John Romain arrived for our meeting at the Aircraft Restoration Company’s (ARCo) Duxford hangar facility in his blue coveralls – he was taking a few hours away from fabricing one of the Westland Lysander’s wings for the interview. In John’s office, modest but brimming with aviation books and memorabilia, a large original painting of Spitfire Mk.I P9374 – a former ARCo machine – is mounted on the wall behind his desk. A Campbell flying helmet and goggles had been arranged on a leather sofa; later in the afternoon he was scheduled to carry out a Display Authorisation renewal for a local Duxford pilot and beyond that, he was due to take the based T-28 Fennec for a late afternoon practice display. Such is the day-to-day variety of ARCo’s Managing Director, where restoration and flying go hand-in-hand.
The son of a de Havilland apprentice, it’s perhaps no surprise that John Romain was drawn to a life in aviation. His father had worked on the likes of the Hornet, Venom, Comet and Sea Vixen at Hatfield, while many a weekend was spent with the family on Wheathamstead Heath watching the senior Romain flying remote control model aeroplanes. The 1969 Battle of Britain film inspired John’s interest in Second World War aircraft. To an impressionable 10-year old, a screening at Tottenham Court Road cinema sparked a fascination with the Hispano Buchón in particular. He says of them, “There was something about the Buchón’s shape and the way it moved that was just threatening. I couldn’t help but be captivated by them – that’s really where the interest in warbirds started, although back then they weren’t considered to be ‘warbirds’”.
Visits to Duxford, the airfield where much of the Battle of Britain had been filmed, were commonplace from the age of 13. Though the site had fallen into disrepair during the intervening years, remnants of the shoot were still much in evidence – the largely derelict hangars still wore their movie camouflage, whilst the guard room was filled with movie props and relics. Fibreglass Spitfires and Hurricanes had been abandoned across the site, and the mock-up trenches – the ones Kenneth Moore and Susannah York dive into during the film’s bombing raid sequence – were still at least somewhat intact. His interest caught the eye of the East Anglian Aviation Society, who invited John to join the group on a voluntary basis in 1972 to assist with the maintenance of the Imperial War Museum’s large aeroplane exhibits and sweep the hangar floors at weekends.
It was a modest beginning, but one which fuelled an interest in aviation engineering and historic aeroplanes. 1976 saw John begin an internship with Hawker Siddeley Dynamics at Hatfield. 12 months into the internship he was awarded Apprentice of the Year; thereafter he entered and won an endurance competition to design, build and drive a vehicle which would run on just one gallon of fuel. John’s vehicle drove the farthest, clocking an incredible 1,379 miles to the gallon. Work on complex missile systems and qualification as a missile systems designer further honed a range of machining, tooling and engineering skills that gave him a solid base upon which to build his expertise.
The Duxford connection led to John working for the irrepressible Ormond Haydon-Baillie in the mid-1970s. He was instrumental in establishing an on-site aircraft maintenance and restoration facility for Haydon-Baillie’s aeroplanes, converting the forlorn Building 66 into a serviceable workshop. “We spent a number of months chiselling out panes of glass from surviving window frames to install in Building 66. With no electrics on-site at all, we had to set up an external generator – it was very primitive in those days.”
The venture was brought to an abrupt end by Haydon-Baillie’s death in a Mustang crash on 3 July 1977. John and his colleagues set about assisting Wensley Haydon-Baillie, brother of Ormond, with the disposal of the many aircraft inherited by the estate, recovering Spitfires from India, T-33s from Canada, Sabres from Germany and the CF100 from Cranfield. Amongst the aeroplanes up for disposal and stored at Duxford were two Bolingbroke Mk.IVs (commonly referred to as Blenheims), one of which (G-MKIV) was acquired for restoration to flight by ex-military jet pilot Graham Warner. For this monumental task he assembled a team of engineers at Duxford under the British Aerial Museum of Flying Military Aircraft banner, with John Romain concluding his apprenticeship and moving to Cambridgeshire to join the project full-time in 1981. That aeroplane flew, concluding a restoration spanning some 40,000 voluntary man-hours, for the first time on 22 May 1987 with its Chief Pilot, John Larcombe, in command.
The build of Bolingbroke G-MKIV was unprecedented, the small team breaking new ground in vintage aircraft preservation that set an industry standard. Hence it was the cruellest of blows for all involved to see the aeroplane written off in an accident at Denham less than one month after its maiden flight. John and ‘Smudge’ Smith were on board, with reserve pilot Roy Pullan in command; during Pullan’s unauthorised, unrehearsed touch-and-go, the aircraft swung off the runway and tip-stalled in at 50ft, clipping a tree and cartwheeling violently. Mercifully, all on board survived the crash, albeit with substantial injuries (Romain having been thrown from the aircraft by the force of the impact) – the Blenheim, however, was damaged beyond repair.
