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A DAY TO REMEMBER Graham Robson's trip of a lifetime

Mark put the Spitfire exactly where I needed it for the camera - Timeless!A year on from Mark Hanna’s very sad passing brings to mind a truly memorable day spent in his company, for which I was definitely not prepared, but will never forget.

As an aviation photographer and writer, I have been privileged to partake in many unusual assignments, experiencing and enjoying the company of pilots and aircrew in many different environments and aircraft types. This occasion, however, was one of those where pinching one’s self became a necessity, such were the circumstances and outcome of an otherwise normal summer’s afternoon. It all happened a few years ago …

I had travelled to Malmo–Sturup airport, Sweden to attend the ‘DC-3 Meeting and Big Bird Fly-In’, organised by the Swedish DC-3 veterans organisation Flygande Veteraner. Held over the weekend of 9/10 August, the event was a celebration of the DC-3 and gave fellow preservation and operating groups the opportunity to meet and relish the joys of yesteryear. Anders Saether and the Scandinavian Historic Flight had been asked by the Swedish Authorities to oversee the running of the event, which naturally had the effect of boosting the event to a full-blown airshow – with a definite ‘vintage’ feel.

My aim was to record the event and gather material for a forthcoming publication, as well as to shoot the SHF’s immaculate A-26B Sugarland Express air-to-air. The air-to-air sortie produced some stunning images, however, its flying display appearance the following day was scheduled too late in the show for me to view and still make my flight connection home from Stockholm. As luck would have it, the A-26 Captain was Klaus Plasa, an Officer in the German Luftwaffe, whom I had met briefly the previous year when the Invader attended the Flying Legends show at Duxford. Knowing of my disappointment in not seeing the Invader’s display routine, the previous day’s air-to-air sortie having been carried out when the aircraft was airborne for her display, Klaus began fervently trying to accommodate my needs and still allow me to get home.

The reason for going. ‘DC-3 Meeting and Big Bird Fly-In’ at Malmo-SturupA plan to re-schedule the Invader’s display slot was not possible, likewise the idea of flying me directly to Stockholm in one of the other display aircraft immediately after the show was thwarted by it not being transponder equipped. Alas, I was destined to miss the A-26 in her element, when Klaus had an idea … this is where I began pinching myself! "How important was it that I return to the UK on the Sunday?" he enquired. He was scheduled to ferry the SHF P-51D Mustang "Old Crow" to the UK on the Monday. If my return could be postponed slightly, I would not only be able to enjoy the Invader’s display routine to the full, but return to the UK in glorious style – in the rear seat of the Mustang! There was only one answer imaginable!

It transpired the Mustang was required at Duxford the following week to shoot scenes for Stephen Spielberg’s epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’, in company with the Old Flying Machine Company’s P-51D "Big Beautiful Doll". The close relationship between the SHF and the OFMC naturally meant there was a strong OFMC presence at the airshow. As such, Mark had flown Spitfire IX MH434 to Sweden for the weekend’s celebrations, in company with the L-39 jet flown by Louis McQuade fresh from its starring role in the latest James Bond movie.

ClickSo, there I was watching Klaus put the A-26 through her paces in front of an enthusiastic ‘home’ crowd although my mind was, by now, somewhere else entirely. The ‘warbird’ element was the show finale. The Spitfire and P-51 were both scheduled to display at another small event in Norway on the Sunday and, following their slot at Malmo, positioned there directly. My enquiries on how we were to get to Norway and join the Mustang were met by a simple answer from Klaus, "simple, we would fly there in the Invader, of course". More pinching!

With the Invader re-fuelled and loaded up, I took up my place in the small ‘jump seat’, originally provided for the bombardier/navigator during take off. From this small, side-ways looking position one had a fantastic view over the two mighty 2,000hp Pratt & Whitney radial engines, which throbbed with a re-assuring tone for the 1 hour 10 minute flight to Skien, south-west of Oslo. Complications in the plan now began to manifest themselves, my wife was expecting me home that evening, my car was outside a friend’s house in Middlesex and I was expected at work in the morning. Other, more pressing matters also came to mind – neither Klaus nor I had any Norwegian currency and where would I sleep tonight ?

Yet more surprises. Unknown to me at the time, Mark had arranged our accommodation at a Hotel in Oslo where we were to meet him that evening. It transpired the Mustang would accompany Mark in the Spitfire for the flight to Duxford the following morning, making an already un-believable trip even more so. I had met Mark the previous day at the show, making my introductions through a mutual friend Dave Kunz, who had worked with Mark on the making of the movie 'Air America'. Mark’s quiet and slightly un-assuming manner masked his single-minded professionalism as a pilot, to which I was soon acutely introduced. Following breakfast, flight planning for the journey home got underway, with a number of sectional maps spread over the floor in a bedroom. Mark was keen to keep the flight simple and keep any over-water portions of the flight to a Re-fuelling at Sandefjord-Torp for the journey back to Duxfordminimum. He planned to cross the Oslo Fjorden into Sweden and route down the coast to a point north of Goteborg, where the crossing to northern Denmark is the shortest. We were to fly VFR at no higher than 3,500 feet, avoiding most airfields and keeping a very wary eye out for ‘traffic’. On a previous transit from Scandinavia to Duxford, two OFMC warbirds had been ‘bounced’ by a pair of F-16s eager to demonstrate their prowess as dog-fighters. On that occasion the jets got the better of their opponents. Should it happen during this flight Mark was more confident of the outcome, giving the instruction that any ‘confrontation’ would be met, in true aerial combat tradition, by turning into the opposition to accept the challenge - once a fighter pilot always a fighter pilot. This un-nerved me slightly, not knowing if I had the stomach for such impromptu ‘fun’ as well as having to hold onto some heavy and rather expensive camera equipment.

