Flying adventure: A 1997 warbird meet in Sweden with a trip back to England in a Mustang
PUBLISHED: 12:27 18 September 2020
Graham Robson/Matthew Whiteman
Meeting famous pilots and their warbirds in Sweden, and being treated to a ride home to England in a Mustang | Words & photos: Graham Robson
As an aviation photographer and writer, I have been privileged to partake in a number of unusual assignments, experiencing and enjoying the company of pilots and aircrew in many different environments and aircraft types.
This occasion, however, was one of those where pinching one’s self became a necessity, such was the outcome of an otherwise normal summer’s afternoon. It all happened many years ago...
I had travelled to Malmö–Sturup airport, Sweden to attend the ‘DC-3 Meeting and Big Bird Fly-In’, organised by the Swedish DC-3 veterans’ organisation, Flygande Veteraner. Held over the weekend of 9-10 August 1997, the event was a celebration of the DC-3 and gave fellow preservation and operating groups the opportunity to meet and relish the joys of yesteryear.
Local warbird organisation the Scandinavian Historic Flight (SHF), under the guidance of Anders Saether, had been asked by the Swedish authorities to oversee the running of the whole do, which naturally had the effect of boosting it to a full-blown airshow−with a definite ‘vintage’ feel.
My aim was to record the event and gather material for a forthcoming publication, as well as to shoot the SHF’s immaculate Douglas A-26B Invader Sugarland Express in an air-to-air photo sortie, if possible.
This did happen, producing some very pleasing images (on 35mm film, note−Ed). However, as these were obtained whilst the Invader was airborne prior to performing her display routine, I had only achieved part of my stated aim.
Worse, its appearance the following day was scheduled too late in the show for me to view the routine from ground level and still make my flight connection home from Stockholm-Arlanda.
May I offer you a lift home?
As luck would have it, I had met the A-26’s captain, Klaus Plasa, when the Invader had attended the Flying Legends airshow at Duxford in England in 1995. Klaus, a serving officer in the German Air Force who flew the Invader in his spare time, understood my disappointment in not being able to see the Invader’s airshow.
In his kind and industrious way, Klaus began fervently trying to accommodate my needs while still allowing me to get back home to England that evening. A plan to reschedule the Invader’s display to an earlier slot was not possible.
Likewise, the idea of flying me directly to Stockholm-Arlanda airport as soon as the show ended in one of the other display aircraft (a Saab Safir), was thwarted by it not being transponder equipped. Alas, it appeared that I was destined to miss seeing the A-26 in her element, when Klaus had an idea … and this is where I began pinching myself!
“How important is it that you return to the UK this evening,” he enquired? Klaus quickly followed this with the news that he was scheduled to ferry the Scandinavian Historic Flight’s P-51D Mustang Old Crow to the UK the following day and, if my return could be postponed briefly, I would not only be able to enjoy the Invader’s display routine to the full, I could return to the UK in glorious style−in the rear seat of the Mustang!
Well, once I had gathered my thoughts, which took all of half a second, there was only one answer imaginable!
It transpired the Mustang was required at Duxford to shoot scenes for Stephen Spielberg’s epic Saving Private Ryan the following week, in company with another P-51D, Big Beautiful Doll, long owned by the Duxford based Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC).
Over the years, a close relationship had developed between the SHF and OFMC through airshow appearances and movie work with their combined WWII aircraft fleets, which naturally meant there had been a strong OFMC presence at the Big Bird Fly-In.
As such, OFMC had flown its storied Spitfire IX MH434 (a genuine WWII veteran) to Sweden for the weekend’s celebrations, in company with their Aero L-39 Albatros jet, fresh from its starring role in the latest James Bond movie.
So, there I was watching Klaus put the A-26 through its paces in front of an enthusiastic home crowd although my mind was, by now, somewhere else entirely.
The ‘warbird’ element was the show’s finale, but as the Spitfire and P-51 were both scheduled to display at another small event in Norway following their slot at Malmö, both fighters positioned there directly after their routine.
This left me slightly confused: with my prospective mount now in another country, had plans changed? My enquiries on how we were to get to Norway and join the Mustang were met by a simple answer from Klaus, “it’s easy, we fly there in the Invader, of course”. More pinching!
As the last airshow act landed and the crowds began to trudge back to the car parks, the Invader was refuelled and loaded up and I took up my place in the small jump seat in the cockpit, originally provided for the bombardier/navigator during takeoff.
From this narrow, sideways facing position I had a fantastic view over the two mighty 2,000hp Pratt & Whitney radial engines, which throbbed with a re-assuring tone for the one-hour-ten-minute flight to Skien, south-west of Oslo.
