The Last of the Few

August 2010

An edited version of this piece ran in the Mail on Sunday's Live section on August 15, 2010.

A MkXIX Spifire flying above RAF Coningsby, July 22, 2010 - photo (c) Neale Haynes

You can't see Ian Smith, but you know he's having a whale of a time. The 450-mph Mark XIX Spitfire he's flying banks to the left, a wing slicing between two stands of trees. He pulls the aircraft up and swings it back around for another pass, tearing fast and low above the heads of a small crowd gathered at the edge of the Royal Air Force base at Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

Only a few yards away, a row of Typhoon jets - the RAF's state-of-the-art supersonic fighter - sit ready and waiting. But all eyes are on the Spitfire, as Smith flings it through the air, swooping, diving and soaring as the throaty growl of its Rolls Royce Griffon engine echoes around the base. Stuck at a desk inside, someone is typing an email: "Who's flying that Spitfire?" the writer asks. "It's making my heart sing."

"It just puts a smile on people's faces, doesn't it?" says Smith later. "If you're flying a Spitfire, you don't get into it - you put it on, and you become part of it. It's just such a beautiful aeroplane to fly, and it's so easy to fly beautifully."

There are plenty of people who would pay handsomely to get to do what Smith has just done in that Mk XIX: yet it's all part of his job. In November last year, when Squadron Leader Ian Smith took up his current full-time role, as commanding officer of the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, his predecessor told him he was taking over "the best job in the Air Force." Smith thinks he was misinformed. "I'd gazump him, actually," he says. "It's got to be the best job in the world, hasn't it?"

Sqn Ldr Smith, after the Mk XIX sortie, July 22, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

An airman whose 27 years in the service have seen him flying Jaguar jets over northern Iraq and Bosnia, operating Chinook helicopters in the Falklands and a tour as part of the Red Arrows aerobatic display team, Sqn Ldr Smith has plenty of memories to look back on. But the moment he felt crowned his career came earlier this summer, when he flew the BBMF's Mk II Spitfire - the only Spitfire still flying anywhere in the world that saw action in the Battle of Britain - over Buckingham Palace.

"It's such an auspicious year," he says. "The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and you're leading the Queen's birthday flypast in a Spitfire: you know? I've done it - that's it: shoot me! It doesn't get any better than that."

But there's more to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight than rewarding long-serving pilots with rides in the ultimate big boys' toys. As well as preserving a fleet of priceless aircraft and keeping them in tip-top flying condition, the Flight exists to remind the nation of the achievements and sacrifices that ensured our freedom, and to underline the links between the heroes of the Second World War and today's generation of servicemen and women, risking life and limb for their country and their friends.

"At the BBMF, it's not just about flying the aeroplane," says Sqn Ldr Smith. "You've got to fully comprehend why we're here and what we're trying to achieve. You've got to want to get out of your aeroplane and go and talk to people who are fascinated by what we're doing, talk to the veterans who flew these aircraft in the War, understand what they did and honour them."

The BBMF's Lancaster reflected in the visor worn by Flt Lt Tim Dunlop, bomber pilot; July 23, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

While other RAF squadrons will generally only have one type of aircraft, the Flight operate five: as well as the fighters that won the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, the BBMF has two Chipmunk trainer aircraft, a Dakota transport plane and one of only two Lancaster bombers still flying anywhere in the world (the other is in Canada). The numbers of people involved are small - only 26 full-time ground crew, working out at roughly two per plane, while the Typhoons have ten or eleven each. And many of them - including all the pilots, apart from Sqn Ldr Smith - are unpaid volunteers.

"The BBMF costs between £2.5 and £3 million to run, which means you can get three of us for one Jonathan Ross," says Sqn Ldr Jeff Hesketh, who completed the last of his seven years as a volunteer Lancaster navigator last year, and will be retiring from the Air Force in August. "We're a museum without walls, and we put the sight and sound of the aircraft over to as many people as we can."

In the BBMF's Dakota cockpit, July 22, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

Just because it's done cheaply, though, doesn't mean that the BBMF cuts any corners. If anything, says Flight Sergeant Dick Chaffey, BBMF engineers may go back to a modern squadron with an increased range of abilities.

"When you come from the modern jets, you get what we call Black Box Syndrome," he explains. "You plug a computer in and the aeroplane virtually tells you what's wrong, then you take the bit off, send it away, and replace it like-for-like. The new guys who come here haven't spent time in their dads' garages working on the car: dads don't do that nowadays because cars are so complicated. So we teach them the very basics, to give them the full understanding of the aircraft, and when they leave here they're proper mechanics, proper engineers."

