Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

A Most Incredible Day

Duxford, England

Today was probably the most incredible day in the last 75 days of this tour. I will try to relate the story as closely as I remember it:

It began with my arrival at the Duxford airfield at 10am sharp, with the firm intention of going flying in my biplane. All I really wanted to do was a few takeoffs and landings on the grass before the pattern got too busy, and then spend the day investigating the contents of the some of the big hangars.

I went directly to the tower and discussed my plans with the controller, and asked him if he was expecting any heavy traffic (today being Sunday, I thought an airfield such as Duxford might get a lot of weekend visitor traffic). He advised me that if I wanted to do any pattern work, I should do it right away because he was expecting about 20 ultralights to show up sometime soon. That didn't make me too happy to think about flying around in the pattern with 20 ultralights, some of which probably didn't have radios! So I got right out to my plane.

There was a nice breeze, 9 knots directly across the runway, so it was going to be fun getting some crosswind practice. I was conscious of the eyes, and cameras, of plenty of spectators gathering by the fence to watch me preparing my plane for flight. My plane was right next to the control tower, the only plane in the grass parking area for transient aircraft. Across the taxiway, ground crews were preparing a P-63 Kingcobra and a P-51A Mustang and a PBY Catalina amphibian. It looked like I was going to be sharing the pattern with some awesome iron!

I strapped in, fired up, and the tower cleared me to taxi. Soon I was rolling down the grass on runway 24, keeping the left wing low into the crosswind with lots of left aileron. Pushing the stick a shade forward to lift the tailwheel, and then a little back pressure to lift off, I climbed to about 300 feet and started my left turn into the wind. At about that time, I heard the controller advise a "Cessna" to turn left downwind and I looked up and saw a jet in front of me, about a mile away, turning into a wide, wide downwind. I knew I could easily beat him around the pattern so I asked the controller if it was OK to go first, but he told me to follow the Cessna Citation-Jet. Bummer. The real reason I wanted to go first was that if I had to follow him in, I would have to fly so far downwind that I might lose sight of the runway, it was that hazy!

So I just throttled way back, stayed high, and waited my turn. The landing was just so sweet, I wish you could have been there. On final approach, the crosswind was a lot more than 9 knots and I had to do some serious crabbing to keep aligned with the runway, but the wind slacked off the closer I got to the ground, and I touched down with the left main wheel first, rolling for a while before the right wheel came down and then the tailwheel. It was so smooth I don't think there was any sensation of actually touching, just the sensation of rolling along the grass. I was very impressed with me!

I had intended to do a touch and go, but I was having so much fun rolling out along the runway, I decided to pull off to the side and taxi back for another full takeoff. As I was taxiing back past the Kingcobra and the Mustang and the Catalina, the ground crews all took a break from their work and turned to watch me go past. Many of them waved or gave me the thumbs-up.

The next takeoff was a little less perfect. The crosswind was variable, and at times was even a bit of a tailwind, which probably caught me just as I was lifting off because the plane settled back down to the runway from about a foot in the air. It wasn't bad at all, but I shouldn't have let it happen. I think I should have kept more speed on the ground before liftoff, considering the variable wind.

This time, as I am on downwind, the controller gets a call from the first of the expected 20 ultralights, so I immediately decide that this will be my last landing for the day. It was another lovely piece of work, if I do say so myself, which I have to, because I was there! There is something about grass that is just so right for this plane. It is as if it WANTS to be on grass, and when it gets to play on grass, it rewards me with nice landings. I have never treated my plane as if it was a living thing with emotions of its own. I am a very logical person, so anthropomorhosis is not something I can get into. But I have been flying this plane for about 800 hours and I'm starting to think seriously about the concept. More on that later. Back to why this was such an incredible day...

