Feature: Flight experiences with Ultimate Warbirds
PUBLISHED: 13:02 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 13:08 09 August 2019
Darren Harbar Photography
Living up to its name, Ultimate Warbirds offers not just the chance to fly a TF-51D Mustang and D-Day veteran Spitfire, but an unique ‘Messerschmitt 109’ | Words: Philip Whiteman - Photos: Darren Harbar
Having the sole airworthy, certified two-seat Messerschmitt 109 in your fleet is quite something, but operating it alongside a famed D-Day veteran Spitfire−also with dual cockpits−and the only fully equipped dual-control Mustang in the UK really does make you unique.
Welcome to Ultimate Warbirds, a new Sywell-based company established by seasoned engineer and pilot Richard Grace.
If there was ever an individual who needed no introduction in these pages, it is Richard, whose mother Carolyn has operated that same Spitfire since the man who rebuilt it, her husband−and Richard's father−Nick died in a road accident.
Richard has made his own career in aircraft engineering, working his way up in a parallel flying career from club aircraft to aerobatic machinery and piston-engined fighters.
When we last profiled him (Pilot, August 2012) he was running maintenance organisation Air Leasing Ltd−the company originally established by his father−then based at Bentwaters, the former USAF base in East Anglia.
At the time, Richard was one half of the Pitts-mounted Trig Aerobatic Team, flying with Dave Puleston, and had already logged 150 hours on the Grace family Spitfire. He was displaying an Allison-engined Yak-3 and had flown the formidable Hawker Sea Fury−quite a list of flying achievements for a 28-year-old.
Seven years on (Richard and I are both appalled by the way time has flown) we meet again, this time at Air Leasing's new home−and base for Ultimate Warbirds−the Spitfire Hangar at Sywell.
The Northamptonshire airfield offers not just a more central location but has a mix of grass and tarmac runways in different orientations, allowing operation whatever direction the wind is blowing and pretty much all through the year−vital when you want to get the best use of your aircraft and not let down your paying customers.
Which brings us to the aeroplanes and, in particular, that two-seat 109. The warbird anoraks will have been murmuring "Hispano Buchón" under their breath from the first line−and indeed Ultimate Warbirds' Messerchmitt is just that: a two-seat version of the German fighter licence-built in Spain.
As every small boy in their fifties or sixties knows, the entire fleet of Buchóns was bought by film company Spitfire Productions Ltd when they were making the Battle of Britain.
We might have made smart-Alec comments at the time about them having the wrong engines - the movie Messerschmitts all had Rolls-Royce Merlin engines and cowls that bestowed a Curtiss P-40 look - but they were flown hard and high for a very convincing restaging of that pivotal conflict.
Working in the 1960s at a time when many former RAF and Lufwaffe pilots were still around, the producers were able to bring in several well-known veterans as advisors, including Adolf Galland and Bob Stanford-Tuck.
The two-seat Buchón was used both to bolster numbers in the flying scenes and as a camera aircraft. Legend has it that Galland and Stanford-Tuck took it up for a flight together−a lovely story for which the only evidence is a picture of the two men seated in the thing on the ground.
Also perhaps legend is the 109/Buchón's propensity for takeoff and landing accidents, for Richard makes short shrift of it when I raise the subject. "It comes with a reputation−unfairly so," he says, shaking his head.
"It is not ideal as your first 'big piston' warbird and certainly demands your whole attention−but it's not that different.
"The hot tip from Charlie Brown−passed on to me by Steve Jones−was not to be greedy with the power."
The 109's wheels toe-in, and a swing can develop if the port wheel is allowed to dig in with excessive propeller torque. "If you lift a wing on takeoff you've already screwed up!" Richard has accumulated an impressive collection of aviation books. Had he done lots of research before flying the Buchón?
"I did, and I tried to speak to as many people who'd flown one as I could." Richard is of course a highly experienced pilot, so you might only expect him not to be troubled by the prospect of handling such a rare and reputedly difficult beast.
The two-seat Buchón has several built-in advantages over Air Leasing's other two-seaters, both of which are conversions of single-seaters. The nose gets in the way when the tail is down, but the fuselage is narrower than the Spitfire or Mustang's, making it easier to see around the engine.
Not made in Germany, but…
Air Leasing has rebuilt four Hispano HA¬1112¬M4 Buchóns, including G¬AWHC, the two¬seater operated by Ultimate Warbirds, and Richard has become the national expert on the aircraft. "I hesitate to say this, but as we've had a stream of them coming through, and the experience to offer rebuilds at a fixed price in a fixed timescale, you'd be mad to go to anyone else," he says with a smile.
