It’s a misty day in 1972 and, while my cousin checks that no-one is watching, my 12-year old hand reaches up to touch the starboard navigation light of the Supermarine Spitfire that stands guard at the gate of RAF Manston. It’s my first encounter with this legendary aircraft, and the start of a 40-year journey – one that would take me through countless Sundays launching models from the top of Buckinghamshire’s Ivinghoe Beacon, a career in the aviation industry, and all the way back to Manston where, on a boisterous May day, I’d guide my own Spitfire, Connie, over the threshold of the famous runway.
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Connie’s own story began in 2006 when, with decades of model-building behind me, I set about designing a fully moulded, 1:4-scale Mk.IX Spitfire. Drawing on my experience of pattern-making and working with composite materials, I invested her with every detail, every nuance of the original aircraft that my skills would allow. The fact that my replica flies so beautifully, however, is probably more of a testament to R.J. Mitchell’s design than to my building techniques. So, in 2011, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his creation’s maiden flight, I planned to fly Connie from Calais to Manston, crossing what is arguably the Spitfire’s most famous hunting ground.
The question, of course, was how do you pilot a remotely controlled aircraft across 30-odd miles of water? A helicopter, I thought, would provide the ideal platform for the ‘flight crew’, alongside which the model could formate. However, while the RAF expressed interest in the venture, operational commitments meant that the chances of it being able to provide any airborne support were pretty slim. Similarly, while some commercial helicopter operators were encouraging, none could consider helping the project due to the costs involved.
It was then that I approached Chris Trow, a friend and instructor at the Clench Common microlight club. His immediate reaction was positive, and after consulting Graham Slater (the GS of Clench Common’s GS Aviation), the answer came back a very positive: “Let’s do it!”
ENTER THE EUROSTAR
Sitting down with Chris, it became clear that the Eurostar, a fixed-wing ultralight, would make an ideal command aircraft: its operating speeds and the 360° vis’ afforded by its bubble canopy were perfect for the job. When I spoke about our plans to Dave Johnson, chairman of the Large Model Association, he extended the LMA’s support by underwriting the cost of the Eurostar flight. The CAA pitched in, too, with George Duncan promising to process the necessary exemption. The only remaining problems, it seemed, were the shortening October days, and the French authorities.
Now, I’ve lived and worked in France, had two French partners, and know only too well how heavily Gallic bureaucracy can weigh upon any venture. However, I had reckoned without one thing: the word Spitfire has lost none of its magic; people fall under its spell every time it’s spoken. Take Michel Chilla, the manager at Calais-Dunkerque airfield: “I don’t like Spitfires,” he said when I contacted him. “I love them!” In thrall to the Spitfire magic, he promised to handle the Calais regional authority and the airport owners, leaving me to tackle France’s directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA), which was no less excited by the prospect of the flight, and happy to fast-track the necessary exemption. Even with all this goodwill, however, the organisation required for the whole flight required two weeks of full-time work.
TO GO OR NO-GO?
The exemptions allowed me to make the flight at any time up to the middle of December, but with daylight becoming ever more scarce and the risk of the warm and settled autumn weather breaking, we decided to make the flight on October 29. Although the flight itself was expected to take just 45 minutes, the whole operation required a weather window large enough for Chris to fly the Eurostar from Marlborough to Calais, where he’d be joined by a camera plane from Manston, and for the whole air party to then make the return trip across the Channel.
Two days beforehand, Chris and I decided that D-day was likely to be the best day of the week, with the early mist set to clear, to some extent, by lunchtime. On the eve of the flight, I drove with my son Miles to Kent, from where we planned to take the Eurotunnel train to France early the next morning. I barely slept that night; instead, I lay awake and flew the take-off, landing, and everything in between over and over again until the 4am alarm rang.
Joining up with Stewart Clifford, one of our ground support team, we shuttled under the Channel, emerging to see a huge orange ball rising in the east as we made the short drive to Calais-Dunkerque airport at Marck – an airfield that has an aviation history almost as long as aviation itself. It was from here that Bleriot took off on his cross-Channel flight; the French airforce was based here during W.W.I, and though the Luftwaffe took it over during W.W.II, when it was liberated again it was home to Free French and Canadian Spitfire squadrons.
