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Getting into warbirds

Getting into warbirds might seem like an impossible dream, akin to being a Formula 1 driver, joining the SAS, or becoming an astronaut. But, there are Formula 1 drivers, there are soldiers in the SAS, and there are astronauts; so it can’t be impossible. Other than time travel, and settling the debate over whether milk or hot water goes first in a cup of tea, very few things are actually impossible. Changing your mindset from impossible, to possible, is probably one of the first but most important hurdles. The majority of people use the word impossible to describe something that simply takes a huge amount of effort, time, dedication and commitment in order to achieve. Getting into warbirds is not easy, and requires all that, but it isn’t impossible. 

I’ve wanted to fly Spitfires forever, for as long as I can remember. My Grandfather flew them during WWII, after the Hurricane and before the Typhoon; he died when I was young but I’m sure something passed from him to me. As a young child, I secretly wanted the Battle of Britain to start again, thinking that then I could fly one. I was probably five or six at the time. You could say that my journey started then, or maybe a few years later about the age of ten, when I taught myself to fly on Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator after school, flying the Battle of Britain Campaign over, and over again. Beam attacks, Immelman turns and deflection shooting all seemed so easy at that age.

 

Perhaps the journey started for me when I had just finished college, and I started glider flying whilst applying for the RAF. Flying locally to where I lived above the South Downs, the bomb craters still visible on the hills and my first experiences of being close to taildraggers, in the shape of the club’s Pawnees which are known as the poor man’s Hurricane. But all that was just wishful thinking really, I wasn’t taking any positive action on the path to warbirds. That all changed after I joined, and was subsequently made redundant from, the RAF. Then, a few months later the commercial flight school I had chosen went bust, and I became a modular student, with seriously depleted funds. I knew I wanted to fly for a living, but I also knew I wanted to fly warbirds, the two don’t generally go hand in hand. So I had to figure out a plan.

At the time, there was very little information available that I could find, to describe the path into warbirds. So, I just extrapolated what I could find. Once you get to the bottom of it, the requirements for somebody to fly warbirds are actually quite straightforward. The vast majority of warbirds are taildraggers. The training pipeline to train the young fighter pilots of WWII is there to read about in any aviation memoir of the time, but the one that describes it perfectly for me is First Light by Geoffrey Wellum. The first aircraft he flies is the Tiger Moth. Following elementary training on that, of 50-60 hours or so, he moves onto the Harvard, a bigger and more complex tailwheel. Following a period of more advanced training on that, of around 150 hours, he then gets posted, to his and the Squadron’s surprise, to 92sqn, who are working up to being operational on Spitfires. 

 

If the training was like that then, why shouldn’t it be the same now, I asked myself. At the end of the day, the end goal is the same – to fly a Spitfire, so why should the training be any different. This set my mind to work, if that’s what it was then, then it should work now. Admittedly, the hours requirements might be higher, perhaps double, or even triple each amount, as there isn’t a war on after all. But, with that, I was starting to form the first phase of my plan. I needed to fly something like a Tiger Moth, or similar, and then move onto a Harvard, or similar, before being let loose on a Spitfire. That seems simple enough. Three rungs to the ladder. I had the foundations of a plan.

It turns out those aircraft are very, very expensive. Upwards of £200 an hour for the Tiger Moth, more like £700-800 per hour for the Harvard and lottery winnings for the Spitfire. Even with my C in GCSE maths I could figure out that those costs were going to be prohibitive and I had no chance of that sort of money. Going back to my earlier thoughts that it must be possible, because people do it and they can’t all be millionaires, I had a rethink. During the hour building phase of my modular training I completed a tailwheel conversion in a Stampe, down on the south coast. The Stampe is a great aircraft, a vintage open cockpit biplane, just like the Tiger Moth, but without all the bad bits. The instructor was a great guy who taught me a lot in those early taildragger sessions. 

Hang on a minute – instructors don’t pay to fly, they get paid… Epiphany. 

