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The NHS Spitfire Summer

The NHS Spitfire Summer

“It’s an interesting one to think on, isn’t it?” asks John Romain. “Increasingly we see people’s fondness for historic aircraft not necessarily because of what they did in the war, but for what they’ve done since.

“The people who’ve flown them, the things they’ve done with them and the places they’ve taken them. Perhaps that’s the natural progression of historic aircraft, particularly warbirds, as the generational link between the Second World War and the present-day fades. It’s fascinating to see an 80-year old aircraft carving out its history like this.”

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The aeroplane he’s referring to is the Aircraft Restoration Company’s (ARC) Spitfire PR.XI PL983, affectionately known as ‘L’ after the late Lettice Curtis, whose signature emblazons the side of the Spitfire’s fuselage in honour of her exploits racing the aircraft in the late 1940s.

A little aft of her signature, strikingly hand-written in white lettering and covering the entirety of the Spitfire’s tail feathers and rear fuselage, are the names of some 6,400 people. These are the doctors, nurses and carers, parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts, partners, friends and neighbours – ordinary people whose lives were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic – nominated in ARC’s UK National Health Service (NHS) Charities appeal. Underwing reads the simple message that defines the campaign: ‘THANK U NHS’.

Throughout July to September 2020, John Romain and ‘L’ carried that message to hospitals in all corners of the United Kingdom to honour the medical professionals treating Covid patients on the so-called frontline. More than that, the Spitfire offered many a glimmer of normality in an otherwise bleak period; people turned out in their droves to see ‘L’ flying over. The NHS Spitfire saga is, John says, “the final stop on a chapter” that has spanned five decades [A History: John Romain & Spitfire PR.XI PL983, April 2019].

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2020 began with Spitfire PL983 hangar-bound at Duxford and undergoing extensive repair following a landing incident the previous summer. With the country placed into the first Covid lockdown and all non-essential workplaces closed in March, ARC’s engineers were sent home and work on ‘L’ temporarily ceased. As restrictions eased and with the nationwide ban on general aviation flying lifted mid-spring, Martin Overall and a small team of engineers pushed hard to ready ‘L’ for its impending return to flight.

That came in May 2020, with John Romain conducting the aircraft’s first post-repair test flight within the new CAA-mandated ten-mile radius for maintenance and test flights. “We came back to the hangar that morning to the ‘phone ringing”, remembers Romain, “and it was people from Duxford village who’d been sat in their garden and had seen it fly over. They were delighted something was flying again after nearly two months of the private operators being grounded and the museum being closed to the public. It gave them a brief return to normality, I think – it certainly did for us.”

Coincidentally, that flight occurred on a Thursday – the day of the weekly 8pm ‘Clap for Carers’ that was a fixture for two months in spring 2020. “I said to George, why don’t we delay the second test flight until 8 o’clock tonight and we’ll fly over my home village, as it’s within ten miles of the airfield. The thinking was that people would be on their doorsteps or in their gardens clapping and would be primed to see ‘L’ flying over.” That flight centred around local villages and neighbouring towns where friends and family members lived; it was equally well-received by the locals, and accordingly much of the Spitfire’s testing was concluded by flying near to local villages within the ten-mile radius.

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“Everyone was sat around indoors or in their gardens when the weather was beautiful”, he says, “and that was a conscious decision to give people something to enjoy at a pretty bleak time. It was heartening to see so many people getting in touch to thank us for brightening their day. Those of us on this side of the fence can easily lose sight of what these aeroplanes mean to a lot of people.”

Apropos of nothing, John’s son George noted in passing the aptness in the similarity of the NHS’ blue house colours and the Spitfire’s photo reconnaissance blue paint scheme. That casual observation, John explains, cultivated the defining feature of the aerial campaign. “The last ‘Clap for Carers’ was coming up and George suggested we paint a message underneath the Spitfire to mark the occasion. We settled on ‘Thank You NHS’, abbreviated and capitalised to ‘THANK U NHS’, which is about as much lettering as you can fit underwing without the characters being so small as to be indistinguishable from the ground, and painted it on with removable paint.

“We then started thinking about whether we could expand the profile of that flight to include other villages and towns within the ten miles; of course, Cambridge is within ten miles too, and just outside Cambridge is Addenbrookes Hospital. It was a no-brainer to explore that avenue as a way of including more of the local community and the healthcare professionals working on the front line, so we headed over to Addenbrookes to check out the site and confirm its suitability.”