When filming of the Battle of Britain came to a close, the production company disposed of its private air force. The bulk of the Buchón fleet went to Wilson 'Connie' Edwards, one of several American pilots who'd flown the British and 'German' fighters for the cameras. Over the years, Connie sold off most of the 22 Buchóns he'd bought but there were still eight left - six complete 'flyers' and two spares airframes ¬ when Richard Grace went over to visit his Texas ranch in 2015.
Having been stored in ideal, dry conditions the Buchóns were in good condition, although all the paperwork had been lost in a fire. Richard acquired the whole lot on behalf of various customers, and embarked on the process of restoring the machines to airworthy status.
Along the way, he has developed an eye for how much Messerschmitt there is in a Buchón. One misapprehension he scotches in an instant is that Hispano used German¬made airframe components. "That's horseshit," he declares "you can tell if it's a Hispano¬ or German¬made component from a mile away." It's not that the Spanish stuff is badly made, it's just that the Germans built everything to an incredibly high standard - every line of rivets perfectly straight and evenly spaced, and every rivet set to exactly the same depth.
Certainly - and there's no getting away from this when the object is sat there in front of you - the Buchón's engine mount is a real knife¬and¬fork job. Made from square section steel tube, it looks like something that an agricultural fabricator might have knocked together, albeit welding it up to aircraft standards.
On the other hand, the lower cowling and integral intake ducting neatly drop down for excellent access to the oil cooler and lower half of the engine - an improvement on the original Messerschmitt design. (By comparison, the Spitfire's typically British cowling arrangement looks like it might have been intended to make the job as difficult as possible.)
What with having to build the airframes from scratch and then experimenting with several choices of power plant, including the Czech Avia unit, before arriving at the definitive Merlin¬engined version, the Buchón must have cost Franco's Spain dear.
However, the great legacy of all this misdirected endeavour is the number of Messerschmitt¬designed, if not Messerschmitt¬built 109s still flying today.
It is also fitted with the enlarged vertical tail of the Messerschmitt 109K and the rudder is fitted with a servo-tab. One oft-quoted criticism of the 109 is that it lacks a rudder trimmer and requires constant pedal pressure to keep the aircraft balanced.
As I repeat this, Richard looks genuinely puzzled. "You are always battling the rudder in piston warbirds−the Sea Fury requires even more rudder effort than the Buchón, especially when performing display aerobatics."
Conversely, one aspect of the 109 that was praised by British pilots evaluating captured examples during the war−the coaxial flap and elevator trim wheels−is deprecated by Richard.
"The notion that this arrangement gives you automatic trim compensation is BS. Yes, the wheels do operate in the same direction, but the gearing is wrong, so you have to turn them by different amounts. They are also heavy to turn and have rough edges, so gloves are essential if you are not to end up with skinned knuckles."
The two-seat Buchón is an intriguing combination of original German design and Spanish development or−in parts−make-do. It retains almost all its original German/Spanish standard metric instrument fit apart from the altimeters, which for obvious reasons have been replaced by British units reading in feet.
Standard R-R Merlin lever operation replaces the unusual Daimler-Benz/VDM propeller pitch control you'd find in a 109, but Richard has made the piloting experience more authentic by substituting an improved canopy that replicates the glazing pattern and side-opening of the wartime model.
"The Hispano canopy was a horror," he says "it is a fragile one-piece unit that is only just about held on by three fittings and was always in danger of falling off in flight." The Air Leasing version not only looks better and won't fly off, but is robustly built and designed to offer rollover protection.
One modification you won't spot is the disc brakes, hidden between the wheels and undercarriage covers. These, and close attention to the oleo leg pressures (800psi on the port side and 650 on the starboard side) are but two of the measures to ensure safe operation of this unique aircraft.
Important though the safety bit is−and the CAA had to be convinced that the two-seat Buchón presented no undue hazard−the thing that matters is how enjoyable the aeroplane is to fly. Richard is enthusiastic: "the 109 has rod-operated ailerons and rolls beautifully; the Spitfire feels pedestrian in comparison".
Those spluttering their tea all over the tablecloth at this pronouncement might draw a crumb of comfort when he goes on to add "but the aircraft is very heavy in pitch and the elevator becomes increasingly solid with speed.
