Sunday 5 February 2012

Encounters with Wartime Aircraft by Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity Blog Tour)

I'm really pleased to welcome Elizabeth Wein to the blog today.  As part of a blog tour for her new book - Code Name Verity - she has stopped by to talk about her encounters with wartime aircraft...

Encounters with Wartime Aircraft by Elizabeth Wein

‘What’s a lass like you need with a big toy like this?’

That’s what people keep asking Maddie, the young Air Transport Auxiliary pilot in Code Name Verity. She is too nice to answer back to anyone’s face, but she does think to herself at one point: ‘I like making things work. I love flying.’ My answer to the same question is, Why shouldn’t a lass get to play with the big toys? Why should boys have all the fun?

I am not mechanically minded and I did not spend my youth building model aircraft or changing oil filters. My borderline plane-spotting obsession is based on emotion rather than any technical appreciation. My earliest memory of a Spitfire in flight was at the Farnborough Air Show in the mid-1990s. It was flying in formation with a Eurofighter, then a brand new state-of-the-art supersonic military aircraft. They could only barely stay together - the Spitfire had to scream along at full power as fast as it could go, and the Eurofighter ambled alongside it at a 400 mph crawl. AMAZING, I thought, how far we have come in fifty years!

The term warbirds isn’t limited to Second World War aircraft, but that’s what immediately comes to mind when I hear it. And I think it’s ok to lavish a little love on these veterans now that they’re retired. I confess to having fallen hopelessly, ridiculously in love with the Spitfire. I wrote a short story about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother, and joins the RAF to become a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain (‘Something Worth Doing’, published in Firebirds Rising by Sharyn November). In the middle of writing this story I found myself SOBBING with inarticulate anguish because I was just so smitten with this heroic little aeroplane. I stood in a sundrenched cornfield near Leuchars in Fife that year, watching the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight circling to the north—a Spitfire, a Lancaster and a Hurricane waiting their turn to perform at the Leuchars Air Show—and I thought, my goodness, this is just what it must have looked like back then. This is where these aircraft flew when they were operational, over these same golden fields.

Accuracy is a bit of a challenge when you’re a 21st century woman writing about flying planes in the Second World War. But I do draw on some of my own flying experiences, fleshing them out with close encounters on the ground, and endless volumes of reproduction pilots’ notes.

After our daughter was born, but before I knew how to fly, my husband bought me a flight in a Tiger Moth as a present. The aircraft was built in 1944, and I took off in it from White Waltham, the airfield that was once the headquarters of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Here I am walking out to the plane (the year is 1997):

[E Wein & Tiger Moth at White Waltham]

The Tiger Moth is the classic bi-plane that almost all wartime pilots trained on. You see them in films a lot (The English Patient, and The King’s Speech come to mind). It is an open cockpit plane, and the pilot looped-the-loop with me as his passenger, somewhere over the Thames near Henley. Ten years later, when my flying instructor in a Cessna 152 Aerobat asked me if I’d ever looped-the-loop, I was able to answer casually, ‘Yes, in a Tiger Moth.’

Then I had to admit that I hadn’t been the pilot.

‘Would you like to try it as the pilot?’

He flew a loop as a demonstration and talked me through the next one, which I flew myself.

In a Tiger Moth, when you cut the engine as you come hurtling out of the sky from the top of the loop, the wind is actually in your face. The effect is less dramatic in a Cessna 152, but the engine is just as quiet as you come toppling out of the sky without power. Falling in controlled flight out of that loop that I flew myself, over the Scottish Ochil Hills where Macbeth once held court, I thought: If I die now, I will die happy.

It’s not as difficult to come close to the old warbirds as you might think. There are some fantastic air museums throughout the UK and further afield. I do my own ‘fact-checking’ at Scotland’s National Museum of Flight at East Fortune outside Edinburgh, which has a fabulous collection of aircraft. The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Park in Biggleswade may be unrivalled for its airworthy antiques, and puts on air shows almost every week throughout the summer. That’s where I got up-close-and-personal with the world’s only Lysander that is still flying—it’s the starring role aircraft of Code Name Verity.

[Lizzie meets Lizzie - Westland Lysander, courtesy of the Shuttleworth Collection ]

The Shuttleworth Collection is also home to an airworthy Avro Anson, another aircraft featured in Code Name Verity, and a Spitfire that was used in the filming of The Battle of Britain! The Imperial War Museum’s collection at Duxford is legendary, but they also have some interesting creatures at their main museum in London, including the twisted metal remains of the Messerchmitt Bf 110 that Rudolph Hess crashlanded in Scotland in 1941 in his alleged attempt to broker a peace deal between Britain and Germany.

It’s easier to get rides in vintage aircraft than you might think, although you have to be willing to pay quite a lot (18th and 21st birthdays, graduations, etc. could be opportunities for arm-twisting of grandparents or other generous relatives… I mean, if I could get someone else to pay, flying in formation with a Spitfire would totally beat laser tag or even bungee jumping, IMHO). If you’re a little more inventive, try looking up a local flying club to see if they have any vintage aircraft of their own. Sometimes a club member will take you for a ride just to be nice. You’re not allowed to pay a pilot who isn’t an instructor, but some instructors own their own aircraft.

As for modern aircraft, there’s no Civil Air Guard training available nowadays, and you probably won’t get as lucky as Code Name Verity’s Maddie in terms of being in the right place at the right time. But there are a few opportunities out there if you’re willing to put the time and effort into finding them, such as the Air Cadets, EAA Young Eagles, and Air Scouts.

Above all, there is always a local airfield. The nearest local club where I can rent a small plane or fly with an instructor is five miles away as the crow flies; half an hour’s drive to the east and the west are two others. But it’s hard to beat the one where I had my Tiger Moth flight—the West London Aero Club at White Waltham, former headquarters of the Air Transport Auxiliary itself.

Enjoy the flight!

Links to organizations :

Air Transport Auxiliary Museum, Maidenhead:

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight homepage:

Imperial War Museum, Duxford:

Imperial War Museum, London:

Scotland’s National Museum of Flight at East Fortune:

The Shuttleworth Collection:

Public Flights Available in Vintage Aircraft:

Youth Schemes:

EAA Young Eagles:

Air Scouts:

Air Cadets:
Thanks Elizabeth!

You can find Elizabeth on her website.

Don't forget to check out the next stop on the tour over at Finding Wonderland tomorrow.

Code Name Verity is published 6 February 2012 by Electric Monkey.


Anonymous said...

I'm deathly afraid of heights but I think this is a fascinating discussion of vintage aircrafts and EWein has convinced me that I should try to ride in one if I ever get the chance. I don't think we have air museums or local flying clubs here in the Philippines but I'll make sure to visit one if I ever find myself in the UK.

E Wein said...

oh no you don't get off the hook that easily! The thing is, people just don't realize they're there, or that if you go there people will be nice to you. It does take a bit of effort. You don't have to go flying - arrange to have someone show you the aircraft in their hangar, or just spend half an hour watching little planes take off and land!

Philippine Air Force Museum, Villanor Air Base

Air Force City Park

Manila Aero Club

Angeles City Flying Club

E Wein said...

Sammee, thanks for inviting me and putting this post up so beautifully. It really is a pleasure sharing these adventures!

I Want To Read That said...

Elizabeth - Thank you for writing such a wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Okay, so I didn't even know that we had air museums here in the Philippines. Thank you for the links! I will take note of these and see if I can find a way to visit them. :)

Jessica@Booked Up! said...

Thanks for sharing this, Sammee. Some great images and links there.

Jessica from Booked Up!



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