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The response to that flight on Thursday, 28 May was enormous. Laybys and country lanes around Duxford were inundated, and large numbers of people waited for ‘L’ on their doorsteps or in their gardens. “We were flooded with calls and e-mails from people who’d seen us flying over”, John says. “The difference was that we’d overflown Addenbrookes; the intended audience had seen it in their droves. The local papers and news channel got it. Although at that point we had only announced it on our social media without too much fanfare, there were people parked up on the roadsides around Duxford – the message was out there, and there was clear interest from people. It grew from that organically and on the back of NHS staff having seen us that Thursday, it was actually other hospitals contacting us asking for overflights that made us consider making this a bigger endeavour.

“The NHS got involved as a result of that and contacted us directly to ask what our intentions were. They could see the value in making this a bigger deal and getting the Spitfire in front of more people. We hadn’t planned to do anything beyond Addenbrookes, but we were happy to extend the flightpath to overfly a number of hospitals in East Anglia; from there, we linked with the NHS’ people to coordinate regionally with hospitals and the local press. For the next two weeks, we bugged out to a number of hospitals, and the NHS asked whether we might consider taking this nationwide. After some discussion, we decided to do it – we would take ‘L’ across the UK, delivering the ‘Thank You NHS’ message to as many hospitals as we could.”

It quickly became a family effort. George Romain and his girlfriend Lucy Stephens liaised with the NHS to identify lists of hospitals by county – more than 250 in total – whilst John combed the country region by region to plot refuelling stops at regional airfields and airports, and map clusters of hospitals in suitable proximity to one another that could be overflown during each sortie. NHS involvement aside, “people were asking how they could have some kind of attachment to it. They wanted to be involved and put their name to it. Our concern was that allowing too many people to help could muddy the waters, particularly if we accepted offers of sponsorship. George made the good point that as soon as we accept those offers, those people or companies have a degree of ownership and we lose a degree of control. It becomes a flying billboard, and we didn’t want that – we didn’t even want to put the ARC name on it. It had to be purely about the NHS, or we wouldn’t do it at all.”

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Accordingly, the Romains devised a campaign whereby those wishing to be involved could make a minimum contribution of £10 directly to the NHS Trusts Together charity via a dedicated page, in turn nominating a friend or family member to have their name hand-written on the Spitfire. “The idea is to recognise what the press dubbed the ‘local heroes’ – the people who have made a difference either in the community or to individuals’ lives. That’s what this ultimately is – a massive community project that started at Duxford.”

The campaign launched on Sunday, 5 July 2020 – the NHS’ 72nd birthday – and to mark the occasion John was back up over East Anglia in ‘L’, this time overflying nine hospitals across Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. At the date of publication, some 6,400 donors have raised almost £150,000 for NHS Trusts Together. “We could fit 80,000 names on the Spitfire and though in the event we’ve got several thousand written on, we’re close to covering the whole fuselage and tail. We’ve also put the UK county flags on – England on one side, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other. There are so many examples of people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic; whether it’s buying groceries for elderly neighbours or caring for a sick relative. It’s very humbling to read the stories on the appeal page. In a way, it’s a snapshot of people’s experiences during the pandemic.”

With the second official NHS Spitfire overflights scheduled for Friday, 10 July, the logistical exercise of coordinating between ARC, the NHS and the respective hospitals across the whole UK was in full flow. Meanwhile, back in ARC’s hangar, Amanda Romain and Lucy began the arduous task of writing the donors’ names onto the Spitfire in batches, starting at the rudder and working forwards.

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Says John: “I’d then go into the aviation charts app on my iPad and map the waypoints onto that chart so I’d know exactly where each hospital was in relation to controlled airspace, urban areas and so on. Luckily, ninety percent of hospitals are on the edge of the big town or city. Addenbrookes, for example, has fields on one side and I could fly over those fields above 500ft. There were others, such as Belfast, where the hospitals were effectively under the flightpath of the airport, so I planned to make an approach and go-around at the airport and then overfly the hospital on the climb out.

“I typically cruised around at 1,500 to 2,000ft, then descended to nothing lower than 1,000ft over the hospitals. The lower you are, the fewer people see you. Seeing the message underwing was the most important thing; height and conservative airspeed was the best way of achieving that. If the timing allowed, I’d fly an orbit to allow them to see the wording underwing, then I’d fly over, waggle the wings and disappear to the next one. If I was running late, I’d make a single pass to make sure they saw the message, then fly off waggling the wings.