"I can well imagine how Hurricane and Spitfire pilots could lure a Messerschmitt into an irrecoverable dive. At a couple of hundred feet you'd haul back on the stick but the 109 would just go straight into the ground."
Significantly, Ultimate Warbirds' operations manual limits the angle of nose-down pitch when flying the Buchón at low level.
"In flight, we will give you aileron and elevator first," says Richard "then we'll get you to put your feet on the rudder pedals−and start laughing." Ultimate Warbirds aims to show customers 'the complete flight envelope'−and it promises to be an especially enjoyable experience in the Buchón.
"When I flew in the back, the most fascinating aspect was the slats−they are the most ingenious thing. They give full aileron control right down to the stall, and there's no wing drop. It really is like a Cub."
We have talked a lot about the Buchón/Messerschmitt, which gives Ultimate Warbirds its unique selling point, but to complete the picture we go out into the Spitfire Hangar to have a quick look around the TF-51D Mustang, Contrary Mary and the Grace Spitfire.
I usually fly a two¬seat Cessna 150; now I'm sitting in the back of a two¬seat Spitfire, flying at some speed over the countryside on a lovely sunny day. It's surreal.
The beautiful elliptical wings are either side of me and the engine sounds… well, just noisy - no trace inside of the glorious Merlin song. But I know people on the ground hear it, look up and wish they were in the aircraft - and I am! I had a thorough briefing beforehand and was strapped into the parachute - a new experience - before waddling out and climbing into the rear seat.
My pilot is Richard Grace. He knows I'm a pilot and asked me what I wanted to do in my half¬hour flight. I replied "some hands¬on and lots of aeros".
After taxying out in the Spitfire weave and speedy power checks - don't want to overheat - power goes on (full rudder deflection), the stick goes forward and we're airborne in seconds. Now I can see forward over Richard's shoulder. Undercarriage up (no wobble) and we go out to play.
Once in clear airspace and trimmed out, Richard gives me control and it's exhilarating to find out how responsive the aircraft is. An inch to the left and we're banking thirty degrees and more; a little backpressure and we're climbing strongly. I bimble around (at speed) happily for five to ten minutes, encouraged by Richard to try more turns both ways and go wherever I want. Then it's time for aeros!
Richard takes back control and starts with a simple roll (I guess he's learned the hard way that some people can't take it). I love it! Then we do a loop and I want more. It feels effortless but that's probably down to Richard's skill.
Half Cubans, reverse half Cubans, more loops and rolls follow and I could enjoy that all day but, sadly, it's time to head back to the airfield. But it's obligatory to do a run and break before soaring up to circuit height to lose energy, curving round from downwind to final and landing gently.
And the icing on the cake? Richard is a qualified instructor so signs my logbook entry as Pu/t (pilot under training) - wow, I have Spitfire time in my logbook! When can I do it again (I'll have to save up)? - Judith Austin
One notable feature of the former is that, unlike most P-51 conversions, the rear seat sits not at wing level but raised up on a proper floor.
The back-seater not only enjoys a proper pilot's view, but has a full set of flight controls, including undercarriage and all three trimmers, and instruments. "The Mustang is a delight," says Richard.
"If you could have only one toy, it would have to be the Mustang." But Richard, you are saying this within earshot of the family heirloom! He laughs "the trouble is that with the Mustang it is next stop Nice−with the Spitfire, next stop Le Touquet." Famously, the Mustang has escort fighter legs, while the interceptor Spitfire was designed for missions of short duration, close to home.
The Sywell location gives plenty of open Class G sky in which to play−up to 7,500 feet above the airfield, increasing to 10,500ft to the north-east.
Not only can customers play dogfights with each other at halfway realistic altitude, but for 2019 they can enjoy a 'D-Day Flight Experience' in 109 or Spitfire during which they will be bounced by their opposite number, which should set the pulse racing.
In comparison with other warbird ride operations−where as many as ninety per cent of the customers are non-pilots−just under half of those who've flown in the Grace Spitfire have been qualified pilots, and the Mustang attracts an even greater proportion−around seventy per cent.
There cannot be a pilot out there who's not wondered what it would be like to fly a Messerschmitt, or been intrigued by the ersatz 109s that appeared in the Battle of Britain movie.
Richard Grace and Ultimate Warbirds are able not only to satisfy that curiosity but fly you in the very seat Adolf Galland or Bob Stanford-Tuck once sat in.
I don't know about you, but a flight in the Buchón just went to the top of my bucket list.