Like many of the guests, I wander about, letting my feet take me where they will and find myself near the Spitfire. Very soon, I am involved in a conversation with two ladies and a gentleman, and in response to their questions point out that unmistakable feature of all Spitfires; that beautiful, elliptical wing. They follow me around the starboard wing, stooping down and peering under to see for themselves, and the topic moves to the Spitfire's project designer, R. J. Mitchell, who, afflicted with terminal cancer, raced desperately to get the design finished and into production before his time ran out. A member of Mitchell’s design team at Supermarine, a Canadian named Bev Shenstone, was credited with the shape of the final wing. Mitchell lived long enough to see the prototype take to the air early in March 1936 and the design ordered into production. He died one year later in June 1937 at the age of 42. It is wonderful to share this information with people who are so keenly interested.
On the other side of the Spitfire, Vintage Wings Manager of Communications Dave O'Malley has noticed a distinguished grey-haired and bespectacled gentleman posing rather shyly with the Spit for a photograph by his companion. Something about the way he stands leads O’Malley to believe he might have an intimate history with the fighter. Dave's intuition leads to introductions, and sure enough, he finds himself talking to Dr. John Bennett, formerly Flight Lieutenant John Bennett, Royal Air Force 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron and 74 (Tiger) Squadron. At Dave's suggestion and with some assistance, John, as he insists we call him, mounts the port wing and lowers himself into the cockpit. It is August 4th, 2007-one day after John's eighty-seventh birthday. He is a quiet man, but one senses that the cockpit of the Spitfire is stirring up significant memories and emotions. He briefly describes his wheels-up crash landing of a similar Spitfire Mk. XVI in Belgium, and recounts his night-time, dead-stick landing in a Hurricane Mk. I. "Ice in the carburettor," he explains.
A formation of seven 611 Squadron Spits makes an impressive sight during the Second World War. John Bennett joined the RAF in 1939 and completed his flying training in 1941 not at a BCATP base in Canada but rather at No. 5 British Flying Training School, Riddle Field, Clewiston, Florida. Unlike BCATP schools, both Elementary (Stearmans) and Service Flying training (Vultee Valiants and Texans) were both taught to Bennett at the same facility near the shores of Lake Okeechobe.
611 Squadron pilots and ground crew from “B” Flight pose for a group photograph at RAF Station Sumburgh, Shetland Islands where they were stationed for a time. John Bennett sits fourth from the right in the middle row. Photo: John Bennett Collection
Behind us, around us, activity is everywhere. Aircraft are taxiing out and taxiing in, starting up and shutting down, but right here at the Spitfire, the essence of the Vintage Wings mission is being realized.
Later on, John and I chat again over by the Tiger Moth. Sir Alan Cobham, he remembers, used to fly around the English countryside in a two-seater, appearing at country fairs and offering to take people up for "two shillings and sixpence". John had two siblings, and so the fee was beyond his family's means. Nevertheless, and he smiles, "That's when I got the bug." In response to one of my comments he muses, "Yes, lots of stories. But I do wish I didn't have these stories, the war ones I mean. I wish the war hadn't happened. We were young and foolish and I actually believed that if we fought hard enough there might not be any more wars." At this point he gazes downward, and in a melancholy voice ponders aloud, "You know, I'm not sure we didn't cause more problems than we solved, really, and leave the world rather worse off than it was before."
Afraid that anything I might say will sound glib or foolish, I abstain from a reply.
We watch Vintage Wings volunteer Peter Jarvis set a little girl into the front cockpit of the Tiger Moth. She is so tiny she disappears, and after he leans over and shows her where to put her feet and hands, the Tiger Moth takes on a more animated appearance, its rudder and ailerons seemingly moving of their own accord.
"I can't resist putting them in," Peter grins at us. "I think we have a future pilot here."
Overhead, two members of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team loop nicely and dive past each other. John is preparing to leave. We shake hands. I thank him for coming and tell him he is welcome to drop by and visit anytime. He grins mischievously and says, "My next ‘visit' may well be at night, and come morning you may find that one of your aircraft has mysteriously disappeared."
I ask him which aircraft that might be and still smiling, he gestures across the apron to the Spitfire. "That one over there."
We shake hands again, and John, with a look around, says that seeing these aircraft up close and in flying condition is wonderful, and that he did not expect to find himself in the cockpit of a Spitfire at eighty-seven!
Later in the war, John was with 74 (Tiger) Squadron flying in support of Allied troops as they advanced through France and Belgium. 74 Squadron “Tigers” were credited by the Canadian 4th Armoured Brigade as providing the ‘closest air support to date”! Here squadron pilots pose at an airfield in Antwerp, Belgium. John stands third from the right in the back row - sporting a nice air force mustache. Photo: John Bennett Collection
John Bennett (left) with a flying boot full of maps, poses with four friends prior to a sortie in his Spitfire. The Spit can be seen with a 250 pound bomb on each wing and a 500 pound bomb on the centreline. 74 Squadron operated many close support and interdiction missions in this configuration but also used rockets. John chuckles when he recounts how they were never sure whether the rockets would track on target or simply just blow up on the rails. Photo: John Bennett Collection