Encounter with a Spitfire
It was six-thirty on a Bank Holiday Monday evening in 1987 as I lifted the Cessna 172 off the grass at Sibson airfield near Peterborough. The air was velvety smooth, and the low sun cast long shadows across the flat Cambridgeshire countryside. Beside me sat my friend Peter. Behind us sat Peter's son Aaron and my girlfriend Debbie. Although we did not know it, ahead of us lay an encounter with a Spitfire.
We flew to Ely, circling the Cathedral at 3000 feet, then followed the railway line down to Cambridge.
'How about flying over Duxford and having a look at Concorde?’ I suggested. Heads nodded. I called Duxford on the radio, neither expecting nor receiving a reply. Nobody had answered any of our calls since leaving Sibson. Everyone had packed up and gone home.
‘Duxford, this is Golf Bravo Mike X-Ray, Cessna 172 overhead Cambridge at 3,000 feet on one zero one two, heading one niner five degrees. We intend turning overhead your field and departing for Cranfield.’
A few minutes later we were approaching Duxford. I repeated the call even though we had not seen another aircraft since leaving Sibson.
Suddenly the radio crackled into life. We were not alone.
‘Spitfire recovering from the north for three minutes’ aerobatics over Duxford.’
Good lord! A Spitfire! And we were directly over Duxford, right in his way. I had to let him know.
'Duxford, Golf Bravo Foxtrot Mike X-Ray, Cessna 172, now in the Duxford overhead at 3,000 feet on one zero one two.’
There was a pause, then ‘Cessna, this is Spitfire. What is your exact position?’.
‘Spitfire, we are directly overhead the threshold of zero six, clearing to the west.’
Then, astonishingly, he said 'Cessna, would you like me to formate on you?’
Well, what would you have said? 'Yes, please!' I replied without hesitation.
'Maintain your heading and height', he instructed.
Peter, also wearing a headset, had followed the conversation and we both craned our necks, searching the sky, forgetting there were no headsets in the back and that Aaron and Debbie had no idea what we were looking for.
Seeing the question in their eyes I twisted the microphone up and away from my mouth and shouted 'Spitfire!’. They turned in their seats and scanned the sky behind us. It occurred to me that I had never flown in formation before. Too late to worry about that now. I’d just have to trust the pilot of the Spitfire
Peter saw her first, then I spotted her, a tiny speck a few hundred feet below and behind us to the right, closing rapidly on our tail. Moments later she was sitting about fifty yards away off our starboard wing, still below us, the pilot looking up as if weighing up whether he should risk getting closer.
The four of us in the Cessna shared excited glances. Peter took his camera, pointed it at the Spitfire, and fired off the last four shots on his roll of film. He should have waited. I’ve regretted ever since that he didn’t.
The pilot seemed to have made a decision. Slowly, the Spitfire floated towards us until she was tucked in beneath the wing, so incredibly close we were able to drink in every detail. The golden evening light washed over her. It was hard to imagine such perfect beauty as an efficient killing machine. I could see every rivet on the Spitfire as she rocked gently in the invisible
vortices rolling off our wingtips. I could see her grey and green camouflage, the blue and red roundels on the wings, and the white stripe round the fuselage just in front of the tail; but for long moments I was utterly
mesmerised by the grey spinner and the huge propeller with yellow tips revolving slowly a few feet from my wingtip. I had not realised that formation flying meant you flew this cIose. I could see the graceful lines and those wonderful elliptical wings with yellow leading edges and red tape over the gun ports.
I could even hear the sound of the Merlin over the noise of my own engine. I saw the letters ZD-B painted on the fuselage and realised I knew this aircraft very well from dozens of air shows. The cockpit hood was back and although I had never met him, I recognised Mark Hanna grinning expectantly at me.
My thumb pressed the transmit button. 'Spitfire, that's the finest sight I've ever seen.'
'You like her, then? Not bad, is she?'
We gazed in awe at the Spitfire. I had not realised what a big aeroplane it is. After exchanging a few more comments (goodness knows what I said), in slow-motion she sank behind and below us, then swam into view off the port wingtip. Now I had an uninterrupted view.
I tore myself away briefly and glanced at the instruments. 3600 feet. How did I get up here? I must have been pulling slightly at the control column as I was leaning over Peter to see out.
Mark Hanna's smile told me had seen and understood my thoughts. He sat there for a few minutes longer, then said 'I'm going back to Duxford now for some aerobatics. Cheerio.'
‘Spitfire’, I said, 'thank you. That was... fantastic.’ It was a hopelessly inadequate description of the privilege we had just been granted. The Spitfire moved away from us and rolled on her back in the classic way I had seen on dozens of films. I could see her grey undersides and noticed that the flaps were down. She must have been flying close to the stall while we were at cruising speed. Banking the Cessna to the left, four pairs of eyes followed her dive towards the shadowed earth. She levelled out two thousand feet beneath our wings and vanished in the murky greens and browns below.
We were alone again. There were a few seconds of silence, then we all spoke at once. None of was entirely sure we hadn't dreamed the past few minutes. Our broad grins lasted for days.
I would dismiss it all as pure fantasy, but for the framed photograph of Spitfire Mk IX MH434 on my wall, and the entry in my logbook which tells me the flight from Sibson to Cranfield 'included 5 min. formation over Duxford with Spitfire Mk IX’.