“That was absolutely devastating for the whole team and Graham personally”, John reflects. By that point, he had held a PPL for three years and had started flying vintage tail draggers – Auster, Broussard and the like – under the tutelage of John Larcombe. “When I was lying in a hospital bed shortly after the crash, I decided to get a commercial pilot’s licence and get into airlines as I’d realised restorations were long, hard work and when they went wrong, it hurt!” That licence followed in 1989, but a dearth of positions in the airline industry left John with “no work and a big debt to pay off from the commercial licence”. Accordingly he opted to remain in the historic aviation sphere and focus his efforts where his true passion lay. In the meantime, Graham Warner had persevered to restore a second Blenheim. “I told Graham that if I was coming back to work on that project, I didn’t just want to do it as an engineer”, picks up John. “I suggested we form a company together and use external work to generate the funds for the next Blenheim.” From that proposition, ARCo was born and restoration and maintenance immediately began on a raft of client aeroplanes. The new airframe, a Bolingbroke Mk.IV T manufactured by Fairchild Aircraft Ltd in 1943, was transported from Strathallan to Duxford in February 1988 and work began in earnest.
With Graham managing ARCO’s administration and financials, John spearheaded the physical restoration and maintenance. Early projects included the major overhaul of Warner’s Beech-18 G-BKGL, the rebuild of Morane Saulnier MS.505 Criquet G-BPHZ, after which it was painted in the Luftwaffe markings of 1/JG54 with fictitious TA+RC codes (for ‘The Aircraft Restoration Company’), the restorations of Auster AOP 9 XR241/G-AXRR and de Havilland Chipmunk G-BNZC, and a ground-up rebuild into stock T-6G configuration of Harvard II G-BRWB with John overhauling the R-1340 radial engine, a first for a British-based restorer. Other Harvard projects followed and indeed, to this day ARCo remain specialists in the field.
Maintenance of Lindsay Walton’s striking F4U-7 Corsair from the mid-1980s exposed John to the burgeoning warbird preservation and air display scene. The acquisition of a Harvard project gave him a suitable radial trainer on which to gain the requisite heavy tail dragger experience; that he did under the mentorship of Hoof Proudfoot, Mark Hanna, and conversion to the Corsair followed in 1989. “The recognised ‘stepping stone’ system was the Harvard and then Spitfire or Hurricane, followed by the Mustang, but I’d skipped straight to the Corsair and caught up on the V12s later on”, he says. “The big advantage I had was that I was an engineer and I understood the aircraft’s engine and systems first and foremost. In the week I was engineering the aeroplanes, ground running and taxying them. John Larcombe used to say, if you can taxy an aeroplane well, you can fly it. There’s a lot of truth in that and if you understand the mechanics of it, the flying is relatively straightforward by comparison.”
The Walton Corsair became John’s regular mount at British airshows from 1989. Romain’s fluid transition into the warbird movement precipitated an invitation to fly with the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) and in 1991 he stepped into a Supermarine Spitfire for the first time to fly Mk.IX MH434, that most famous of Spitfires, under the watchful eyes of Ray and Mark Hanna. Conversion onto the P-51D Mustang came later that year in Old Crow, then owned by the Scandinavian Historic Flight and now resident under ARCo’s care at Duxford resplendent in a Royal Air Force scheme.
Experience flying Warner’s Beech-18 opened more doors, this time with Duxford’s Hangar 2 residents, The Fighter Collection (TFC). Stephen Grey had recently acquired B-25 Mitchell Grumpy and a type rating on the Planes of Fame Air Museum’s B-25 at Chino, CA afforded Romain the opportunity to fly the medium bomber on a regular basis from 1992. He quickly progressed through some of TFC’s single-engine V12 and radial fighters; week days were dedicated to engineering and maintenance for ARCo, whilst summer weekends were spent demonstrating high-performance piston fighters and bombers for the prominent Duxford operators with tutelage from John Larcombe, Hoof Proudfoot and Mark Hanna. They were, he says, “Some of the most generous individuals I’ve had the privilege of flying alongside – I owe a great deal to their patience and compassion”.
Exposure to air display flying developed exponentially in tandem with ARCo’s restoration and maintenance business. “It was just incredible, the amount of flying, the types we flew and the kind of flying we were doing every weekend”, Romain says. The British airshow landscape of the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s was far removed from today’s scene, with a thriving civilian airshow industry complemented by a superior number of military events. Vintage aircraft featured prominently at many, particularly so the ‘Open House’ weekends at the American bases. On the continent, British-based warbirds were regular attendees at major international airshows in France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and elsewhere. TFC and the OFMC provided much of the historic element of the domestic and foreign airshows, a typical summer weekend for both Duxford-based companies involving large-scale deployments to one or more events.
Conversion onto new types came swiftly to match that demand, John logging time in Spitfires, Mustangs, Corsairs, Kingcobra and Wildcat in quick succession. “I remember one Autumn Air Show at Duxford where I flew seven displays in seven different aeroplanes, from Auster to Catalina”, he recounts. “That seems bizarre looking back as we don’t do that sort of thing any more – we generally limit ourselves to two or three displays per day.”
Romain muses, “You’d just adapt. That’s what we used to do. Sometimes you didn’t know what you’d be flying, where you’d be going or what you’d be doing until the eleventh hour. Mark [Hanna] once called me on a Thursday and asked, ‘John, what are you doing this weekend? Do you want to fly for us?’ I met him at OFMC’s offices on Friday morning and he said, ‘Well, I was going to put you in the Spitfire, but I think I’ll fly that. Have you flown a Corsair?’ I explained it’d been a few years since I last flew Lindsay’s machine, and he said, ‘Great, well you can fly the Corsair down to France with me and display it in the show’. Right – OK!
