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The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

by Jeremy Cox 1. August 2006 00:00
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Recently I was extremely fortunate to experience one of the best days of my life, while on business back at home in England. John Sirett, my European colleague, who is in charge of JetBrokers-Europe decided that he wanted me to come over and assist with some new ‘for sale' listings that he had signed up. After a couple of weeks of planning I was winging my way across the North Atlantic on a 777 bound for Heathrow. Even though I was effectively in Europe for 9 only days, our schedule was pretty well packed with client visits in Holland, Austria, Slovakia and even briefly, Hungary (we went through the wrong border crossing and turned back after realizing our mistake.) The piece de resistance of my entire trip and also the subject of this article, was an invitation to RAF Coningsby for the day, as a VIP guest of the Royal Air Force's own, Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF.) This invitation came from a JetBrokers Europe affiliate, ‘Autologic'; a major British Automotive company, and proud corporate sponsor of the BBMF. As an annual thank you to its largest sponsors, the BBMF puts on a private VIP day visit for each sponsor company. I was extremely fortunate to be in England when it was the turn of ‘Autologic' to enjoy their annual visit, and I was invited to come along and including me, our contingent was only 11 people strong, and therefore our visit was very, very intimate, indeed.  The village of Coningsby is in Eastern Central England in Lincolnshire between the towns of Lincoln, Sleaford, Boston and Skegness. This nice village plays host to a fifteenth century church that boasts the worlds largest, one-handed clock; a castle keep tower that is in extremely good repair and dates back to the same century and even earlier; and last, but not least, the Royal Air Forces active Squadrons of ‘3' Fighter Squadron, and ‘17' and ‘29' Reserve Squadrons, all whom fly the modern Eurofighter ‘Typhoon', and ‘6' Squadron who fly SPECAT Jaguars, ‘41' Reserve Squadron who fly PANAVIA Tornados and finally the BBMF.
The fact that I am writing this article about the BBMF for posting during the month of September must not go un-noticed. For many years now, I have recognized the grave importance of the Battle of Britain, by screening the 1969 Metro Goldwin Meyer classic film ‘Battle of Britain' at least once, every September. The actual Battle of Britain began in early July of 1940, but it can probably be said to have officially begun on Wednesday, July 10th, 1940 when the Commander in Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding deployed fifty fighter squadrons, consisting of about 600 serviceable aircraft around the British Isles to stand up against the rapidly increasing number of strikes being made by the Luftwaffe. The end of the Battle of Britain was declared on Thursday, October 31st, 1940. The late, great Winston Churchill called Sunday, September 15th, 1940 as ‘the culminating date' as described by Mr. Peter Townsend in his 1970 book, ‘Dual of Eagles.' This is because, according to the report delivered to the Prime Minister by his Chief Private Secretary, John Martin at 8 p.m. on this day, "It was repellent…' (The reports from the war) – Errors, delays, unsatisfactory answers, bad sinking's in the Atlantic. ‘However,' said Martin, ‘everything is retrieved by the air. We have shot down 183 for a loss of under 40.' After the 15th of September, Hitler seriously doubted his Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, capable of achieving and winning a successful offensive in the skies of Britain. According to Peter Townsend, Goering was beside himself with rage and disappointment, and he summoned his Luftflotten and Fliegerkorps chiefs to Boulogne on the 16th of September, where he bellowed, purple faced, at his Jäger that ‘our fighters have let us down!' It is reported that Oberst Keller, who later became Goering's Chief of Staff, that ‘The Reichsmarschall never forgave us (the Luftwaffe) for not conquering England.' According to the Guinness Book of Records, World War II was ‘By far the most costly war in terms of human life… in which the total number of fatalities, including battle deaths and civilians of all countries, is estimated to have been 54.8 million, assuming 25 million Soviet fatalities and 7.8 million Chinese civilians killed.' According to Roy Conyers Nesbit's 2000 book ‘RAF in action 1939 – 1945', ‘In the period from 20th July to 26th October, the RAF lost 1,490 Hurricanes or Spitfires damaged beyond repair on operations, plus 360 more in flying accidents. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight - Observing a Hurricane
However, 1,333 new fighters were produced while 723 damaged aircraft were made serviceable. Thus the overall strength of fighters increased, although 537 pilots or other aircrew were killed in the period from 10th July to the end of October, and others wounded. By comparison, the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 aircraft in combat, apart from those seriously damaged, while 2,662 Luftwaffe airmen were killed and many others taken prisoner.' Mr. Conyers Nesbit continues by writing that ‘The Battle of Britain was undoubtedly a resounding victory. Equally important, it boosted morale in Britain and convinced the rest of the World, especially America, that the country could withstand all the enemy could throw at it. It was the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier' from which victory could be attained…' What the Battle of Britain really means to me, deep, deep down in my soul, is the utterly incredible way that so many young men and women of the British Commonwealth, put their entire existence on the line for what they believed to be right, in the defence of the British Isles. Their sacrifices and the truly amazing accounts of the extreme courage that they managed to find within themselves, all-through-out the Battle of Britain effectively defeating the Luftwaffe and ultimately, with the assistance of our allies, smashing the entire Nazi war machine, which first started darkening the earth with its tyranny, more than seventy years ago, is actually, in my view, feebly but compassionately saluted in the immortal words of Sir Winston Churchill, where he said, early on in the war ‘…Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few…' The term ‘few', should, in my opinion really be changed to ‘many.' There is an awful lot at the BBMF to make anyone extremely proud of the accomplishments and history of the RAF and its personnel. I was deeply touched by the simple brass plaque that was riveted onto the starboard side of the aft fuselage of the glorious Avro Lancaster that is one of the central pieces of the BBMF.
