A Spitfire Called Lola (A Love Story)
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My name is Lola and I am a Mark IX Spitfire. Some say I was the most beautiful single-seater fighter ever produced. The perfect lady. I won’t argue with that. They also say that flying me was just like driving a racing car. Others have claimed that pilots never really flew me at all, they just strapped me on and we did it together. I also had a very powerful engine, called a Merlin, and it was often said, I could go all night without stopping. Whatever that meant. I first saw the light of day at the Castle Bromwich Aircraft factory in 1943, designed as a single seat fighter aircraft and assigned the recognition number MJ627. Because of improved technical modifications installed in Spitfires at that time, I was classified as a Mark IX and entered service in 1944 with a Canadian Airforce squadron at a Royal Air Force base located in Belgium. You can say I was born at the human age of 20 because Spitfires are not born as babies, they arrive on earth in their prime of life, fully built, ready and eager to fly. At that time, the Mark IX variant had been operational for just over a year and the performance of my Merlin engine steadily improved as more power was gained by using enhanced fuels. Later, a two-stage supercharger and a fuel injection system were installed, improving my performance even more, enabling me to gain additional speed, manoeuvrability and well as firepower over my opponent – The Messerschmitt 109. In addition to those enhancements, I also had a couple of face-lift. For instance, some time after they rolled me off the production line at Castle Bromwich, two 20mm cannons were installed, one in each wing, making my front end stick out a bit more than before. The improvement in firepower seemed to turn on my pilots because they really began to love those cannons and so gave them a little rub for luck every time before taking off into combat. I liked that. Then I had my nose reshaped to incorporate an improved Merlin engine and that was when they fitted the two stage supercharger which made me go faster, over 400 miles an hour at 28,000 feet. The pilots then got to love me even more and so fondled my front bits with tender feeling every time after they returned from a sortie. I really liked that too. But, I didn’t like the Fuel Bowser driver very much because he had the habit of ramming the petrol nozzle rather clumsily into my intake pipe when filling up my fuel tank before take off. That hurt. I was pleased when he was posted back to England because his replacement was gentler poking it in. He forgot I was a delicate lady and therefore most sensitive about that sort of thing. My Pilot, Sid Bregman was a nice man, very gentle with me and I loved him a lot. Other pilots who flew me during that time were Manette, Smith and Mackenzie. All good pilots but Sid was my favourite. He was special and simply had the touch. During my time with him we were often involved in dogfights over Belgium and Germany in 1944 intercepting Messerschmitt 109s and Fokker-Wulf 190s defending their cities against Allied bombers.
I received many bullet holes and other puncture wounds in my wings and fuselage but on arrival back at our airbase in Belgium, they were soon patched up with no lasting effect on my health. I’ll mention just one of our missions against the enemy, copied from Sid’s official wartime record…. “It was on September 27, 1944, we were patrolling the area around Arnhem, at about two in the afternoon, as a squadron. We all had special long-range tanks on the underside of our aircraft, which gave us some additional range, because we were stationed at Antwerp at the time. Normal range was 80 to 90 minutes at the most. Those tanks gave us an extra hour but while we were patrolling over Arnhem, my engine stopped. Obviously the tank had fallen off, so I switched immediately. That particular manoeuvre put me in a position somewhat astern of the rest of the squadron, although my wingman was still with me. As I looked over my shoulder, lo and behold, there was an Me 109 alone, with me now very manoeuvrable because I didn’t have that tank. It took about two or three seconds for me to get in line, and another second or two after that I hit the 109. That was the end of it – it only took 11 shells altogether. Just a quick burst and it went down immediately. Because I’d lost the tank, I got permission from the squadron leader to head back to Antwerp. My kill was confirmed later. Apparently, the 109 crashed into the Rhine at Arnhem. We had done a lot of air-to-ground, but that was my first German aircraft.” Sid’s airmanship was, as usual – superb, but I was a little disappointed he forgot to mention how well I performed during the encounter. But I forgave him as I always did. Later during the war we were posted to the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland, supposedly for defence of the Royal Naval fleet located there but more likely for rest and recuperation and out of harm’s way. We were there for many months and on the 9th of December 1945, after the war had ended, we were involved in a forced landing incident following an engine problem. Would you believe, my beloved Merlin had let us down. Wasn’t my fault. Some sloppy mechanic had left a spanner in the works. As a result of that accident, I was then classified as ‘Beyond Repair.’ Then my heart sank further as Sid left me and returned to Canada. I was now all alone. What was to become of me? Time passed by and my bits and pieces were placed in storage, until one day, after many months of doing nothing, I was loaded on a transporter, driven the entire length of Great Britain, all the way from the Orkneys down to Southampton on the south coast where work began in 1946 to restore me. A year later my repairs were completed and I was almost ready to fly again but sadly, they returned me back into storage. After hanging around for a couple more years, all my body and engine parts were again assembled and transported over to the Heritage Hangar at the Biggin Hill Airfield in Kent, where those inspired enthusiasts went to work on my battered body, substituting new components for old when they proved to be missing or damaged beyond repair. A brand new Merlin engine, copied from the original Supermarine drawings, was fitted into my restored airframe and it made me feel decidedly frisky. I felt like I was twenty years of age again, young and eager just like the old days and not my true age. Those guys in the Heritage Hangar at Biggin Hill had worked a miracle on me in restoring me back to my original self. It was amazing – I was reborn. I noticed they had removed my cannons, so there was nowhere for my new pilots to rub me anymore but I felt they would still love me just as much as Sid and the other boys did during the war.
