Goodwood Revival is spoilt for special moments. Few are more emotive, however, than the sound of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines barking into life as a Spitfire or two set off into the early light of an autumnal morning at Goodwood Aerodrome.
Historical planes are exhilarating. Seeing them in flight is important. And remembering the brave men, and women, who flew them during times of war, whatever their nationality or cause, is vital.
That’s where Matt Jones, Managing Director of Boultbee Flight Academy, steps in. Aside from being a genuine Spitfire pilot (yes, really), Matt and his team have been busy building the world’s first and only Spitfire Flight Simulator which can be used to train people for the real thing. We’ve muscled our way in to try and have a sneaky peek.
We meet the tall and charming Matt – we expected nothing less – within the reception of Boultbee, the world’s first Spitfire training school and approved Spitfire flight provider. After Matt says his goodbyes to a group of customers, we’re kindly invited into the ante room where Matt and Richard Banks, the technical brains behind the new simulator, sit to talk us through the project.
Matt succinctly provides the context: "We're a Spitfire training school and experience-giver. We have a couple of two-seat Spitfires and a couple of single-seat Spitfires. We started off as a training academy, teaching people to fly, which we still do. We do about 600 passenger flights a year in our two-seaters”.
All good stuff, but it’s the training side of the business that immediately kicks the imagination into overdrive.
“Someone with no flying experience could come and live with us for three years, five days a week and go from nothing to flying a single-seat Spitfire in that time."
Now we’re interested, and the new simulator which we’ve heard so much about, sat in an adjacent room behind two wooden double doors, is now a real part of that process.
“If we build a simulator and made it as perfect as possible, and we can put people in there for ten hours, get their muscle memory right, so all the dials, all the levers, the switches, everything is exactly in the right place, so that the aircraft performs exactly the same as the real thing. Along with us being able to put them through emergency situations to see how they deal with them – something we'd never be able to do in the real aircraft other than talking them through it. It means we can say to people 'you're not flying a two-seater solo, which is a cool experience anyway, you start from scratch and go fly a single-seater. The real thing.”
“This is our first day operational with the simulator, but we've got a list of 10 pilots on the board already who want to do the Spitfire segment from the two-seat trainer, then into the simulator, then onto single-seater”.
Hearing Matt talk about the Spitfire is a treat, and you get the impression that it’s an aircraft – and now a career – for the ex-investment banker that he doesn’t take at all lightly.
“This is an aeroplane that enabled very brave men and women to defend our country. We want to inspire people with this aircraft, we want people to engage with it. In many ways, it is all of ours, because it stands for a whole generation of people who were willing to pay the ultimate price for something they believed in. We thought it was unfair that rich people keep them in hangars and people don't get to see them. The military display them but they're still in a military base and you can't get close.
“We also realised that our two-seater flights are nearly £3000, and that doesn't really engage with the whole audience either. That’s another reason to have this simulator. We can use it for pilot training, but we can also use it for entertainment with the public”.
Despite being day one with the simulator operational, Matt and Rich are already seeing the fruits of their labour, and getting proof that this simulator is far more than a jumped-up computer game. It’s already something far more significant.
“We had a guy in this morning whose father was a MkV Spitfire pilot who got shot down and ended up a POW in Stalag Luft III. He was part of the Great Escape but didn't go through the tunnel because he was claustrophobic, so he lived. This guy has wanted to do something like this his whole life, just so he could feel what it was like to be his dad. That's a hell of a story”.
Matt and Rich are both visibly excited, with boyish enthusiasm for the whole thing. To Matt’s own admission, they are now running on adrenalin due to a power surge four days ago – probably due to all the Revival build-up – frying some of their circuit boards.
Rich, an ex-Royal Navy Weapons Technician once responsible for the Trident Weapons System, has been working flat-out ever since to get the Spit sim up and running again. He has slept only six hours in the last four days. With a grin of modesty, and with timeless British understatement, Rich looks out of the corner of his bloodshot eyes and confirms “we had a few, erm, technical issues”.
He’s the sort of man you’d imagine getting on famously with great wartime engineers such as Barnes Wallis, or the father of the Spitfire himself, RJ Mitchell. He exudes the can-do attitude and technological know-how which got the Spitfire off the ground in the first place in 1936. Quiet, confident, steadfast and, as it happens, the real driving force behind the simulator.
“Rich came to me three years ago and said, 'I'm going to build you a Spitfire simulator'. We talked about it about two years before and went to a company who quoted us a couple of million quid at least. Pffffft... which we couldn't even look at!”
Again, Rich throws another one of his knowing smiles around the room.
“Rich looked at it and said, 'I reckon I can do it for 40 grand'. So, at the time, we were like 'OK, it's worth a punt'. Together we've developed it and gone through these decision points.”
It’s a tall ask to get pilots who may have already 500 flight hours on a WWII trainer such as the infamous Harvard to then take a ‘step back’ and sit in a simulator. Realism is paramount.
“We asked ourselves, what are we trying to achieve here? Are we really going to be able to persuade pilots that this is the real thing? The one thing that will never change with technology, and the graphics, and projectors and AI is the Spitfire cockpit. Whatever happens in the future, that point in time in 1940 remains.