“I’d look at the distances and calculate the timings based on my usual 180kt cruise speed, which is three miles a minute.  I’d assess the likelihood of diversions for built-up areas, factor that into the timings to give myself a margin, then produce a list of timings against each hospital that would then be stuck in the cockpit. From that, George produced the map-based graphics and timings that went out to the media and the NHS.

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“I then considered where I’d need to talk to ATC; most of the time, I didn’t have to. If I wasn’t going into an air traffic zone or near a city, I didn’t need to talk to them. You don’t need permission from the CAA to fly cross-country above 500ft, so we didn’t need any kind of pre-clearance in that respect. Any time I flew near to a city, I spoke to ATC and nine times out of ten, as soon as I said I was the NHS Spitfire they did whatever they could to help. I didn’t have any difficulties with that – to the extent that I’d call up and as soon as they heard that, they were really helpful. They understood what we were trying to do.”

Friday 10th saw ‘L’ launching from Duxford for two sorties, overflying 19 hospitals and air ambulance bases in five East Anglian counties, as far south as the NHS Nightingale hospital erected at the ExCeL centre in London’s historic east end docklands. “I’d be looking for hospitals, struggling to pick them out”, remembers Romain of those earlier flights. “At that point I wasn’t using the GPS software, I was using Google Maps to identify the hospital, then using an old map to pick it out before identifying it from the air on the day. Once I used the combination of different software, it provided an accurate waypoint and made picking out the hospitals far easier.

“The bigger hospitals are obviously visible; most have helipads that appear on the map, and large ambulance parks that stand out. You then have the medium ones with no helipad but ambulance parks and a bigger building. The smallest are most difficult – usually an older brick building with very few defining features. I discovered that most have chimneys, which helped, but the smallest ones were really about seeing the people gathered outside.”

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A vast swathe of England was covered in the subsequent eight flights over July and August, by which point almost 120 hospitals, hospices, ambulance bases and air ambulance facilities had been visited by ‘L’ and her ‘THANK U NHS’ message. “The big thing is that once you’ve announced where you’re going, you’ve declared the route and you’ve declared the timings, there’s a pressure to not let people down”, John says. “Most people have no idea what it takes to get a Spitfire over that hospital at that time, especially when you have a big route to fly and you’re battling the weather and fuel considerations.”

At conservative cruise power settings and an airspeed of 180kts, the Spitfire can remain airborne for one hour and 40 minutes before fuel becomes critical. With each flight planned quite literally to the minute, there was little room for deviation, particularly during the long cross-country flights. “Normally I’d come off the last hospital and I’d be landing at one hour, 40 minutes”, he adds. “With a big headwind or bad weather that slows you down or knocks you off course, it’s not possible to just open the throttle as you’d end up burning too much fuel.”

Saturday, 18 July was a significant day in the NHS Spitfire summer. The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden was debuting its new drive-in airshow format – the first of its kind in the world, and the first UK airshow of the pandemic – and ‘L’ had been invited to participate. “Naturally, that’s a great honour”, John adds, “and I love displaying at Old Warden. Great people, great airshows. Their success is well and truly deserved, and it was a privilege to fly at their first drive-in airshow.”

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Indeed, Romain was back at Old Warden the following month for August’s drive-in airshow, much to the delight of the 900-strong crowd. Having visited 28 hospitals the day before, ‘L’ departed Duxford on Sunday, August 2nd to overfly the British Grand Prix at Silverstone race course, where its flypast coincided with a two-minute round of applause for NHS workers, before heading to Old Warden. Unbeknownst to all but the Romains, John and ‘L’ had been charged to fulfil a particularly poignant assignment that day.

“A guy wrote to us on behalf of the father of a nine-year-old girl who had sadly died of a brain tumour about a month before. Her fascination in life was aviation and she’d grown up next to Mildenhall air base. When she was ill, the US Air Force had invited her to the base and she’d sat in one of the aircraft. She’d got this little booklet of photos of her with aeroplanes. She’d had this incredible interest for someone of that age and her dad told us that like many children, her favourite aircraft was the Spitfire. They asked if we would carry a photograph of her in the aeroplane during one of our hospital overflights.

“There’s a lot of weight in that”, John says. “It’s not an easy thing to do. We had several routes we were flying that week and I decided I wasn’t going to take the photograph on any of those routes. I was going to do it, but it needed to be the right time and we opted to only tell the family once we’d done it. I didn’t want their expectations to be really high on a certain day and then the weather stops it, or the aircraft goes unserviceable. More importantly, if anything happened to the aeroplane or me, it would be devastating to them if that was the flight.

