After covering some 27,000 miles, 22 countries, four continents and more than 70 flights, the Silver Spitfire has finally landed back in Blighty.
Piloted by Devonian Matt Jones and Steve Brooks, the plane circumnavigated the globe, soaring over ice caps, sky scrapers, deserts,
pyramids and oceans. How sweet it must have been to dip through the clouds over the English Channel and be greeted by the White Cliffs of Dover once more.
The journey started four months ago, when a small but mighty team of aviation enthusiasts took off from Goodwood Aerodrome in West
Sussex in a newly restored, polished silver Mark IX Supermarine Spitfire – followed shortly behind by a modern PC-12 support plane – with the
audacious mission of flying the British wartime icon around the world for the very first time.
Residents living on the south coast of England, had they looked up to the sky on Thursday, 5th December, would have seen quite the spectacle: after spending much of the last 16 weeks navigating the globe alone, the pilots in their plane were chaperoned on the last few miles of their journey by the Red Arrows.
For a few glorious minutes, the world’s most beloved combat aircraft led the world’s most celebrated aerobatics display team as they came in to land.
Hundreds of family, friends, representatives of watch brand IWC, the trip’s principal sponsor, and members of the public gathered at Goodwood to give a hero’s welcome to Matt Jones and the team – comprised of Steve Brooks, support pilot Ian Smith, chief engineer Gerry Jones, project director Lachlan Monro and filmmaker Ben Uttley.
By all accounts the rapturous applause that awaited the team easily matched the sound of the plane they had just spent the last four months in.
“It feels a little surreal at the moment. We’ve been so focused on every little stage, that to have finished feels strange. At first, we didn’t even think it would be possible,” an exhausted but elated Matt, surrounded by his family, said at Goodwood. The youngest member of that family was just eight weeks old: his first child, Arthur, was born in October. Matt managed to fly home for a fortnight to be with his wife, Nikkolay, for the birth.
There was a chance, however, that the dreamy way in which the trip finished was almost not to be. At their final stop at Lelystad Airport in Amsterdam, thick fog had descended from the heavens meaning that they weren’t able to take off. The waiting began – something which Jones described as the worst part of the entire trip.
Various stages around the world had been held up by extreme conditions, including in Japan in October, where Typhoon Hagibis, the tropical cyclone which also affected the Rugby World Cup, grounded the team for days.
However, someone above was looking down on the team, however. The Dutch fog cleared and they were given the all-clear to finish off the last leg of their record-breaking journey.
In theory, the final leg was a straightforward one compared to many others they had experienced. When the team left in October, they did so with the Duke of Sussex’s advice, delivered in a letter, ringing in their ears: “Have fun.” They certainly did that, and benefitted from the global aviation community’s extraordinarily high regard for the Spitfire.
Special permissions granted around the world included being permitted to fly over Manhattan and the Pyramids at Giza, while they dined with a Maharaja in Jodhpur, India, reintroduced a 113-year-old Burmese Air Force veteran to the Spitfire in Myanmar and found vast crowds waiting to greet them at almost every stop – not least thousands queueing to catch a glimpse in Japan.
“What’s been really interesting is to see how Britain is still regarded by everyone else,” Steve Brooks said. “We made this Spitfire silver and took away the signs of combat partly to underline what a marvel of engineering it is, and we’ve been amazed at how interested people still are.”
To Matt Jones, the expedition was a celebration as much as it was daring. “To me what this plane represents is freedom. Anyone who flies in a Spitfire will tell you they’ve never felt so free – they say its wings become your own. We’re celebrating that Great British engineering marvel, but also remembering the amazing people who flew it to ensure our freedom.”
Anyone who reads about the Spitfire will be greeted by an illustrious history, stretching from the Battle of Britain to the Korean War. Now, another riveting chapter has been written.
Photographs © John Dibbs 2019