“They were exciting times. Transiting around Europe with a bunch of fighters and good mates – those memories stick with you forever”, John continues. “Flying around the country with guys like Hoof Proudfoot, Mark Hanna and Jack Brown, ex-air force boys who’d recently left the service and had flown Harriers, Phantoms and Jaguars low-level. They were amazing to just watch – studying maps and working out low-level routes we could fly across the UK and Europe to avoid general aviation traffic. Then we’d strap in and head off with a gaggle of fighters, routing low-level over the countryside at 200 knots using only hand signals and using visual points of reference to navigate. That was an incredible learning experience for a young pilot.”
Involvement in airshows with OFMC and TFC engendered some sensational flying. A mid-’90s deployment to Norway was particularly memorable – ten days in Spitfire MH434 with Mark Hanna alongside in OFMC’s Buchón G-BOML, taking the fighters out low-level amongst the mountains and through fjords before heading to Oslo to meet Anders Saether and Old Crow for a ‘jolly’. Another sortie saw John joining OFMC for a large-scale deployment to an airshow in the south of France and paired with Ray Hanna for a formation aerobatic duo. “During the brief, Ray said, ‘You’re formating on me. One rule – don’t go below me’. On the first fly-through, I saw why. He was right down in the weeds! As long as he knew you were above him, he was happy to take you right down to just a few feet off the ground.”
A further trip to southern France saw Romain ferrying OFMC’s Mustang G-HAEC to the venue and rostered to fly the Corsair (ferried by Mark Hanna) during the show. He picks up the story: “A friend of the Hannas had a T-28 based there, but he wasn’t a display pilot. We were sat at the briefing and Mark said, ‘John, you’ve got a couple of spare hours in the middle of the programme, you can fly the T-28’. I said I’d never flown a Trojan before and he said, ‘Well, go off ten minutes before your slot, then come back and display it’. At the end of the weekend, I had an hour in the T-28 and had flown three displays in two aircraft – that would be seen as irresponsible now, but it’s what we used to do. Then on Monday morning I climbed back into the Corsair and took it home with a map on my lap and Mark waving me off saying, ‘See you next week!’ I was like a sponge – I learned so much from the veterans of the business, some of the very best aviators you could ever hope to meet. You learn fast, flying with people like that. Was I in awe of it? I suppose, to an extent. We were all friends, flying off in Second World War aeroplanes to airfields all over Europe to display at minimally regulated airshows. They were brilliant times.
“I learnt a lot about air display choreography from Ray and Mark Hanna”, John continues. “For example, I used to fly away from the crowd on the 45 and fly a Derry reversal to come back in. Ray once asked me why I flew a Derry turn: ‘Never roll away from the crowd, it’s a waste of a manoeuvre.’ From then on, I didn’t.” John crafted a display sequence that has become instantly recognisable; pairs of cuban-eight half-loops on the A-axis and 45 degree B-axis flow into a succession of barrel rolls, topside passes and 360 degree turns. It’s a masterclass in energy management, the penetrating verticals and sweeping rolling manoeuvres trading height for airspeed.
“My sequence is based around making sure the aeroplane looks good for the punters, knowing I’m looking after the aeroplane and knowing I’m looking after myself. It’s a routine I can fly at practically any venue in any fighter without pushing my capacity. I fly half-cubans on the A-axis and on the 45 but I don’t loop, regardless of the fighter I’m flying. That way I’ll never be at the point where I’m heading straight at the ground and having to pull out of the manoeuvres – I’ve watched too many people kill themselves flying loops; you see errors in yourself and others over the years, and you absolutely have to learn from it and constantly assess yourself. There will be a day where you’re not at 100% and you safeguard for that day. If, for some bizarre reason, I’ve not checked my gate height or gate speed, the half-cuban gives me everything I need as an escape route every time. Even if you’re too low and too slow at the top of that half-loop, you can roll off the top and fly away from it.
“From the engineering point of view, you become a flying engineer – you’re not a pilot who does a bit of engineering”, asserts John. After decades of maintenance and restoration, he’s seen first-hand the long-term effects that aggressive handling and indelicate throttle and propeller control can do to an aeroplane. “If you know what engine mismanagement can do, you change how you fly”, he stresses. “You know what pulling large amounts of g will do to the airframe. The guys who come from an engineering background don’t usually have an ego about flying and won’t do things they think will impress a crowd or impress their peers. They tend to look after the aeroplane more. If you’re flying in a gentle, relaxed and understanding way, your display is probably better for it; if you fly conservatively, you tend to fly the aeroplane and enjoy it. You can be out there giving the aeroplane a thrashing, but for what? These are historical artefacts and as a display pilot, you’re entrusted with preserving that history. All you should want to do is fly safely and protect that aeroplane.”
