“My first flight was when I was two weeks old, sitting on my mother’s lap in the front of the Stampe with my sister on my father’s lap in the back”, laughs Richard Grace, “both of us wearing foam-filled leather footballs as helmets!”
That was summer 1984. It’s a recollection made bittersweet by the fact that 4-year old Richard lost his father Nick in a car accident in October 1988. Nick Grace was a leading light in the industry and an accomplished engineer and pilot responsible for the recovery and preservation of historic aeroplanes, amongst them Spitfire Mk XVI TE184, Buchón G-BOML, and Tempests Mk II MW763 and Mk V EJ693.
Most famous of all was Spitfire Mk TIX ML407, acquired in late 1979 and restored over a five-year period culminating in its return to flight on 16 April 1985. In the wake of Nick’s death, his wife Carolyn resolved to keep the Spitfire in the family as a tribute to her late husband; more than that, she carried on the Grace aviation legacy by becoming the first woman to fly a Spitfire in the present day, which she did under the tutelage of the polymathic Pete Kynsey.
It’s no surprise, then, that their son Richard – the younger of the two Grace children – found his vocation in historic aircraft preservation. He is now manager and chief engineer of Air Leasing Ltd, the Grace family’s aircraft restoration and maintenance company and one of the foremost facilities of its kind in Europe, and is recognised as one of the finest purveyors of high-performance warbirds. His office in the Spitfire Blister hangar at Sywell, Northants overlooks a menagerie of airworthy and soon-to-be-airworthy classic aeroplanes, amongst them Thunderbolt, Mustang, Hawkers Tempest, Fury and Hurricane, and several Spitfires of marks V through XIV.
His insatiable passion for vintage aircraft, particularly V12 and radial warbirds, has inspired many owners to base their aircraft with the company; as a testament to Air Leasing’s profile, the ever-growing fleet continues to swell inexorably and now occupies multiple hangars at Sywell and nearby Duxford.
“I’m really lucky to have grown up around some wonderful people who were incredibly kind with their time”, Richard says with his customary modesty. “I owe everything I’ve accomplished to the people who have seen fit to trust me. There’s nothing preordained or inevitable about my life in aviation and where I’ve ended up.” We’re talking via a Zoom video call in the final days of October 2020, the newly implemented Covid-19 restrictions precluding an in-person meeting at Sywell. Richard reflects on his career in his typically affable manner, flitting with ease between self-effacing good humour and thoughtful insight.
Within a couple of years of Nick’s death Carolyn, daughter Olivia and youngest child Richard had moved to north Essex, and the Spitfire to Duxford. By the early 1990s, Carolyn was accepting an increasing number of airshow bookings, the ‘Grace Spitfire’ by then a prominent fixture on the circuit and Duxford well established as a warbird mecca. It was the zenith of the warbird preservation movement and the likes of Ray and Mark Hanna, Stephen Grey and ‘Hoof’ Proudfoot – towering, irrepressible personalities – cast inspirationally long shadows in young Richard’s eyes.
“When mum was off doing airshows in the summer, I’d spend the days at Duxford nosing around the hangars and watching any flying that was going on”, Richard remembers. “It was the height of the Hannas and the Greys and Duxford was golden. As a kid, of course I wanted to be like them! I’d wait around for them to set off together and while they were off at shows I’d spend hours and hours in the Motion Dynamic Simulator in the Super Hangar, watching the inept wingman getting absolutely nailed by the Spitfire in the video.
“There was no one at Duxford who wasn’t sympathetic and accommodating to my enthusiasm. Mark Hanna in particular was very kind to me and he’d always make the time to show me round the aeroplanes. He was always getting bollockings by megaphone from David Henchie, the airfield manager: ‘Mark! Is that Richard Grace out there? He’s not allowed live-side, bring him back here!’”
