Cockpit report: Spitfire Mk VIII – Part two
- Credit: NA
Having mastered the Mk VIII Spitfire, Maxi has a date with Flying Legends at IWM Duxford, and meets original ATA ferry pilot, Mary Ellis. Words Maxi Gainza, Photos John Dibbs
If you haven’t read part one yet then check it out here before coming back!
A few weeks after my first dance with MV154 I flew to Duxford, accompanied by Achim Meier in a Corsair F4U-5 and the late and much missed Marc ‘Leon’ Mathis in a T-51 Mustang, both aeroplanes also based in Bremgarten. Our objective was Flying Legends, the best airshow in Europe, if not the world, to which we had been invited.
Legends, the brainchild of warbird pilot extraordinaire Stephen Grey, owner-boss of The Fighter Collection based on this historic airfield, once a year gathers together the largest number of WWII fighters you can see displayed at one time in the air, along with a fair turnout of pre-war and Great War aircraft, all flown by highly experienced vintage and warbird pilots?apart from the odd newcomer like yours truly.
It is a privilege to be asked and, although I owe it to MV154, I guess that my many years of attending formation flying schools at North Weald being taught by serving or former RAF instructors, plus a valid Display Authorisation, also played a part in it.
I landed en route in Le Touquet to refuel and clear Customs, then followed Achim and Leon in loose formation as we set course for England. Outbound over the Channel Lille Info asked me to confirm number of persons on board. “One,” I replied, but as the white cliffs of Dover hove out of the haze and grew across my windscreen I couldn’t help wondering if there weren’t perhaps more than me on board?thousands maybe, many of whom never grew old, seeing through my mortal eyes the most welcome sight they once beheld as they flew or limped back home from combat over foreign soil.
Once at Duxford I was in at the deep end from the word go. Ten o’clock sharp for the pilots’ morning briefing, a seemingly relaxed but brisk and thorough affair conducted in the main by Pete Kinsey, the Fighter Collection’s soft spoken, hugely experienced Chief Pilot. Some of the gathered pilots ranked to my impressionable eyes up there with the gods, with Steve Hinton probably at their head?but I will spare you the name-dropping.
Pete ran us through the display programme scheduled to start at 1400 hours and to run uninterruptedly for two-and-half hours, the gist of it being a dynamic choreography, honed through the years, that assures there will be aircraft performing in front of the spectators at all times, taking off, landing and displaying in front of them. We then broke up into our individual sections for a more detailed briefing.
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I was in an eight-ship Spitfire ‘wave’, led by the genial and charismatic Cliff Spink, a former fast jet jock and warbird maestro, up there too with the Hintons of this close-knit flying world. “We’ve all been a virgin once,” he told me by way of reassurance when I fessed up to my inexperience, but just in case he had me take off from the hard runway, out of harm’s way.
Once airborne I slotted easily enough into position, awed by the sight of so many Spits floating around me as Cliff took us through a series of dumbbells up and down the crowd line. I then split behind Christophe Jacquard in his Griffon-engined Spitfire XVIII for a two-ship low level tailchase over the grass runway, making sure of not busting the ‘contract’ line marked by the northern edge of the hard runway while the remaining six kept well clear of its southern edge during their act.
Tearing along at 100 feet at 280 knots while bumping and rocking when accidentally slipping into the lead Spitfire’s wash was several orders of magnitude more fun?if at times heart-stopping?than any flying I had experienced before. Pulling up into dizzying wingovers at either end of our run, I had to cut the corner on Christophe in order not to end up stretched, but going downhill (and minding not to clip the end of the crowd line or overfly the village) I still had to call “power back” to my leader just to hold the gap.
I landed on the grass and from then on I was taking off in pairs and vics on this hallowed surface just like the rest of them, soon learning where to pick the smoother patches of field and avoid the softer ones when touching down?provided of course the aircraft landing flow allowed it.
