My Encounter With A World War II Spitfire
Okay, time for a 100 per cent honesty test here. Ready? It’s a simple test, comprising only one question .... Would you drive 1200 kilometres (that’s about 750 miles) to photograph an inanimate object?
I did, about a fortnight ago. I drove all the way to Temora, an Outback town in New South Wales, to photograph something I’d never seen before. If the photograph above has you completely foxed, let me explain. I drove all the way up there to photograph two World War II-era Spitfires at the Temora Aviation Museum.
I discovered the museum quite by chance, and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that it housed the only two airworthy Spitfires in the country. Spitfires, if you haven’t heard of them, are probably the most iconic fighter aircraft of any era. And this was especially significant for me, because the Spitfire is an integral part of my third novel, "The Jadu Master".
When I rang the museum, the manager, Lisa Love, was generous with her time. More importantly, she was equally generous with her permission. When I explained that driving all that way would be the equivalent of a pilgrimage for me, she didn’t laugh. She understood.
Yes, she said, they had two Spitfires, a Mark VIII and a Mark XVI. Yes, they both flew. Yes, I could drive down and take photographs whenever I wanted.
The next flying weekend at the museum was scheduled for 6-7 June, which as you’d know, was the weekend of the 65th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy.
I drove to Temora on the Friday and Lisa greeted me warmly before handing me over to Andy Bishop, who took me into the display hangar where the Mark VIII was housed. What sort of images did I want to shoot, he asked.
I explained, tentatively, lest he question my sanity, that I wanted to capture the rarest view of a Spitfire. I wanted to shoot the classic aircraft as a combatant would have seen it - head on, at the closest possible quarters.
But Spitifres, unlike modern fighters, are configured with small tail wheels so that the huge propellers on the nose cone sit majestically high above the ground. The topmost tip of a Spitfire’s propeller sits more than four metres (twelve feet) off the ground. In order to achieve my photo, I wondered if the museum would provide a high ladder for me to stand on, so I could literally train my lens down the long, streamlined engine cowling.
No problem, said Andy. A ladder appeared. Praying that I would not slip, stumble or drop my camera, I climbed the metal rungs and found myself staring down the slender shape of Reginald Mitchell’s legacy to aviation design. Those are the two photographs you see at the very top of this post.
For the next hour, Andy and I spoke, exchanged nuggets of information, and absorbed each other’s passion for aviation history.
So how exactly did I find out about Temora? It's an interesting story. I had never heard of the town until a couple of months ago. Thinking it was a place in New Zealand, I decided to Google it and was surprised when it came up as being in New South Wales. One of the top search results brought up the words Temora Aviation Museum and, curious as to why a little bush town would have an aviation museum, I clicked on the link immediately.
A couple of minutes later I was sitting there, rubbing my eyes in disbelief. I picked up the phone and that was the start of my first conversation with museum manager, Lisa Love, who could not have been more helpful or more welcoming.
At one stage she even asked if the lighting in the hangar would be sufficient and I replied, not entirely in jest, that even if the plane were lit by a couple of church candles, that would be sufficient for someone like me, who had never actually set eyes on a Spitfire before.
For me, finding not one but two Spitfires, both in flying condition, was akin to striking gold in my back yard. As I said, the aircraft plays a prominent part in my third novel, "The Jadu Master", which I will soon be editing and submitting to my publishers. Yes, I have done painstaking research on the fighter, often spending months in a frustrating search to unearth, check and reliably confirm the smallest detail of information that is necessary to build an accurate description of how the plane flew and how it behaved in combat.
Invariably, I had to delve into the writings of World War II airmen who flew the plane, or the technical descriptions of teams that have recently rebuilt or repaired some versions. I had to rely on old black-and-white photographs to calculate measurements and describe certain parts.
Now, for the first time, I actually had access to a real Spitfire - a bonus I had never expected. By driving to Temora I would be able to ascertain whether my own descriptions were accurate.
Let me put it this way. If I asked you to describe in detailed prose exactly how you get into your car each day and the precise steps you take before you drive off in it, you would be able to do it fairly easily. But if I asked you to describe how you would do the same thing in a rare 60-year-old vehicle, you simply wouldn't know where to start.
Experience, as always, is the key to description.
After I had taken the first few images in the hangar with a reverence that is hard to imagine, Andy Bishop asked me if I wanted to step up onto the plane's wing. This, too, was a process I had written about in the novel - but now I was able to actually do it myself. Now I knew I would be able to corroborate every single facet of the plane that I had written about.
Casually, he asked me if I wanted to get into the cockpit. After I made sure I wasn't dreaming, I grinned when he told me how to lower myself into the leather seat. Why? Because, thanks to my earlier research, I knew about the angles and measurements and had constructed a mental procedure of exactly how pilots found their way from the wing, through the hatch and into the cockpit.
So yes, I found my own way into the original leather seat and I breathed deeply of the wonderful aroma. As I had conjured up in my head while writing the book, it was a meld of leather, metal and fuel - and that's exactly what I encountered.
Having taught myself the layout of the cockpit in the early days of writing the novel, I now found myself actually staring at the same reflective gunsight, the same instrument panel, the same sweep of contoured canopy, the same slab of bullet-proof glass in front of my head, the rounded rear-view mirror above me, the spade-style grip. It was all so hauntingly familiar - yet, in a strange, inexplicable way, it was a first-time experience.
Andy asked me if I was claustrophobic and I said I wasn't. He announced that he was going to pull the bubble-shaped canopy closed over my head and I could scarcely believe my luck. Just before he did so, he asked if I wanted him to take some shots of me in the cockpit. Gladly, I handed my camera over. It's not every day a 21st century novelist gets a photo opportunity like this.
Will I now have to re-write parts of my novel, based on my encounter with the Temora Spitfires? No, I won't have to re-write anything. But I can now add a little detail and perspective, based on a very rare experience. And I can now submit the manuscript to Penguin, my publishers, knowing I can also tick off the one remaining box in my checklist. It's the one that says ''integrity of description".
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