The Hampshire Aero Club, Eastleigh. By John Isaacs
A turn into Southampton Airport from Wide Lane led into Chevalier Avenue, named after the first Commanding Officer of the large United States naval aircraft assembly and repair depot based there in 1918. The original wooden-trussed hangars still bordered the avenue which stretched behind the control and passenger terminal before reaching a large cream-painted wooden hut; it had been used as the Fleet Air Arm watch office in 1939 before the fighter pool moved to Yeovilton. It was flanked on one side by a spacious steel-framed hangar adjoining the Cierva helicopter factory and on the other by the grass airfield. Above the door in its end appeared the legend, ‘Hampshire Aero Club’. For more than a decade this became my second home.
When I arrived on a wintry morning early in 1951, I found CFI Reg Langridge reclining in the instructor’s office, chair tilted and his feet on the desk. He greeted my request to be converted to open-cockpit Tiger Moth flying with singular lack of enthusiasm: his rounded jovial face resumed its friendly normality when I added that I did not necessarily wish to fly on that cold day. Like the instructors at Thruxton, he had learnt to fly with the Civil Air Guard before joining the RAF as an instructor on Tiger Moths. He had also served with Bomber Command on Lancasters and then flown on the Berlin Airlift.
The prototype two-seat Spitfire trainer lay dormant in the firm’s hangar at Chilbolton among the experimental jets. I know not how the Patron charmed it out of managing director S. P. Woodley (my boss) who agreed to present it to the club. It had not flown for two years and some work had to be carried out before it was ready for flight. During the period of excited anticipation the Patron asked me if I wished to accompany him on the collection flight. I quickly accepted for, hitherto, I had always believed such an experience beyond the realms of possibility.
As I approached the Aeroplane Club one morning I was enthralled to find facing me that sensually-rounded, burnished radiator behind two huge headlamps astride a jutting supercharger. The British racing-green open body, its ridiculously small doors, leather straps securing louvred bonnet, enormous wire-spoked wheels with ‘knock off’ hub caps; all brought to life the picture in the bar — recalling Birkin’s tremendous battle with Caracciola’s white Mercedes in 1930. It was one of the Hon. Dorothy PagetBirkin team cars which the Patron had borrowed from ex-Naval pilot, Tristam Winstanley. In this delectable Bentley, three up, we reached 110 mph, arrived at Vickers Chilbolton airfield to look our gift horse in the mouth and returned under the famed bridge near Winchester; passing beneath it a wartime Canadian pilot shed six feet of his Tomahawk’s wingtip; the Patron had been Duty Pilot at nearby Worthy Down when a truck deposited the tip outside the watch office.
Then, on the last afternoon in August, I descended the stone steps from the mansion at Hursley Park and entered the Patron’s grey VW; his wife had come to pick me up from work; with momentary qualm I noticed the parachute lying on the back seat. At Chilbolton the light-blue Spitfire stood proudly on the tarmac, a club Proctor alongside. Owen Hill had ferried the pilot over and 100 octane fuel was being siphoned from the Proctor’s port wing for the transfusion which would bring life to the Merlin; the resident jets used only kerosene.
I stood around listening to the small talk and wondering what I had let myself in for. On the Patron’s own admission he had not flown a Spitfire for 11 years: the reaction of a Naval Lt Cmdr pilot, to whom I had mentioned this fact, had not been reassuring. Presently the unmistakable sound of a Merlin burst into my thoughts as engine runs were carried out.
I clambered up on to the root of the port wing and stretched my right leg aft, reaching up awkwardly to get a foot over the rear cockpit-sill which lay behind the wing trailing edge; the smoothly rounded fuselage was devoid of footholes. I lowered myself on to the seat parachute and was firmly strapped in. A second helmet with intercommunication had failed to materialise so I was to be denied a calm reassuring voice from the front cockpit and would be left in peace with my thoughts; the pilot had radio contact with flying control. Arthur Luscombe said, ‘Wind the hood back when the throttle is closed or you will be asphyxiated with carbon monoxide fumes’ — a cheering thought. There also appeared to be some doubt as to whether the hood would stay shut and I was advised to hang on to the cranked handle which wound it fore and aft.
The little group of workers and well-wishers stood clear. Electrical energy flowed through the umbilical cord linking the trolley-acc starter to the Spitfire’s fuselage socket. Slowly, the four-bladed propeller started to inch round, hesitantly, until suddenly it took hold; a puff of black exhaust smoke was spat back into the slipstream and a crescendo of sound assailed the ears while the aircraft pulsated to the vibrant melody of 1650 horsepower. Delicately, on its narrow track undercarriage, the dainty Spitfire picked its way out to the runway intersection while I glanced warily around the cockpit. A missing instrument on the rear panel left a three-inch hole through which I could see the back of the pilot’s head. To a hiss of compressed air from the brakes we stopped; I wound my hood forward, tugged yet again at harness straps; we turned into wind.