In his teens, Richard inevitably transitioned from enthusiastic observer to keen participant, first carrying out his two-week school work experience assignment at The Fighter Collection (TFC) before returning to Duxford for a longer stint volunteering with the collection during the six-week school summer holiday. “They had the coolest aeroplanes going and I’d still be quite happy sitting in Hangar 2 cleaning them! That’s when I met Dave Puleston, and we’ve had a loving relationship ever since! Being around TFC as a teenager gave me an excellent grounding in being in a busy aviation environment.
“It also got me hooked on engineering. I started working on our Stampe in the corner of Hangar 2 North at Duxford when I was around 15 and did its annual inspections – under supervision I might add – throughout my teens. That was really the start of the engineering side, which I just loved. It’s supremely satisfying to see an aircraft you’ve worked on fly and that’s something that’s stuck with me – I still get a buzz from rolling an aircraft I’ve worked on out of the hangar at Sywell and watching it go flying.”
Though he’d been flying in the Grace family’s Stampe SV-4C G-AXNW for many years, Richard’s formal flight training began at age 15. That early experience was ultimately very brief; 29 July 1999 was the first flight recorded in Richard’s logbook, one of just five trips in the Tiger Moth from Cambridge Airport. “I flew with the Cambridge Flying Group while I was doing my GCSEs. The school thought it was brilliant until they realised it meant taking Wednesday afternoons off to go flying, which quickly soured them to the idea.” Far more formative was his first flight in the family Spitfire the following year. That short ride to Rochester for a BAe open day was the perfect motivator, and the visceral theatre of back-seating a V12 fighter solidified a longstanding desire to fly warbirds.
“I can’t stress enough that all I wanted to do was fly! Warbirds were absolutely the long-term goal. My grounding in Spitfire flying and aerobatics was with Pete Kynsey when I was 16 – I flew my first loop in a Spitfire, which must be unusual! It’s probably equally as unusual to have a Spitfire flight in the first page of your logbook. The fact I got to do that in the Spitfire is special and definitely put me in good stead from very early on. Mum knew exactly the right time to incentivise me on the Spitfire and that gave me an even bigger push to get my PPL.”
In preparation for that, ancillary training in the Stampe continued when schooling allowed. “I was 17 in 2001 and flew four trips with Pete out of Duxford in the Stampe that year, probably totalling around an hour’s flying time, before heading to Australia for their summer to further my training on a Cessna 150. It’s a wonderful and romantic concept to fly your entire PPL on a Stampe or a Pitts Special, but it’s not a particularly realistic goal.” That time in Canberra was a fantastic exercise in hour-building and fuelled Richard’s progression towards the PPL. “I had about 70 hours’ actual flying time when I got my licence at Earls Colne on December 2nd, 2003 because I’d flown a lot in Australia, though the UK CAA said I couldn’t claim the Australian time here. I then flew a few light aircraft, Robin 200 and the like, to get more experience and then did my tailwheel conversion with Anna Walker at Headcorn.
“As soon as I had my tailwheel conversion, I was gagging to get my own aeroplane.” As luck should have it, Cassutt Sport 111M G-BPVO had just been put up for sale. Sleek, fast and terrifically good fun, the Formula One racer was the perfect aperitif. “I spoke to Steve Jones; he advised against buying it – with good reason, I might add, as the Cassutt had a reputation and was a slippery aircraft for a new PPL with no experience of flying anything quite so sporty – but I ended up buying it anyway. Once I got that Cassutt in early 2005, I went absolutely berserk. I flew literally every day I could. Dave Puleston and I were always flying up to Leicester together in formation – me on his wing, or him on mine. I started flying the Cassutt with around 80 hours’ time and started formation flying before I hit 100 hours. I flew over 100 hours in 12 months in that aircraft. It was massively good fun!
