalin-filled and exciting thing. They can’t believe it. And in the two-seater you can let them have a go at the controls and feel how taut the Spitfire is to fly−it really is the most ridiculously precise machine−and then you gauge what they want to do to get the most out of the experience. All of those bits have their challenges and all of them are very, very satisfying but, at the end of the day, to take off, land, and operate that aircraft safely are clearly the most important factors.
The RAF is celebrating its 100th birthday this year but you have a 100 year link closer to home. Can you tell us about that?
My grandfather was in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI. I met him but I can’t remember meeting him; I think I was three or something like that. I remember as a young kid clearing out the house after he’d passed away, and I’ve got his second log book which is from 1918. He was an instructor at that time and it’s
amazing reading the remarks. He’ll say he crashed or a wheel fell off on takeoff, you know. Brilliant! I’ve got a picture of him when he was given his Royal Air Force uniform and he kept his RFC wings on it and that’s even more special. I finished my RAF career about 100 years on from when he was in the RAF. And my number two son is at Sandhurst at the moment and hopefully going to go Army Air Corps, so we’ve almost gone Army to RAF, me RAF, and back to the Army, so I guess there’s flying in the family, it’s in the blood.
What inspired you to get into aviation when you were young?
It’s very strange but I just cannot remember ever not wanting to be an RAF fighter pilot and that’s the truth. When I was very young I remember watching every movie, and I built Airfix kits and I knew every aircraft, and my family was always like “Well, Anthony will get grandfather’s wings and he’ll get the logbook”. I was obviously passionate from a ridiculously young age about aviation and I can still remember as a child going to airshows and seeing the Red Arrows or seeing jets fly and just thinking ‘people get paid to do that! That is ridiculous and that has to be the coolest job in the world,’ and I can confirm it is, having done it for 35 years.
I think the majority of people love aviation. There’s something very special about flying, this extraordinary free feeling, and in my opinion a fighter aircraft is just the ultimate of that. Of course there are rules and regulations, but essentially if you’re in an F-16, or a Phantom, or a Eurofighter, it is you who is flying this ridiculously powerful machine that you can go to 55,000 feet in. Every now and then, if I was coming back on my own, I would always go upside down and find some clouds because I enjoy flying too much not to do it, and that’s the important thing about flying, it is just a ridiculously pleasurable thing to do, and I never forget that.
What advice would you give young people considering a career in aviation?
Believe in yourself would be the first thing. When I was young so many people would say “Oh it’s so difficult to become a pilot”, “Oh it’s so difficult to become a fighter pilot”, “It’s impossible to become a Red Arrows pilot”, but somebody’s got to do it, and you have as good a chance as anyone else, so believe in yourself. Clearly, do the best you can at school, and work hard.
All the pilots I meet are driven and motivated to do what they want to do: it’s such an important thing to have that belief, to go for it and work hard. Without doubt it’s not easy, but if you have that belief and that drive you’ll achieve it.
Almost every job in aviation is fun, no matter what it is, that’s why people do it, so good luck to everybody. That’s why we do airshows; we try and introduce people to the world of aviation, to excite people and show them it exists. Good luck to all of them. I really hope they succeed!
I cannot remember ever not wanting to be an RAF fighter pilot
LEFT: Taxying out in Aero Legends' single-seat Spitfire Mk IX TD314ABOVE: Parky joined Aero Legends at Headcorn in 2018 as chief pilot
ABOVE: Parky in TD314, taking off from Headcorn
BELOW: Charlie Brown flying TD314 (nearest the camera) with Parky in two-seater NH341
Passengers can enjoy a rear-seat flight over the White Cliffs of Dover in Elizabeth, Aero Legends' two-seat Spitfire
‘Just squeaking it down’ back at Headcorn after an airshow
ABOVE: Charlie Brown flying Aero Legends Spitfire TD314