The intensity of sound increased decisively; a slightly snaky run forward as a torque-induced tendency to veer left was corrected, then complete submission to irresistible forces, the invisible hand of acceleration pushing hard on my back, the runway falling away, our nose up in a climbing attitude.
The silence came on me like a thunderclap; incredibly, unbelievably, the Merlin had stopped. Instantly the nose lowered and the Spitfire came slanting down straight ahead. Immediate reaction was fury at having allowed myself to get mixed up with this crazy character anyway. Parachute? Far too low, and heaven knows when the thing was last repacked. What to do about the hood? I decided to open it and hastily wound the crank. Ahead were small cultivated fields and a line of trees. Chilbolton lay on the eastern bank of the Test valley and the owners of the neatly-ordered patchwork gardens had known crises before, since more than one of the Supermarine test pilots had executed masterly forced landings in the area.
So we were about to make a belly landing — I thought. The Patron had known a Spitfire cut dead on him before, though from 10,000 feet he had easily reached an airfield. Well, all right, as Midshipman RN, he tried to bale out following a glycol fire but the hood jammed so he was unable to open the door: on that occasion he hit the ground standing on the seat trying to hold-off for the flare. My grip tightened on the handle of the open hood.
In moments of stress it is surprising how expressive a small area of a man’s head can be; I swear that, through my instrument-hole view, I gained a clear impression of initial surprise, followed by swift action in the front cockpit. Somewhere up front, a cough and a bang preceded a belch of black smoke and the Merlin came on again. The big propeller began to bite and, as it screwed its way through the air, slender wings bore us aloft to the sanctuary of height while the defeated trees slipped past beneath and only the tension remained. The inevitable airman’s prayer, ‘Please God, let the engine keep going until we can complete the circuit and land.’ But what was the fool doing now? For he did not complete the right hand turn on to the approach; instead he was climbing to 1000 feet and setting course across country — with a sick engine!
Puzzled, I nevertheless revelled in the glory of Hampshire’s colourful landscape, backcloth to the most elegant blue wing that would ever sustain me. As if from renewed confidence in the Merlin, the port wing dropped, the starboard swung up and the long blue nose swept round greedily gobbling up the horizon in a vertical turn; momentarily everything straightened, then the horizon lurched the other way and again I was ruthlessly rammed into my seat as we turned to starboard while I forced my head upward to look through the hood at the rushing pattern of fields and reorientate myself.
The Spitfire made a wide sweep over Southampton to announce our arrival: from a position of Godlike eminence over my home town I wondered how many hearts would beat faster, roused by the emotive engine note and skyward glance at that distinctive wing form. On the airfield a Dakota pilot was carrying out his lengthy cockpit checks so we flew on over the grass runway towards Eastleigh’s railway works and soared to 3000 feet at the touch of a finger. Almost at Basingstoke, it seemed, when the Dakota turned into wind and trundled off; we turned too and tilted down at 270 mph, hurtling towards the grass at a steady green light from control. Levelling out, we flashed past the Aeroplane Club, Auster, Hornet and Tiger, glimpsed familiar figures waving madly, shot by the control tower and I was punched down into my seat as the nose lifted and we zoomed up, up. I wondered what the Patron was going to do with it but at the top he finished in a vertical turn to port which eased round into the famous Spitfire curved approach because of the blind area straight ahead over the long nose.
Power, was reduced, speed decayed, two little tell-tale doors sprang up near the trailing edge to verify the flaps were down, heat haze trails flowed back from each underwing radiator, I could smell the hot Merlin and hear its crackling backwash as the throttle was closed, quickly I wound my hood back, the ‘wheels down’ light did not go on in my cockpit. The ASI still showed 100 mph, the flare started, perhaps a little high, the control column twitched, feeling for the ground. Were the wheels really down or would the wings go on sinking, sinking into the grass? The wheels touched, the hollow rumble of a metal fuselage taxying accompanied us to the club house. The Merlin was shut down; the aeroplane was surrounded by small boys. A grinning Patron climbed out, ‘Poor John’, he shouted.
It was a long evening in the club house as we relived our adventure. The Patron had been as shaken as I had. His first clue had come from the radio when a horrified voice from Chilbolton control tower had said, ‘Spitfire, your wheels are still down.’ The pilot had reacted fast. The undercarriage position selector and the fuel cock controls were positioned in close proximity in the front cockpit and if the gear was still down then it must mean.. . The fuel was turned on again and the booster pump, switched on for take-off, immediately began urging fuel into the dying engine. I drank yet another toast to booster pumps since, as my French friends would say, it was another case of 1′incident pas 1′accident.
It seemed fitting that the Spitfire should have returned to the place of its birth. The ghost of its creator was surely with us that evening for amidst the row of beer mugs hanging from the ceiling was that very special one inscribed: HAeC R. J. Mitchell 1st Solo 1.7.34. G-ABEK.
Extracts from Aeroplane Affair, written by John Isaacs, published by Air Research.