Still, spare time reading was about World War II and airplanes. In the 1970’s, my medical career seemingly well anchored, my second wife, Jaroslava, encouraged me to take action on the dream of being a pilot, and I learned to fly in a Cessna 150, an underpowered, high wing tricycle landing geared trainer. I think I was pretty average in my skills, and found wanting on my first check flight for a license. I remember my surprise when the check pilot informed me that I was to land the plane without using flaps and I was expected to sideslip the plane to line it up on the runway from an approach that was too high and fast. I failed and managed to pass on a second check ride, though I still think that I couldn’t manage a successful side slip.
Recognizing that an awful lot of time and effort was going to be necessary if I was going to move beyond mediocrity, and a good deal of money was necessary, and even then, a really high performance aircraft would be out of financial reach as well as beyond the level of aeronautical skill that I seemed capable of attaining, I gave up flying after about 55 hours, just after demonstrating my “skills” to Yara. She was less than enthusiastic.
I continued to read about the war and flying, and went through a series of sports cars, almost all Porsches, with more than twice the horsepower, and a higher top speed than my Cessna. My thrills were much closer to the ground and confined to two dimensions, quite happily.
There was a store, in our area, owned by a grifter of sorts that catered to military enthusiasts and aviation enthusiasts in particular. He made his money by selling prints by aviation artists, models and books, and he organized dinners with World War II pilots of note, and selling photographs and autographs. My wife, Lin, and I would attend these dinners at the Nieuport 17 Restaurant. One month, it would be veterans of the Flying Tigers, the next, veterans of the Eagle Squadrons, pilots of the USN and USMC from the Pacific theater. At these dinners, I met Adolf Galland, a renowned ace of the Luftwaffe, and a gentleman pilot of the old school who stood up to Goering when the Rheichsmarschal asked what was needed to defeat the British in the fall of 1940. His answer…. “a squadron of Spitfires…” was widely quoted in postwar aviation circles. I also met the famous Zero ace, Saburo Sakai, years after reading his flying memoirs. It was about as close to boyhood fantasy as I thought I would ever get.
Some years later, after distilling her knowledge of World War II aviation into the answer, “Rolls Royce Merlin,” to the question, “What engine powered the Spitfire?”, Lin and I found ourselves at Cambridge University, taking a three week course on “Postwar Britain, Changing Society, Changing Values.” Mixing military history with sociology, I took advantage of the proximity of Duxford, to show her an actual Spitfire, at the place where I had first heard a Merlin powered Spitfire, in 1969. The thrill of seeing a Spitfire flying over a Battle of Britain airfield was another unforgettable experience.
I took Lin from one hangar to another and pointed out the location of the underwing radiators in the Spitfire, the under the fuselage radiator in the Hurricane and the solution that Mitchell achieved with the grace of the Spitfire compromising ground stability with its narrow based landing gear, to the Hurricane solution. On and on, I went, trying to inspire the same kind of awe and admiration I felt, but she seemed more interested in talking to the white coverall clad men who were performing various maintenance activities on the airworthy planes in the Imperial War Museum collection. So it seemed to end, although there were various coy questions about whether Mustangs were as memorable as Spitfires, and the questions as to whether I harbored a desire to ever fly in one.
Several years later, Lin startled me by saying that if I would lose twenty five pounds, she would have a wonderful surprise for me. As I have been in some stage of overweight from about age seven onward, and she was well aware of this flaw, it seemed odd that she would pick this moment to find fault with me. She would give me no further details. However, she said it would be really worthwhile, and I went along with this, dropping about the requi9red weight only to learn that this would earn me a trip to Aspen, Colorado, in February.
To understand the immediate disappointment of this revelation, it must be understood that the only other time I had been to Aspen was to a medical conference during the ski season. This was with Yara and it had provided me with more acquaintance with the sport of skiing than I wanted, and the opportunity to prove that even miodcrity was beyond the skill level to which I could aspire. Little old ladies were trying to help me to stand, an effort that precluded taking the next step. I resolved that I would never attempt to make a fool of myself in this activity, and placed it even below social dancing on the lists of my favorite activities. Aspen in February demanded great faith in my wife.
So, I lost the weight, or most of it, never understanding quite why, until the plane landed at the snow covered airport and we were greeted by a man with a white BMW 2002. This was Bill Greenwood, and we went off to a hangar, at the airport, and there it was, a Spitfire trainer, a two-seated rarity, converted from the usual single seater configuration to assist transitioning pilots to learn to handle the high horsepower of a thorough-bred without breaking their necks. Of twenty or so conversions in 1945, perhaps four were still in existence, and Lin had followed a trail from the Imperial War Museum and Duxford, through the actor, Cliff Robertson, to Bill Greenwood. Robertson’s trainer was undergoing repairs and there was only Greenwood’s in the United States, and Lin, with all of her determination and considerable charm, convinced Bill, who just doesn’t give rides to the many who request the experience, no matter what they are prepared to pay, to give me the flight that I had longed for since childhood. It was an accomplishment that needs to be memorialized, and right and then and there, I told her that she should never try to surprise me again because this was a feat that could never be approached, let alone equaled.
I helped Bill wash down the Spitfire prior to our flight scheduled for the next day, and with Lin watching, he handed me a series of papers, a release of legal responsibility for any unfortunate occurrence that might take place when an “experimental aircraft” left the ground. It seems that the FAA considers the Spitfire not to be a suitable passenger aircraft, or a suitable aircraft for civil aviation. Lin realized now, to some extent, that this could turn out to be more than a joy ride. She gained no reassurance from a brief rehearsal of evacuation procedures consisting of releasing the shoulder harness, but not the parachute harness, cranking back the aft canopy, lowering the tiny ledge door, and leaping over the side of the cockpit into space, aiming for the left elevator, and tucking in to avoid the vertical stabilizer. There was no comfort in Bill’s warning that when he declared an emergency, I would have 30 seconds to leap before I was the sole occupant of the troubled plane, and 55 hours of flying time would be of no aid whatsoever. I had a few trepidations, myself.
The next day, with English fighter pilot goggles, I climbed aboard, with my camera and the warning that we would be in grave trouble if the control wires were fouled by anything I should drop, and keep my feet off the rudder pedals and suck in my gut so the stick would have a freer fore and aft range on takeoff.
The acceleration was exciting and the Merlin pulled to the right with Bill correcting with left rudder. We roared off smoothly for a 35 minute flight, punctuated by a mere 3 G diving turn to buzz Bill’s favorite restaurant on the ski slopes. I declined an aerobatic demonstration, being fairly well convinced that medicine was undoubtedly a better, as well as a safer, choice for my career, and requiring no further evidence of the wisdom of the course that myopia had determined years before. When the offer came to take the controls, I took them, and for about two glorious minutes, I was a Spitfire pilot. Walter Mitty could not have imagined a greater triumph, and this story has been recited at every opportunity since then, undoubtedly the jaw time exceeding the flight time by a factor of twenty.
This admission makes it clear how a mediocre Cessna 140 veteran with a total of 55 hours, can fly in a high performance aircraft like a Spitfire, and live to record the tale. The preflight kiss accompanies this story.