The sheer volume of air displays and the low-level, high-energy aerobatics typically flown in vintage aircraft gave rise to a series of fatal airshow accidents in the mid-1990s. The attrition rate, John recalls, was almost too much to bear. “We went through a bad period of accidents”, he says, “and in 1996 alone we lost seven display pilots who I either knew very well or was acquainted to, and one of them was my instructor. It’s never nice losing anyone in life, but when you start losing friends when you’re supposedly out having fun, it’s a particularly sharp loss. It got to the point where that dulled the brain a bit – it was meant to be pleasure, something we enjoy as a pastime, but there were people dying. I ended up locking it all away in boxes in my head, because it was the only way I could get through the 1996 season and if I hadn’t, I’d have stopped, and I didn’t want to stop. It was incredibly difficult when we reached the end of the flying season and the lids started coming off. You start with the nightmares, disbelieving your own ability and fearing you’re next. I needed to talk to someone who was devoid of the airshow world, but who understood losses. I benefited from talking to an air force medical guy, and it worked. Once you get it right in your head, you rationalise it and move on mentally.”
He continues: “I remember coming back from Rouen in June 2001, where I’d been flying next to Martin Sargeant when he was killed in Spitfire PL983. We’d lost the Vampire and Kingcobra at Biggin Hill in the 48 hours before, and we knew all those pilots very well. That shocked all of us. It felt like we were coming back from a war zone, walking in the front door at home to see your wife and children with a completely different mindset. You end up thinking, I’d better protect all this – it could be me next time. You go out and get yourself insured up to the hilt, and you do all sorts of things to protect the people you love. You think you’ve done your part, until you come home. I remember coming back from a long weekend abroad with OFMC. We’d had family friends over, and I spoke to a friend of mine at the end of the weekend. He said, ‘You realise, all weekend your wife will not answer that phone. As soon as it rings, she tells us to leave it. She can’t think about what news might be at the other end of that line’. It makes you realise what they’re going through. It’s not always good. It’s an odd thing, that what you love so dearly can cause those you love so much pain.”
Throughout the 1990s, ARCo’s operation was split between Duxford’s hangar T2 north and Building 66 (christened “Blenheim Palace”), with four full-time engineers (John included) on permanent staff and a number of others engaged on an ad hoc basis to cover the growing workload. Lindsay Walton’s Corsair underwent a major overhaul with ARCo in 1991, whilst maintenance of his Me 108 and Stearman continued. Two ex-Swiss Air Force de Havilland Vampires also passed through the company for disassembly and export to Chino, CA, whilst assistance was provided for the disassembly and coordination of the movement of the Avro York and Airspeed Ambassador from Lasham to Duxford. ARCo’s preservation work extended to high-profile static restorations to museum standard, amongst them the IWM’s Fw 190 and He 162, as well as P-51D Mustang Big Beautiful Doll, displayed prominently in the Lambeth museum for years. ARCo also dedicated considerable resources to repainting museum aeroplanes including, most impressively, the Duxford Trident and Concorde in 1990 and 1991 respectively. Their services extended to OFMC, with the Spitfire Mk.IX, Buchón, Harvard/“Zeke” and Avenger all receiving new paint schemes.
The restoration of Blenheim Mk.IV G-BPIV also continued apace, concluding with the aircraft’s first flight on 28 May 1993. John was one of three pilots entrusted with the Blenheim from 1993 to 2003, and some fantastic moments were enjoyed during its decade of airshow appearances, including participation in the VE Day flypast over central London in May 1995. A major setback came in August 2003 – returning to Duxford following a private air display with a former ARCo aviator at the controls, the pilot-in-command had erroneously been running the two Mercury engines on ‘rich’, rather than adjusting the mixture to ‘lean’ for more economic fuel consumption. Accordingly the aircraft burned fuel at a faster rate than anticipated, and the Blenheim essentially ran out of fuel on final to land, clipping the earth bank near the runway 24 threshold and ending up on its belly with severe structural and engine damage. To lose the second Blenheim, again through no mechanical fault of the aircraft, was a critical blow, not least for Graham Warner, who relinquished his role in any future restorations and stepped away from ARCo. The decision to carry out a third rebuild was taken within months of the incident, the Blenheim this time restored into Mk.I configuration which necessitated extensive modifications to the ancillary controls and cockpit section. It flew again post-restoration on 20 November 2014 in John’s hands, marking the completion of the third Blenheim restoration at Duxford.
Other airworthy aircraft brought under the ARCo banner for care and maintenance were as varied as the Avro 504, Westland Lysander and John Fairey’s Fairey Flycatcher replica. Though John’s fondness for the lovely Pratt and Whitney 985-powered Flycatcher is still much in evidence, his short time flying the aircraft was not without incident. “I was climbing out of Duxford heading north for a display, and there was a bang in the aeroplane. The aircraft pitched down vertically, to the extent that I was hanging in my straps looking directly at the ground. I pulled the stick back and it snapped back up, all the way to the stall. I neutralised the stick, levelled off and started relaxing the stick – I could feel it going again immediately. I looked back and the tailplane was dancing – the jack in the fully trimmable tailplane had sheared off, and the tailplane was loose in pitch. My first thought was that it’s bail out time, but I didn’t really want to have to do that. I tried some control assessments and found that keeping the nose high with power on in a turn held the tailplane neutral in the airflow, and kept the Flycatcher relatively stable. I slowed the aircraft to landing speed and kept the stick coming back with more and more power to stabilise the elevator in the airflow. Moving into a sideslip in the descent, I held the stick back with power on until I curved round the M11 end at Duxford and hit the grass – then it was all over. They discovered later that the vibrations from the Pratt & Whitney radial had caused fatigue in the aeroplane, and it was grounded after a wing strut failed for John Fairey. A great shame, as that was a lovely aeroplane when it wasn’t trying to kill you!”