A BBMF engineer works on a Spitfire, July 22, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

In the BBMF's hangar, the evidence of that meticulous care and attention is abundantly clear. Between the big aircraft - the Dakota and Lancaster, which face each other at either end - five Spitfires and two Hurricanes are arrayed. In one engineering bay a cluster of spare Merlin engines, the power plant for Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancaster alike, sit under protective covers. The place is as spotless and orderly as a library, the aircraft in immaculate condition.

"They tell you what you're working on day by day," explains aircraft maintainer Corporal Kevin Harnett, who joined the Flight this summer after 13 years working on Nimrods at RAF Kinloss, "but you get a shot on all the aircraft in the hangar. It's like being a kid in a sweetshop."

It's not just about maintenance: in one bay, a rare Mk XVI Spitfire is being rebuilt. Its return to the skies is being led by Chief Technician Paul Blackah, a former RAF staffer and now a full-time reservist, whose knowledge of Second World War aircraft is so thorough he has co-authored a series of Haynes Workshop Manuals on them.

The plan was to piece together one "new" Spitfire from the best parts of two scrapped Mk XVIs. It's taken years, partly because, until the aircraft was re-registered as an RAF machine recently, Blackah and two colleagues could only work on it during lunch and tea breaks. "For the first seven years," says Blackah with a wry smile, "it was like, 'What's Paul, Andy and Clive doing in the corner?' We were just mucking about at it, but the mucking about at it has given the Flight an extra Spitfire."

A Spitfire in the BBMF hangar, RAF Coningsby, July 22, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

And the Flight could do with another aeroplane. Each aircraft has a strictly limited number of hours it can fly each year - 100 for the Lancaster, and only 50 each for the Spitfires and Hurricanes - to ensure they will still be flying decades into the future. "We've maintained the same hours that we had ten years ago," explains Flight Lieutenant Jack Hawkins, another full-time reservist, who is in charge of the Flight's summer flying schedule, "but the tasking has gone up almost 15 times. Each sortie that an aircraft does is involving seven or eight flypasts."

As well as getting the aircraft from Coningsby to all the air shows and back again, those flying hours have to include training, too. Just because you can fly a modern jet fighter, with its computerised controls and excellent all-round visibility, doesn't mean you can jump straight into a Spitfire and take it out for a spin.

"I started training for this last October," says Flight Lieutenant Mark Pearce, a Typhoon pilot with more than 1500 hours experience in fast jets, who is in his first season with the BBMF. "Before you get into the Hurricane or Spitfire, you need to train on tail-draggers - aeroplanes with two main wheels at the front, and a tail wheel at the back. You can't see immediately forward as you land, so you land using your peripheral vision, looking out the side. Doing that in the Chipmunk teaches you the skill."

Training proceeds in careful stages, and for every aircraft a new BBMF pilot has to go through the unnerving experience of stalling the wings - flying so slowly that they no longer produce lift - so that he will recognise the signs and know what to do if it were ever to happen for real. It's another important difference for Typhoon pilots, whose aircraft have computers that take over before a stall occurs.

The BBMF's Lancaster, July 23, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

The aircraft that dominates the hangar is the Lancaster. While the Hurricane racked up the most kills during the Battle of Britain, and the Spitfire became the symbol of British defiance to Nazi invasion plans, it was the Lancaster, which flew for the first time in 1942, that won the War.

Some 7377 Lancasters were built, but over 3500 of them were destroyed in action. Each one had a crew of seven; and more than 55,000 members of Bomber Command's air crews never made it home. But their mission, as much about terrifying the German population as destroying the Nazi war machine, was controversial. The exploits of 617 Squadron and their Dam Busters raid of 1943 became the stuff of WW2 folklore, but most of the aircraft that did survive were scrapped and the air and ground crews were never awarded a campaign medal.

Yet in Lincolnshire, where most of the bombers flew from, the 55,000 have never been forgotten, and the Lancaster remained a potent symbol of wartime courage and sacrifice. In 1973, the Lincolnshire Lancaster Association was formed, with the objective of keeping the last flying British Lancaster in the county. Today the Association has over 6000 members and is the largest outside donor to the BBMF. Its chairman, Stuart Stephenson, understands the spell the big bomber casts over people.

