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FEATURE – The Silver Spitfire’s round-the-world journey

Photo: Matt Jones flying the Silver Spitfire to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on August 11, 2019. STAMP PRODUCTIONS-BEN UTTLEY

 

Taking on the World

A team from Goodwood recently accomplished an aviation first – flying around the globe in a Spitfire. Pilot Matt Jones shared his story with Steve Beebee

Shortly after 1330hrs on December 5, the wheels of Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX MJ271, better known as ‘The Silver Spitfire’, touched down on the grass at Goodwood in West Sussex. The airfield, formerly RAF Westhampnett, had once thundered to the tune of Spitfires flown by wartime greats Douglas Bader, ‘Johnnie’ Johnson and Hugh Dundas. If its earth and firmament could talk, they would surely speak of great dramas, huge personalities and heroic achievements. Now they could add another chapter to the story.

Pilot Matt Jones had just completed a round-the-world ‘Longest Flight’ expedition. Comprising some 27,000 miles (42,450km) and crossing 22 countries and four continents, it had never previously been done in a Spitfire. Matt’s duties were shared with his Boultbee Flight Academy co-founder Steve Brooks and former Battle of Britain Memorial Flight leader Ian ‘Smithy’ Smith. The latter was also chief pilot of the Pilatus PC-12 support aircraft, on which engineer Gerry Jones and film producer Ben Uttley also travelled.

Speaking to FlyPast in January, Matt is only just starting to comprehend the enormity of it. “We were so focused on each leg of the trip that I’m only now beginning to believe it,” he marvels. “I do feel very proud of it, but choosing a highlight is like being asked to choose between your children. Ultimately my mind returns to a moment [September 18] leaving Magadan in Russia on our way to a place called Okhotsk. There was this mountain – and behind it the most azure, blue sea – it felt so special, so remote. It was a scene of pure beauty and with it came this great sense of privilege…”

Matt’s voice tails off as he drinks in the mental image of a sight that most will never see, and of a feeling that few can fully appreciate. It’s the same when he describes the final, homeward leg, flown from Lelystad in the Netherlands. Naturally there were thoughts of family and friends, reunions after four months away, but there was also a sense of spiritual fraternity with the brave souls that flew Spitfires in combat.

“Seeing the White Cliffs of Dover on the horizon was an exceptionally emotional moment,” he reflects, quietly. “I honestly wasn’t prepared for how it affected me. It’s what it reminded me of and what that meant to us on our trip. I thought about what it must have been like for pilots over the Channel when other guys were trying to shoot them down. All we’d done was fly a lot – but what did it feel like for them?” The sheer scale of the operation was, momentarily, subsumed by quiet reflections such as these.

Thinking big

Remarkably, the origins of the plan go back to the day Matt watched the film Planes with his godson. In this lively Disney feature, animated, talking aircraft participate in a race around the world. At the time, Matt and Steve were wondering how best to use their new acquisition, MJ271, then being worked on by John Romain and his team at Duxford’s Aircraft Restoration Company. Initially they’d planned to turn it into a two-seater, similar to Boultbee’s T.9, SM520. On learning more about the machine’s provenance – the 1943-built fighter is credited with 51 combat missions – they decided to keep it ‘intact’ but nevertheless wanted to use it for something special…

The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com

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