ARCo’s profile had grown remarkably since the early days in Building 66. Concurrently, Belgian businessman and vintage aircraft aficionado Karel Bos acquired leading restoration shop Historic Flying Limited (HFL, est. 1987), then based at Audley End, and took on management of the company in 1996-97 with a view to expanding the Spitfire restoration side of the business. Bos’ vision was ostensibly to acquire an existing, reputable company to maintain the Spitfires post-restoration; with a demonstrable track record and high standing in the historic aviation industry, ARCo presented the perfect potential investment. And so it was that Karel met with John Romain, pitching his proposal to acquire ARCo and utilise the company as the maintenance outfit for HFL projects. “It had never occurred to me that anyone would want to buy it, or that I would ever want to sell it”, says John. “I rejected the proposal and I don’t think he believed me at first – it was very unusual for people to say no to Karel, and he didn’t respond particularly well.”
Bos returned to John and ARCo several months later, having failed to identify another UK-based company that had the resources to support HFL’s fleet. After some negotiation, he and Romain agreed threefold that ARCo would take on HFL’s maintenance, the pair would work together on the new venture and a bespoke hangar facility would be built at Duxford to jointly house HFL’s Spitfires and ARCo’s fleet. With the IWM’s agreement construction of the joint facility at the eastern end of Duxford commenced. After relocation from Audley End, HFL pressed on with the restoration of its extant projects including, amongst others, Spitfire Mk.V JG891 and Spitfire Mk.XIV RN201.
In time it was Karel Bos’ desire to step away from HFL, allowing John to move into a leading position at the company from 2005, instigating a complete management staff restructure to place it on a firmer financial footing before taking over the business fully in December 2007. By that point, Bos had met with entrepreneur Tom Kaplan at a private art event in London. “The art dealer knew more about the two of them than they did about themselves and put them on the same table”, John explains. “He introduced them to one another as Spitfire owners, and immediately they got talking.” Tom had two early Spitfire Mk.I projects waiting in the wings – P9374 and N3200, both recovered from the sands on Dunkirk beach – and was seeking an organisation to recreate the pair in flying condition. He was aware of HFL but understood they only restored Spitfires for the company’s owner – Karel was quick to assert that he was, in fact, said owner, and that he was in the process of passing the company to John Romain. Two high-profile early Spitfire projects, Bos asserted, would keep HFL and its workforce busy for several years.
Right he was – the builds of the two Mk.Is, assuming the identities of P9374 and N3200, set a new industry standard and re-introduced two stunningly realised examples of the spring 1940-era ‘baby’ Spitfires. Romain carried out the first test flights of both machines on 9 September 2011 and 26 March 2014 respectively. Experiences flying Messerschmitt Bf 109E White 14 for Ed Russell in Canada and, more recently, test flying the Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum’s Bf 109E in the USA have given him unique insight into the comparable handling qualities of these former adversaries. “Once I got into flying the Mk.Is, I understood how the E model Bf 109s ran rings around the earlier Spitfires. The Dunkirk-era 109E had several advantages over the earlier Mk.Is – to be able to push yourself out of trouble without the negative-g cutting the engine temporarily would have given the 109E a big advantage in a combat situation. Its armament was far superior to the Spitfire, and it had the edge as a flying aeroplane if you knew how to fly it well.
“A lot of people ask me, Battle of Britain, Spitfire vs. 109E, what would you have gone in? At the beginning of the war and into the early days of the Battle of Britain, I’d have gone for the 109E, most definitely. As a gun platform, the speed and manoeuvrability were phenomenal for the time. The Emil ended up with a negative reputation, and some of it’s true, but we discovered a lot through our operation of Ed’s 109E and we found ways to tackle those issues – if the pilots are briefed and trained properly, they all get out of them and say wow, fantastic. Of course, as the Spitfires progressed through the marks there were improvements across the board, but in May 1940? I would pick the Bf 109E every time.”
As HFL’s Chief Pilot, Romain has been responsible for the post-restoration and post-maintenance testing of more than a dozen Spitfires from the aforementioned Mk.Is to the photo reconnaissance PR.XIX variant, through V, IX, TIX, PR.XI, XIV, XVI and XVIII. Indeed, as of 2018 he has flown the Spitfire’s full surviving airworthy lineage with the exceptions of Marks II and VIII, accumulating more than 1,000 hours on type since that first flight in MH434 back in 1991. A typical test profile takes around 20 minutes and sees John taking the aeroplane through a series of performance trials – power climbs, stalls, VNE dives, aerobatics, and systems (undercarriage, flaps etc.) tests. The testing itself comes with an inherent risk, putting the aeroplane closer to the fringes of its capabilities than a typical local flight or air display would. Years of engineering and aviating experience mitigate the risks to an extent, but the ability to act in a measured, analytical fashion is fundamental.
