Flying alongside a legend
I’m at around 1,000 feet in the back of North American AT-16B Harvard MkIIB ‘FE511’ following in the footsteps of the thousands of trainees that earned their wings in this type of machine in World War Two. My pilot, Mike Collett, and I are climbing away from White Waltham airfield west of London and I am looking back over each shoulder in turn, twisting my neck and straining against the straps to check six for the predatory outline of the fighter that I know is stalking us. My heart is already racing after our take off, the noise and vibration from the aircraft’s 600hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN1 Wasp filling my senses as the green fields fall away from our silver wings. Now the excitement, anticipation and emotion of the coming encounter are taking hold.
Then I see her. A Battle of Britain legend and survivor, one of the two principal fighter types that fought over south-east England in the summer of 1940. This is the less famous of the two, the Hawker Hurricane, always in the shadow of the Spitfire’s limelight. Rugged but ungainly on the ground with its humped back and oversize undercarriage doors, in the air, Hurricane MkI R4118 is sleek and purposeful, its nose scything forward like a shark. I can see all this now as the Hurricane closes from below and within moments it is there in echelon formation off our left wing, owner and pilot James Brown keeping station as we climb through scattered cumulus looking for the blue.
For a moment it is a surreal experience, flying amongst the clouds in formation with a genuine Second World War warbird. I am seeing the machine from a completely different perspective while seated in another piece of aviation history and I realise that this is something that few people actually get to do, yet through the desire of James to share this experience with the public, it is now something that has come within reach through the fly alongside offering that I am now experiencing.
Hurricane MkI R4118 is a true Battle of Britain survivor having flown 49 missions with 605 Squadron out of Croydon in south London from 7 September 1940 to 22 October 1940. During this period the fighter was credited with the destruction, shared destruction or damaging of five Luftwaffe aircraft. R4118s luck ran out however when the squadron ran into Me109s on the afternoon of 22 October, the Hurricane being damaged in a brief engagement. Once repaired, R4118 joined 111 Squadron in early 1941 before spending time with two different Operational Training Units (OTUs). In 1944 the Hurricane was then sent to India where it was famously rediscovered by Peter Vacher and eventually returned to the UK in 2001, flying again after an exacting restoration in December 2004. R4118 was the first Battle of Britain Hurricane to be returned to airworthy condition and is still thought to be one of the most authentic Hurricanes still flying, the restoration including her original Rolls Royce Merlin III engine, the eight 0.303 Browning machine guns (now decommissioned) that were found in her wings and many other original fittings and equipment.
Her current custodian is software entrepreneur James Brown who took ownership of the aircraft in 2015 and who made his air display debut in the aircraft at the Little Gransden airshow on 29 August 2021. Speaking to Aviationphoto, James recalled the events leading up to his purchase of the aircraft. “I remember very clearly travelling on a business trip to the US and I’d taken with me a copy of Flyer magazine. There was an article in there that talked about whether it would be possible to fly a Hurricane as a PPL [Private Pilots License], and in fact it was this Hurricane. The upshot of that was that it was certainly possible. Out of all the warbirds it’s probably the easiest one to fly. There was a small piece at the end of the article pointing out that the aeroplane was for sale. I was sitting on this flight to the US and I’d probably had a couple of glasses of wine and I thought I’ll just send Peter Vacher, the owner at the time, an email and see what happens, and that set in train the whole story. Peter responded in a day or so and we agreed that I’d go up to his airfield at North Moreton in Oxfordshire to go and look at the aeroplane. Obviously, the greatest selling tactic for the Hurricane was to sit a potential buyer in it, which I then did. From there on in I said to Peter if the company sells I’d be in a position to buy the aeroplane. It did, so later that year the acquisition went through.”
At the time James had around 500 hours in his logbook, principally on Cessnas and Pipers, and had always stated that if he was not up to flying the Hurricane then owning it would be enough. However, through a comprehensive tailwheel conversion program, including the T-6 conversion course with Stallion 51 at Kissimmee, Florida, USA, and over 200 hours in his own Harvard MkIIB, James reached his goal in November 2018. Speaking of that day James said,
“One of the things I’ve tried to do with all of these steps is not to rush it, to take one small step at a time so the step up from the Harvard to the Hurricane is clearly a big one but I’d done a lot of taxiing in the Hurricane, starting it, shutting it down, everything bar flying it. I’d spent a lot of time with it on jacks lifting the undercarriage, dropping it again, going through all the procedures, so I was definitely ready at that point to fly it.
