To Aston Martin aficionados, the chance to travel at breakneck speed in something with the initials DB adorning the bodywork is an exciting prospect. For military aviation enthusiasts, the moniker takes on a different meaning... one of Spitfire aircraft and flying ace Douglas "Dogsbody" Bader. I recently had the privileged opportunity to take to the skies in one of these magnificent machines - an experience that was both exhilarating and highly emotional.
Spitfire Mk I fighters in formation (1938)
The Supermarine Spitfire is an icon of British design. Over 20 thousand were built between 1938 and 1948, with approximately 240 known survivors, of which around 60 are airworthy. Thankfully, a couple of those are two-seater training variants with dual controls, allowing me to achieve a lifetime ambition of flying the world's most famous fighter aircraft.
Two-seater Spitfires over the English Channel
We flew from the Goodwood Aerodrome, circling over the medieval Arundel Castle towards the English Channel. Once overwater, I was handed control of the aircraft and instructed to bank to the right and follow The Solent strait that lies between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. It is difficult to express just how elating it is to feel the power of the Rolls Royce "Merlin" engine and the agility of the elliptical-winged wonder at your fingertips, but time soon came to return command to the experienced pilot as we moved into the aerobatic section of the flight. The "Victory Roll" was followed by the "Barrel Roll" before confirming that I felt comfortable in experiencing the "Vertical Loop" and a significant increase in G-force. Of course, I was, and the ensuing manoeuvre proved to me that not only did Spitfire pilots have nerves of steel.... they also had strong stomachs.
After the excitement of the aerobatics, we flew back to base. After only 20 minutes of flying, I suddenly became aware that the cockpit was very cramped, very noisy and very, very hot. I felt uncomfortable... but I didn't have the added burden of looking out for enemy aircraft or having to fight for my life. It was a moment to reflect on the lives of the Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Their average age was 20, and their life expectancy was only 4 weeks. It is hard to comprehend.
Douglas "Dogsbody" Bader
One of the pilots fortunate to have survived the Second World War was legendary aerial ace Douglas Bader, who'd joined the Royal Air Force in 1928. In December 1931, he lost both of his legs in an air crash that almost cost him his life. He recovered and requested reactivation as a pilot, but was refused on medical grounds - against his will. Within 8 years, with war looming in Europe, he was retrained and his role as a fighter pilot was reinstated.
Bader enters the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire
One advantage that Bader had over his fellow fighter pilots in training was courtesy of his amputations. The high g-force experienced by pilots throughout combat often caused them to pass out as the blood was forced to drain from their brains and into their legs. Bader’s dual amputation meant that he didn’t lose as much blood to his lower extremities, allowing him to maintain blood pressure and stay conscious for longer.
Ready to kick ass
Credited with 22 aerial victories, over 10 shared and probable victories, and another 11 confirmed damaged enemy planes, Bader was a fierce and fearless pilot. On 9th August 1941, he was shot down over German occupied France, and interred in a prisoner of war camp. After his fourth escape attempt, he was sent to the maximum security prison, Colditz Castle, where he remained until the camp was liberated on 15th April 1945 by the First United States Army.
Sir Douglas Bader behind the wheel of his second Alvis.
Bader left the RAF permanently in February 1946 and resumed his career in the oil industry. He was a dedicated campaigner for disabled people and received a knighthood for his services in the 1976 Queen's Birthday Honours. He was everything one could admire in a man: heroic, honourable and stylish, in addition to having good taste in motorcars (one of the many Alvis Drophead Coupés he owned was auctioned at the Bonhams Goodwood sale in March 2017).
The Douglas Bader 1961 Alvis TD21 (Photo: Bonhams)
Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader CBE DSO continued to fly until ill health forced him to stop in 1979. He died, aged 72, on 5 September 1982, after a heart attack.
If you would like to experience a Spitfire flight Click Here
If you would like to read more about The Ace & The Alvis Click Here