Wednesday 19th September 2012. The day I died and went to heaven. Let me explain...
Peter with Cliff Spink, just after the initial pilot briefing as they exit the cockpits of the twin-seat Spitfire. In the background, you can see the R22 helicopter that added an extra flight experience on the day.
Up until now my raffle-winning career has consisted of a 3rd prize at the weekly Rotary Club draw – that’s one prize out of about 52 raffles per year over about 10 years. I seem to recall it was a bottle of beer. So I had no great hopes when Sheila, one of my receptionists who is a member of the Vulcan to the Sky Club, sold me a book of 5 tickets for the Vulcan 60th Anniversary Draw, back in May I think it was. But the first prize looked so staggeringly good that I thought that any organisation capable of offering such a tempting opportunity deserves my support. Actually, all the prizes looked pretty damned good; secretly I was hoping for an hour in a 737 flight simulator. A couple of weeks later I read that the Vulcan had caught fire and rather relegated the whole thing to a metaphorical dustbin. Well, that’s another ten quid down the toilet, I thought.
Then Ian Homer rang on 5th September with “some good news”. First prize, fortnight’s time, make sure you can get away from work, there’s a good chap...
Sheila was furious, livid, green with envy but, bless her, pretended to be pleased for me so, of course, I had to take her with me to receive what has to be the best first prize in any raffle anywhere ever. A flight in a Spitfire. In formation with the Vulcan. My cousin who has been a pilot for Virgin for his entire career has never been in a Spitfire. And never seen the Vulcan.
After an overnight stay in The Aviator Hotel, I was dragged from my full English breakfast to do a live interview with BBC Radio Northampton. This was the really scary bit - I’d made sure that I was kitted out with some very substantial underpants as I wasn’t sure that a Spitfire had a lavatory - but I have a vague recollection of being asked something like “How does it feel to be probably the luckiest man in Northamptonshire?” and replying “I’m sure I’ll remember this till my dying day, which I hope is not today”. Pants unsullied, I returned to my breakfast thinking I’d rather wing-walk on the Vulcan than do another interview. Then I began to look forward to the day.
The morning was a bit of a blur – briefing room, bacon butties, caffeine overload then by way of light relief a quick whizz around in a two-man helicopter. First time I’ve been in one of those without crashing, but Microsoft Flight Simulator is a bit tricky.
The Spitfire and lunch arrived at about the same time as we received the news that XH558 had become airborne - so in short order lunch was consumed, flying suit donned and I was guided to the rear seat of this iconic machine by the pilot Cliff Spink. What a great guy. “OK Peter, you have to put this parachute on. I promise you won’t need it, and if you do need it it won’t work because we’ll be flying far too low. But don’t worry, if we have any problems I’ll just pop us down in a field somewhere and we can go and find a pub until they send a taxi to bring us back here”.
OK, helmet on, parachute safely(!) attached, three-point harness clicked into place, strict instructions as to which knobs, levers, buttons etc never to be touched under any circumstances. Slight problem with communications though as I could hear Cliff perfectly but my mike was malfunctioning so he couldn’t hear me. But no time to fix it as the Vulcan was imminent so we agreed that I would wiggle my joystick, as it were, to acknowledge his messages in flight.
Starting up the Merlin engine was as noisy as I’d been led to believe, taxiing across the field as bumpy as I’d expected, taking off from grass more exhilarating than I’d thought possible. Then a roar from the Merlin engine as we climbed towards a tiny triangular speck in the distance and in an unbelievably short space of time we were sitting a few feet below and behind XH558 which, from my perspective, seemed to be hovering motionless in the sky.
The Blades were flanking us to right and left but I only had eyes for those four huge engines and the underside of that magnificent, almost animate, machine above. Cliff said that the last time he had been that close to the Vulcan he was refuelling from it in a Lightning or Tornado or somesuch, he couldn’t remember which. I have no idea where we were relative to the airfield and I have to say I didn’t much care. Quite a distance I think, looking at the photos afterwards.
In another unbelievably short space of time we broke from the formation then Cliff asked me to wiggle my joystick if I’d like to do a roll. I’d have cheerfully wiggled anything to do a roll but if Cliff said joystick then joystick it was. And we rolled. Another wiggle to let him know I hadn’t fallen out then he asked me if I’d like to fly the thing. Funny, that - he didn’t strike me as the kind of chap to ask silly questions. Another wiggle and then: “OK Peter, she’s all yours. Down a bit. OK OK OK now up a bit. Whoa, OK, now left, that’s enough, now right, no not that far, that’s better, OK I have her again now. And you can now say you’ve flown a Spitfire”. With great relief, on both our parts I think, that it hadn’t been down to me to “pop us down” in a field near a pub, we headed back to Sywell. I was just a bit apprehensive on our third approach at the sight of a few blinking red lights on the panel in front of me and at Cliff saying something on the radio about fire crew being on standby but we landed on the same bit of grass we’d taken off from, a long way from the pub, and seemed to stop before we hit anything. My underpants had survived too.
Well, Cliff had told me that this would all be over before I knew it, and it was. But there was still the Vulcan party piece to come so, after getting rid of a few rather irritating BBC radio and TV people, I rejoined Sheila to watch XH558 stop idling and really show what it’s made of. After a while there was again this tiny triangle in the sky enlarging rapidly until, just over the airfield, it sort of stood on its haunches as it were and then, with an earth-shattering, spine-tingling, eye-watering, cataclysmic, screaming roar, the sound of which could not have been made by anything else in or above God’s earth, it shot up for I don’t know how long. Back it came, again and again. I was waving my camera at it and managed to get some brilliant pictures of empty sky but my companion fortunately had either a steadier hand or a better camera (probably both). Then, sadly, it waggled its wings and headed off back whence it came.
I’m told that it’s unlikely XH558 will be flying for many more years. I, however, will be mentally flying high for the rest of my life. And maybe I shall join the Vulcan to the Sky Club....
Dr Peter Jéquier