If you want to do anything, you need a plan – right? Absolutely. Aviation is no different; to achieve something specific you need to have a plan to do that. Not finite down to the most minuscule detail, but a solid understanding of the steps and requirements to be fulfilled to allow you to do what you want to do.
You want to fly a Spitfire? Great. Here’s the plan.
Firstly, ask yourself why do you want to fly a Spitfire, a Hurricane, a 737, Space Shuttle or any other aircraft? Figure out the “why” and it will be of huge value to you in the low times of your journey, because there will be many. Keep that “why” as a target, or a motivator, and that will keep you focussed in the darkest times when you feel nothing is working and everything is going against you. I’ll focus today on the civilian path to warbirds; my path, and the plan I used to achieve it. Hopefully, you might be able to take a few pointers from it to help you do the same.
Read “First Light” by Geoffrey Wellum. Seriously. That is what described the plan to me, in the first instance, in every detail required. Flying a warbird such as a Spitfire, in terms of skill requirements, is no different now to how it was in 1940. So, why should the training be any different today?
On the very basic level, there are three steps to your plan, or as I like to think of it, three rungs to the ladder.
Step1 – the first rung of the ladder and the most accessible as well. Fly tailwheel aircraft. You could do this as part of learning to fly, hour building for a CPL, or, after you have completed a PPL or CPL. If you ultimately want to fly taildraggers, then why learn the basics on anything else? The first step is to get in a smaller type of taildragger like a Chipmunk, Piper Cub, Stampe, or a Tiger Moth. The latter being exactly what Wellum first flew in First Light. A Spitfire is a big taildragger, so naturally the first step is to fly taildraggers. Start small and then build up to…
Step 2 – which is a bigger tailwheel aircraft. Something, ideally, like a Harvard. This is the middle rung of the ladder. It is the perfect intermediary between the smaller and more forgiving taildraggers like the Tiger Moth and the bigger, faster, less forgiving and infinitely more valuable warbirds. Guess what Geoffrey Wellum flew after the Tiger Moth? The Harvard is actually quite a complex aircraft to operate, it has hydraulic flaps and undercarriage, a constant speed prop, is heavy (in weight, not in feel) and fairly underpowered. It is a common saying that if you can fly a Harvard well you can fly a warbird.
Step 3 – the “final” rung of the ladder is the warbirds. The Spitfire may or may not be your first one, perhaps it might be a Hurricane, a P51 Mustang or any other Warbird that you happen to be given the opportunity on. That will depend, largely, on who you get to know and what their requirements are. How you get to know the owner or operator of these types of aircraft is for you to work on, because every relationship is different. Once you have done plenty of Step 1 & 2, you’ve got to know the right person or people, you’ve proved to them that you are competent, serious and not just in it for the thrill, then you might get offered the chance to move to Step 3, the top rung of this ladder.
How you accomplish the steps, how you put the meat on the bones, or develop the finer details will be down to you. Flying is expensive, but there are ways of making it work for you if you think about it and work at it. It is absolutely not simply about paying for hours, very few people can afford that. Importantly, it’s not a requirement, neither is it the way most people do it. If it was, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have done. You need to be happy to fully immerse yourself in your aim, be that a Spitfire or a 737. Steps 1-3 above could easily be referred to simply as 1.gain the right qualifications, 2. build the experience, and 3. be in the right place. The same with getting any job – although this isn’t a job, it’s a passion.
The three steps outlined here are the basic steps, the minimum. Nobody likes the minimum though. Or wants to be just good enough. Good enough, will almost certainly not be good enough. So try to think how you can better yourself and put yourself one step ahead of every other pilot that says “I want to fly a Spitfire”. I do not know a single warbird pilot who woke up one day, wanted to fly the aircraft and then it happened. It took years of hard work, consistency and commitment. It also took investment in themselves. Did they just fly tailwheel aircraft from a to b? No, they flew aerobatics, perhaps in competition. Did they just hire aircraft and go flying at huge expense meaning they could do less of it? No, perhaps they bought into a share and reduced the cost, or became a Flying Instructor and taught people on tailwheel aircraft doing experience flights, conversions or ab initio training. One year full time as a flying Instructor, or three to four part-time, will pay back the cost of the qualification itself, in terms of the flying you do not have to pay for, and give you all that flying experience at the same time. Or perhaps they trained as an aircraft engineer, then slowly built up flying experience in their spare time with their employer, gradually moving from step 1 to 2, and finally, to 3. Instead of the here and now, focus on how you can get the required level of experience in 5-10 years’ time, because realistically, that is what it will take.
Perhaps the most difficult part of all of this is getting to know the right people, the owners and/or operators of these kind of aircraft. Simply knocking on the hangar door may not have the desired response; almost always, an introduction is worth its weight in gold. For me, there were two elements that helped with this most important step.
First, gaining a Display Authorisation. Not only did it help to increase my own standard, aerobatics near the ground is vastly different to aerobatics at two or three thousand feet, but it helped to meet people. To obtain a DA, you will need to find an Evaluator, a DAE. This person will be an experienced and current display pilot, and can and will help introduce you to people. They are vested in the world of display flying and are passionate about seeing it continue, and that means helping the “new guys” or the “young blood” into it. Now it’s not a free pass to meet everyone, but if you achieve the right standard, and are in it for the right reasons, that relationship can prove to be invaluable.
The second, was being heavily involved in a significant project – the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group. I co-founded this charity in 2016, and am the Project Director. We are all volunteers working on it in our spare time and are raising the £5million required to facilitate the rebuild of a unique warbird, a Hawker Typhoon. Part of the huge amount of work that has gone into getting to the stage we are now at, has been meeting with the various restoration shops across the country, many of whom operate warbirds as well. Whilst I did not co-found the HTPG specifically to do this, it has been an unexpected but welcome side effect. It also adds credibility, it shows you are not just doing it for the thrill, to brag whilst down the pub, but that you are in this for the long haul. Our group is always looking for new volunteers, not to come along for five minutes and clear-off, but for the long term. As are many other projects, or organisations. It is not easy by any means, more people have left our project than stayed, such is the amount of effort and sacrifice required. But those that do stick around, will find that some opportunities will occasionally present themselves. By being heavily involved in something like this you are further enhancing your credibility when it comes to demonstrating why someone should give you the keys to their Spitfire.
Like anything, you’ll find that you can’t just dip your toe in and expect results. You need to live it, breathe it, do charity work, volunteer for the “rubbish” jobs, get involved as much as possible, drop in when you can, even if “just” to sweep the hangar floor or clean aeroplanes for years. A classic inspirational story of that happening is with “Rats”, who is now the Aircraft Restoration Company’s head of training. 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.
So there is the plan, three steps. That’s all it is. The difficult thing is taking it, making it your own, working out your own path to achieve the steps and most importantly, fleshing it out and putting in the effort to make it happen.
Good luck! It’s not down to luck, it’s down to hard work!
Oh, and read “First Light”.