We arrived to be greeted by Michel Chilla and the fire crew, who’d opened a bay in their building so that we could assemble Connie. And then the waiting and texting and telephoning began. Although conditions in Marlborough had allowed Chris to set off, his eastward progress was hampered by the lowering cloud around the coast, which eventually forced him to put down at Headcorn. All morning and into the afternoon the airfield at Marck basked in sunshine, but the cloud and fog hung stubbornly around the south coast of England, slowly lowering a damp, grey curtain on our hopes. Reluctantly, we stood down and returned home, where I put Connie on the bench, vowing not to touch her again until it was time to prepare her for our next attempt.
BACK FOR MORE
In early February 2012 I set the bureaucratic wheels in motion once again and, on May 4 we were all back in position – Chris with the Eurostar at Marlborough; photographer Neil Hutchinson and pilot Simon Moores with the camera ship at Manston; and Miles, Stewart, and I poised in Deal to take Connie to France on the Eurotunnel. I was acutely conscious of the need for this day to bring success: Chris was due to fly out to a French flying school on May 9, while the French, who’d pressed me to commit to a 10-day window in which to get the job done, were unlikely to set up the air corridor again if we failed. It was now or never, but as we sat over a full English breakfast in a café on the seafront in Deal, rain was falling into the Channel from overcast skies. We could only pray that the forecast – which promised an improvement by lunchtime and bright dry intervals in the afternoon – would be proved right.
As the morning wore away, we drove up to Manston from where I surveyed the coast, and called Chris to tell him that I could see the ferries going into Dover 20 miles away. He decided then to leave for Calais, and all of a sudden the game was afoot! Just before we set off for the tunnel, however, I walked into the museum where Manston’s old gate guardian, long since retired and restored, stands on display. I tapped the Spit’s starboard navigation light: “I’ll be back this afternoon,” I told her, “when I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”
In France, there was still heavy cloud but the weather was dry and almost as bright as the reception we received from the staff and press. Gracious and enthusiastic as our hosts were, though, time was of the essence, so Stewart and I pressed on and assembled Connie. By the time we’d completed the model checks it was 3.30pm, with just 90 minutes until the French ATC finished for the day. After a brief photo call, then, we prepared to leave: my ever-loyal ground crew wheeled out Connie, and I followed with my transmitter and my thoughts.
Over the previous six years, the model had made hundreds of sorties and flown faultlessly, her 3W 80cc motor never missing a beat. I knew that, at full throttle, she’d cover the ground at 96mph and burn one litre of fuel every 27 minutes. Based on this performance, and starting with two litres of fuel on board, the cross-Channel flight was expected to take 45 minutes, leaving enough usable fuel for a seven-minute reserve. There was no need to worry, I told myself; I had 30 years of R/C flying behind me, all I had to do now was concentrate for just another three quarters of an hour.
INTO THE BLUE
Chris taxied out in the Eurostar while, under the gaze of a host of aviation ghosts, I struggled to put on my life jacket before climbing aboard. I gave Stewart the thumbs up to start the Spitfire’s motor, running through my mental checklist of stick positions and engine revs: from this point on, I’d be flying by sight alone, only the sound of Chris and ATC in my headphones.
When the tower cleared us for take-off, I eased Connie’s throttle open, watching as she lifted gracefully into French airspace. As I raised the gear, Chris brought the Eurostar into Connie’s eight o’clock and we climbed away from Calais-Dunkerque before turning out over the sea and levelling off at 1200ft.
Because the performance of the two aircraft was so well-matched, flying in formation at about 80mph was relatively easy, requiring just small throttle changes to adjust the Spitfire’s position. To get the feel of the model running flat out, however, I’d gently peel away to the right now and then before bringing her back to the two o’clock position about 60 metres out from the Eurostar. What an incredible feeling it was to sit in one aircraft and have Connie stationed out there on its wing, whistling over the container ships and ferries on an almost flat-calm Channel.
Ten minutes into the flight we heard Neil and Simon asking Calais for take-off clearance and I wondered how, even in a Cessna 172, they were going to catch and find us to take the air-to-air shots – especially as the brightness of the French coast was now giving way to a swathe of darker, lower cloud in mid-Channel.
Descending gently to duck under this low murk, we bottomed out at 500ft; a little way ahead the Goodwin Sands provided a rough halfway fix. This was good news: we’d been flying for 20 minutes, so providing the winds didn’t change, I felt confident that the 52-minute endurance afforded by the usable fuel aboard the Spitfire would see her safely home.