One of the Lancaster's four Merlin engines starting up; July 23, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

"It's not just the sight, it's the sound," he says of the four-Merlin-engined machine. "A Spitfire does it a little bit, but it's only a quarter as good as one of these. It does have a magic. It's an orchestra in the sky, playing a symphony. And it does provoke an emotional response."

As if his problems were not great enough with the weather (a crosswind of 15 knots is enough to cancel a BBMF aircraft's flight, while the Hurricanes, with rear sections covered in linen, aren't flown in rain), Flt Lt Hawkins has to ensure that the Lancaster flies over motorways or main roads at 90 degrees. The aircraft flies no higher than 1000 feet, and it's liable to cause accidents as drivers stare at it rather than at the road.

The view from inside is pretty spellbinding, too: Jeff Hesketh recalls returning from a sunset flypast, with the engine exhausts glowing red and coughing out flame in the gathering darkness. "But then you think, 'These guys were just getting ready to get going'," he says, remembering that the wartime crews flew under cover of darkness. "Here we are, smiling and enjoying ourselves, but they had no better than a one-in-three chance of coming back."

"We always talk about the Few," says Squadron Leader Stuart Reid, who flies the BBMF's Lancaster. "There's a little plaque on the side of the Lancaster, just to the left of the main door, which says, 'To remember the Many,' and that says it all, really."

Colin Cole at the Lancaster's wireless; July 23, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

Inside, the aircraft is cramped and busy. "They were built to carry bombs and to drop bombs," says Colin Cole, the cheery secretary of the Lincolnshire Lancaster Association, and a wireless operator on 617 Squadron's November 1944 mission that sank the German battleship Tirpitz. "The crew just sat in where they could."

The three Perspex gun turrets were vital: the Lancaster was a big target. From the mid-upper turret you get a sense of the 102-foot-wingspan aircraft's vastness, while in the bomb-aimer's position below the front guns, the bizarre realities of its mission are brought home. Turn and release the clockwork timer, and in the four or five seconds it takes to tick back, the entire bomb load would have been released. Those ten terrifying hours being shot at in the dark were all for those few seconds.

The view from the Lancaster bomb aimer's position. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

At the back, in the tail gunner's chair, you're almost unaware of the rest of the aircraft: the gunner was separated from his parachute by a latched door, with even his ammunition sitting some way away to keep the weight evenly distributed (the nine yards of bullet racks from the magazine to the gun are believed to have given rise to the phrase "give 'em the whole nine yards"). It's sobering enough on the floor in the hangar: in the air, in the cold night, hundreds of miles from home, flak exploding around you and tracer fire zipping past your head, it must have felt like you were on your own at the end of the world. 

One of the BBMF's Hurricanes, July 22, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

The Flight are operating at capacity in this anniversary year, with aircraft appearing at almost 800 events throughout the summer, from major air shows to flypasts at village fetes. The professionalism of all involved is matched only by their pride in their mission of remembrance and the respect they have for their wartime predecessors.

For Sqn Ldr Smith, there's only one thing that could make the best job in the world even better: he'd love the Flight to have a Mosquito, the twin-engined fighter-bomber, but the last one in flying condition in Britain crashed in the late 1980s. In his office, Smith has just taken delivery of a 600-piece Airfix kit of a Mosquito which he'll be spending many evenings assembling. "If I watered it often enough, maybe it would morph into a real one," he chuckles.

Mission markings on the BBMF's Lancaster. July 23, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

But in the current economic climate it's cuts, not expansion, that lie ahead for all branches of the military. In between thrashing his Spitfire GTI around the skies and dreaming of a Mosquito, it's something Smith can't help thinking about.

"The challenges faced by the MoD, and the country, are going to impact us to one degree or another," he admits. "If there were cuts, we wouldn't be able to do anything about it, because we're a service to the Queen and we do as we're told. But if we were subject to any cuts in future, I would really want the country to go into uproar to ensure that we are protected."

RAF roundel on a BBMF Hurricane, July 22, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

And that means Smith and his team will keep on spending more time outside their aircraft, talking to members of the public, explaining the unique mission of history, honour and remembrance that the BBMF undertakes.

"There are a lot of people out there who would see a Lancaster, a Spitfire or a Hurricane and recognise it," Smith says, "but they probably wouldn't understand that it was an RAF aeroplane, owned and paid for by them as taxpayers, or really understand why it was flying around. So I want to get into the psyche of every man, woman and child in Great Britain, so they know who we are, what we are, what we do and why we do it."

The BBMF's Lancaster takes off from RAF Coningsby, July 23, 2010. Photo (c) Neale Haynes

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