The plaque reads ‘To remember the many' and I noticed it after spending a brief, hot, confining and most marvelling, interior, athletic tour of the mid 1945, Chester built ‘Lanc', which is proudly named the ‘City of Lincoln.' (Don't even get me started on my fascination of the Dam Buster Raid. I was an electric experience for me to breathe the air inside the ‘Lanc.')
There is only one other flying example of a Lancaster in the world, and it lives up in Canada. Many of you may have been very fortunate to have seen this compatriot ‘Lanc' up close at this year's Experimental Aircraft Association Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After our very intimate experience with the ‘Lanc' we all gathered for a group photograph for the BBMF and Autologic and then we hopped on a coach and were gracefully transported to the Officers Mess to enjoy a delightful, formal lunch hosted by the BBMF ‘Fighter Leader', Squadron Leader Clive Rowley, MBE who is enjoying his eleventh season flying for the BBMF and who is also now a full-time reservist, after officially retiring from the RAF earlier this year.
He had the most amazing and witty stories to share with us over lunch having been active in the RAF flying English Electric
Lightning's, Panavia Tornados, and also a qualified flight instructor on the Scottish Aviation Bulldogs, British Aerospace Hawks, Lightning's and Tornados, and now the BBMF Chipmunks.
The BBMF's own, Officer Commanding, Squadron Leader Al Pinner, MBE RAF had a display sortie to fly in one of the Spits and therefore did not attend the lunch with us. Squadron Leader Pinner is an ex-Harrier and CF18 Hornet pilot, and a current BBMF Fighter Pilot. He took over his role at the BBMF in January. After lunch we were again coached back over to the BBMF Flight Operations building, where we got to see two of the Flight's Spitfires depart for a display
mission that had been booked some time in advance.
This ability to book a display mission supplied by the BBMF, is one of the truly unique features of this wonderful organization. The British taxpayers finance the BBMF and its fleet of airworthy and I might add, regularly flown aircraft, which include 5 Supermarine Spitfires (soon to be joined by a 6th, which is undergoing restoration at Coningsby), 2 Hawker Hurricanes, an Avro Lancaster, an Douglas Dakota and 2 DeHavilland Chipmunks. It has been a long standing tradition for a Spitfire and a Hurricane to lead the Victory Day flypast over London every May 8th since the end of the war in Europe in 1945. in 1957 the RAF decided to formalize its small collection of flying, historic aircraft (a Hurricane and 3 Spitfires), by creating the Historic Aircraft Flight, which we now know as the BBMF. Back to the fact that this is a public service paid for by the British taxpayers. According to the wonderful brochure that I was presented with during my visit, ‘Records show that for many years after its formation in 1957, the Flight conducted relatively low-key operations; typically making 50-60 appearances per season, a situation that continued into the mid 1960's. By 1992 participation was up to 150 appearances, growing to 200 in 1995 and exceeding 500 in 1996. Since 2003 the Flight has been tasked for over 700 individual aircraft appearances during the year's display season and this is now considered the norm.' The brochure goes on to state that ‘The demand for appearances by the BBMF's aircraft shows no sign of decline and indeed appears to be increasing. In 2005 there were no less than 850 separate bids for BBMF to participate at all kinds of events and the Flight's aircraft appeared at 126 air displays and 304 flypast events, in front of an estimated total audience of 6 million people.' The departure of the two ‘Spits' was extremely evocative and the successive flypast overhead in our honour was heart swelling. It's funny how ones mouth goes dry, and a lump in your throat develops while your eyes start moistening, all because you hear and feel the heavenly music produced by a Rolls Royce Merlin or Griffon Engine, as it sings past you.
We were all asked to assemble in the crew ready room so we could receive our pre-flight briefing. After which we split into two groups and the first group (I was in this one) walked out to a hard standing behind the building that we had heard our briefing in immediately before, and then were welcomed by Sergeant Steve Duncan, the Air Loadmaster for our flight in the 1942 Douglas C47 Dakota.
Dakota ZA947 is the year-round workhorse for the BBMF, carrying personnel, tools, spares and equipment in support of the BBMF, and often also dropping paratroopers in commemorative displays. This is where our visit to the BBMF took on a whole new level of excellence. The lovable ‘Dak' is fitted with paratrooper seating on either side of the fuselage. Once aboard, we each chose a side facing seat with our backs against the bare fuselage skin. Sergeant Duncan, who is normally instructing on the C130 Hercules J model at RAF Cranwell, gave us a quick briefing on walking to the back of the aircraft, as the sortie that we were about to make was to be flown with the door off, so we could each be put into a harness and then given the privilege of standing in the open doorway, ala parachutist/jumpmaster style.
Holy cow! Once airborne and at our cruising altitude of 1,000 MSL, the throttles and props were pulled back to an efficient setting, and then we were each invited, one person at a time, to come aft, wear a safety belt with a strap that clip attached to the static safety line, and then to come back to the main entrance/cargo door and admire the view as it was unfurling at one hundred and fifty knots, or so.