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The following year I was ‘moved up’ to the six-ship tailchase act, this time led by Nick Grey in a Mk XVIII, followed by another Griffon-powered Spit, a Mk V, two ‘Baby’ Mk I Spits, and myself placed last, presumably where I could do least harm. As we split from the main formation for our act, Steve Hinton (no less!) called out a ‘technical’ in his Mk I and was returning to land. So now we were five.
Tailchases are quite straightforward if all aircraft are the same, as we used to be in North Weald flying Yak-52s. But with planes of varying weight and power, hence kinetic energy, it becomes trickier?even if all are Spitfires.
We peeled off our perch in good order, me behind John Romain and followed him downhill, soon having to power back not to overtake his lighter Mk I. Ground rush is exponential, so all of a sudden I was in a green blur, light aircraft on the far side of the field flashing past my canopy while I grabbed the stick with both hands to fight back the vicious washes left by the leading planes and pulling hard so as not to be rolled and spat out into an incoming Me 109 zipping past the corner of my right eye like a missile on the north side of the runway, with a Spitfire in hot pursuit.
At the apex of the next wingover, and looking down over my shoulder, I saw the two lead Spitfires swooping earthward and shrinking fast to go mate with their shadows. ‘Crazy,’ I thought, only to find myself moments later doing the same as I followed John once again earthward, slamming shut the throttle to stop the overtake while struggling to stay in clean air.
Uphill once more, I found the Mk I climbing to the point that my controls began to slacken while he continued his merry way up into angel territory. Unhealthy, I reckoned, and broke away, calling “Six is out”.
Such a shame. But my blood was up and, suddenly, my mind surprisingly cold and focused. I could still rejoin if I pulled lead on John, which I did, and soon I was calling “Six is back in”. From there on it flowed. I somehow figured out how to keep out of the invisible washes lurking close to the ground, and eased a wingspan out of John’s flightpath so as not to shred his Spitfire’s tail should I briefly overtake him, which I didn’t.
By comparison, the closing act of the Balbo seemed a tame affair, even if we were now 24 aircraft and that the mass formation takeoffs in vics and pairs did concentrate the mind. I was in the second-to-last section, lined up behind Stu Goldspink in a P-40 Warhawk and with a Spitfire on each wing.
Way ahead, Pete Kinsey led us in a Sea Fury with his usual smoothness and aplomb, keeping us well clear of the airfield while waiting for everyone to come on board. This can be a lengthy business, but meanwhile Stephen Grey kept the crowds entertained with his signature ‘Joker’ act over the field in his magnificent navy blue Bearcat.
It all went according to plan and we ran in perfectly positioned for a couple of flypasts over the runway. I had to force myself to stay concentrated, not so much for the flying but not to be overawed by the sight in my windscreen of so many iconic fighters, conjuring a distant age of collective courage and sacrifice as Duxford slid underneath and we tilted in concert over England’s green fields for a second pass.
The image stayed with me. Straight after landing from the Sunday Balbo and a hasty refuelling we set off for Bremgarten, once again via Le Touquet. It was a busy arrival, with several Duxford participants also heading home in France and jockeying for a quick turnaround: Christophe Jacquard and Patrick ‘Marchi’ Marchaisson heading for Lyon, Fred Akari further south to Avignon.
We only had time to exchange brief comments on Legends as we attended to our aircraft, then scattered towards far horizons, almost like gypsies, our wanderlust sated for a while.
We chased the sunset home. Once down in Bremgarten and checking round the Spitfire for anything amiss, I scooped up a handful of grass from a radiator intake. Duxford clippings, some still fresh. To my nostalgic heart they smelled of England. Brought all this way to a corner of a foreign field, in peace.
Meeting Mary Ellis
In September 2015 the Goodwood-based Boultbee Flight Academy, run by Matt Jones, organised the biggest flypast of Spitfires and Hurricanes since the war in order to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Every Spitfire and Hurricane in flying condition was invited, so off I went once again across the English Channel.
It was then that I finally met Mary Ellis. At the time aged 98, it was not surprising that they brought her up to MV154 in a golf cart with a small retinue of respectful fans and a Channel 4 TV crew. Tiny and smartly turned out in a tailored navy blue suit reminiscent of her wartime flying tunic, and sporting her ATA wings, she sat regally upright. When introduced, I was struck by her piercing blue eyes and the firmness of her handshake, all while giving me a disarmingly warm smile.