“Almost everyone was adamant that I should buy a Piper Cub. If I had, there’s no way I’d have done 100 hours in a year, that’s for sure! I have what I used to call a minimum tolerable speed, which my Aussie friend coined the more aviation-sounding VMT – Velocity Minimum Tolerable. I’ve worked out that my VMT is 140 mph, which is bad for a guy who has 650 hours on Pitts Specials! But the Cassutt met that and the way it covered ground so quickly is probably responsible for why I’m now more interested in flying fast in warbirds.”
The Cassutt was a gateway into the air display scene and in G-BPVO Richard made his public airshow debut at the UK leg of the Red Bull Air Race series, held at Longleat Safari Park. “Paul Bonhomme was responsible for that”, Richard recalls, “and we were chatting one day at Leicester when he mentioned Red Bull were looking for racing aircraft to display at Longleat. He asked if I had a DA [Display Authorisation]. I didn’t; he told me to go off and get one. I then went to Pete Kynsey and he worked me through the process. I had 153 hours at the time, which wasn’t bad for someone of my age.” The paperwork was summarily signed off in July 2005 and the following month Richard debuted at Longleat in a pairs display with Anna Walker, who was flying Pete Kynsey’s Cosmic Wind.
“It was great fun and quite a nice, gentle way of getting started”, Richard says. More airshows were on the way, and the arrival of a second Cassutt in July 2006 – this being the aptly named G-RUNT, initially painted light blue with cream rudder and spat ‘shoes’ – then a third, G-BOMB, set the wheels in motion for a three-ship display act. “The most important thing was meeting Dave at TFC as a kid and watching him flying around in G-RUNT at one of the ‘feed the lions’ things and thinking that little aeroplane looked pretty damned cool. When it came up for sale I got in touch with Dave, who’d been flying it since he was 17 so knew a lot about it. My second flight in G-RUNT was in formation with Dave, and I ended up spending most of my time in formation with him or vice versa. That early formation flying was about the best experience I could have hoped for.”
Richard rebuilt the two Cassutts at Air Leasing’s Bentwaters base and painted them in the same silver and yellow as G-BPVO. Dubbed the Dukes of Cassutt – the name being the brainchild of Dave Puleston – the trio became a popular fixture at British airshows in the mid-noughties. “Dave and I had flown a few airshows as a pair, but with the third aircraft joining we formed a Cassutt trio with Aidan Brown and occasionally Nick Smith [son of Brian] as the third man. The Dukes were good fun and offered great experience to learn what it means to fly at an airshow. It’s all too easy as a punter to overlook the logistics of flying in VFR conditions to get to a small airstrip that’s soaked through with heavy rain only to find there’s not enough fuel available on-site.
“This was a real grounding in that side of things; the planning that goes into getting aircraft from one airfield to another and back with a display in the middle. Besides that, you’re talking about flying relatively fast cruises cross-country in formation, sometimes landing at short airfields and then going off and displaying for ten minutes in a tightly choreographed, close formation sequence. It was the perfect set-up for the movement into warbird flying.”
That transition crystallised with Richard’s first front cockpit flight in the family Spitfire in June 2007, followed by his first solo sortie in the aircraft on 2 October that year. He had flown a total of 317 hours at the time, around 20 of which were Spitfire flights with Pete Kynsey. “I’d been flying from the back seat a lot with Pete, and then from the front with Pete in the back. His style of training is very hands-off – he gives you exactly what you need to get you to where you need to be without it ever feeling like he’s lecturing you or being in any way forceful. That builds confidence and allows you to develop your skills naturally through discovery; you’re learning how to do something by doing it, not because someone has told you how it’s done. He’s a remarkable pilot and I am where I am today because of his mentoring.
“Perhaps because of that it didn’t feel like a significant emotional moment when I went solo, nor did it feel at all like a rite of passage. It was always the case that Pete, as my mentor, would have the final say and if he didn’t think I was ready, he wouldn’t have sent me off. On my first solo flight I shot off north out of Duxford, flew to the Hundred Foot Washes near Ely and did ten minutes of aerobatics, exactly as I’d been doing with Pete in the back.”