John has experienced partial engine failures in Spitfires Mk.IX, T.IX and XVIII – the latter, he remembers, made a routine shake-down flight north of Duxford in SM845 particularly memorable. After completing a high-power climb to altitude, John closed the throttle to bring to aircraft back to the stall. “I then opened the throttle back up and nothing happened”, he explains. “Your first impression is that the fuel’s on, the fuel pumps are on and you have throttle travel – you open and close the throttle a few more times, and still nothing. Then you’re immediately thinking, where am I going to put this? You’re looking out for fields, obstacles, potential landing grounds. I remember seeing Bourn way out in the distance and knowing I wouldn’t make it if the engine didn’t pick back up. I took a moment and thought, come on, what is this? I systematically went through the cockpit – on and off with the magnetos, and still nothing. I deduced that it had to be the fuel system, so I pulled the primer out and gave it a big shot of prime – WHOOMP. The engine came back to life. It died again a few moments later and it became clear – the fuel injector had failed. The only way I was going to keep this thing in the air was by priming.”
That he did, using intermittent shots of primer to extend his glide path towards Bourn. “As I approached the airfield, I gave it a few more shots of primer. My head was a rush of thoughts – undercarriage down at the last minute, no flaps and radiator doors closed to reduce drag and keep that airspeed up for the approach. It’s all being calculated in an instant.” The Spitfire hit the runway threshold at Bourn at around 120 knots, considerably higher than the standard landing airspeed. “I knew there was a ditch at the end of the runway, I’d seen it during training. If I hit that ditch, I’d create more damage than if I bellied in somewhere. As soon as I hit the tarmac it was flaps down, rad doors down, anything to create drag. I was heavy on the brakes all the way down the runway and rolled off onto the taxiway by the threshold, leaning onto one wheel but stopping in adequate time. I later told the airfield manager that I was worried about the ditch – he said, ‘No need to worry, I filled that in four years ago’!
“You always need a Plan B – your escape plan”, he adds. That mantra was put into practice during a private airshow at Headcorn, Kent in summer 2014. Midway through an aerobatic routine in ARCo’s Buchón the Merlin 500-45 engine failed catastrophically, a connecting rod punching through the crank case during the climb into a half-cuban. Immediately the aircraft lost power, the airspeed bleeding away rapidly. That carefully considered display profile paid dividends, the altitude at the apex of the half-loop allowing John to convert height to airspeed as he pulled the aircraft off the display line and into a large wingover to re-position to land. With the Buchón violently buffeting and oil streaming from the cowling, and the lack of thrust reducing elevator authority and increasing the rate of descent, he had to get the aircraft onto the ground without hesitation. A steeper than usual glide descent and 5° of flap created a small amount of lift to mitigate against the loss of thrust. The undercarriage was lowered before the engine completely seized and the engine-driven hydraulic pump, used to operate the gear system, became defunct. “I was getting smoke and oil coming though the cockpit, and though I had shut the engine down, I was worried that it would flame up. I was too low to bail out, and identified a big field with a hedge offset from the approach. I thought, if it catches fire, I’m going to turn away and put it into the field, and I’ll take the hedge. It was very tight and I think my wheels went through the hedge by the threshold, but in the end, I got back to the field. I was talking to one of the guys at Headcorn later that afternoon and explained that I had a ‘Plan B’, which was to put it into the field and go through the hedge. He said, ‘Christ, good job you didn’t do that – there’s a pill box in that hedge! That was pretty sobering, I must say!”
The sequence of events, from engine failure to touchdown, took less than two minutes. “It’s a haunting experience”, he continues. “It suddenly goes quiet and you feel yourself move forward in the straps with the deceleration – it’s like you’ve hit something. You can’t go into auto mode and just dump your gear and flaps for landing because you think you’re landing – you aren’t. It’s a forced landing, a completely different environment. Going through your normal landing procedure can catch you out. You have to read ahead and consider what you’re trying to achieve – your goal is to get you and the aircraft down in one piece, but how you get there is the important thing. You literally feel the lift and the drag, assess what you have at your disposal, leave the gear until the end and don’t use flap unless you have to. You see people in twins, say a B-25, losing an engine and dropping their gear and flaps immediately, as they normally would – they’re just creating a whole load more drag and sacrificing airspeed, and if they lose too much airspeed, they are in trouble.
“Engineering comes into that as you understand what you can and can’t do with the aeroplane, and that knowledge could save your life”, Romain continues. “There was a lot of talk after the Spitfire accident in Rouen about why the undercarriage was left down. A lot of pilots at the time said, ‘Well, the engine failed and it couldn’t be put up as there weren’t any hydraulics’. That’s absolutely right – but it could be unlocked. The very same pilots questioned how. They’d been flying Spitfires but didn’t fully appreciate the undercarriage system. Without hydraulics, you can’t select the gear, but as soon as you retract that lever, the undercarriage pins are out. Touching the ground, the gear would fold up and the aircraft would ‘belly’ in. After that, every Spitfire we had we put up on jacks, put a hydraulic rig in it, put our pilots in the cockpit and removed the hydraulics. We then got the pilots out of the cockpit to physically look at what was going on with the undercarriage. If ever they were faced with that situation, that knowledge could help them in any force landing.
