Wednesday, June 24, 2009

W Is For Warbirds

My Encounter With A World War II Spitfire

Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON

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.

The original reflector gunsight above the instrument panel

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.

Taken while standing up in the cockpit, looking down

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.

A rare shot taken inside the cockpit with the canopy closed.

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.

The original instrument panel, with spade-style grip and gun button.

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".

For the home of ABC Wednesday, go to Mrs Nesbitt's Place.


Daryl said...

Fabulous and of course you had to drive to see it, how else can you write about it accurately!

And THIRD novel? I didnt realize you'd finished #2 ...


Tess Kincaid said...

Wow, you got some wonderful shots, David. You've inspired me to visit the US Air Force Museum. It's only about an hour away in Dayton. I haven't been there in ages.

Mara said...

What a great story. The sensation of seeing it in real life and sitting in it, must have been fantastic!

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Of course it is necessary to get as much first hand experience about your subject as in answer to your question---Yes, I would...and it is not just any inantimate your case, it is "the" object. It sounds like a deeply rewarding experience ie, to have direct contact with a source of your creation-inspiration. <3

® ♫ The Brit ♪ ® said...

Wonderful post and photos David!
I've missed reading you and I think it's fantastic that you drove all that way to see the inspiration for your work! I hope your new novel will be a huge success and I'm sure that it will be!

I'm back after months of stress and heartache but I've returned with joy and happiness in my heart and in my life, I feel like I have been re-born, it's a complete new start for me...

All the best!

Anonymous said...

No David me dear, I would not, but then I'm a girl, well, female. However, if I am in luck I will see some next weekend as the planes from the Biggin Hill Air Show always seem to fly over us. Am I lucky? And only have to walk into the garden.

But kudos to you for taking that trip.

Mark Ting said...

I agree. That is a seriously cool blog! I too, would read your book. Also, I read some of the blogs you recommended and would like to suggest one that always makes me laugh.
Check out his Disco post.

Brian Miller said...

Great pics! Nice angles and perspectives you chose. The whole experience sounds like it was a blast. Took a young boy I work with to DC to the Air and Space museum. It really captured his imagination! Thanks for the tour!

Charles Gramlich said...

there's such beauty in these old planes. I've always been enamored of them.

Ananda girl said...

How exciting! I love the views we get here... it is unlikely that I shall ever have the luck you had and end up inside one of these wonders. Thank you!

Best of luck with that book!

aims said...

Wow David. What an incredible experience for you. I understand completely.

As for book #2 - ahem - is it out? Do I finally get some kind of signed copy? ;0)

Louise said...

I'll admit I'd need a little more enticement to drive 750 miles--like planting a letterbox or finding more than 2 letterboxes along the way. But I'm glad YOU did, because these are great photos.

Carol Murdock said...

If I were a international photo/journalist who wanted to take shots of a paticular subject and that subject could only be reached by driving 750 miles, you bet your sweet arse I'd go!

Carol Murdock said...

OH David...I forgot to say it was truly worth it because, you got some awesome shots! :)

James said...

Wonderful pictures of a really cool old airplane.

Maggie May said...

We have so much to be grateful for, for all those pilots who flew these spitfires. Also for the spitfires themselves.
You must have been cramped in once the hood had gone over you (as you are tall, you say).
Brilliant that you had that experience though.
Brilliant photos and account of what happened on your museum visit.

Craver Vii said...

That is such an amazing experience!! My heart probably would have pounded out of my chest! Really, really cool.

Anonymous said...

Very impressive, David. Fantastic pictures. You must have felt incredibly excited at seeing those amazing machines. I'm afraid I'm claustrophobic so wouldn't have been to good in the cockpit! But who needs to when we have you!

CJ xx

Bradley Hsi said...

Congratulation for your chance of first hand experience with a spitfire. I was at East Grinstead, UK for three years at the hospital where they used to treat RAF fighter pilots during WWII. I know the airplane and even made several plastic models of it. Thanks for sharing your experience with us and looking forward to read you new novel.

i beati said...

good photography job sandy

imac said...

What a very interesting post David, what a high flyer you are.

come see the flying A

Eleonora Baldwin said...

Woohoo! Superb blog post, can you self award yourself for POTD? Well, I nominate you...

Congratulations on the Spitfire baptism, and best of luck with novel #3. What an inspiration you are to all of us.

With all my admiration,

Jane Hards Photography said...

Nothing is too far away or boring for the photographer. I would walk over hot coals barefoot for a magical image. Brilliant as always and the best wishes on the new book. You already have your captive audience here.

Tiffany Norris said...

No, I'm afraid I would not have made the pilgrimage--at least not with this summer's gas prices! ;)
This might be why your photos will always be better than mine! Seriously, thanks for sharing these.

anthonynorth said...

