One of our pilots, Cliff Spink, has coined the phrase ‘the Spitfire grin’, to describe the Cheshire cat smile that stretches from ear to ear of Aerial Collective passengers after their flight. Whether they have had an adventure above the clouds in the iconic Spitfire, majestic Mustang or powerful Sea Fury, the end result is a mixture of joy, excitement and disbelief that a few moments before they were soaring in a warbird through Battle of Britain air space.
This same air space was once filled with hundreds of aircraft whose every mission could be their last, and whose pilots often sacrificed their lives to protect their country. It has been our privilege to hear some of their stories from family members who have come to take a flight in remembrance, and to discover all those who made one of history’s most significant victories possible.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of D-Day, these stories are in the forefront of our minds, of how ordinary people could accomplish the extraordinary when the fate of the world hung in the balance; and the team that assisted General Eisenhower on a reconnaissance mission were no exception.
On July 4th 1944, General Eisenhower made the decision that he wished to see the future site of the Battle of the Bulge for himself. This would require a modified P-51 Mustang flown by Major General Quesada, and a protective escort of three aircraft and pilots from the 356th Fighter Squadron.
The aircraft that Eisenhower would be flying in had had the fuselage fuel tank removed so that a seat could be added, although this had been done mainly to provide tactical training to other pilots, not for taking Generals behind enemy lines. The modification was such that no parachute could be worn by the passenger, and if anything untoward occurred during the flight Eisenhower would not be able to escape. Everyone involved knew the gravity of the situation, because if the worst should happen it would be a crippling psychological blow to the allied troops.
As they prepared for the sortie Major Richard E. Turner, one of the pilots, recalls: ‘he shook each of us by the hand, saying that he understood that he was to be flying with the finest fighter pilots in the ETO. It was deeply gratifying to be so addressed by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. The general seemed genuinely interested in us and in our opinions. He was a man of authority and determination, whose manner impressed all those who saw him.’
Fortunately the mission, or ‘the breakthrough at Saint-Lo’ as it has become known, was a success and Eisenhower and those protecting him all returned safely, having flown 50 miles behind enemy lines. This was the first time that a General had taken such a personal approach when reconnoitring the terrain of a forthcoming battle, whilst trapped in the back of a fighter, in the presence of the enemy.
This is one of many incredible stories that make up our history, and it is humbling that we are able to preserve a small part of that by enabling these ex-military warbirds to fly once again. Every day we recreate these history-defining flights, keeping the stories alive for generations to come as a reminder of how our freedom was preserved. These are the aircraft which helped preserve it.