“After another accident, I spoke to my father-in-law who had been a Royal Air Force mechanic during the Second World War. He said, ‘I’ve recovered a lot of aircraft which had suffered battle damage or engine issues. We’d find the aircraft sat in a field, maybe with a wing or tailplane missing, but the pilot was back at the Mess and the aircraft was recovered for repair. Why is it that when your guys have an engine problem, they crash and can be killed?’ I got thinking about this – if you look at similar accidents, the pilots were stretching to get the aircraft back to an airfield. Why not put it in a field? Mentally, what’s that all about? It must be that they were trying to save the aeroplane above all else, to protect an asset and a piece of historic machinery – perhaps that was the primary thing. We spoke to our pilots and said, protect yourself. We know we can repair the aeroplane because it will be fundamentally re-buildable – but if you stall at 50ft or 100ft, we can probably rebuild the aircraft, but we’re not rebuilding you.”
ARCo’s operation expanded rapidly during the 2000s, with more than 50 aeroplanes under its care at any one time. Golden Apple’s T-33 Shooting Star (an ex-Haydon Baillie machine, coincidentally, flown on occasion by John) and F-86A Sabre, alongside the likes of the OV-10 Bronco and L-39 Albatross, brought ARCo into the classic jet and turboprop maintenance field, whilst the arrival of Tom Blair’s aeroplanes during the 2000s – amongst them Hurricane Mk.XII, Spitfire Mk.IX, Spitfire Mk.XIV and Hispano Buchón (later acquired by ARCo) – further expanded the based warbird fleet. Recent years have seen ARCo contracted by the Ministry of Defence to undertake ‘major plus’ restoration on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF) fleet, with most of the Spitfires and one of the Flight’s two Chipmunks brought into ARCo’s facility for a complete strip, re-spar and ‘down to zero’ rebuild. The construction of a new facility in 2016-17, christened the ‘Stephenson Hangar’, facilitated the major overhaul of the BBMF’s Avro Lancaster and the development of offices and meeting rooms for the rapidly expanding Spitfire passenger rides market that has become so prominent in recent years.
More than 45 years after leaving Tottenham Court Road cinema captivated by the Battle of Britain film’s Buchóns, John was engaged as a pilot for the combat sequences in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 Dunkirk film, heading out to Calais, Dunkirk and Lelystad aerodromes in ARCo’s Buchón, alongside three Spitfires (AR213, X4650 and EP122) and both fixed-wing and rotary camera ships. Filming over the English Channel called for a combination of air-to-air combat and low-level strafing. The initial sorties were, John recounts, somewhat fraught: “We found that we were arriving on ‘set’ with the promise of an in-air brief, but that never materialised.”
A frustrated Nolan soon visited the aerial unit to discuss the lack of cohesion between the respective teams. “We showed him the brief we’d received and he immediately saw that something had been lost in translation”, Romain adds. “He said, ‘From now on, I’m coming here every morning and I’m having breakfast with you. I’ll tell you the shots I want and you can tell me if that’s achievable, and we can discuss how we’ll do it’. As soon as he did that, it worked – although he had a much posher breakfast than we did, I must say!” The aerial unit later relocated to Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire for the majority of the air-to-air combat filming. “Nolan wanted the aerial sequences to be quite violent, but we were flying with a highly modified Yak camera ship with an IMAX camera mounted on the wing. That limited the Yak to around 130 knots, which put the Spitfires and Buchón in a very difficult position – we were finding that the Buchón’s slats were banging out in the turn, and the guys in the Spitfires were concerned with how slow we were flying.
“As a solution, we asked Craig Hosking, pilot of the Yak, to dive but found the Buchón was still overtaking in the descent with its throttle closed. After some debate we briefed Craig to pull up on our call, and we could get a lovely shot from the Yak of the Buchón and the Spitfire with the sea as a backdrop – that worked perfectly, but it was hard work to fly.” The disparity in airspeed presented another challenge during the aerial unit’s final shot. Nolan had briefed the Buchón to tuck in closely behind the Yak’s tail for a complete roll, the rearward mounted IMAX cameras capturing the manouevre from just a few feet away. John was airborne on his eighth trip of the day: “We were all getting pretty knackered. I’d already fallen out of two rolls because the Buchón just wouldn’t complete the roll at such low airspeed. On the second of those, I recovered below 300ft above the water and thought, this is getting a bit silly now. Chris looked at the footage and said, ‘Well, it sort of works but you fell out of frame on the last scene’. You could say that!” John’s suggestion was for the Yak to dive with the Buchón trailing, and on his call, the Yak would climb into a roll with the Buchón closing the gap and slotting in behind. It was an ambitious manoeuvre, and one not devoid of risk. To add to the pressure, Nolan would be joining Craig Hosking in the Yak, viewing the IMAX camera feed live from the rear seat. “We went up and I called the shot. In the roll, I was catching the Yak rapidly – too rapidly. As we were inverted I was only a few feet off the Yak’s tail, and as we rolled out I slipped underneath the Yak and away. The shot worked, and Chris was delighted, but the margins were uncomfortably small – to take out one of the biggest grossing Hollywood directors would not look good on my CV!”