The next goal in sight was a UK airshow DA for the Spitfire, which Richard sought with Kynsey’s oversight as his DA Examiner. To complicate matters, his insurer imposed a threshold of 50 hours’ Spitfire time, P1 or otherwise, as a prerequisite for public liability insurance cover. Far from a hindrance, that mandate serendipitously proved to be “the most useful thing the insurance company could have done. I had around 20 hours on the Spitfire in the book already, and it was basically an invitation to go off and fly the Spitfire for another 30 hours – eternal thanks to my mum for picking up the tab!
“I didn’t want to go out and do a half-arsed imitation”, he says of his display work-up, “I wanted to put together something dynamic that was unique to me. Growing up I’d seen guys like the Hannas and the Greys and ‘Hoof’ Proudfoot so knew what an exciting display sequence was supposed to look like. I’ve always known what I like to watch and even now, I spend my spare time watching people do displays in things on YouTube. It’s about watching how people extract the best performance out of an aircraft without it being dangerous and without it looking anything other than effortless. Ray Hanna was phenomenal at it. Stephen Grey was fantastic at it. Pete Kynsey is undoubtedly the master of getting the optimum performance out of an aeroplane while looking like he’s sitting in the cockpit calmly reading a book! That’s where you want to be and that’s my motivation for display flying.
“With that in mind, I spent that 30 hours working out how to extract the optimum performance out of the Spitfire. The key to happiness is finding the most speed-economic way to get the aeroplane to the vertical. That’s all about learning the appropriate entry stick pressure required to convert different airspeeds to maximum altitude. Once I figured that out, I was able to take that process away and fly it in any aeroplane.” Richard’s DA was signed off in May 2009, and it was at Duxford’s Spitfire Day on August 9th that he first displayed Spitfire Mk IXT ML407 in public. “Having met that 50-hour requirement to get my DA, I’d spent some time flying around in formation with Paul Bonhomme in [Spitfire Mk IX] MH434 so he could teach me what to expect with warbird close formation flying. That meant I was probably the most intensely practised Spitfire pilot in existence at that time! The first display at Duxford was probably one of my best for that reason. It was a solo slot, which can be unusual at Duxford, and I had the weather to do what I wanted to do.”
The following summer, Duxford’s September airshow was set to conclude a year of commemorative Battle of Britain 70th anniversary events with a 16-ship formation and tail-chase finale – the biggest Spitfire formation of the year and the largest gathering of the type in a decade. Richard was pencilled in to fly ML407 in a box-four of two-seaters led by Pete Kynsey in SM520. “Just amazing”, he says, shaking his head, “and something you can’t take for granted. There are many people who have flown Spitfires who haven’t been invited to fly in those big Duxford formations. It’s an affirmation of your capabilities as a pilot, in a way. Bonhomme told me when I first started flying the Spitfire and we were working up those formation flights, ‘Do take a moment to look out of the window and appreciate what we’re doing’. It is important to understand the significance of what you’re flying in and the gravity of it”.
It was the first of many multi-warbird sequences. Recent years have seen Richard take up the mantle of section leader in both large-scale commemorative flypasts and dynamic close formation aerobatic duo displays. It’s a discipline, he says, that “takes some brain power in the air display environment. As the leader, the vital thing is to protect your wingmen, whether there’s one guy behind you or 17. It’s your job to cater for your wingmen and make their life as easy as possible. That means thinking about airspeed, power changes, positioning, energy and every other factor that goes into display flying and appreciating how what you’re doing in the moment affects things five or six manoeuvres ahead in your display sequence.