My first posting in the RAF was to Biggin Hill, and either side of the old main gate was a full size Spitfire and Hurricane. Later I served on the base that hosted the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and often saw the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster doing their stuff.
Magical moments.

Sabi Sunshine said...

David Thank you for visiting my blog.. really appreciated.. Wow what a lovely post you have written well done.. you have a amazing way of describing it..

God Bless yOU

Leslie: said...

Oh David, I am SO jealous! I'm a bit of a WW2 fan and even toured the museum in Normandy, France. I was so excited to see an actual aircraft (the remainders) there that had been shot down. And I saw my Dad's RCAF uniform hanging in a glass-enclosed case. (well, not his but you know what I mean).

Best of luck with the newest novel but what's your second one??? How can I get a copy here? Do you know where it's distributed?

Paula Scott Molokai Girl Studio said...

Perhaps the most mesmerizing and fascinating post yet. This one really takes the cake, or what I would refer to as that "died and gone to heaven" kinds of experience.
I still sense the euphoria generated from the trip.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

Inspiration comes in many forms, doesn't it? Thanks for stopping by my little corner of the world. I guess you can tell that my heart is with my children and grandchildren. I thought I had fulfilled my capacity for love when I gave birth to my children, but it seems I was wrong on many counts. I have natural and adopted heart knows no difference!

Grace Albaugh said...

What an exciting experience for you! My dad was a Navy pilot in WWII. He has the most amazing stories of which we never tire.

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

That is really awesome, David. I had wondered why you were in New South Wales, where I once lived. I think it's really amazing. And what a wonderful experience for you; affirming! Now finish that book and get going! Or...get going and finish that book! ♥

Janie said...

Great opportunity for your novel research, and some great photos, too.
Let us know how the novel submission goes. Hope it'll be published soon andn available in the U.S.

Roger Owen Green said...


Lew said...

Great post David! For me the plane is the P-51 Mustang. I first saw them on maneuvers in the late 40's where we lived when I was a kid. Luckily, there are some still around that appear at air shows.

Shadow said...

simple answer: no. but this is obviously a passion of yours, so perfectly understandable.

Mojo said...

Okay, I am officially turning British Racing Green here. The closest I've come to this was playing hangar pilot in various helicopters (AH-1's, UH-1's and OH -58's) while in the army as a hydraulic systems mechanic and being snapped for class photos in the cockpit of a T-38 trainer during the training for that job. I've seen P-40's and P-51's from reasonably close range, but never been afforded this kind of opportunity. And having the plane lit by a couple of church candles might actually have been rather appropriate if you think about it.

Would I drive 750 miles for the chance? Are you kidding? To get up close and personal with the plane that essentially won the Battle of Britain? The only thing that could possibly top this would be a hop in one of the planes (which in a single seat fighter would be kind of problematic... since I'm not a pilot).

I don't suppose they had a Hawker Hurricane there too did they?

I really have to find an air show around here this summer. Just have to.

Q said...

What an incredible experience. I can understand the trill. You had to could you not? Your photographs are wonderful and the experience of being in the "warbird" amazing....
Looking forward to reading your next novel. When will it be released?

Willow said...

David, After calling my husband over to read this post, I had to wipe the drool off my keyboard. His words, "That is very cool," sum up our reaction.

When we lived in Papua, Indonesia, we watched the recovery team pull a WWII Black Widow off the mountain where it had crashed. The pieces of the plane were lying around the perimeter of an airstrip at the Sentani airport and we all went down and gazed at them, those relics of an amazing aircraft. I believe that the Black Widow has been recontructed and is on display somewhere. Sorry I can't tell you where so you can make another pilgrimage.

Fletch said...


When you told me you'd travelled 1200Kms to get some 'snaps' of a Spit, I thought you were mad.

Now the penny drops!

Like anthonynorth I've been fortunate to have had 3 Spits and a Hurricane as 'Gate Guards' at four of my postings. They would never fly again, but they always drew ones eyes, no matter how many times you drove past!

But actually sitting in the cockpit? That takes the biscuit ... !!

Jim said...

How interesting.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Tumblewords: said...

Superb! And, yes, I would. Incredible shots.

jay said...

Wow ... what an experience! You were most fortunate to meet such a cooperative and helpful museum manager!

I had no idea that Australia had two airworthy Spitfires. It's comforting to know, because a few years ago, our one remaining airworthy Spitfire crashed and for a while there was no Spitfire available to take part in the fly-bys that are still performed here with WWII aircraft. Apparently at least one Spitfire has been restored though, because just two days ago, I watched as a Lancaster bomber flanked by a single Hurricane and a single Spitfire buzzed us - really low - on our way into town. The noise was enough to cause a break in the conversation, but it was wonderful to see them again!