Briefing over, we were driven to the small air-strip at Jarlsberg, close to Oslo, where the pair of fighters had night-stopped and, in the early morning sunshine, conjured up a vision from fifty years earlier. Pre-flight checks completed, we climbed aboard for a short hop to nearby Sandefjord-Torp, where we would re-fuel and file our departure details. The Mustang was never designed for a crew of two, less so when both are six feet tall. The gymnastics involved in securing ones self into the cosy rear seat were not for the un-supple and required deft foot and body work to safely surmount the pilot’s seat whilst avoiding decapitation from the canopy frame. Klaus assured me escape, should it be necessary, was simply a matter of rolling the aircraft inverted, jettisoning the canopy, releasing the belts and falling out ! My large camera case, designed to protect the valuable contents with no concessions for storage in confined spaces, was forced to ride on my lap in the back, its dimensions giving it a very snug fit between the cockpit sides. The whole operation would be repeated three times before we reached Duxford, with each successive entry being easier than the last.

At Sandefjord, passengers boarding a Fokker F-27 stopped in their tracks as our pair of fighters snaked past the airliner to the corner of the, otherwise empty, ramp. There followed a lengthy re-fuel, whilst Mark’s friends who had organised the Norwegian airshow looked on, having accompanied us from Jarlsberg in their Cherokee. Engines started, our farewells said, "Spitfire Flight" took to the runway for a departure in fine style. The short runway was lined by tall pine forests on both sides, giving the impression, from the air, of a very narrow and short valley. Mark chose to exploit this to the maximum after take off, as he brought the flight of two around in a very tight descending right turn, our Mustang seemingly only inches from the Spitfire’s wing, the trees now towering above "Close enough for you?"us, this was more exhilarating than any fairground ride. Climbing to height, the formation settled into a comfortable loose formation, keeping transmissions to a minimum, as was Mark’s wish, so as not to attract unwanted attention and pressed on towards Swedish airspace. A multitude of brightly coloured dwellings adorned the beautifully picturesque coastline of western Sweden, contrasting strongly with the deep blue water and patch-work green and grey landscape with Mark, as formation leader, off our left wing and slightly ahead as the aircraft journeyed southbound under a cloudless sky. A turn to the right was now needed, to cross the body of water where the Skagerrak becomes the Kattegat, towards the very northern tip of Denmark. With the Spitfire to our left, a formation changed was required before making the turn. Klaus, hoping I might enjoy this, pulled the Mustang up in a steep climbing wing-over to the left which then put us to the left and some way behind the Spitfire, ready to follow in the right turn. Wow!

Cruising steadily towards our next turning point of Esbjerg, we climbed briefly to remain clear of traffic at Aalborg, the August sunshine was now beginning to have an effect. The temperature inside the cramped cockpit was now becoming unbearable with little way of alleviating my discomfort, my movement being severely restricted due to the ‘cabin baggage’. After some adroit hand and foot co-ordination a bottle of water was finally retrieved from a side pocket, but did nothing to refresh having been almost boiled from over an hour under the Mustang’s goldfish bowl canopy. A mental note - should I ever do this again, keep the water under cover!

A turn over the giant port of Wilhelmshaven headed us towards our first stop Groningen-Eelde, a pleasant general aviation airfield in northern Holland and home to KLM’s pilot training school. Mark called Klaus to close up the formation ready to announce our arrival with a customary low-level run and break. Banking steeply left towards the field it was easy to imagine I had been transported back in time, as any minute now we would begin strafing enemy positions. Nothing as violent now, as we thundered down the main runway, pulling up into a gentle close circuit and landing, following 2 hours 23 minutes in the air. Being a favoured staging post for OFMC and SHF on their numerous cross-country trips over the years, we were greeted as old friends by the airport manager. We parked in front of the small terminal giving those enjoying lunch in the adjacent restaurant a welcome respite from the numerous Cessnas and Pipers. With fuel tanks and stomachs replenished, it was soon time to repeat the gymnastics which accompanied getting seated, by now a relatively simple task. We departed with slightly less gusto than our arrival, appeasing the local populous and set course for Antwerp, a route that would take us inland and to the east Amsterdam and over the sprawling industrial complex of Rotterdam. The hot, humid August day had combined with the best of the region’s pollution and severely reduced visibility at our low level, the sun vanishing in a grey murk off our right wing.

Dusk and close formation over the English countryside, almost homeWe droned on towards Calais in the fast diminishing daylight, the growling of the Merlin engine now so familiar to my ears that it was almost soporific. There was, however, one sight still to come, which I looked forward to with an eerie fascination as, almost imperceptibly, the formation closed up once again to cross the Channel. In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined being part of such a scene, flying in a P-51D Mustang, with a Spitfire off our left wing, approaching Dover’s distinctive white cliffs was an unbelievable experience. Passing Dover, as so many similar types must have done countless times before, the event seemed all the more surreal, with a serving Luftwaffe Officer as my pilot! Our flight path took us north-west over Kent, passing over Canvey Island and abeam Southend airport towards Duxford. The scenery more familiar, I could recognised landmarks now and anticipated our arrival. A quick call confirmed a clear traffic pattern and Mark brought the formation down low, thundering towards the field from the west. As we passed the tower and the Spitfire broke hard right, Klaus pulled the Mustang up in a stomach-wrenching climb into the vertical, we were home! What a day to remember.

 

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