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“In the end, I took her with me when I did the flight over Silverstone. I’d offered to fly by at Old Warden that day and I ended up displaying again. When we got back we took pictures of the girl’s photograph in the aeroplane, signed the photographs and sent them to the family. They were blown away. It was very emotional.”

By September, it was the turn of the south-western counties to be visited by the Spitfire – flying out of Goodwood, ‘L’ overflew hospitals across Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall – and then Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in turn. Wednesday 16th’s planned flight from Duxford to Cumbernauld was cut short by low cloud and worsening visibility – the first of only two sorties to be curtailed by weather. “We’d planned to do the north-east coast as part of the Scotland to Ireland trip, covering off Newcastle, Sunderland, Carlisle and Cumbernauld, but I had to turn back on the day as the weather closed in”, says John. Undeterred, he was back up the following day, launching out of Cumbernauld for one of the most ambitious days yet.

Routing via Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow, ‘L’ overflew some 25 hospitals in three flights before landing at Derry, Northern Ireland, mid-afternoon. The northern legs were, Romain says, the most challenging due to the distances involved, the number of refuelling stops required and the considerable overwater transits between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. “That itself isn’t a challenge as it’s no different to transiting to an airshow up north or overseas”, he adds, “but it’s another risk to factor in.”

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A brief rest followed before flights across Northern Ireland and Wales on Friday, 18 September, this time taking in 11 hospitals in Northern Ireland before landing at Newtownards. The second flight of the day covered a further five hospitals across Wales, before John and the Spitfire headed east and home to Duxford. “The more flights we did, the more people turned out. You could see the effects of word of mouth and the regional and national media coverage. We turned up at Newtownards and there was the equivalent of an airshow crowd there – thousands had turned out all around the local area, and the officials said it had been brilliant for the airport. The Chairman of the Trustees for the Northern Ireland NHS came out to see us and presented us with a drawing of Scrabo Tower. That felt like a significant moment in the saga, where we really felt the scale of what we were doing.”

Though public support was overwhelming in the main, a project with widespread media coverage conducted at such an emotionally-charged time was destined to draw criticism from some quarters. In many cases, it was the perceived conflation of the Second World War and the Covid pandemic that was viewed as insensitive. “You always get the naysayers whenever you do anything in this world”, John says, “and along the way we had a few comments to the effect of, ‘We can’t believe you’re thanking the NHS in a killing machine’. We could quite openly and honestly say that it isn’t. It never carried guns, it carried cameras. After the war it was raced by Lettice Curtis and had a rich civil life. Its history is innocent of combat in that sense.” Would ARC have committed to the endeavour with another Spitfire had ‘L’ not been airworthy at the time? “No”, John says without a pause, “I don’t think we would. The others are all combat aircraft by design, and it simply wouldn’t be appropriate. We’re sensitive to that. I’d go as far as to say that we wouldn’t have done this in any other aircraft.”

John remembers that later in the summer “one of the TV reporters had seen the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight overflying London on 15 September for the 80th anniversary. His view was that flying three Spitfires and a Hurricane over London was fine, it was a combat commemoration. This is a different kind of war. This aeroplane is doing good for the new Battle of Britain, which is a completely different type of combat, and this is the perfect aeroplane for it because of its history. Whether you agree with his perspective or not, and there’s a lot of discourse around comparing the Covid response with the Battle of Britain, is down to individual interpretation.”

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That aside, a common misnomer in the social media comments sections over the summer was that ‘L’ was somehow ‘Boris Johnson’s Spitfire’, paid for by the government of the day. “The government was categorically not involved”, John stresses. “Some people thought the NHS funded it, or the government funded it, that sort of thing. From a financial point of view, nobody had any involvement in it rather than us. Putting it very bluntly, we paid every penny. As the project picked up steam, we had people and businesses approach us wanting to make a financial donation in exchange for advertising on the aircraft, but we wanted to keep it clean – that’s the only way this would work. It had to be done by us, for the right reasons, not for financial gain.

“We told a couple of companies that we couldn’t accept a sizeable donation ourselves, but if they wanted to donate a chunk of money to the chosen NHS charities, we would put their workforce’s names on the side of the aircraft. If you go down the advertising route, you shoulder obligations for those companies – be it putting a logo or hashtag on your aircraft, or the expectation of flying over a particular hospital or location, for example.”