“50% of that fuselage, in different airframes, flew in the war. There are a lot of Spitfires flying today who have got a lot less in them than that fuselage has. 90% of the whole fuselage was either part of, or destined to be part of, an original airworthy airframe.
“So, when people sit in it, and hold the stick, they know that they are holding a stick which fought for our country. Not a version of it. The actual stick. It has enormous integrity”.
As a self-confessed military history geek, hearing this is genuinely one of the most exciting conversations I’ve ever been a part of. It again confirms that this simulator is a world-first, and an important historical resource, let alone a training device or piece of entertainment technology. What Matt and Rich have pulled off is remarkable.
Matt is worried that he is nattering on, but it’s evident that these two men are rightfully proud and excited about what this simulator means, not just for fans of historical flight today, but for future generations too.
“There's something very special about being around these aeroplanes. The affect it has on people is joyous, notwithstanding the fact people gave their lives in these aeroplanes. We're not flippant about that at all. But somehow it means a coming together to people. It means family to people. It’s very difficult to...”
At this point, Matt has to stop himself, with tears visible in his eyes and a croak in his throat. For a man who has flown Spitfires for eight years, this project has been a long time in the making and its clear to see how much it really means to the man.
Rich does the decent thing and carries on where Matt left off.
“Those elliptical wings are imprinted on every British person’s DNA. There's no doubt about it. It's iconic. It's probably the most important aircraft we've ever built. It needs something like this to ensure it’s flying in another 75 years, which was always my drive and intention behind the simulator. It was aircraft preservation. I want my grandkids to see a Spitfire in the air, rather than seeing one in a museum. If this simulator helps, then that’s fantastic.”
It’s not only budding Spitfire pilots, or casual history buffs, who are excited by the sim, the Civil Aviation Authority have also been extremely supportive of the idea, as Matt confirms with slightly drier eyes.
“The upside of having this simulator is a safer environment for the people who train in Spitfires. In a simulator, you can load people up and see where their breaking point is. And therefore, the CAA are very excited, because there are a lot of aging Spitfire pilots around who have been brilliant, but whose performance may start tailing off, and the CAA can get a sense of that with this technology. So hopefully as a result of everything we’re trying to do here, the safety of the aircraft will continue. It only takes one disaster in one of these aircraft and they'll never fly again. And that's not what we want, we want them to keep flying”.
Nods all round, and as 5 o’clock ticks by on the clock, I’m anxious to let these two remarkable men get some rest before they attend Saturday night’s Revival Ball. Before I get the chance to close the interview, Matt and Rich are insisting I have a quick go. Who am I to argue?
As we walk over to the simulator, emblazoned with Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson’s maple leaf emblem, Matt confirms just how detailed the experience can be.
“It’s a 220-degree visual dome, with seven projectors onto it. To give you a sense of how real it is, a week ago we were doing passes down the runway here and the motor circuit grid, trying to do the famous Ray Hanna low pass. I crashed into the Duke's house!” he jokes, to a roar of laughter as I try and clamber into the tight, and claustrophobic cockpit.
Being the gentleman he is, Matt kindly offers to leave the canopy of the Spit open to ease my nerves, and begins talking me through the controls. Just holding the stick and gun button within my right hand is an unforgettable moment. Knowing that it has flown in anger is a remarkable, humbling and poignant feeling.
Claustrophobia aside, seeing as this is my first time in a Spitfire cockpit, everything fits just right, exactly how the old pilots always described it. It feels as if everything in front of me, including the seat, the rudder pedals, and the position on the throttle lever to my left were tailor made for me. It is a spell-binding experience. I know how utterly ridiculous it sounds describing a simulator in such a way, but believe me, this is no ordinary sim.
Pre-flight checks all made and I’m unleashed into the skies over southern England, just off the coast of Portsmouth and heading inland towards Goodwood. The Merlin engine purring in my ears and a steady and relaxing rumble through the seat, up my spine, and into the finger tips on that ever so special stick.
After a handful of sweeping turns, and even a victory roll or two over the green fields of Hampshire, Matt asks, somewhat kindly I feel, if I’ve ever flown before. “You’ve got a great feel for the aircraft, you’re flying it beautifully”. I’m not too sure about that, but one thing is for sure. I now believe everything I’ve ever read about a Spitfire. It is an utter joy to fly, even within a world of pixels, and I am hooked.
Matt quickly dashes any of my growing confidence by asking me to dive down from 2000 feet at full throttle to try and give chase to an ME109 which is making a break for the Channel. The violence of the dive, and the steep turn to my left feels like a kick to the stomach, and despite knowing I’m sitting on the ground in 2018, the adrenaline is incredible.
Despite my best efforts of scanning the ground, the (hopefully veteran) AI German pilot is far too advanced for my amateurish attempts, and he gets out of it hugging the ground at 150 feet, off to fight another day.
I didn’t even get close. Nowhere near in fact. Yet that tiny bit of simulated combat experience has left me sweaty, nauseous and all in all, a little bit shaky. Mercilessly, Matt and Rich feel it’s time for home and tea, ending the simulation without even attempting to talk me through a landing. Smart blokes.
And that’s it. My brief experience of flying my dream aircraft is over, but thanks to the hard work and ambition of everyone at Boultbee Flight Academy, the grace and gallantry of the Spitfire, and the memory of everyone who fought and flew to protect the freedoms we enjoy today, will never be forgotten. Blue skies.