The Spitfire’s two pilots, Matt Jones and Steve Boultbee-Brooks The Spitfire is, inarguably, the single most iconic aircraft ever built. It might not have been as fast as Concorde or as ostentatiously massive as the Spruce Goose, but it defended us during the Battle of Britain like nothing else – which, in this current age of increasing isolation is nice to look back on.
It’s also the kind of plane that makes vintage pilots’ (old planes, not necessarily old pilots) wishlists. The only problem there is there are but a scant handful of them left in the world, most of them local. Even rarer however is the particular aircraft that just landed back home in Goodwood: the stunning Silver Spitfire that just made The Longest Flight.
The expedition began back in 2019, but the bones of the operation were discovered well before then, while a Mr Matt Jones, display pilot and Spitfire instructor, was sourcing a new teaching aircraft. He was looking for one that could be altered for lessons to a two-seater rather than a two-single-seater, but when he did find his plane, in his words, “It just felt wrong to do that to it.”
In fact, once he had it in the restoration workshop, his entire plan for the Spitfire changed. “The plan was to restore it with its original camouflage paint job, but when I saw a sample I was… well, disappointed. It had lost so much of its character, the age and craftsmanship of the aircraft.”
In short, he felt like every vintage watch collector that’s had their aged, patina-coloured dial replaced with a shiny new one. And so rather than opt for the iconic Spitfire livery, he left it bare, instead showing the silver steel and rivets underneath.
“The guys in the workshop were actually quite angry with us over it… then when they saw it coming together, it looks absolutely exquisite. From far away it looks magnificent, and close up you could see that it had been through the wars. Literally.”
And so it became something special Jones had to share with the world. After all, while we in the UK take the Spitfire for the kind of granted that comes with a national icon, other fans across the world may never have seen one in the steel. Thus a grand tour was planned: the Longest Flight any spitfire has ever undertaken, to circumnavigate the globe.
This isn’t Solar Impulse though, so don’t expect this story to be of a non-stop flight. Try that and the plane would probably crash-land before you hit Eastern Europe. Instead, Jones and co-pilot Steve Boultbee-Brooks planned out a route that would take four months of constant aviation to make.
Of course, they needed support to make it happen. Matt turned to IWC, a brand that he’d come to rely on before. “I was getting ready for a display flight one summer and my electronic navigation packed up en route to this tiny site in the middle of Dartmouth. Fortunately I’d drawn a line on my map before I took off and straight away went to my IWC chronograph. I set the heading and two minutes, 17 seconds later I looked down and saw where I needed to be. The watch, in that moment, saved me.” Needless to say, Matt has some trust in the watchmaker. So, on the 5 August, 2019, they set out from Goodwood for the start of the 22,138nm journey.
Most of the time it was clear sailing, with decent airfields and good communication from one step to the next. In the cockpit, the analogue instruments of the Spitfire were joined by an iPad and a back-up IWC Timezoner, just in case. However, there was one part of the world where it almost ended: Russia.
“We had an interpreter, but there’s no real infrastructure for flight out there,” explained Matt. “When we set off from one airfield, the best we could do is check what the weather was like at the next. One day it was a bit of a marginal call.” That’s precisely how they themselves sandwiched between one cloud bank above them, one below and the distance between narrowing hour on hour.
“It was one of those times where you question your life decisions,” says Matt. “Sometimes there’s the kind of excitement that makes you think, ‘I can’t believe I’m here!’ This was the kind that makes you think ‘why am I here?’”
It was a close-run thing, especially given that they were flying across mountains. Running out of fuel would have meant a crash landing and writing off the Silver Spitfire. Somehow though, the pair of pilots found a break in the clouds below and, taking their chance, found themselves within spitting distance of their next destination. Thank god for that.
That was one of the last hurdles on their cross-globe trip; once they hit the States things were far, far simpler, and weeks later they were finally coming in to land back at their home base in Goodwood.
“We saw some amazing things, but being picked up by the Red Arrows over the White Cliffs of Dover and escorted back, it almost brought me to tears. Then when we were taxiing to the hangar, I saw my wife holding our eight-week old son. That did bring me to tears.”
No doubt it was an emotional journey for everyone involved. How could it not be? But would Matt do it again? “Nope. I’m done.” Fair enough.
For more on The Longest Flight, visit Silver Spitfire’s website.