‘Flying the Grace Spitfire was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life’

The Grace Spitfire parked by the runway is nudging 80 years old but, should an air raid siren suddenly wail, the elegant old lady looks every bit as ready to soar into the skies as she was in wartime.

Back on June 6, 1944, with RAF pilot Johnnie Houlton at the controls, ML407 as she was then, shot down the first enemy aircraft of the D-Day landings over Normandy – one of a total of 176 combat missions during the Second World War.

Now her missions are much gentler, doing victory rolls and loops at air shows or taking lucky passengers up for a flight they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

Even converted to a two-seater, gazing at her simple yet iconic lines and the hallowed elliptical wing of the Spitfire, it’s easy to imagine the terrifying aerial battles she took part in during the last year of the war.

“Don’t just stand there daydreaming,” smiles Ultimate Warbirds Flights’ pilot Mark Levy, bringing my nostalgic imaginings to an end. “Let’s get your parachute on, we’re going up in a minute.”

In a flash he’s helping me into the rear cockpit, pointing out the bewildering control panels and asking me to put my feet on the rudder pedals on the floor. Although there are dual controls, I insist Mark takes full control for take-off at Sywell Aerodrome in Northamptonshire.

I’ve never flown a Spitfire and I don’t want to spoil my maiden flight.

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Speaking through a radio link in our helmets, he assures me he’ll take the throttle and stick for the trickier manoeuvres, which comes as a huge relief to this novice aviator.

Suddenly, the old girl bursts into life with clouds of smoke pouring from her Merlin engine as the propeller becomes a ghostly spinning circle of fury. Coughing out a lungful of freshly burnt aviation fuel, we shoot down the runway and effortlessly soar heavenwards into cloudless skies.

Mark levels off at about 3,000 feet, ­saying: “Now it’s your turn. This is real flying. Look at the horizon ahead and use that to keep level. She’s a sensitive old lady, so be kind.”

The metal stick is curved into a loop at the top, allowing for easy handling. I push it forward a few millimetres and the nose tilts rather sharply down as though we were about to mount an attack on the giant chimneys of a power station below.

Goodness only knows what people on the ground think is going on above them.

Once we’ve stabilised again, my eyes back on the horizon, I push the stick a millimetre or so left and suddenly we’re on a swooping ten degrees turn, which churned the stomach like a Blackpool roller-coaster ride but feels thrillingly marvellous nonetheless.

“Nice turn, but you dropped the nose as well, so can you level her up and bring her up?” asks super cool Mark. With adrenaline surging faster than aircraft fuel, I obey, but find it tricky turning right, raising the nose and levelling off while trying to stop my feet from making the tiniest of moves on the rudder pedals.

Coordinating hands and feet correctly while watching the horizon and gazing out left and right for other aircraft to avoid requires a lot of concentration.

But my gosh, Grace was doing her best to help me, uncannily sensing somehow that she was being controlled by someone lacking the skills of her usual pilots.

I’d read that Spitfire pilots loved flying the aircraft because they were so responsive, but never really appreciated what they meant until now.

Oddly, as our flight progressed, I began to feel a strange spiritual connection with Spitfire ML407.

I knew that if I moved the stick one ­millimetre forward and three across to the right, we could go into a 20 or so degree turn, which I could easily get out of by doing the reverse.

Guiding a Spitfire is far easier than trying to steer a supermarket trolley because the aircraft reacts to the lightest of touches, but you have to be smooth otherwise it’s a case of breakfast revisited. In dogfights, such responsiveness proved too much for many Messerschmitt Me109s.

Having once flown in the rear cockpit of one of the powerful German fighter planes, I know they are more stable in flight, but lack the nimbleness of the Spitfire.

After 25 joyous minutes in the company of the queen of the skies, the landing strip of Leeds East Airport at Church Fenton, between Leeds and York, beckoned.

Holding the stick, I shadowed the subtle movements Mark was making in the front cockpit by holding the connected stick as we turned and dropped height for a smooth descent.

