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

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Maxi Gainza Pho­tos John Dibbs

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

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