As the flights drew towards their climax as summer turned to autumn, “there was still that pressure to overfly Teesside, which had been missed due to the bad weather”, John says. “I was back on their local radio programme discussing why I was unable to do it! Eventually I hit it – but it was a busy, busy trip with a lot of waypoints.” That flight launched on Tuesday, 22 September – the last date in the NHS Spitfire tour. It was an ambitious plan, routing north to Teesside for fuel and then back down south to Humberside, taking in 26 hospitals in four hours’ flying time. Running into poor weather over West Yorkshire on the southerly leg, the difficult decision was made in-flight to abort the overflight of Airedale General Hospital.

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“I’m hung up on Airedale”, John nods. Though he concedes it was the right call on the day, the decision still weighs on him. “Twice I’ve missed it because of the weather. You hate to let people down, particularly given the circumstances. I departed Teesside, hit a bunch of waypoints [15 in total – Ed.] and then ran into low cloud on the southerly leg. Airedale is situated in a valley and committing to it required a deviation from a straight leg of the flight. We’d planned for that but didn’t have the fuel capacity to factor in such poor weather and a serious headwind to contend with; committing to go up the valley would take ten minutes off my time and I hadn’t got ten minutes of fuel to work with. I had no choice other than to knock it on the head. It remains the one hospital I haven’t done yet. I’ve not written it off, though. I’ll probably launch out of Duxford in 2021 specifically to hit Airedale, then bolt into Humberside for fuel.”

Airedale aside, John says that “the timing structure margins meant that we were on time at each hospital throughout the summer, but that was the pressure – we knew hospital staff would come out to see the Spitfire, and if we missed our timing, they would miss us and it’d all be for nothing. We were proud of the fact that our worst time was +4 minutes. A lot of them were overflown within 20 or 30 seconds of the planned time. Across 255 hospitals, that’s not bad going!

“Of the 255, there is one I’ll never forget. I could see at least 30 or 40 of the staff in their blue uniforms waving bedsheets in the carpark! Some hospitals parked ambulances into either a ‘V’ or ‘NHS’ lettering. Some of the heliports lined the helicopters up with the staff stood in front of them. Others, there were hundreds of people outside, on the roof, on top of the car park… It was very special to see all of that, no two ways about it.”

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In reviewing ‘L’s’ Spitfire summer, John reveals that the 18 August flight across the Midlands and west country held particular importance for the Romain family; in some ways, he says, it brought his association with the aircraft full circle. “My mother is in a care home in Bedworth, which was on the Birmingham leg. I set Bedworth as my reporting point and orbited there. They’d got the residents outside and waving, where they could. I’ve got the photo of my brother and I with our mother stood in front of PL983 at Old Warden in 1969, that you published in the first ‘L’ article. I now know of five other people who have similar family photographs and for some of them ‘L’ was the first Spitfire they saw, as it was for me.

“It’s interesting… A friend of mine from the past called me recently and said he was now working with Norwich air ambulance. He said, you may not know this, but Lettice Curtis left some of her personal effects with Norwich air ambulance. He sent me her general flying notes for the Spitfire, which we’re going to put into a holder and carry in the aeroplane. My mother’s is the only name inside the cockpit door, Lettice’s is on the forward fuselage and all the others are along the rear fuselage. In some ways, those names tie together its history… It’s all special to that aeroplane.”

Turning to the future, John confides that the thousands of nominees’ names will be left on ‘L’ for at least the next two years and hints at growing interest to see the Spitfire as far afield as New Zealand and the USA. It’s also likely the Spitfire will make further hospital flights in summer 2021 and there is talk of bringing the aircraft to regional airfields and airports to allow spectators to see it up close.

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In the meantime, the long autumn and winter ‘off season’ has given John time to contemplate the significance of last summer. It’s a time of consolidation and restructuring at ARC as John prepares the company for his eventual retirement. That’s still a long way off, he stresses, but he anticipates a gradual step away from the day-to-day running of the company over the next few years.

“In many ways, the NHS Spitfire has come at the right time for us”, he says on reflection. “We put all of our talents into that one thing knowing we can do a good job of it in a year where we did very little else in the way of flying. It’s been a huge amount of hard work in all sorts of different arenas. Decades of ARC’s knowledge and experience went into making each aspect of the endeavour work. There is a weight of responsibility to the whole thing – we had to get it right.” As a testament to their efforts, John and his wife Amanda received MBEs (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the New Years Honours for services to charity and to aircraft restoration, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For John Romain, the NHS Spitfire project has carved another revolution in his shared history with ‘L’. The two remain intertwined more than 50 years after their first meeting. “It isn’t the final thing I’ll do, I’m sure”, he says, “and it won’t be the last significant thing ARC does. But it does put the final stop on a chapter… And it’s a worthy end to that chapter.”