I taxi off the runway, and park next to a T-6 Harvard, idle the engine for two minutes, as always, while filling out my logbook, then shut down and jump out. I walk directly over to the control tower to pay my landing fees, but on the way I notice a lady in a flight suit coming toward me, carrying a parachute bag, and being followed by about 8 people, two of which were ground crew types, the rest non-flying civilian types. The lady in the flight suit sees me coming toward their group and brightens with a big smile and says "I really love your airplane"! She catches me completely off guard because I never saw her before, and I'm sufficiently far away from my plane by now that I can't figure out how she knows I'm the guy who owns the biplane, but I stumble out my typical response to that kind of statement, something like "Yes, I know what you mean. I really love it too!" She, and her entourage, keep on moving, out across the grass to a Spitfire which wasn't there when I first took off. I never gave it another thought and continued up to the tower to pay my fees.

While I was in the tower, I hung around to watch the Kingcobra take off and do all kinds of great low level loops and rolls and all around play right in front of the tower. Right in front of me! This Duxford sure is a great place to hang out!

The show is over now, so I go back downstairs, and now I notice that this lady in the flight suit is acting remarkably like a pilot who is about to go flying in that Spitfire, and I am also now noticing that this particular Spitfire has TWO cockpit canopies, and it is looking for all the world like she is about to take somebody for a ride in it because most of the other people are taking videos and photos of this guy with a big grin on his face!

I should stop here for a minute to let you know that the Spitfire is right up there with the Mustang as the best fighter plane of all time. I have flown a Mustang, and I burn red hot inside to fly the Spitfire. A major incentive in coming on this tour has been the million to one shot that, somehow, I could get a ride in a Spitfire. When I first came to Duxford, I asked about getting a ride, and was advised that it was impossible, there is a 3 year waiting list. There are only two Spitfires in existence that are equipped to take a second pilot, and here is one of them. Right in front of me. Now. He who hesitates is lost...

I walk directly over to this lady in the flight suit and wait until she is apart from her entourage and plane, for just the briefest of moments, and appear before her and say something like: "Excuse me, I know already what the answer is, but I feel I just have to ask. You like my plane and I like yours, so how about if I give you a ride in mine for a ride in yours?" Her reply, after she stopped laughing, was the typical "I'm sorry but the plane is booked for 3 years in advance, so it's impossible."

I don't remember what I said next. It was kind of like a great athlete going into "The Zone" where there is no perceptible effort in performing, no remembrance of the details, and yet somehow everything just clicks. I'm sure there was some element of me acting like a hurt puppy dog, some slight mention that I had some time in the front seat of a Mustang (just to reassure her that I was not just some guy with a nice plane, I really LOVED these fighters), and she may have even noticed that I was wearing my P-51 Mustang t-shirt. In situations like this I go on "auto-pilot". I learned long ago, selling used cars, that "when you stop talking, they start walking", so I just kept on talking. I think that's the way it went, but I can't be sure. I was mesmerized, and salivating heavily. Things started to come into focus again when I heard her say "You know, I do have a flight next Saturday. I have to go to an air show in the south of England, and it just came up so it wasn't on the schedule to put anyone else in, and you would have to find your own way back from there, do you think you could make it on Saturday, would you still be in the area, and oh, by the way, it costs a thousand pounds?"

Now I think I know how John Glenn felt when he was selected to be the first man to walk on the moon.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. I stood around and watched as this lucky guy gets strapped into his parachute, briefed about bale-out procedures, controls, etc. I am standing with the small group of his well-wishers who are taking videos and soon we are talking. I learn from his wife Liz that this incredibly lucky guy is Adrian Troy, and this is a belated birthday/Fathers' Day gift, and that these other four people are his children, and they have just flown in here from the island of Jersey where they live. And by the way, they flew in here in that Citation-Jet that I followed in for my first landing today. And they were all watching my lovely biplane from their jet! (Hold on, it gets better!)