The calm was rocked when the tiny back wheel hit the ground with a bump, and suddenly my feet were moving around on the dual rudder pedals like a disco dancer as Mark fought hard through his legs to keep us on a straight line.

“Slight crosswind, so I had to battle to keep her straight on the runway with my rudder pedals,” he reveals.

“I’ve flown everything from Piper Cubs to Jumbo jets but the Spitfire is a unique flying experience,” Mark continues as we taxi over to the control tower, triggering excitement among waiting photographers bursting with nostalgia.

“Spitfires are slightly on the ­unstable side, which makes them perfect as a combat aircraft. Messerschmitt pilots had to use two hands to create the same turning force while a Spitfire pilot used one hand, or even two fingers.

“The responsiveness is remarkable. You can hold the throttle with your left hand while your right is on the stick, which is where the firing button was – perfect for combat. She’s an 80-year-old now but she can still do basic manoeuvres, barrel rolls, victory rolls and loop the loop.”

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Just before we landed, F-35 Lightning pilot Nick Smith arrived in Contrary Mary, an American P-51 D Mustang, built in Texas in 1951, which did reconnaissance work during the Korean War.

Nick, 38, who is attached to the Fleet Air Arm, tells me: “I love flying these old aircraft. There are no computers, it’s all about using your hands and feet. These aircraft are relatively simple to fly but if you don’t respect them they will bite you very hard.”

The purpose of our trip was for Nick and Mark to help prepare for The Flying Legends air show on July 15 and 16 at Leeds East Airport, which once hummed to the wartime symphony of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the guise of RAF Church Fenton. Opened in 1937, it was home to the first “Eagle” Squadron of US volunteers who came to fight before the US entered the war.

To celebrate that link, a trio of American aerobatic display flyers called The Horsemen will display three Second World War era Mustang fighters in tribute to Church Fenton. Long-range Mustangs, known as the Cadillacs of the skies, escorted US bombers on raids deep inside Germany.

The display will be extra special for one of the pilots, Dan Friedkin, as his grandfather Kenny was part of the Eagle Squadrons.

The Spitfire I flew briefly also has a rich wartime and family history.

Built in early 1944, ML407 served with six different Squadrons in front-line battle in the last 12 months of the war, amassing 319 combat hours.

After the war the aircraft was used for training with the Irish Air Corp and was sold off in 1968 to Sir William Roberts who housed her at a museum in Scotland.

In 1979 vintage aircraft enthusiast Nick Grace bought her and spent five years restoring her to ­flying condition. He flew with his wife Carolyn in a newly-designed rear cockpit in 1985.

Tragically, Nick was killed in a car accident three years later, leaving Carolyn with two children, Olivia, five, and Richard, four.

To honour her husband, she trained to fly the aircraft herself and flew for a number of years, the world’s only female Spitfire pilot, before retiring in 2017. In a tragic twist, Carolyn also died in a car accident, aged 70 in December 2022.

But fittingly, her son Richard now flies the aircraft at airshow displays and cannot wait to put the Spitfire through her paces next month when she’ll wow the crowds alongside 46 other vintage aircraft.

He says: “Flying Legends is a truly remarkable show and represents the finest gathering of aircraft you are likely to see anywhere in the world and it is truly something that is a privilege to take part in.”

Jane Larcombe of The Fighter Collection said: “It is with great pleasure that in our 30th year of presenting Flying Legends, we prepare for launch at Church Fenton, Leeds East Airport, such an historic location in the beautiful county of Yorkshire.

“We look forward to welcoming old friends, first-time visitors and many others as passionate about historic aviation as we are. Together we welcome the return of Legends and the first of many memorable air shows in the years ahead.”

There’ll be much to see, but my guess is the amazing Grace Spitfire will emerge as the star of the show.

  • The first Flying Legends airshow will be staged at Leeds East Airport on July 15-16. Tickets are on sale now via www.flyinglegends.com/tickets

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