It was a cold, blustery day, so there and then I offered her my flying jacket, which she graciously declined. She wasn’t cold, she said, “I’m only worried about my hair.”
Her happiness at being reunited with ‘her’ MV154 was immense. She wasn’t up to climbing in because of a knee restriction, though she did a year later, shortly before turning 100 and after flying with Matt in his dual-control Spitfire T9 with me alongside in MV154. For now, they just beamed down her old signature on a TV monitor. She was thrilled, and said to the cameras that of the 1,000 aircraft of 76 types she had delivered during the war?400 of which were Spitfires?this was the only one she had signed.
The weather deteriorated overnight, with heavy showers sweeping in from the southwest and high winds as we gathered for the mid-morning flypast briefing. This was led by Sqn Ldr Dunc Mason of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, in typical crisp, jaunty RAF style.
It covered not only routeings, radio frequency changes and suchlike, but every contingency that might arise from having twenty-six Spitfires and eight Hurricanes fly up the coast as far as Dover and then over a number of significant WWII airfields once the sections detached and headed separately home, either to the north or points west, leaving only three of us in ‘Black’ section to return to Goodwood.
Dunc was unfazed by the weather; so too our section leaders, as some clear patches of sky were reportedly moving in behind the front, heading east. We therefore delayed our launch by two hours to allow conditions to improve as far as Dover. I could sense the tension inside Boultbee’s crowded hangar, not that anyone showed signs of it.
So was it just me projecting my own state on the exceptional aviators I was rubbing shoulders with, and for whom what lay in store was just another ‘piece of cake’? Tom Neil, the renowned Battle of Britain fighter ace was amongst us, looking perfectly un-flapped as they helped him into the rear cockpit of a T9 after Prince Harry had offered up his place when news came in that a second dual-control Spit meant for Tom couldn’t make it on time because of the weather further north.
At last we took off, bathed in sunshine against a dramatic backdrop of dispersing storm clouds, wave after wave at one-minute intervals and in five-second streams within each section because of soft patches on the ground after the rain.
The Channel was streaked with spindrift as we angled offshore and rounded Beachy Head, no higher than 800 feet so as to stay below scattered to broken cloud. There were parked cars and people waving from the cliff edge as we flew past. Ahead I could just make out the three-ship section preceding us in this strung out procession along the coast, an aerial version of those grand Fleet Reviews of mighty battleships steaming up the English Channel before the Sovereign in days when Britain ruled the waves.
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I couldn’t help wondering what thoughts of sovereignty, humbler in scope but alike in spirit, we rekindled in the eyes that followed us.
When Themistocles sought advice from the Oracle of Delphi on how to turn back the mighty Persian army marching on Greece, she told him ‘Build a wooden wall’. This he did, in the form of a mighty navy which soon put paid to the Shah-of-Shah’s dream of conquest and subjugation. Had Winston Churchill been able to travel back in time and gone to her, she would probably have said ‘Build a tin wall’, aviation-grade aluminium not being known then.
And here I was, flying one of the few surviving pieces of that tin wall which long ago resisted and repulsed a dark, grim alternative to the way of life we in the west are blessed with and much too often take for granted, forgetting all the blood, sweat and tears that the British and their allies once shed so that freedom and tolerance might prevail.
That night for the Gala Dinner I had the honour to be sat next to Mary. Smartly turned out in a white silk paillette jacket over black slacks, her conversation sparkled as much as the diamond wings she wore on it, thanks to her pin-sharp mind and country-girl sense of humour.
“When you fly every day, two weeks on, two days off as we did, it becomes easy to jump in and out of different aeroplanes,” she answered to my question of how she could manage to hop from a Spitfire to perhaps a Tiger Moth, then on to a Mosquito or a four-engine bomber. “There wasn’t really any pressure on us girls,” she emphasised. “After all we were civilians, so if the weather was poor you stayed on the ground. Sometimes it took courage to do so,” she added, after a pause. “A few girls lacked it and ended crashing into a hill.”