Liz Troy starts telling me about this very special Spitfire, and this very special lady in the flight suit. This lady pilot is none other than Carolyn Grace, the only female Spitfire owner/pilot in the world. She has been flying it for many years. It was restored, from two truckloads of bits and pieces, by her husband Nick, over a five year period and they flew it together for some time before he died in a car crash in 1988. She then mastered flying it solo and has kept it flying in his memory ever since. She is also the mother of two teenagers. (Do you think her kids like to brag about their Mom being a Spitfire pilot, or what?)

Carolyn Grace is a very special person, undeniably. And the plane is too. It served in active duty during WWII, naturally enough, but amazingly it is credited with the destruction of the first enemy aircraft during the D-Day offensive, among others! There is a very thoroughly researched and documented book about this plane, plus videos covering the restoration process and Carolyn's first solo in it. I bought all this "stuff" and am in the process of devouring it all.

Liz Troy tells me about her husband Adrian, and how as a very young boy he watched the Battle of Britain in the skies over his house, and how he watched huge formations of bombers, escorted by Spitfires, streak across London on their way to bomb the Germans. He has always wanted to fly in a Spitfire. And now he is.

Liz goes on: Adrian, as a boy of sixteen, got to fly with Douglas Bader, Britain's legendary legless Spitfire ace (20+ kills confirmed). A week ago I didn't know who Douglas Bader was, but I discovered a book about him in a little shop in Rye last week, and have been reading it every night since. Last night I finished the book. This morning I meet a man who flew with him.

This is obviously a very intense personal moment for Adrian and Liz and their family, and I am feeling that I should fade into the background and leave them alone to enjoy it together. Here's a photo of Carolyn and Adrian ready to taxi out in Supermarine Spitfire ML-407:

Supermarine Spitfire ML-407 h

I watch the takeoff and then disappear, leaving the family to themselves. Half an hour later, the Spitfire roars down the runway for a low pass, at 350 miles per hour I was told, then pulls up and around and drops the wheels and comes in for the most perfect landing I have ever seen. A perfect 3 point landing on the grass. I was watching every bit of it and it was flawless. Carolyn can fly!

There was much celebration and hoopla when Adrian finally climbed out of the Spitfire, and achieved the dream of a lifetime, happily surrounded by his loving family. I hung out in the shadow of the control tower and watched them all from a distance, green with envy, wondering how I am ever going to live until next Saturday.

Here's a photo of Carolyn presenting Adrian with a certificate commemorating his big event.

Adrian Troy and Carolyn Grace

I catch Carolyn briefly to reassure her, and myself, that we actually are going to do this, go flying in her Spitfire, next Saturday, and she confirms yes, it is real, and she gives me her number to call Friday night for details, and I walk away in a daze. I wander around for a while, but none of the other planes seem to be interesting anymore. I go over to the restaurant for some lunch, but there is a long line, and it's hot and humid, so I decide to call a taxi and go back to the hotel for a good lunch with airconditioning, and sit down and read the book about Carolyn and her Spitfire.

I walk through the door of my hotel, and who's there but the entire Troy clan, plus the two Cessna Citation-Jet pilots who flew them in from Jersey, all celebrating Adrian's great day! I'm stunned to find them all here, in MY hotel restaurant, but before I can pull my disappearing act, they invite me to join them for a drink, and lunch, and well it just can't get any better. We had a great meal, and they are obviously a very happy and together family, and they all love Adrian a bunch. It was great to be a part of it. Thanks guys! Thanks for a great, most incredible, day.

Life changing events hang on a slim thread of insignificant ones. If that ultralight pilot had a second cup of coffee before he left from home, I would have gone for a third landing, and missed Carolyn's smiling greeting. If I had spent another 15 seconds in filling out my log book I would have missed her. Chance can present amazing opportunities, if we look for them. But action is essential to success.

If I had believed what I was told several times that it was impossible to get a ride in the Spitfire, I never would have walked back up to her and asked again. And if I just walked away and gave up when she herself said it was impossible, I would now be writing a very different story about ALMOST getting a Spitfire ride. Belief, coupled with Persistence, is omnipotent.

It was a beautiful experience to learn these important lessons in a positive way. I wanted to share them with you.

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