Wings of desire

A female Spitfire pilot? What will the old boys say? COLE MORETON meets up with a magnificent woman in her flying machine
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Spitfire is every macho desire made real - a beautiful, powerful machine that flies very quickly and kills your enemy. Every time Carolyn Grace climbs into her flying suit, she is living out the fantasies of a whole generation of war baby boys who grew up idolising the aces who fought against the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain.

Modern lads are more likely to fantasise about Lara Croft, but their fathers continue to be fascinated by the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of people will attend "warbird" meetings featuring vintage aircraft this summer, and they will almost all be men - standing by the runway with telephoto lenses, rummaging through stalls full of war memorabilia or striding around in the pilots' enclosure.

No wonder Carolyn Grace turns heads in this testosterone-drenched world. The 47-year-old is petite, slender and attractive - and she is the first woman in the world to own and fly a Spitfire.

She loops the loop and defies the ground in a magnificently restored aircraft worth at least pounds 800,000. ML407 shot down German aircraft during the Normandy landings, recreated so vividly in Saving Private Ryan. She flies it in tribute to her husband, Nick Grace, who died in a car crash soon after he finished renovating it.

Few pilots thought she could or should learn to pilot the Spitfire, but that didn't stop her. "I had a lot of pressure not to go solo, and then not to fly the aircraft in displays, because I had two children and I was widowed. It was irresponsible," she says. "There were no other women flying displays. Men said, 'You don't care about your children, how could you do that?' It was pretty hurtful."

One very experienced pilot she won't name had a quiet word. "He put his hand on my knee and said 'You don't really want to do all this airshow stuff. It would be too much pressure. You're lovely looking, you're much better off to just leave it alone'." She growls at the memory, then laughs. "I agree with them, because it's easiest. Then I get in the plane and piss off! Ha!"

Carolyn Grace was brought up on a 5,000-acre property in New South Wales. "We had a plane to go shopping in Sydney." She first met Nick Grace when he flew a crop-sprayer at a neighbouring farm, but they were married and living in Cornwall by 1979 when he spotted an advertisement offering two old Spitfires for sale from a museum in Scotland.

Taking time off from his job as a design engineer, Nick set about rebuilding one of the aircraft from scratch with Carolyn's help. She talks about her late husband with admiration bordering on awe. They did everything together, and both flew, although Nick was 16 years older and a far more experienced pilot.

Carolyn was in the back seat in 1985 when Nick flew his renovated Spitfire for the first time - "a magical day". For three years he took part in air displays around the country, while Carolyn followed in a camper van with their children. Richard was four and Olivia five when their father was killed in a car crash in West Sussex, in October 1988.

"It wasn't his fault," she says automatically. "He was a fast driver, but a very good one."

Money was tight. She had two children and 700 goats to feed; the obvious answer was to sell the Spitfire, now a valuable collector's item. She refused. "It epitomised Nick's ability to start something that everybody said was hopeless, then to finish it. To just turn that into problem-solving bits of paper was not a good idea. It was selling the spirit of Nick. This way the children can see what their father did, constantly."

After two years of training Carolyn flew the Spitfire on her own in July 1990. "Can you imagine the reaction if the little old widow had smashed the thing up first time? All the chaps would have said 'Oh, we knew women shouldn't do this sort of thing'."

No woman had flown solo in a Spitfire since the Forties, when they delivered them from test field to RAF unit by the Air Transport Auxiliary. In April 1944, a 22-year-old South African called Jackie Sorour had been ML407's first pilot, taking it to Selsey Bill in Hampshire. She is now a friend of Carolyn's, as are several of the plane's former pilots.

For all her bravery in throwing it around the sky, Carolyn was initially reluctant to join the other pilots in the marquee at displays. "If I did, I'd sit there cowering away. I was very shy. It is a 100 per cent macho environment."

For those men who still nurture schoolboy fantasies about the Spitfire, the sight of an attractive woman in a leather flying jacket climbing into the plane's cockpit must be almost too much excitement to bear. Carolyn is far too nice, or careful, to say so. "The aura of the aeroplane, the mystique, is apparent as soon as you get near. I'm always surprised that people want to see me, and want me to sign something."

The cockpit is tiny. "A lot of the wartime pilots were about my size, and very slender people. It's not claustrophobic, it's wonderful. You strap yourself in, and you feel as though you are part of the plane. It gives you wings, the ability to realise all your imaginary dreams of flying."

She begins her display by swooping down from 3,000 ft at 320 miles per hour. Then the stomach lurches as she is thrust back into the seat at the start of a loop. Sky and ground spin above the Perspex cockpit as she runs through a pre-defined series of manoeuvres. Then she is flying at just 100 ft above the ground, straight into the faces of people in the crowd.

One hand is on the throttle and the other on the control stick, worn smooth by the gloved hands of all the pilots who have flown her Spitfire over the years. The stick goes back into the pit of her stomach; her canvas flying helmet thumps against the bare headrest and she sends the plane into a sudden, sickening climb.

The display is nearly over as she circles and runs past the crowd one more time, showing off the wings to the photographers. The pilots in the mess tent almost always come out to watch one of their number land. She is tired, drained and fizzing with adrenalin, but a mistake now would be highly embarrassing and potentially fatal.

It costs pounds 4,000 an hour to fly the Spitfire, which is based near her home at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. The crippling cost of insurance is met by her sponsor, Aon, and she entertains corporate clients as well as flying up to 20 displays every summer. Her children, now in their teens, help to raise money to keep the Grace Spitfire flying.

As its engine is being reconditioned, Carolyn will borrow a single-seater Spitfire to fly in a display at North Weald airfield in Essex next Sunday. The show will celebrate women in aviation, and her fellow pilots will include Svetlana Kapanina, a Siberian who is female world aerobatic champion, the British title holder Diana Britten and Tracy Martin, from London, who has flown helicopters to herd cattle in Australia and spot tuna in California.

The finale will include explosions and anti-aircraft fire. Carolyn Grace is under no illusions about her Spitfire's deadly origins. "That's part of its appeal - it is so scintillatingly gorgeous, yet it goes around killing people."

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