Eventually in 1993, I was fully restored and ready to fly again. I was so happy on the day they pushed me out of the Heritage Hangar at Biggin Hill for my first trial flight with my reconstituted body. Only this time I discovered I had a new baby. Two cockpits instead of one. Now I knew why I felt heavier than before, but that extra weight had no adverse effect on my maiden flight which proved to be an outstanding success. Those restorers certainly knew the right parts to rub, that’s for sure, as I found myself hurtling around the sky, in and out of the clouds, diving and climbing without a care in the world, just like with Sid in 1944. What Joy! Then some time later I discovered that ‘management’ was going to put me to work, selling my services to trainee pilots to sit in my new rear cockpit at nearly three thousand quid for a twenty minute flight. Wow! I guess someone has to pay for my restoration. But, like the L’Oreal Television Ad says, – ‘I’m worth it.’ This went on for a few more years and life was a breeze. I got to fly most days when the weather was good but when winter came, they put me back in storage until Spring. I was enjoying the long lay-off from work now as I had become an old lady of seventy-three and at my age, what can you expect? So, when those cold nights came and being all alone in my hangar, I liked to reminisce of the life and times I had during the war when I was a young and beautiful Spitfire, together with the men I knew and loved. My first love of course, was Sid. We were together for a long time and had many narrow scrapes and yet somehow survived. We shot down a Messerschmitt 109 over Antwerp one day and had many other attack missions over enemy territory, but crash landed, suffering extensive damage to my undercarriage and right wing. An impressive record against the enemy that certainly merited high commendation. He was one in a million. We went through a lot together and I loved him dearly. I became very attached to my chief mechanic, Barney Reagan as well, while at our forward airfield in Belgium. Many a night he would sit up with me in a freezing cold aircraft hangar tweaking my two stage supercharger, always trying to get the best out of me. He felt if I had the edge in speed over the enemy I would always manage to get home safely. Nor would he ever hand me back to my pilot, Sid unless he was absolutely sure I was completely airworthy and fully loaded with ammo. He always had my best interests at heart and that’s why I loved him too. I remember during the war, when I was in my prime, they would often park me out on the tarmac at night, fuelled up ready for an early morning sortie. I observed the aircrews leaving their quarters regularly at about seven o’clock most evenings and wander over to an old Flemish Inn adjacent to the airfield. They would go inside talking quietly to each other and a couple of hours later would emerge laughing and singing. I often wondered what went on inside. Many years after the war had ended I was still being maintained to an operational standard by the boys in the Heritage Hangar and found myself still able to strut my stuff once I was airborne, just like during the war. But one day in 2016, an eighty-six year old man arrived at Biggin Hill airfield for a thirty minute flight with me. Immediately, I became aware he had strong feelings for me as I noticed the way he circled around, admiring my shapely body and stroking me gently in a most sensual way. There were no longer any cannons for him to rub as they were never refitted during my restoration but he placed his hand lovingly on my wings and fuselage and I knew straight away, he loved me just as much as Sid used to back in the old days. He introduced himself to the Pilot as Jake, and recounted the story of the last time he sat in the cockpit of a Spitfire. It was in 1941 when he was a young boy of eleven years of age and dreamed that one day he would fly one. That day had now arrived and he added that he had always been inspired by a poem by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, an American who served in the Royal Canadian Airforce during WWII and he named it…. ‘High Flight’….