After looking at the images of each of us, as we stood by the open door in-flight, it is interesting to see that our natural survival instincts appeared to have kicked-in. This is because it is evident that every one of us actually kept our feet well back from the open door, while we all maintained a white knuckle death-grip on the surrounding fuselage structure.

Our flight in the ‘Dak' lasted well over an hour as we flew a triangular course.

  Our final turn checkpoint before the return leg back to Coningsby was over the ancient City of Lincoln. The crew actually used the Cathedral as their checkpoint and we all had a fabulous view of this famous medieval structure that is home to one of the original copies of the Magna Carta.

After our returning taxi-arrival, the crew kept both motors running, while the second contingent of our group assembled and then boarded, after we had walked clear. They had just finished their hangar tour, and ours was about to begin.

We were reunited with Squadron Leader Rowley who now, very graciously, became our personal tour guide. His depth of knowledge and his deep personal excitement and respect for the position that he holds at the BBMF, was immediately evident, as he expertly wheeled us around the various aircraft that were safely tucked away in the hangar. He explained that 2006 is the 70th anniversary for the Spitfire. R.J. Mitchell's famed prototype first took to the skies in March 1936. No other British aircraft before or since, has ever matched the number of Spitfires that were produced. 20,341 ‘Spits' were built in 22 different variants over a 12 year production period, while a further 2,408 Seafires, the Naval Variant was also produced. During World War II, the Spitfire flew more than 835,000 separate sorties.

