Sigh for a Merlin – Behind the Episode

To accompany our new audio drama, we’re starting a series of blogs called ‘Behind the Episode’. Our resident aviation expert, Kirsty, will be looking further into the real history threaded throughout our story, particularly the aircraft featured in each episode.

As Katherine Winters sits atop her lofty perch gazing out over the flightpath at Duxford, she is treated to the distinctive growl of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as a Spitfire passes directly overhead. It is a sound that, with the passing of time, has become forever synonymous with the brave exploits of “The Few” during the Battle of Britain. Katherine’s hawk-like vision identifies the aircraft as being K9942, a Spitfire Mk. 1 that did indeed see service during England’s finest hour. By placing it in the Cambridgeshire skies the following Spring, however, author Laura Crow has had to rely on just a little artistic licence.

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Time & Again with K9942 on Armed Forces Day 2019

After making its first flight from Eastleigh in April 1939 in the capable hands of Supermarine Test-Pilot George Pickering, the operational career of K9942 was to be relatively brief. Nonetheless, it’s front-line service would see it involved in one of the most momentous events of WWII.

It was initially assigned to 72 Squadron at Church Fenton who were in the process of converting from the Gloster Gladiator, the last biplane fighter to see service with the RAF. In the first few months it was regularly flown by Flying Officer James Nicholson who would subsequently have the distinction of being the only person from Fighter Command to be awarded the Victoria Cross. That winter was the period that has become known as “The Phoney War” and although regular patrols were flown from either Church Fenton or Leconfield, log entries invariably report that “No Enemy Aircraft were sighted”.

Operational sorties flown in the early part of 1940 largely consisted of Convoy Patrols, but on 1st June, 72 Squadron was suddenly thrust into the limelight when it relocated to Gravesend to supply support for Operation Dynamo. In what has become known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, during an eight-day period, 338, 226 allied troops were successfully rescued from the beach by a hastily assembled armada of naval vessels and civilian boats. The 12 aircraft from 72 Squadron were in the thick of it and on 2nd June, whilst flying with 5 aircraft from 609 Squadron, engaged 5 enemy aircraft, with two confirmed kills.
Weather played havoc on 4th June and K9942, whilst returning from another sortie over Dunkirk, was obliged to make a forced landing at a farm near Lewes when it ran out of fuel. Worse was to come the following day when having sustained damage during a patrol over Dungeness, the aircraft made a wheels-up landing at Gravesend. The Spitfire could not be repaired on-site and so was transported to Hanworth Air Park for attention by General Aircraft.  The brief operational career of K9942 was at an end.

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Time & Again with K9942 on Armed Forces Day 2019

By this time the Spitfire Mk. 1 was giving way in front-line service to more advanced models. Thus, after a successful rebuild, K9942 was assigned to No.7 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Hawarden near Chester, where an observant Katherine Winters might have noticed that it was given the Squadron Code of LV-C. By December 1940, No.7 OTU had been renumbered No.57 OTU. The Unit specialised in Spitfire training and in the Summer of 1940 some 58 aircraft were on strength. Training Courses were typically a mere two weeks in duration, primarily concentrating on type conversion. Therefore, K9942 would have spent most of its time pounding the circuit at Hawarden and it’s extremely unlikely, that with its limited fuel endurance, it would have ventured as far south as Duxford.

So why did the author elect to include this specific Spitfire in her storyline?

K9942 was to prove a real survivor. During a busy career it was to suffer quite serious damage on several further occasions, but each time the aircraft was patched up at a Maintenance Unit and returned to its vital training role. In August 1944, being an aircraft of Battle of Britain vintage, an Air Historical Branch initiative called for its retention as a future museum exhibit.

The next 30 years would see it appear at a succession of Battle of Britain Days and air-shows around the country before, in November 1971, it joined the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon as the oldest extant Spitfire. Here it would be restored to its former 72 Squadron markings, but with the Code SD-V.

In October 1997 the aircraft was transported to the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society to undergo a full rebuild. During the restoration process it was discovered that, a bit like the hammer analogy, the aircraft had been fitted with new wings after one or more of its landing accidents. The restoration process sought to strip the aircraft of the many modifications that it had received throughout its career so that it was returned to a fully authentic 1939 Spitfire Mk. 1.

With the work complete the aircraft was officially donated by the Ministry of Defence to the Royal Air Force Museum.  Initially the aircraft returned to Hendon, but having been replaced on display by Spitfire Vb BL614, in November 2002 it was transferred to the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, where it remains to this day, now with the correct Squadron Code of SD-D. And it was whilst performing at this location in June 2019 that Time & Again Theatre Company was given access to take photographs and chat to visitors in front of the plane, in between performances on Armed Forces Day. Thus K9942 truly became “The Greyhounds Spitfire”.

 

 

Flying Lesson

Laura, the writer, producer, and actor playing Winifred Baxter in Time & Again’s latest show, Clouds, is taking to the skies in the lead up to the Edinburgh Fringe to experience what it’s really like to wield the controls of a plane. The only problem – she’s absolutely terrified of flying!
Last Tuesday she managed to conquer her fear and head up to the clouds. Here’s what she had to say about the experience:

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On Tuesday I had my first ever flying lesson.