 

Coming to the end of my commercial flight training in the final stages of the Instrument Rating, the CFI of the school that I completed the tailwheel conversion at and subsequently flew the aircraft on and off, phoned me. Would I like to “help out for the summer?” As long as I got my own Instructor Certificate, I could expect quite a decent amount of flying. And because I had a small amount of tailwheel experience I could expect to pick up trial lessons on the Cub, Stampe, and in time, the Tiger Moth. Out came the C in maths again, the cost of the FI certificate divided by the hourly rate of the taildraggers meant I only needed to get just over 30 hours over the entire summer for it to break even. Coupled with the fact I would be earning a small amount of money whilst flying those hours, as well as flying standard “spam cans” as well, I decided to take the gamble. I had no idea at the time if it would pay off. 

The gamble was this – earn next to no money for a given time period, but obtain as much tailwheel flying as I could by doing it full time. I would do this intensely for a few years, build up a base of tailwheel experience, that I could then utilise in my spare time if and when I got a job with an airline, in say, five years’ time. I was turning down some quite juicy salaries as an airline pilot, and airlines were hiring, but I figured I was still relatively young, could put up with living back at home for a few years, and when might I get this opportunity again?

Two full seasons later at the school, and alongside the more standard flying, teaching PPL students and so on, I had managed to clock just under 300 hours on the Cub, Stampe and Tiger Moth. The best part is that I had only paid for a handful of those hours, when I self hired to take friends or family up, and then they chipped in. I hadn’t made a fortune doing it, far from it, but I hadn’t spent a fortune either. My FI certificate had more than paid for itself and I had got myself onto the first rung of the ladder. If First Light and my plan was anything to go by, the next rung of the ladder was the Harvard. Moving to another school on the south coast at Goodwood, the next step would fall into place. 

 

In all honesty, I didn’t know the flying school at Goodwood owned the Harvard. I thought it belonged to their neighbour, the Boultbee Flight Academy. Deep down, that was my thinking for the move to Goodwood. My grandfather’s last flight of WWII departed from here, but there was a Spitfire operator on the airfield, Boultbee. I thought, maybe, that if I hung around enough they might give me the keys one day. Having been at Goodwood for around three months, flying the Cessnas and the Cub that the flying school operated, the management were scratching their heads a lot about a reliable, and available, pilot for their Harvard as they kept having to turn trial lessons away through lack of one. Picking my time with the flying school manager, I decided not to ask, but just to let him know that I’d be more than happy to help… At this time I had around a thousand hours total, three hundred or so on taildraggers and could teach aerobatics. I even offered to pay for my conversion training, thinking that even if it took me five or more hours, it would be worth it in the long run if I could pick up just a handful of flights. They were clearly well and truly stuck for someone reliable and available, because the answer was yes. What’s more, I wouldn’t pay for my conversion but I would get a reduced rate of pay for flying it for the first year. 

And so, I moved up to the second rung of the ladder. During this time I co-founded the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group, an endeavour I’d been working on for a few years already and one that saw me visiting many of the warbird restoration shops in the country and meeting their owners, many of whom operated the aircraft as well. I also joined the team at Ultimate High, a great organisation that I had known for a few years, since my hour building, when a friend kindly introduced me to them whilst they were searching for someone to work on some ground school development for them. Now, I was to be a pilot on their team, something which I thought would never happen as they employed exclusively ex-military fast jet pilots. I was ex-military though, just. This was also the perfect time to make use of a contact I made during PPL training, Cliff Spink. With the guidance of Jos and the team at Ultimate High and Cliff, I worked up for and obtained my Display Authorisation. Having a DA is not necessarily about flying the displays in the first instance, but I found it incredibly useful to network at shows and do more of getting to know the right people, the rare display flying was a bonus!

 

Flying with Ultimate High is a real privilege, image credit: Jamie Hunter.

Three seasons later, as the sole in-house “full time”, although self employed and still not earning very much, Harvard pilot, I managed to pick up 220 hours in it. Coupled with the DA, three years of flying with Ultimate High and my work with the Typhoon project I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, the next rung of the ladder might be around the corner.