Was this really happening, I asked myself? Departing Malmö, Klaus brought the Invader around for a celebratory low-level fly-past, before setting course for Norway.
Shutting down in Skien, the air was still and warm and silent, save for the ticking of the engines as they slowly cooled−but complications in the plan now began to manifest themselves.
My car was outside a friend’s house close to Heathrow airport, where I had left it the day before, and I was expected at work in the morning. Other, more pressing matters also came to mind−neither Klaus nor I had any Norwegian currency and where would we sleep tonight?
Joined by a Spitfire – and prepared for a dog-fight
Yet more surprises followed. Unknown to me at the time, Spitfire pilot Mark Hanna had arranged accommodation on our behalf at a hotel in Oslo, where we were to meet him that evening.
It transpired the Spitfire would accompany us for the flight to Duxford the following morning, making an already unbelievable trip even more so.
I had met Mark the previous day at the show, making my introductions through a mutual friend who had worked with him on the making of the movie Air America. Mark’s quiet and unassuming manner masked his single-minded professionalism as a pilot, something I soon came to appreciate.
Next morning, following breakfast, flight planning for the journey home got underway, with a number of sectional maps spread over the floor in Mark’s room. His instructions were clear; to keep the flight simple and any over-water portions to a minimum.
The plan was to cross the Oslo Fjorden into Sweden and route down the coast to a point north of Göteborg, where the crossing to northern Denmark is the shortest.
We were to fly VFR at no higher than 3,500ft, avoiding most airfields and keeping a very wary eye out for traffic, but perhaps not for the reason you might think: on a previous transit from Scandinavia to Duxford, two OFMC warbirds had been bounced by a pair of Danish Air Force F-16s, eager to demonstrate their prowess as dog-fighters (their pilots no doubt knowing that Mark had previously served in the Royal Air Force flying F-4 Phantoms).
On that occasion the jets got the better of their opponents, so should it happen during this flight Mark wanted to be more confident of the right outcome, giving the instruction that “any confrontation would be met, in true aerial combat tradition, by turning into the opposition to accept the challenge”! Once a fighter pilot always a fighter pilot...
This unnerved me more than a little, not knowing if I had the stomach for such impromptu ‘fun’ as well as having to hold onto some heavy and rather expensive camera equipment in the cramped back seat of the Mustang.
Trees towering above us
Briefing over, we were driven to Jarlsberg, a small air-strip close to Oslo, where the pair of fighters had overnighted.
The view, in the early morning sunshine, conjured up a vision from fifty years earlier. Preflight checks completed, we climbed aboard for a short hop to nearby Sandefjord-Torp, where we would refuel and file our departure details.
The Mustang was never designed for a crew of two, even less so when both are six feet tall. The gymnastics involved in securing one’s self into the cosy rear seat was not for the unsupple.
It required deft foot and body work to safely surmount the pilot’s seat whilst avoiding decapitation from the canopy frame. My large camera case, designed to protect the valuable contents with no concessions for storage in confined spaces, was forced to ride on my lap in the back, its dimensions giving it a very snug fit between the cockpit sides.
This whole complicated operation would be repeated twice more before we reached Duxford, with each successive entry and exit becoming easier than the last. Klaus also assured me that escape, should it be necessary, was simply a matter of rolling the aircraft inverted, jettisoning the canopy, releasing the belts and falling out!
At Sandefjord, passengers boarding a Fokker F-27 stopped in their tracks as our pair of fighters snaked past the airliner to park in the corner of the otherwise empty ramp. There followed a lengthy refuel, whilst Mark’s friends who had organised the Norwegian event looked on, having accompanied us from Jarlsberg in their Cherokee. Engines started, our farewells said, ‘Spitfire Flight’ took to the runway for a departure in fine style.
The south end of Runway 18−an asphalt strip of 2,500m−was hemmed in by tall pine forests on both sides, giving the impression of a very narrow and short valley, which was exploited to the maximum after takeoff.
Climbing slightly, Mark brought the flight around in a very tight circuit, descending with our Mustang seemingly only inches from the Spitfire’s wing. We thundered down the runway, the trees now towering above us, enjoying a ride more exhilarating than any fairground could ever provide.
Climbing to height and setting course, we settled into a comfortable loose formation, keeping transmissions to a minimum, as was Mark’s wish, so as not to attract unwanted attention and pressed on towards Swedish airspace.
A multitude of brightly coloured dwellings adorned the beautifully picturesque coastline of western Sweden, contrasting strongly with the deep blue water and patch-work green and grey landscape.