I’d taken a week off work to be at Duxford to get ready for that first flight and the weather had been pretty rubbish so it had come to Saturday morning and I was due to go back to Oxford. I’d also arranged to see Archie McInnes, an ex-Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot, on the Saturday morning. He came up and we got him to sit in the aeroplane and he recounted his experiences and all of these memories came flooding back. He talked about his experiences over North Africa when he was shot down in a Hurricane by an Me109 and he lost his arm in that action, shot off by a 109 cannon shell. It was an amazing experience to spend an hour and a half or so with him sitting in the aeroplane just talking us through what had happened and his experience of flying Hurricanes. He was very clear that the steel tubular frame, Sydney Camm’s masterpiece of construction, had saved his life. It provided a safety cell that he was sitting in that the aeroplane had wrapped itself around. The engine had come off, the rear fuselage was destroyed, the wings had come off when he crashed and he was ok apart from the fact he’d lost his arm.”
After listening to Archie it was time for James to take the plunge himself with the Hurricane. “I went outside and the weather had started to clear. I was actually with Stu Goldspink, a very well known display pilot, who was helping me through this next transition. Stu suggested I take the Harvard for a quick spin around the block, a couple of circuits, to check that I was happy with the weather as it was still fairly hazy, which I did. It was fine so I got in the Hurricane at that point and, having had a final briefing from Archie, did my first flight. The take off was smooth, very much like a Harvard, a progressive addition of power, no big swing and a slightly complex juggling of your hands. You change hands to lift the undercarriage, the selection lever is on the right hand side, so you take off with your right hand on the stick, left hand on the throttle, and then you have to swap hands so you’ve got left hand on the stick and right hand lifting the undercarriage, so I porpoised a little bit as I did that. I’ve also got to maintain the airspeed below 120 mph so there’s a bit of juggling there. You quickly get used to it, but for the first flight that’s a bit of a handful.
I then settled down into the climb, went up to about 2,500 feet and did a couple of simulated approaches at height. I dropped the undercarriage, dropped the flaps, made an approach, put it all away again so I got the feel of the aeroplane in the approach configuration. There is a feeling there on a single seater, especially something like this which is unique and valuable of thinking, well, I’ve got myself into a situation I’m solely responsible now for getting out of. There’s only one way to complete this now, I’ve got to land this aeroplane! Anyway, the landing went fine and I landed on 06 at Duxford and taxied back and Stu and Archie were both there to congratulate me. I know I am the last Hurricane pilot ever to solo having been briefed by a Battle of Britain veteran so it was a pretty unique experience.”
Sharing the legend
As well as achieving his Display Authorisation in both the Harvard and Hurricane last year, James also started up a new offering of allowing members of the public to fly in the Harvard and have the Hurricane fly in formation next to them. The operation has been expanded this year with the purchase of two-seat Hurricane MkIIB G-HHII, allowing members of the public to fly in this classic machine. Describing the rationale behind this, James said,
“It goes back to my very first flight alongside the Hurricane. This was the delivery flight from Peter Vacher’s airfield to Shuttleworth. I was in my Cessna 182 and I saw the Hurricane come alongside and it was just mind blowing. You’re so close and to see the aeroplane in that environment is just something that the public doesn’t ever see and that stuck with me. Once I’d used the Harvard for my training it became obvious that the thing to do with the Harvard was to make it available for other people to do their training in. That’s what it was designed for as so it makes sense to do that and that’s what Mike Collett at Ultimate Aerobatics does. He does the Harvard and warbird conversion training and the fly alongsides to give people an opportunity to experience what I did, which was to see the Hurricane come up alongside and just to view it or take photos of it or do whatever you want. It’s such a unique experience it felt really important to me to do that as well.”
With the Hurricane often overshadowed by the Spitfire, James is determined to redress the balance. Seeing the Hurricane in formation from the air is certainly something I shall never forget and can strongly recommend.
For more information please visit https://www.hurricaneheritage.com/
James on flying the Hurricane
It’s easy, it’s very forgiving, it’s incredibly noisy, not just the sound of the engine, which doesn’t sound anything like it does from the outside, it really is very, very loud, and it’s incredibly hot. You’re sitting on top of the radiator and it can be the coldest winter’s day and it’s still really hot inside the aeroplane. The pilots in the Battle of Britain complained that it had no heating but they were going up to twenty to thirty thousand feet, so for me flying around typically below six or seven, it’s always hot, so physically it’s quite a harsh environment. But to actually fly it, it’s just beautiful. It’s well harmonised, it’s a little bit unstable in pitch but that means it’s very manoeuvrable. It’s simple and forgiving. That big thick wing means that when it does stall, it’s pretty benign so it’s just a lovely aeroplane to fly. I can’t complain about it at all and considering it’s an 85 year old design, it’s pretty remarkable really.
Since the flight and interview, Mike Collett has also soloed and achieved his Display Authorisation in R4118 and is seen here taxiing back in after participating in the Spitfire and Hurricane Balbo during the excellent 2022 Battle of Britain Airshow at Duxford in September.