While the last operational sortie that the RAF conducted in a ‘Spit' took place in Singapore on the 1st of April, 1954. It was a photoreconnaissance mission by a PR XIX version, which is the fastest and last Spitfire version produced. It had a top speed of 460 mph, as it was powered by a Griffon 66 engine that drives a five-bladed constant speed propeller. Even the cockpit was pressurized as it was designed to cruise up to 40,000 feet and loiter there at 370 mph. The BBMF has two of these aircraft in its collection.
On the other end of the Spitfire spectrum, the BBMF also owns and flies the worlds oldest airworthy Spitfire in the world. It is a Merlin powered Mk IIa and was number 14 of 11,989 built at the Castle Bromwich factory in Birmingham in 1940. This ‘Spit' actually fought in the Battle of Britain and after a busy career that involved a crash landing after a shoot down, and many other dogfights, and seven a spell as a gunnery school aircraft, she was restored for, and then flown in the 1969 film, ‘The Battle of Britain.' What is remarkable about all of the aircraft at the BBMF is their condition and operational readiness. As I mentioned previously, all of these aircraft have to be available for hundreds of flying appearances annually across the British Isles. The only way that this is possible is from a long-term, carefully planned 20 plus year rolling basis, achieved by limiting ‘g' loads, maximum speeds, engine power settings and the number of hours flown each season, by each aircraft. Every winter, all of the aircraft are rigorously inspected and repaired as necessary, while the regularly scheduled major refurbishments are contracted out to third-party organizations. Every aircraft in the BBMF has less than 2,400 flight hours. There is a full-time staff of 25 ground crew persons who maintain the BBMF fleet. Every aircraft is striped and repainted on a rotating schedule, with the chosen design always being a reproduction of a famous aircraft, in remembrance and recognition of those who served by flying and servicing the historic aircraft depicted.
All BBMF Aircrew except the Officer Commanding, Al Pinner, are volunteers who normally fly for the RAF operationally as front-line pilots. Getting a posting into the BBMF for an RAF mechanic (engineer) is a ‘dream come true' for anyone lucky enough to be chosen. Some of these highly skilled people actually go on to volunteer for support roles at the various air shows that the BBMF attend. The entire hangar at the BBMF exudes both pride and excellence. It is an extremely heady atmosphere to breath. One of the most interesting tales that Squadron Leader Rowley told us, was about the last Hurricane to ever enter service with the RAF, Serial number LF363, a Mk IIc that first flew in January of 1944. This aircraft was one of the founding members of the BBMF in 1957, but unfortunately in 1991 it had to make a forced landing after its engine lost power and started to run rough. On approach into another RAF station, the engine failed completely. The aircraft did not make it safely onto the runway and actually crashed onto the airfield and was seriously damaged after catching fire. Fortunately the pilot, though baldly hurt, survived the landing and is fully recovered and back to flying. It was decided that since LF363 had a significant historical background, that it should be rebuilt. It was decided that one of the BBMF Spitfires was to be auctioned off to pay for this restoration. With a ‘Spit' sold to Rolls Royce in Bristol, and some ready cash in the kitty, the BBMF sent LF363 out to a private rebuild company that set about completely rebuilding this irreplaceable aircraft. After four long years of work, she once again took to the skies above England in 1998. I believe that unofficially this aircraft has now adopted the name ‘Phoenix' after this misadventure.
We wound up our fabulous VIP day at the BBMF with a steaming hot cup of tea, served by the Flight's ‘mum', Di Holland and then it was time to leave via the gift shop to load up on goodies. If you are ever going to England and find yourself within driving distance of Lincolnshire, I feel it would be an absolute crime if you did not make the effort to go and visit the BBMF at Coningsby. The Museum (yes they do have a small museum), the gift shop and the hangar are all open Monday to Friday from 10:00am to 5:00pm. One-Hour guided tours of the Hangar are available from 10:30am to 3:30pm (3:00pm November to February.) For further information and details of any special events or occasional weekend opening telephone +44.(0)1526.344041, fax +44.(0)1526.342330 or email bbmf@lincolnshire.gov.uk
To schedule a BBMF for a display or flypast within the UK, you can make a request to the Participation Committee at RAF's HQ Strike Command at RAF High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.
So, what did you think about the subject chosen for this month's article? Do you have any suggestions for any topics for articles that you would like to see posted here? Any input or suggestions that you care to make will be of great interest to all of the readers here at Globalair.com. So please don't be bashful and go ahead and write your comments and suggestions here. Please don't forget that whatever you write here, can be seen publicly by everyone that visits this page, so please be funny, be inspired, but most importantly of all, please be nice. ‘Au revoir' until next Month, when I hope to bring you my flight-line and grandstand report from the Reno Air Races. Bye.


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Jeremy Cox


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