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there. I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air…. Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace Where never lark, or even eagle flew – And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high un-trespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
As Jake mounted the steps and clambered into the rear cockpit, I heard him whisper the last line of that poem, knowing he would soon be experiencing John Magee’s wonderful words. My parachute harness and seat straps then held him close and I felt anticipation and excitement surge through his body, knowing what lay ahead. We were all set to go. The pilot fired up my engine and commenced taxiing along the perimeter track until reaching the main runway and the tension began to mount. Then, without further delay, he opened up the throttle and with a loud roar from my Merlin engine, we began accelerating down the runway at ever increasing speed until he called out through the intercom, “Here we go.” And we were up and away. Having climbed to regulation height, the pilot handed the controls over to Jake and suddenly, I felt a burst of energy and love being transmitted down the control column into my beating heart. We were as one. Then he began to fly me all over the beautiful Kent and Essex countryside and it didn’t take long before he wheeled and soared and danced the skies through sun-split clouds on silvered wings for a few precious moments, just like John Magee. Those thirty minutes passed by in a flash and we were back at Biggin Hill but not before I had shown him a couple of my party tricks, like the sudden switch of my wings from horizontal to vertical and of course, my favourite – the Barrel Roll. I knew he would like that. Unfortunately, I was unable to perform my best trick – the full Loop as the cloud base was too low. Eventually, the pilot put me down neatly on the runway and then taxied around the perimeter track, finally coming to a stop in front of my hangar, where I sleep every night.
Jake unhooked his seat harness and clambered out of my rear cockpit and dismounted the steps with a sad expression on his face. Our short time together was over. He caressed my wing tip lovingly and whispered, – “Lola. That was the most thrilling thirty-minutes of my entire life. Words cannot express the sheer pleasure you gave me. You are a real class act. No one does it as good as you. Maybe we could do it again sometime?” I wish I could have told him – “I hope so.” But Spitfires can’t speak, can they? Before parting for the last time, we had our picture taken together and I knew in my heart he would treasure it forever. Sadly, that was my last flight for the 2016 season and today, I was pushed into my hangar where, over the coming weeks, those dedicated enthusiasts at Biggin Hill will begin their routine maintenance on my worn-out body. Their mission is to ensure that every one of my moving parts is checked and double checked, repaired or replaced as necessary, with special emphasis on my dear old Merlin engine. Nothing will be missed because they are certain to restore me to a level of excellence befitting the best fighter aircraft ever to fly. – ‘The Mark IX Spitfire.’ Now winter has arrived and all alone in my hangar, I shall be dreaming once more of the good times I had in the past and of the men I met and loved, especially those brave young Canadian pilots of WWII – Manette, Smith and Mackenzie. Also of Barney Reagan, as he was the one who saved me from the scrapheap many times, always ensuring that when crunch time came, I was ready to rumble. Last, but not least, dear Sid Bregman, the love of my life, the brave young boy who faced death with me on numerous occasions and came through it all with a smile and without a scratch. He’s the one I miss most of all. I have great affection for them all because they were just boys, the eldest was Barney Reagan and he was only twenty-three years of age at the time. Sadly, they have all moved on to a world above the clouds where larks and eagles dare not go. And now, I must refrain from looking back because there is always next season to look forward to, where once again, I shall do the thing I’m good at in wheeling and soaring in that special place, high in the sky where the ghosts of John Magee and Sid and all the others, are still flying. I’ll show those new aspiring pilots the joy of chasing the wind at 20,000 feet, same as I did with the others who shared that sublime experience with me this year. All of whom, without exception, showed tender feelings for me, but there was only one who gave me true love and affection the same as Sid in the old days…… That was Jake. Who knows? Perhaps next year I’ll get to meet another just like him? And if that should happen, I’ll teach him how to slip the surly bonds of Earth and climb to windswept heights, to turn and dive and maybe, just like John Magee, put out his hand and touch the face of God.
Lola (David Readings)
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