Near-misses, WWII aces and champagne: what it's like to reach 500 hours in a Spitfire

Tom Ough
Jones began flying Spitfires 10 years ago - Copyright ©Heathcliff O'Malley , All Rights Reserved, not to be published in any format without p

On a stopover during his around-the-world mission, Matt Jones recounts how his boyhood dream that became a reality

You don’t reach 500 hours flying Spitfires without facing a bit of danger. During the Battle of Britain, the life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot was four weeks. Even in peacetime, Britain’s most iconic fighter plane is hardly the safest, and the older our remaining Spitfires grow, the riskier it becomes to fly them.

Matt Jones must be some pilot, then. Somewhere between Kolkata and Nagpur, in early November and in the 10th week of his Silver Spitfire mission to circumnavigate the globe, Jones reached the 500-hour mark. A few days later, during a stopover in Abu Dhabi, he tells me how he got there. But we start with the milestone: “A huge honour,” as Jones says. 

Like many boys of his generation, he’d grown up fantasising about flying Spitfires. Unlike his peers, he has actually gone on to do it, coming to Spitfires via a change of career from investment banking to aviation. The 500-hour figure puts this experienced pilot in rarefied company.

The Silver Spitfire seen over Pakistan Credit:  BENJAMIN UTTLEY/ BENJAMIN UTTLEY

“I don’t know what kind of numbers the guys in the war got,” he says over the phone. “They’re totally different to the numbers I have.” He guesses, though, that in the modern era there must only be 10 or 15 people who’ve reached the 500 hours landmark. They are mostly display pilots, like Jones, but they can’t have had anything like as adventurous a Spitfire career as their newest colleague. Jones has – take a deep breath – in the past few months alone, flown across ice floes and deserts and faraway seas; flown with Mary Ellis, the pioneering Second World War pilot, shortly before her 100th birthday; taken Tom Neil, a legendary Battle of Britain ace, for a spin; and had his oxygen system fail him at 18,000ft. I told you you’d need a deep breath.

Jones took his first solo flight in a Spitfire 10 years ago. It was a two-seater that Steve Brooks, with whom Jones founded the Spitfire flying school, Boultbee Flight Academy, had bought two or three years earlier. Jones had flown it with supervision before, but never on his own. He took off from Cotswold Airport, a private aerodrome in Gloucestershire known formerly as RAF Kemble, and for the first time was alone in an airborne Spitfire.

“It was just incredible,” he says. “I was just at peace, on my own, with just the Rolls-Royce Merlin [engine] to listen to.” He had a strict brief from his instructor, who was watching from the ground. “He just wanted me to circle overhead,” Jones says, “but I remember thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ The second thing I thought was, ‘Maybe I should go down to the coast, just make sure it’s clear, do my job, make sure there are no marauders inbound.’”

Jones has spent more time in a Spitfire cockpit than almost anyone else alive

His third thought, however, was: “Get yourself together! This isn’t over yet. You’ve got to get this priceless artefact back on the ground.” He did just that, and as he taxied into the hangar, he was greeted by the sound of a brass band. The band had been at the airfield for a PR event, and Jones’s instructor had asked them to play on for his return. Not only was he serenaded, Jones was handed a glass of champagne as soon as he’d shut off the engines. “As I tend to around these aeroplanes, I had a fairly weepy moment,” he says, “which was replicated later in the bar when I was told the tradition, when you fly one of these things solo for the first time, is that you have to buy everyone a drink.” Not just everyone with you, but everyone in the pub. “It was a fairly hefty bar bill,” he says.

The academy grew and Jones spent more and more time in Spitfires. Very occasionally, when a Boultbee Spitfire has been in the South West for an air show, he has even commuted in one. Jones lives in Devon, and the flight academy’s hangar is in Chichester, West Sussex. “It takes three hours to drive down,” he says, matter-of-factly, “or 30 minutes by Spitfire.”

Prior to its painstaking restoration and natty silver paint job, the Mark IX aeroplane, built in 1943, saw more than a year’s action in the Second World War before spending decades in the Netherlands. When the Duxford-based Aircraft Restoration Company got hold of it in 2006, it hadn’t flown for half a century. It’s now making up for lost time.

On Aug 5, it took off from Goodwood Aerodrome on its incredible around-the-world trip, with Jones and Brooks sharing pilot duties and attempting to become the first people to fly a Spitfire around the world; they are stopping in Commonwealth nations, flying through countries with a rich Spitfire history – and others where the plane has rarely, if ever, been seen. So far, they have flown via Greenland, Canada, the United States, Russia and Japan, and are on track to return to the UK on Dec 6.

As I learnt when he gave me a simulator lesson last year to promote the project, Jones is matter-of-fact about almost everything, which is a good quality in a pilot. “Interesting” is the word he uses to describe the oxygen system failure, in which, in preparation for the around-the-world trip, Jones was taking the Spitfire up to 20,000ft, which is twice as high as the craft are usually allowed to fly. He had reached 18,000ft, by which point the air was too thin to breathe properly, but there wasn’t any oxygen coming out of his mask, which was sticking to Jones’s face like a plastic bag.

“I was diving towards the ground trying to rip this mask off my face,” says Jones.

“That must have been terrifying,” I reply, experiencing some second-hand terror even at my desk.

“Ehh…” he says calmly, “at that height it’s not so bad.” He explains that he knew it would take about four minutes for the thinness of the air to badly affect him, and that he knew he could make it to a lower altitude in that time.

It sounds like he was more nervous when he flew Neil, then aged 95, for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. After the thrill of flying along the white cliffs of Dover with more Spitfires and a group of Hurricanes, Jones had to bring Neil, one of the finest pilots in RAF history, back to earth. “I was very nervous about landing, with this guy in the back, and I pulled out of the bag one of the best landings I’ve ever done in the Spitfire. To this day,” he says, beginning to laugh, “nobody believes it wasn’t him flying”. Neil died last year, aged 97.

Jones' team-mates had the badge embroidered in Japan Credit: STAMP PRODUCTIONS/BENJAMIN UTTLEY

As for Ellis, Jones gave her the controls at 3,000ft. The 99-year-old “kept 3,000ft for the entire 10 minutes. She didn’t gain or lose a foot, and it’s a very, very pitch-sensitive aeroplane, even the two-seater”. Jones had been flying in formation, and hadn’t been concentrating on the topography laid out beneath, “but she knew immediately. I put my map away and just trusted her”. In flying with Ellis, Jones says, “I was very proud to be humbled by a superior aviator.”

Even Ellis, who died last year aged 101, might have been impressed by Jones’s 500-hour mark. His Silver Spitfire team-mates certainly were. Unknown to Jones, when they’d stopped in Japan, the crew had had “500+” embroidered on to a badge for him. “I’ll treasure that,” says Jones. “I’ll probably have it framed and put up somewhere.”

Because he’s been sharing pilot duties on the Silver Spitfire trip, Jones, 46, has already been able to nip home via a commercial flight. His wife, Nikkolay, was about to deliver their firstborn, Arthur, with whom Jones then spent two weeks, so he had some justification. But sometime in the run-up to Christmas, he’ll return for good. He’ll be bringing home quite an aeronautical accolade, but as he knows – “I’d like to sleep, but I know that’s probably not on the menu!” – there’s nothing like a newborn for keeping a pilot’s feet on the ground.  

The Telegraph is the official media partner of Silver Spitfire: The Longest Flight. To find out more, visit telegraph.co.uk/silver-spitfire