THE FLIGHT DECK • July 2022
What’s it like to jet off inside the most iconic plane of World War II? Well, since the team at Biggin Hill’s Heritage Hangar added a passenger seat to their record-breaking collection of Spitfires, you can make this the summer to find out for yourself. For this issue, we send our very own Jon Wiggins into the skies and chat with Hangar owner Peter Monk to find out more about the ultimate AV-geek’s day out…
“The hangar is my life – I’m here up to seven days a week,” says Peter Monk, owner of what Channel 4 affectionately named ‘The Spitfire Factory’ at Biggin Hill. A legend in the aircraft restoration community, Peter presides over the world’s largest collection of the famous fighter. Best of all, he’ll even let you ride in one.
“Our entry level tour is a wonderful, guided walk around the hangar, where you can see every part of the Spitfire being dismantled and engage with the engineers,” Peter continues. “We take you out to the Spitfires that are ready to fly and chat through their unique stories with some of our pilots. But my favourite thing we offer has to be the two-set Spitfire experience – watching the joy it brings people is just amazing.”
Tell us about your day at the Heritage Hanger
It was around 2pm when the cloud lifted for us. Suddenly it was a beautiful day with a blue, Battle of Britain sky. And the Spitfires were thundering – just an incredible noise. But the team communicated every part of the process, so I wasn’t as as nervous as I thought I’d be. As soon as we were in the air, it was like every cliché brought to life. All those boyhood dreams, but a reality. Genuinely once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
What was the most jaw-dropping moment?
I had headphones on and so I could hear the pilots communicating and everything going on. Then, as we flew over Beachy Head and the channel, the radio was turned off. And, no word of a lie, it was the most tranquil thing I’ve ever experienced. The light broke through the clouds. You’re floating. I’m obsessed with military history and I couldn’t help but think that this was the same passage that young guys would have taken during the war. But they didn’t know what was on the other side. I found I became very grateful for a lot of things very quickly. Even though you’re up in the air, it really brings you down to Earth.
Did you get to fly the Spitfire?
For about 30 seconds, yes. Anna, the pilot, let me fly and said to me, “Just let go of everything, it’ll look after you, she’ll look after you.” And it just levelled out. It’s such a beautiful bit of kit. I thought to myself, this is why people say it’s the only machine with a spirit, with a soul.
"Every time I look at a Spitfire, I remember the life and soul that went into building it."
So what makes the Spitfire so special? “Spitfires got their charismatic reputation from the dark days of World War II,” says Peter. “What’s often talked about is the camaraderie of those who constructed them. It started with funding. A lot of Spitfires were funded by private and donated money – people reaching into their pockets to give a penny. Then factory workers, joiners, furniture makers and a lot of women working in cottage industries all chipped in to make them. Every time I look at a Spitfire, I remember the life and soul that went into building it.”
What was it like flying in tandem?
It’s nothing you could ever experience on a commercial air flight. The other Spitfire is flying right next to you, the wings are almost touching. Let’s say you’re on the motorway – it’s like you’re in lane one, and they’re in lane three. I could make eye contact with the passengers in the other aircraft and could see their facial expressions.
Did you do any aerobatics?
We did a victory roll. So you fly level and you lose some ground, then throw the throttle and barrel roll all the way around – 360°. That’s when you really feel the power of this 1,200-horsepower machine.
Spot anything cool during the hangar tour?
First of all, our guide knew everything. Everything and anything. It was so impressive and informative. As a military history fan, I loved seeing the Spitfire Mark I (there would eventually be 19 marks in total) that had been dug up from a field somewhere and was being worked on as we visited. Steve McQueen’s jeep was pretty cool, too.
Speaking of history, Peter knows more than most (perhaps indeed, more than anybody) about the life and times of the legendary Spitfire, having turned his teenage enthusiasm for the aircraft – which started at a local air show in the early 1980s – into his life’s passion. “Everyone knows of the Spitfire, but I wish everyone could know more about its roots,” he enthuses. “It’s a machine of Britain, through and through, and each one has its own story to tell. These are the stories we love telling here at the hangar.”
Tours at the Heritage Hangar start at £49, with Spitfire flight experiences from £2,975 per person
So out of a career of, literal, highs as a pilot and Spitfire historian, what has been Peter’s proudest moment? “When we’ve taken up World War II Spitfire pilots into skies, without a doubt,” he says. “Some of them haven’t flown since the end of the war. A lot of effort goes into making it happen, but it’s so worth it.”