How Display Flying Led to Spitfire Flying

Back in the March issue we looked at a pilot who could hover a fighter jet, fly like a missile toward a Navy ship, and who picked up some gas from a flying fuel station en route to Cyprus! This issue we are going to look at the same pilot but stepping out of fast jets and into WWII fighters… namely, the beautiful Mk. IX Spitfire!

Jamie Chalkley  |  10th May 2023
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Jamie Chalkley
Jamie Chalkley

Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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Having left the Royal Navy with nearly 600 ‘fast jet’ hours, including 100 of those on the incredible Harrier, Andy Durston packed his suitcase for civvy street!

The first stop was obtaining a UK ATPL licence. This course was conducted a little higher off the deck than the Royal Navy’s fast jet training program! After 18 months a civilian frozen ATPL was issued and Andy started life as an airline pilot. Initially flying the Airbus A320 and then moving to the right hand seat of the Boeing 747-400!

Outside of going back and forth over the Atlantic, Andy kept his GA hand in, flying various aerobatic aircraft such as the Yak-50/-52, Pitts Special, Chipmunk as well as the Piper Pawnee, Super Cub, Gypsy Moth and the Harvard. The last three being his intro into vintage aircraft tail draggers.

No longer having access to a fast jet to turn upside down, Andy honed his aerobatic skills in the piston world on the Yak-52 and Pitts Special and gained his CAA Display Authorisation in 2008. His first public display was at Yeovilton, from where he was also flying the Hawk.

Andy recalls his first public display: “It was a blustery day, with a 30kt ‘on crowd’ wind, so during every manoeuvre the aircraft ground track was blown toward the ‘never to be crossed’ display line.”

I asked him if that put him off at all? “No – quite the opposite, I liked the discipline – It was definitely nerve racking though as obviously I was keen to make sure I stuck to the rules, the timing, and offered a display that was professional and entertaining.

Although it was no longer the Sqd. Leader looking on, it was the watchful eye of the Flying Control Committee and air show crowd. So, the pressure was definitely on!”

The Art of Display Flying

Knowing of Andy’s more recent exploits in the public flying world of Spitfires and P-51 Mustangs and how formation and aerobatic flying plays a large part in that, I was keen to learn more about display flying in general.

“There’s a lot of regulation to display flying and you really need to know this stuff [CAP 403 and CAP 1724 for those interested],” Andy says. “I recommend engaging with an experienced display mentor to develop your experience.

“Mr. John Beattie kindly offered to guide me through the process and pass on his wealth of knowledge. His background was also ex-Navy, and his infectious enthusiasm was palpable. As we finished each sortie, he always kept me wanting more! Exactly the feeling you should get from a good instructor.”

I asked about what goes into putting a display together? “The objective is first and foremost to ensure crowd safety, then in terms of choreography you need to consider what you want to give the crowd, for me it’s about exhibiting the attributes of the aircraft and showcasing its form and presence.

“Depending on the type you might want to change your style of flying, for example, a Spitfire deserves to be flown gracefully whereas something like a Pitts is often synonymous with more advanced aerobatic manoeuvres.”

“To design the display itself you need to consider the display axes. There is the A-axis which is parallel to the display line, the B-axis which is perpendicular to the display line,

and lastly the C-axis which are a pair of lines that converge at 45 degrees and intersect at the display line.

The golden rule is that you must remain clear of the crowd (separated from the display area by the ‘display line’ which is a pre-defined distance away from the spectator area). You must never cross the display line, but likewise you mustn’t disappear several miles out either. No one came to watch the show through a set of binoculars!”

“There is also aircraft performance and aerodynamic energy to consider. You must plan, consider and manage the potential energy in the wing to ensure enough energy remains to carry out the next manoeuvre,” Andy says.

“In other words, you must plan the sequence of manoeuvres to link up in such a way that the exit of one manoeuvre carries with it either enough energy to enter the next or includes a linking manoeuvre such as a dive or perhaps a wingover.

“This helps restore energy back to the wing,” he explains. “You also mustn’t forget that the sequence should look graceful and effortless to the expectant crowd. Even with all the horsepower in a Spitfire, it can be difficult to keep enough energy in the wing to perform sequential vertical manoeuvres (e.g., loop, half Cuban, etc).”

Are there any particularly tricky parts to manage? “One thing that can be hard to judge is when a manoeuvre has an ‘on crowd vector’ [flying in on the B-axis] especially when at a relatively high speed,” Andy shares.

“You need to judge the pull into the vertical such that the apex of the manoeuvre doesn’t extend over the display line (aka the crowd!). If there happens to be an ‘on crowd’ wind, you need to factor this in when judging the ‘pull up point’ on the day.”

Moving Things up a Notch: Spitfires & More…

Between 2015-2021, Andy and his display partner Jon Gowdy, dazzled and thrilled spectators with their close formation pair of RV-4’s during their dramatic twilight display. They used specially designed pyrotechnic rigs fitted to the wingtips which were controlled and sequenced from the cockpit (along with the smoke).

Jon and Andy used the long trails of sparks to create a dazzling spectacle of light and colour. Like a long pair of shooting stars but held tightly together in formation and dancing gracefully in an almost moonlit theatre, on some occasions even choreographed to music.

In 2019, however, they took things up a notch when they joined forces with fellow display duo; Richard Grace and Dave Puleston aka the Trig Aerobatic Team.

The foursome strapped into some of the most icon Warbirds you can find; a Spitfire Mk. IX, a P-47 Thunderbolt, a Buchon / Messerschmitt 109 and a P-51 Mustang!

They called themselves the ‘Ultimate Fighters Display Team’. And for Andy in particular, their opening display went straight to number one in his most memorable flying experiences: “Our rather nerve wrecking debut just happened to be at ‘Flying Legends’ at Duxford. Arriving at crowd datum at 370mph, with around 5,000hp between our four aircraft, I remember pulling up into a close formation loop with three of my best mates sitting close around me…

“It’s a hard experience to top,” he reflects.

“I’m not sure about the others but I kept wondering, what on earth am I doing here?! As a team we weren’t there to impress, we just wanted to do the crowd and onlookers justice! It felt a great honour to fly there and a very special personal experience indeed”.

Continue to follow Andy’s flying adventures, including his experience in the cockpit of the historical, rare, and valuable Spitfire. Click to read it in the GA Buyer May digital edition, or continue reading online via the Page 2 button below…

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