Chocks Away, Tally-ho!

Tuesday 19 June 2018

‘I flew a Spitfire,’ says John Casson – not many people can say that!

On Tuesday 5 June 2018 John turned up at Goodwood race track and airfield – formerly RAF Westhampnett, from where, during World War II, Douglas Bader made his last flight before capture – for what was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The moment has arrived, John Casson is ready for take-off!

In a training room John received a 20-minute intensive briefing about the flight: what to expect, what the risks were, emergency landing procedures and even how to bail out and open a parachute (gulp!).

Then came the time for his flight, with John’s wife Jenny, his brother-in-law Karl Friedrich and his close friend Alan Marr looking on, grinning like Cheshire cats. What made the experience so much more special was that at the Boultbee Flight Academy, relatives and guests are only a few feet away from the Spitfire, behind a low fence, so they see everything that goes on pre and post flight.

After being strapped in to SF520 – and John means strapped in – a further briefing followed, after which he was tested on the different procedures, including how to bail out, before taxiing over to the grass runway.

His pilot (nicknamed ‘Rats’, as his surname is Ratcliff) was a former RAF pilot who flies Virgin Atlantic’s biggest jets – not much different from a Spitfire, or, as he put it with a smile, ‘The only difference is that I have one passenger today compared with 430 normally!’

After a smooth take-off from the grass runway, the Merlin engine roaring, the Spitfire banked sharply to starboard and headed off to the nearby coast, where much of the action during the Battle of Britain took place.

The cloud base was low that day, so they only went up to around 1,500 feet, which allowed John to see more of the ground and get a better feeling of the speed.

The view from the rear cockpit, with full controls, was stunning. As they flew in line with the top of the White Cliffs, John could clearly see the walkers enjoying the experience of seeing a Spitfire as he was enjoying the whole wonderful experience of being in it.

As they reached the iconic Beachy Head, Rats asked, ‘Shall we do a barrel role?’ This manoeuvre is also known to us as a victory role. ‘Why not?’ John replied. Within seconds the Spitfire nosedived; pulled up at some 80 degrees, climbing higher into the sky; and then flipped over 360 degrees – not once, but twice, the world above, not below. ‘Yes,’ says John, ‘I did keep my eyes open!’

Have you seen the 2017 film Dunkirk? Right at the end, the Spitfire is following the coastal towns and beaches before crash-landing. Passing parallel to the beaches of Brighton and Hove – at a similar height to that in the film – brought back memories for John of that great film.

Then came the moment that John had not expected. ‘Would you like to fly her?’ said Rats. John’s heart jumped into his mouth. Too right – John was not going to miss that opportunity!

John took the controls, the joystick in front of him with a very small wheel on it. ‘Turn it to the right,’ he was told. With the lightest of movement, the Spitfire responded sharply to the right. John corrected the manoeuvre, banking to the left before stabilising her. Then came the request to pull the stick back, and the plane sharply inclined. As Rats explained, the controls had to be that sensitive and reactive for the dogfights the Spitfire engaged in.

Finally, they headed back to Goodwood for a bumpy landing. No, John wasn’t flying – a crosswind had caught the plane.  

Without the Spitfire and the Hurricane and those brave men who flew them, we would have been invaded, and to fly in the iconic Spitfire, experiencing the skies of the Battle of Britain, was something that John will never forget!

Spitfire pilot ‘Rats’ Ratcliff with John Casson after the flight

The Spitfire experience was a birthday gift from Jenny and John’s many friends for which he is very grateful.