I flew a Spitfire (well sort-of) and, phew!, The Few were tough
As the world's most realistic flight simulator launches, a vegan burger-chomping millennial climbs into the cockpit
“It’s very close to feeling exactly the same,” says pilot Matt Jones, as I clamber into the most realistic Spitfire simulator in the world – built from umpteen original parts, of which several probably saw action.
I’ll have to take his word for it: as a 25-year-old millennial who grew up without a toy Spitfire in sight, let alone a real one, this £250,000 (R4,7m) replica, which has been three years in the making, is indeed as “close to feeling exactly the same” as I’m likely to get.
Opening to the public at the forthcoming Goodwood Revival in the UK, Jones and his colleagues at the Boultbee Flying Academy have developed a creation they hope will stir vivid memories for those who might have seen, or even flown, Spitfires during World War 2, which makes me well aware that I am not the target market here.
Somewhere out there is a venerable single-seater plane enthusiast who should really be in my place: he doesn’t muscle in on my vegan burger chomping or craft ale slurping, so why should I take his seat in the cockpit? Yet here I am, poised and ready to find out whether the experience can live up to expectation – and to address whether today’s youngsters can match up to their flying-ace predecessors, just in case my piloting prowess inspires any future governments to conscript me.
The simulator consists of about the middle third or so of the fighter’s fuselage, with the cockpit at the front. On either side of this are sturdy green wings; behind it is an array of seven beefy projectors. Below that is a set of stomach-lurching hydraulic machinery and, in front of the cockpit, filling my entire field of vision, is a projected hemisphere of cloud-kissed blue sky.
The cockpit itself is narrow and dimly lit, but once I’ve shoehorned myself in, I can see the gauges, switches and buttons that make up my dashboard. It’s at once bewilderingly complex, but also intimidatingly simple. There are no curlicues or fripperies – not even a floor, as I discover when my Biro falls from my pocket and rattles into the machinery beneath.
It looks just like the real Spitfire cockpit that Jones had let me sit in earlier. Yet now is the real test of my aviation aspirations, and there is surely no better place to do so than in this simulator – the most advanced in the world, others being mere approximations involving three screens in front of a mocked-up cockpit, while this one has the original.
I’m pinging the grip around in my hand as Richard Banks, the technician in charge of the simulator’s digital components, prepares the computer for my maiden flight. The grip is one of many parts that came from a Spitfire deployed during World War 2, so no wonder Jones is “a bit sentimental about this”, particularly because “I think you can feel the difference”.
He leaps off as the simulation begins. I’m on an airfield and have to take off: the whole machine rumbles, and the propeller’s roar blasts through my headset. With Jones, a Spitfire display pilot and instructor of eight years, guiding me, I release the throttle with my left hand, accelerating towards the end of the runway, tipping the nose forward and back again with the gear before shakily leaving the ground.
There’s a green vista beneath me and the sky above. I pitch and roll in the clear air. The machine rolls with me, but at this point I’m unconscious of its being a machine: my belief is not only suspended, but suspended at about 3,000m. Even the dials have been programmed to wobble as they did in the real aircraft, a touch refined by Banks who, in the days before my visit, spent 64 hours making the final tweaks.
It is something I am sure Goodwood’s punters will be grateful for: the half-hour experience costs £200, while for those desperate to truly take to the skies, real Spitfires – flown by Boultbee Flying Academy’s pilots, who trained in the simulator – are £2,750 per flight.
Handling the Spitfire Mk IX is an immediate, reactive and percussive experience. Flying at 400km/h, I execute a victory roll, and felt as nauseous, I imagine, as I would have done in the real thing. After a while I try landing, traditionally one of the biggest hazards awaiting trainee Spitfire pilots, and promptly hurtle nose-first into the ground. The screen goes black. I have another go, and this time make a very bumpy landing, which, because I don’t know how to brake, ends with my Spitfire rolling uninvited into an aircraft hangar at Shoreham-by-Sea.
Being called up for duty, then, seems unlikely. But the experience was certainly higher octane than a chickpea burger.
– © The Daily Telegraph