This was a HUGE deal for me as I’m totally afraid of flying. Even on big passenger jets, which I use as little as possible, I’m stressing and feeling sick and clutching at the arm rests at the slightest movement. I’ve even been known to call out loudly, “are we going down?”, which probably doesn’t make for a particularly fun flight if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself sitting next to me..
So going up in something much smaller, and actually taking over the controls, was filling me with ‘you’re going to die’ level of fear. But it was a really important challenge for me to undertake. My character in Clouds is a daring female pilot and I want to be able to do her justice. I feel I can’t play such a pioneer without experiencing what it’s actually like to control a plane myself.

The lesson had already been rescheduled twice due to low clouds (ironic!) but luckily on Tuesday the weather was clear, bright and not too windy. I arrived at Barton and met my instructor. I was given a headset with a little microphone to wear during the flight so we could hear each other. Not going to lie, it felt a bit like being on TV or in a film (nerd). We went to the control tower to write down the details of our plane and which runway we’d be using. There’s actually plenty of traffic up in the sky, although it looks pretty empty and peaceful from the ground, so it’s important to get these details and times to avoid collisions. Then it was time to get in…

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The plane felt quite flimsy. It was much smaller than a car; a little box under big white wings with two seats side by side. The inside was a bit car-like I suppose, with windows either side and a sun shield you could fold down. I was instructed to strap myself in and give the door a good thump to make sure it was firmly shut.
There were lots of checks to perform before we started up: dials had to be in the right place, switches had to be tested, seat belts checked. Then it was safe to start up the engine.

It wasn’t actually as loud as I was expecting (though I don’t know what I was expecting… a Spitfire? A Jet? Who knows with my mind at this point). On the ground, you control the steering with foot pedals which is a bit mind bending to get your head around. You want to use the control wheel, like you would if you were driving a car, but instead it’s all in the feet. I was told to direct us out so I took up the pedals. Our trundles down to and away from the runway were a bit wobbly but I did my best.

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The engine was revved up a bit to help us take off. It felt like we weren’t going fast enough to ever get up into the sky, but of course we did. The going up wasn’t so bad. It was the levelling off. Every tiny pocket of air, every little rise or drop felt hugely amplified and sent a burst of fear shooting through me. It would be calm for a stretch but then there’d come another burst of the plane bumping and wobbling in the air. This feeling never eased off through our time in the air and was the worst part of the experience for me. Luckily, my instructor was lovely and told me lots about the plane and the area we were flying over (towards Blackpool) to distract me.

The view was AMAZING. That was definitely my favourite part of the flight. The north west is actually really green! You notice that there’s actually far more fields stretching out around you than built up areas when you’re up that high! We flew over the abandoned Camelot theme park which looked particularly captivating and poignant, the rusting rollercoaster track slowly decaying in the bright sunshine.

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Taking the controls was also terrifying. The first time my instructor passed over control, I passed it back in about 2 seconds flat with the professional exclamation, “I don’t like it, take it away!” But I pushed myself to have three attempts. The plane really responds to the smallest movement. It was a lot trickier than you might think just keeping it level (though the instructor made it look ridiculously easy!)

I have to say, although I was so anxious, the time passed pretty quickly. Soon we were turning round and heading back towards the airfield. I think landing was the part I’d been dreading the most but actually it was fine. We did a large rectangular circuit over the airfield before slowly descending. It felt almost like gliding (though before anyone asks, if you ever think I’m going up in something without an engine, you can think again). It was a BIG relief to be back on firm ground. There were more checks to complete upon landing before heading back to the aircraft’s stand.

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I felt relieved and elated and sweaty. People kept asking if I’d enjoyed my flight. I’m not sure enjoyed is the correct word. It was definitely a great experience that I’m so glad I managed to persuade myself to do. But there was also so much fear and anxiety, not just during the flight, but for the days leading up to it.
Once I’d handed in my headset and collected my certificate, I headed over to the Trafford Centre and treated myself to an immense Belgian waffle. The sugar was very much needed, partly because I’d not eaten much all day and partly because I was buzzing so much!

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The lesson taught me a lot and gave me plenty to think about regarding early aviation (such as in my character’s day). The smaller, slower planes must have been so wobbly. The slightest gust of wind must have been catastrophic. And the pilot’s themselves must have been so fearless to the point of being a bit mad! Imagine doing something so risky for the first time, without an established set of rules and guidelines. Aviators wouldn’t have known what to check before and after take off until something went wrong on someone else’s flight and they learned from the consequences.
On top of that, if you were a woman back then, you were also fighting against everyone’s prejudices and expectation that you were going to fail at such an ‘inappropriate’ endeavour. Truly, I have so much for those early pioneers of aviation, especially the women.

You can catch Clouds at The Pankhurst Centre in Manchester as part of the GM Fringe on Thursday 25th July and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Friday 2nd – Saturday 17th August at theSpace on the Mile.