Scratch the surface of any Englishman, particularly over the age of about 50, and you’ll probably find a Spitfire pilot trying to get out. We can’t help it – brought up on the stories of our parents’ generation, we spent our school days gazing out of classroom windows, borne aloft in our imaginations over the fields of Kent and Sussex on elegant, elliptical wings.
Heroism and hyperbole had their place, but it was hardware that played the central role in these flights of fantasy, and today more than ever the Supermarine Spitfire occupies a disproportionate place in the nation’s affections. The way it looks, the sound it makes and its legendary prowess as a fighter aircraft have imbued it over the years with the sort of sanctity more usually reserved for ancient cathedrals.
Spitfires also have rarity value. Although some 20,000 were built during the 1930s and 1940s, today about 50 survive around the world in flying condition. One of them is the Boultbee Spitfire, which Steve Boultbee Brooks bought at auction in 2009. It cost him £1.7m. “The bidding went a little higher than I was expecting,” smiles the 53-year-old property developer and helicopter pilot. A newly restored Mark IX model dating from 1944, Brooks’s pristine machine is based at Goodwood Aerodrome, West Sussex, where the awe-inspiring roar of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine sounds right at home.
For some Spitfire owners that would be the end of the story. The aeroplane would be flown on fine days by a select band of trusted pilots, displayed at occasional air shows and cosseted like the thoroughbred that it is. But for Brooks, buying a Spitfire proved to be just the beginning. “The Spitfire world is very exclusive. There are top pilots who’d love to fly one, but can’t because of the lack of availability of planes and courses. We are trying to change all that,” he says, admitting that it was only after the auctioneer’s gavel came down that it dawned on him what he had done. The auctioneer asked him if the plane would continue to fly and whether it would remain in the UK. When Brooks answered yes to both questions, the room erupted in applause. “It’s a piece of British history,” he explains. “I realised I had to think of a way to keep this spirit alive.” So he set up a flying school. At the Boultbee Flight Academy pilots can fulfil their dreams of flying a Spitfire. It sounds simple, but the Civil Aviation Authority took some persuading. “The legalities took a few years,” says Brooks, standing in the hangar at Goodwood, “but we’re now a fully approved training establishment, where you can learn to fly a Spitfire.”
It is the only flying school in the world that can make such a promise – and it is still an exclusive world. Students must have at least a Private Pilot’s Licence before they can sign up for the introductory course, which costs £6,600. But if you qualify, you are in for the aviation thrill of a lifetime. The Academy structures its courses along the lines of Royal Air Force training in the 1940s, progressing through the same aircraft (Tiger Moth, Harvard, Spitfire) as second world war fighter pilots did. Initial instruction is in one of two basic training aircraft: an open-cockpit Tiger Moth from the prewar era, or a 1940s Chipmunk monoplane. Guided by a cheerful but highly experienced band of military, ex-military and civilian instructors, students are then introduced to the noisier and more demanding Harvard, with its 600-horsepower engine, retractable undercarriage and Spitfire-like takeoff and landing speeds. Only then do you progress to the Spitfire.
With its pilot-friendly mix of classroom and flight time, its manageable length and cost, and its hands-on experience in three different vintage aircraft, the introductory course is the Academy’s most popular. For many students, a half-hour flight in a Spitfire is not just the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition, but also confirmation of what they might have secretly suspected all along – that learning to fly a Spitfire is not just expensive, but difficult. The Spitfire Conversion Course (£46,830) at Boultbee consists of 10.5 hours of flight time and 25 hours of ground school, but before you even start you must first have qualified on the Harvard and Chipmunk, and you also need a minimum total of 1,000 flying hours in your log book. Which takes time as well as money. Only the most promising young recruits were chosen to fly Spitfires in the 1940s, and at Goodwood only the most committed students can hope to go solo in the 400mph Boultbee Mark IX.
“It is a lovely aeroplane; every pilot’s dream to fly,” says Willy Hackett, an RAF test pilot who instructs at Boultbee in his spare time. “But after flying operationally you can relate to the Spitfire’s wartime role: its sole design purpose was to get eight guns 200 yards behind the enemy.”
Not that anyone at Boultbee could ever be accused of taking the business of flying a Spitfire lightly. Sitting on the grass outside the hangar, the students on the introductory course looked indistinguishable from the instructors in their matching green flying suits. The atmosphere was like that of a friendly flying club, but the air of relaxation was deceptive. Before their Spitfire flight all the students were tense. Afterwards, they reacted in different ways. London healthcare professional Michael Thick was euphoric: “Tremendous,” he enthused. “It handles beautifully – you think it, and it happens. And the noise… Now I need a new ambition,” he laughed. The power and manoeuvrability of the aircraft left Parisian financier Alex Gomer virtually stunned: “There are no words,” he said eventually. David Alston, a furniture manufacturer, was almost as speechless: “Amazing. Quite amazing,” he muttered. And for management consultant Allen Knight the Spitfire flight was indeed “the thrill of a lifetime”, he said, positively beaming.
For one student, on an earlier course, the emotions stirred by the Spitfire were almost too much to bear. “We just left him in the cockpit for a while,” recalled Steve Brooks. “He was quite overcome. He said it was something he had dreamt of doing since he was a small boy – but never, ever thought he would.”