John flew 40 hours in the Buchón during the filming of Dunkirk, capturing spectacular aerial sequences that drew universal critical acclaim. The film went on to receive numerous nominations, including Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The efforts of all involved were recognised at the 2018 Taurus Stunt Awards in Los Angeles, with Dunkirk winning ‘Best speciality stunt’ for the film’s extensive aerial sequences. John was there to collect the award. “That was a real honour – it’s always nice to have your hard work rewarded, and a lot of people, Chris included, worked incredibly hard to make Dunkirk what it was.”
After more than 30 years of air display flying and aeroplane restorations, John Romain has rendered a distinguished and dedicated service to the historic aircraft preservation scene. His accomplishments are, it’s fair to say, far too numerous to account for here. Moreover, he’s helped build ARCo and HFL into successful, sustainable businesses that have set standards within the international historic aircraft restoration and preservation community. As a testament to his professional skill, John was the inaugural recipient of The Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators’ Hanna Trophy in October 2013, awarded in recognition of ‘an outstanding contribution to the art of display flying of fighter aircraft’.
“As with anything in life, there are times when I sit and think, maybe it’s time to retire”, he contemplates. “But every day at Duxford is different – there are always new challenges, and that keeps the passion alight. I sometimes walk through the hangar on a quiet weekend and pause to take it all in for a moment – stood surrounded by half a dozen or more Spitfires, the Blenheim, a Buchón, Mustangs, Hurricanes… It’s pretty incredible to see how far it’s all come since the formative years in Building 66, whittling away with our small team. I stood outside the hangars not too long ago and we had the Blenheim flanked by three Spitfires that were waiting to head off, the Mk.I Spitfire was airborne, the T.IX Spitfires were flying passengers, there was an Anson flying circuits and the P-47 was up for a practice display. I said to one of our volunteers, ‘Just look at this – nowhere else in the world can you experience this.’
“On the flying side, the flight testing element is something I love and I’m enjoying passing those testing skills to people like Martin Overall, Historic Flying Ltd’s Chief Engineer, who is starting to get into the testing. I’m equally becoming more and more involved, once again, in the hangar side. I’ve spent years putting the companies into a position where they and their staff are doing well without me having to micro-manage. I get a huge amount of enjoyment in the challenges of restorations and watching them come together, and we’ve certainly got some interesting challenges coming up”, he adds. 2018 has seen the return to flight of Spitfire PR.XI PL983 and Westland Lysander V9312, with John taking a leading role in the latter’s restoration. The Grumman Wildcat project is waiting in the wings, whilst other unique restorations, including that of the Fairey Firefly, continue behind the scenes. “I always want to feel that I’m justifying my position in the company – I don’t want to back off and expect others to put the work in. I’ll be out there sweeping the floors with the apprentices. In many ways, it’s a reflection of where I’ve come from.
“My two boys being here is great and I love seeing them being more involved and seeing first hand what’s been achieved”, he continues. A life of aircraft restoration, maintenance and displaying flying took its toll on family life, keeping John away from wife Amanda and sons George and Alex. The boys, now young men, currently have full-time jobs at ARCo as Brand Manager and Engineer respectively. “I was never around when they were children. I never really saw them grow up. It was hard, having a young family, and I was guilty of locking it away because I had to. If I thought about it too much, it would be overwhelming. My wife brought the boys up alone a lot of the time. It’s lovely to see George and Alex recognising how far the company has come – that doesn’t make it right, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity to spend more time with them now they are young men and I’m glad they can benefit from that success.”
It feels at least somewhat poetic that John’s path has led him back to some of the aircraft he flew at the very beginning of his career. ARCo’s Buchón, a veteran of the Battle of Britain film that lit a fire in John’s imagination back in 1969, has become one of his favourite mounts and was key to the recent Dunkirk filming ARCo was so heavily involved in. OFMC’s Spitfire Mk.IX MH434 now falls under ARCo’s care and maintenance, putting John back at the controls of the first Spitfire he flew in 1991. The ex-Scandinavian Historic Flight Mustang, formerly Old Crow, is now owned by Shaun Patrick, operated under the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation banner and maintained by ARCo. Back in 1991 it was the first P-51 John flew, under the gaze of Anders Saether and Mark Hanna. In 2017 things came full circle as he was afforded the opportunity to fly the Tillamook Air Museum’s F4U-7 Corsair NX1337A in Oregon – the ex-Lindsay Walton machine that was his entry point into the warbird scene nearly 30 years ago. “I remembered the scratches on the instrument panel from when I flew the aircraft from Duxford in 1989 – they’re still there. It was amazing, like catching up with an old friend. We get to experience that every day at ARCo, with the aircraft we now have under our care. They’re all special in their own ways.”
John muses on the thought. “It brings back all the memories, all the people, some of whom have gone. You remember where you’ve been in them, the guys who flew them, the memories you have with them, and you start missing people. Guys like Ray and Mark, Hoof and John Larcombe who we lost way too soon. You can see their faces, hear their voices – sometimes it’s like they never left. Part of them lives on with the aircraft, in a way. I occasionally have the opportunity to fly MH434. It’s funny, all vintage aeroplanes have their own smell, and you could put me blindfolded in MH434 and I’d know immediately. I had some very special trips in her with some very special people. Every time I sit in that cockpit, I think of Ray and Mark and the lives we lived all those years ago.”
With thanks to John Romain and the Aircraft Restoration Company.