As so often when listening to a WWII veteran, no matter where and how they served, I felt humbled by how Mary downplayed her achievements. There was a war on, she said ? they all do ? so you just got on with it.
In her case that meant flying without radio in often marginal VFR and with only a sectional map stuck into her flying boot, plus the ATA’s customised Ferry Pilot Notes summarising all they needed to know about an aircraft on two sides of a pocket-sized flip-card. “It’s astonishing how much you can do for King and country,” she later confided when I got to know her better.
She would normally fly at around 1,000 feet, unless there was rising terrain ahead; hardly ever above 5,000 feet. In the early stages of training ATA pilots were taken up in something slow like a Tiger Moth, when not doing ground school which was intensive and very thorough, in order to memorise land features on about twenty established routes?shapes of woods, railway stations and so on. That formed the bedrock of their navigational knowledge, much of which Mary retains to this day.
Her favourite aircraft was the Spitfire, but she also liked the Mosquito and, surprisingly enough I thought, the Wellington. “Most girls found it too heavy on the controls,” she said. “Not me?but then I’m a farmer’s daughter,” this slip of a woman proudly declared.
She also did a lot of taxi-flying in twin-engined Ansons or the single-engine Argus ? a role only assigned to the most experienced amongst them. One day she made 27 landings dropping off and picking up fellow pilots, “but most were just hops ? you were up and down in a matter of minutes”.
After war ended, and upon leaving the ATA, she was briefly seconded to the RAF, becoming the second woman to fly a Meteor III, a plane she had never set eyes on until stepping down from the taxi aircraft that brought her to it at RAF Moreton Valence. The only advice she got from a test pilot on hand was to watch the fuel gauges?the tanks ran dry in 35 minutes?and that when coming in to land it fell like a brick if you chopped the power too soon.
Armed with these sobering tips, plus her Ferry Pilot Notes opened on the single page assigned to the Meteor, and wearing no helmet?she was still not allowed to use radio?she took off for RAF Exeter where she arrived thirty minutes later, on fumes, making “a good landing” before the disbelieving eyes of 222 Squadron pilots awaiting the handover of their first jet.
What also struck me of Mary was how grateful she sounded for being alive, and the zest she puts into celebrating this, as if everything that came her way merited the challenge and could be looked back on as a blessing. Though she missed the excitement and camaraderie of her ATA days?and particularly the Spitfire?she nevertheless continued flying.
In 1948 she met the owner of Sandown Airfield and became his personal pilot. Soon enough, recognising her disciplined, enthusiastic approach to aviation matters, stemming from her extraordinary flying experience, he asked her to run the place. She accepted, thus becoming the first female airfield manager in the UK.
Mary thrived and excelled in her new role, which she kept for decades, and with the help of Don Ellis, the resident CFI whom she later married, she turned a hitherto quiet airfield, which had been closed during the war for fear of invasion, into a hive of flying activity, eventually upgrading Sandown for day and night operations in order to attract airlines plying routes from the Midlands to the Channel Islands. And she still found time for rally-driving, sweeping up trophies in her black Allard, to look after her sheep and horses, and set up a fashion boutique in Ryde.
She lives on her own (“I don’t want people fussing around me”) in the same cottage she moved into in 1950, a stone’s throw behind the airfield clubhouse. She does her own cooking and housekeeping, and potters around her lovely garden when her busy social diary allows it. A life lived to the full, seized with both hands and a grateful heart.
Inevitably, I had to ask what possessed her to sign her name on MV154. “Well, I guess I was in a bit of a romantic mood,” she said, laughing off her admission lightly. “It was a lovely morning after days of continuous rain. The aeroplane flew so well we immediately formed a bond. It felt special.
“Which is why perhaps, after landing in Brize, I took out my pen and scribbled my name, half hoping a handsome RAF pilot would see it and would try to track me down.” “Yes,” she went on, now dreamily, “MV154 is special.”
It takes a equally special person to know that, dear Mary.