Try as I might, no amount of hanging around the Boultbee hangar seemed to have the desired effect. And anyway, they had their own resident young pilot and skygod coming up through the ranks, a good friend of mine Tim, aka Princess. Through my work with the Typhoon I had met John Romain at the Aircraft Restoration Company a number of times. I had got to the stage where people had stopped asking “who are you?” in the hangar when I dropped in, so I took that as a good sign. I had come to an arrangement with them too, to use their shower early in the mornings when exhibiting on the Typhoon stand for four days in a row at air shows, camping on site. Part of that was needing to not smell, but part of it was just being there, having a coffee afterwards and chatting to the team. Cliff Spink was an ARCo pilot and I knew he was keen on new blood coming into the scene to take over from the, in his words, “old farts” who would be retiring over the coming years.

 

Spending a lot of time at the Aircraft Restoration Company, getting known, really helped.

Through a Black Tie event for the RAF100 anniversary, that the Typhoon project had been asked to supply some material for, I find myself sitting next to Anna from ARCo. Anna runs all the bookings, sorts the pilots and their lives out, and generally organises a lot of what happens there. I’d met Anna once before, although she didn’t remember, why would she? The seating arrangement was pure fluke, but I was there, and so was she. Talking over dinner and plenty of wine, we spoke about instructing, which we had both done, display flying, people to watch out for, the Typhoon, New Zealand where I had just got engaged and come back from, being vegetarian, all sorts. And then she says they “cannot find Spitfire pilots for love nor money”. Well, what’s the worst that could happen I think to myself?

 

“I’ll do it”

“Don’t be silly you need loads of tailwheel time!”

“I’ve got about 600 hours of it”

“Yes, yes, but you need Harvard time”

“Well I’ve got about 200 of that”

“OK, but you need a CPL too, for the rides”

“Yep, got one of them too” 

Seeing a mild look of confusion on her face, I just smiled and left it at that, we got back to the dinner, other conversation and the wine. I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later.

Walking into the pub on my own, I saw John Romain, Anna and one other, James, at a table round the corner. I waved, thought nothing more of it and went to the bar. I was due to fly to Duxford to renew my DA on the Friday before the May air show, but the flight got cancelled so I drove up instead to be there to set up the Typhoon stand. That meant I was there for dinner that evening and that was when the gamble that I’d taken all those years ago after working out my plan paid off. Taking my first sip of beer, John came over and apologised for not recognising me in the light and invited me to sit with them for a drink as they were leaving soon. 

 

“How many hours do you have on the Harvard, Sam?”

“About 200…”

“And you have a CPL?”

“Yes…”

“Good. I want you to fly my Spitfire.”

I knew instantly that in the background, although John knew me through the Typhoon, Cliff had been mentioning that the idea of new blood was a good one. Then Anna had come back from the Black Tie dinner and must have mentioned something to John. John had then probably checked with Cliff, probably his old mates at Ultimate High, and all the strands had come together. Of course, I said yes!

 

Walking out for the first solo flight…

To me, getting into warbirds was a dream; it almost still is, thanks to COVID-19. To me, there are three rungs to the ladder – small taildraggers, bigger taildraggers, then the warbirds themselves. Gain as much experience on the first two rungs as possible, however you can do that. For me, instructing worked. Do whatever you can to add to your “flying CV”. For me two things that played a huge part were being heavily involved in the charity work of the Typhoon and everything that brought, but so too did having the DA. Working closely with Cliff for that, who was a key link in the chain at ARCo for me.

Patience is also key. When I set out on the journey I was fully expecting it not to happen, or, if it did, for it to take ten or maybe twenty years. Had I gone about the vintage flying part time then it would certainly not have happened yet. You will see the results if you immerse yourself in the scene. Live it, breathe it, do charity work, volunteer for the “rubbish” jobs, get involved as much as possible, drop in when you can, even “just” sweep the hangar floor. A classic inspirational story of that happening is with “Rats”, who is now the Aircraft Restoration Company’s head of training, and had the unenviable job of trying to teach me to fly a Spitfire. After a full career in the RAF he swept the hangar floor at Duxford for seven years without touching an aircraft. Now…well, there you go. 

Like anything, if you have a plan, and focus everything possible on that plan, or that dream, taking small steps forwards all the time, then you can achieve it. Sure, it will require some sacrifice, but if the end goal is worth the sacrifice, then you’ll do it. First, change your mindset from impossible, to possible.

 

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