Passing the mid-Channel point, we said goodbye to French ATC, told them all was well with both Eurostar and the Spitfire (I just loved that bit!), and thanked them for their help. Ahead, things began to brighten up, and a feeling of complete elation came over me as we climbed back up to 1500ft from where I could clearly see the English coast, so familiar from my childhood, stretching away in the watery sunshine. To say I was at one with everything around me would be an understatement.
The Cessna, meanwhile, was still behind us, having climbed to 4000ft on top of the cloud. Once we’d been identified by Manston’s radar, though, our position was passed to the camera ship, which began a descent to join us. Even so, I reckoned that if we made an approach to Manston now, they’d have no chance of catching us in time to capture any shots of this once-in-a-lifetime flight. Weighing up the Spitfire’s fuel margin I turned to Chris and asked: “Can we orbit?” He passed the request to Manston, who cleared us to orbit Pegwell Bay, so I put Connie into a gentle right-hand turn and Chris followed. After one huge circuit of the bay we heard Simon confirm that he was in visual contact with us. Then, tightening the turn, Chris positioned the Eurostar on the tail of the Spitfire while, in the corner of my eye, I was aware of the Cessna shadowing us. What a feeling! We levelled out over the coast south of Manston, and once the Cessna had peeled off to land, I brought the Spitfire in close as Chris and I flew up the coast into a 15kt headwind on the base leg of our approach. So intent was I on the threshold now that I inadvertently let the model slip in front of the nose of the Eurostar, calling for a burst of full throttle and a lot of down stick to bring her safely back into the two o’clock position.
Turning onto final, my concentration was wholly consumed, first by the need to match Chris’ descent and then, when the Eurostar brought me bodily to earth, remain aloft with Connie as I opened the throttle and flew her into a display circuit. Just at that moment, however, the crosswind caught the Eurostar, which started to ground loop. Although Chris was quick to control it, the Spitfire went from being high and ahead of me to somewhere way behind over my left shoulder. Bringing her round in a full-power diving turn over the grass in front of the flying club, I climbed back up into the circuit while Chris taxied to a position just off the runway from where I could fly Connie in to land. With the Eurostar’s engine stopped, the canopy open, and my headphones off, I strained to hear the Spitfire’s motor and see what she was doing. Manston’s controllers were more than a little curious, too: they were holding a Citation jet on a training flight, and wanted to know how long it’d take me to land?
“Two minutes,” I told Chris, thinking ‘I’m damn sure that a Citation has more fuel than I have right now’. Then I settled myself and began talking myself through the approach: “Gear? Down. Flaps? Full. On the centreline; come on, I need this to go right just once.” I was too high, though, and too fast; resisting the urge to stand up in the cockpit, I applied full power and the 3W motor responded perfectly. Round I went, lower and slower this time, with everything hanging down and conscious that I didn’t want the crosswind on our backs to drift the model away from me. But Connie rounded out and, 42 minutes after she’d taken off in France, settled onto the runway, gently weathercocking into wind at the end of the landing run, from where I taxied her towards the Eurostar.
The silence that followed the shutting down of the Spitfire’s motor was broken only by the breeze and skylarks overhead. I could hardly speak to Chris such was the wave of fulfilment that came over me as I clambered out of the Eurostar to recover Connie – the first Spitfire to make a radio-controlled crossing of the stretch of water that had been the stage for such a dramatic part of the aircraft’s history.
And then the moment passed: the small reception committee in the flying club cheered their congratulations and the fire crew arrived with a trailer to take Connie to Manston’s museum. It was all over. Final pictures were taken, Chris and the Eurostar departed back to Marlborough, and then the museum staff began preparing to close up. Before they did, however, they let me walk alone back through the museum to admire, once more, the graceful lines of the old gate guardian. I could hear my cousin saying, “No-one’s looking, Mike,” as I reached up and touched the starboard navigation light, whispering, “Thanks.”
I am indebted to all of the following for their very generous help and support:
On the ground
In the air
Chris Trow (GS Aviation)
George Duncan (CAA)
Laurent Zombalais (DGCA)
Pascal Joubert (DGCA)
Michel Chilla (Calais)
Andy True (Eurotunnel)
Louise Boulden (Manston)
Charles Buchanan (Manston)
The LMA committee
Graham Ashby (RCM&E)
Ken Sheppard (Model Flyer)
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