The Spitfire was leading off our left wing and slightly ahead, as we journeyed southbound under a cloudless sky. I requested if Mark could move in a little closer to allow some photography, which he obliged in fine style. Mark dropped back slightly, remaining on our left and slowly inched in towards our eight o’clock position, moving ever closer until the Spitfire was full-frame in the camera lens.
Gentle movements up and down provided some superb and timeless views. Such close formation work is tiring on the pilot keeping station, so Mark was happy to relax and drift back to his previous position, as leader once again, slightly wide and ahead of us on the left.
A turn to the right was now needed, to cross the body of water at the very northern tip of Denmark, where the Skagerrak becomes the Kattegat.
As the Spitfire was on our left, leading the flight, a formation change was required before making the turn and, hoping I would enjoy this, Klaus pulled the Mustang up in a shallow climb and rolled to the left, which put us to the left of and behind the Spitfire, ready to follow as he changed course.
Cooking in the rear cockpit
Heading south-west towards our next turning point of Esbjerg, we climbed briefly to remain clear of traffic at Aalborg. By now, the August sunshine was beginning to have an effect and, with little in the way of fresh-air ventilation, the temperature in the cramped cockpit was becoming unbearable.
Nor was there any chance of restoring life into my aching nether regions, my movement being severely restricted due to the ‘cabin baggage’ on my lap. After some adroit hand and foot coordination a bottle of water was finally retrieved from a side pocket but, having been almost boiled from an hour under the Mustang’s canopy, it was less than refreshing. A mental note: should I ever do this again, keep the water under cover!
A turn overhead the giant port of Wilhelmshaven in northern Germany headed us towards our first stop, Groningen-Eelde in northern Netherlands. The formation closed up, ready to announce our arrival with a customary low-level run and break. Banking steeply left towards the field, it was easy to imagine I had been transported back in time, as any minute now we would begin strafing enemy positions.
Nothing as violent as that today, as we thundered down the main runway, pulling up into a gentle close circuit and landing, after two hours and twenty-three minutes in the air. Eelde is a pleasant general aviation airfield, twenty miles inland from the Netherlands’ north coast and twenty-five miles west of the German border.
It is home to KLM’s pilot training school and a favoured staging post for both warbird organizations on their numerous cross-country trips throughout northern Europe over the years. Confirming this, we were greeted as old friends by the airport manager, who had arranged our parking in front of the small terminal, which gave those enjoying lunch in the adjacent restaurant a superb view and welcome respite from the numerous Cessnas and Pipers.
With fuel tanks and stomachs replenished, it was soon time to repeat the seating gymnastics, by now a relatively simple task. We departed with slightly less gusto than our arrival, appeasing the locals, and set course for Antwerp, a route that would take us east of Amsterdam and then south-west towards the sprawling industrial complex of Rotterdam.
The hot, humid August day had combined with the best of the region’s pollution to severely reduce visibility at our low level, the sun slowly vanishing in a grey murk off our right wing.
With a Luftwaffe officer as my pilot...
We droned on towards Calais in the fast diminishing daylight, the growling of the Merlin engine now so familiar to my ears that it was almost soporific. There was, however, one sight still to come, which I looked forward to with a shiver of anticipation.
Almost imperceptibly, the formation closed up once again as we flashed across the French beaches and began our crossing of the English Channel. In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined being part of such a scene, flying in a P-51D Mustang, with a Spitfire off our left wing, approaching Dover’s distinctive white cliffs.
Passing Dover, as so many hundreds of similar types must had done fifty years earlier, the event seemed all the more surreal, with a serving Luftwaffe officer as my pilot!
Our flight path was north-west over Kent, passing over Canvey Island and abeam Southend airport towards Duxford. The setting sun was turning the western sky a deep, rich orange and I began to recognise landmarks and anticipated our arrival. A call to Duxford Tower confirmed a clear traffic pattern and the formation descended low for a typical arrival at base.
We approached Duxford from the south-east and completing a wide right turn had us thundering towards the field from the west. Passing the Tower, Mark rolled the Spitfire into a hard break to the right and Klaus pulled the Mustang up in a stomach-wrenching climb into the vertical; we were home!
As the energy dissipated, power was reduced, taking the constant roar to more of a low, grumbling growl. We slowly descended into the pattern, for a perfect landing on the grass.
Not wanting to let the moment end, it was with some reluctance that I extricated myself from the hot, uncomfortable and cramped space in the back of the Mustang, never designed for extra seating. Of course though, I would do it all over again, without hesitation.
What a day, what memories!