“You need to be thinking, if on this manoeuvre I pull out on the B-axis and extend that turn out, will that stitch my wingman up four manoeuvres down the line and leave him with no energy, or end up putting us over the crowd? You need to follow from the front, so to speak, and if you look over your shoulder and see the guy on your wing sweating profusely, you need to do something, whether it’s bringing the throttle back half an inch or adjusting your positioning. As leader, the airspeed range available to you diminishes at both ends of the spectrum, as you’ll never go as fast or as slow as you would if you were solo because you’re looking after your wingman and avoiding leaving him in a critical position. That adds another factor. You need to have the capacity to manage the aeroplane, your own flying, your wingman and the sequence simultaneously. As a follower, there’s one rule – don’t hit the leader. Nick Grey got it right, and it’s the best thing you can ever brief, and that’s to ‘just cope’. That should be the basic brief for every formation sequence!”
The sale of the Cassutts precipitated the next chapter in Richard’s airshow flying. Using inheritance from his great uncle, he acquired Pitts S-1D G-BLAG from a private owner at Perth, Scotland and immediately began working up a pairs routine with Dave Puleston. “We went mad”, he laughs, “flying them relentlessly, usually with me leading. The Pitts is an economic aircraft to do that in and I was flying every day I could out of Bentwaters, going off on my lunch break to fly aerobatics.”
Richard and Dave appeared on the airshow scene first as the Pitts Pair (2010-2011) before Trig Avionics stepped in to sponsor the act from 2012. “Things really skyrocketed from there. We did an incredible amount of flying and the use of the aircraft as flying billboards worked perfectly for Trig. We spent a lot of time spreading the word by flying the aircraft into airfields and airshows and using that to subtly generate interest in Trig’s avionics. In terms of display flying, I could take knowledge and experiences from the Spitfire formation flights I’d been doing and utilise that three times a week in the Pitts Special, every weekend throughout the year.”
The pace in those early Trig years was relentless. “In the first year of sponsorship we flew 52 displays”, Richard remembers a little wearily. “One weekend we flew four displays in a day – Shoreham, Rhyl, Morecombe and a private event, back to Shoreham and then up the next morning to do it all again. By the time I got into the Pitts to fly with Dave, I had three years of learning how to lead with the Cassutts and was completely familiar with what you can and can’t do to the guy who is on your wing.”
The key, he stresses, is to keep it simple. “It’s advice that my father passed on to my mother, that she then passed on to me. There is no point in trying too hard. People don’t care that much. The guy queuing for his ice cream is just as likely to turn around if you fly a flat pass or if you fly a vertical roll. You’re not going to convert everyone, so don’t try too hard. Dave and I started off trying too hard with complicated stuff with Trig, and we realised it wasn’t making any difference to people’s enjoyment of the display or our enjoyment, so we phased it out and kept each year’s display the same. I don’t think anyone ever noticed!”
Meantime, Air Leasing’s horizons were broadening to aircraft operation, sourcing and transportation. The first such job was the disassembly and shipment of John Bradshaw’s ex-Iraqi Air Force Hawker Fury to its new home with Dave Warburton in Australia. “I was back out there in March 2010 when Dave asked if I’d like to have a go in it. The answer’s only going to be yes, isn’t it?! It’s got so much power and speed, it’s a constant war with the rudder pedals to counteract the huge propeller. That’s universal with all these warbirds, but it’s pretty extreme in the Fury. It was a big old jump from the Spitfire, but a fantastic flight and I enjoyed the aircraft immensely.”
More fighters were inbound. In 2012, Mark Davy acquired stunning Yak-3 ‘White 100’ from Chris Vogelgesang in Germany and based the aircraft with Air Leasing, affording Richard the opportunity to fly a third high-performance piston fighter. “It goes like hell, the Yak!” he opines enthusiastically; he flew the aircraft regularly until it was sold to a new owner and exported to the USA in 2018. Whether it was tail chasing with Yaks 3 and 11, dogfighting with Buchóns or shooting down Peter Holloway’s Fieseler Storch, displays in ‘White 100’ were never short of excitement. A second Yak-3 fell into Richard’s orbit in 2015 with the arrival of Will Greenwood’s G-OLEG from Germany. After a stint based at Dunsfold and then Goodwood, OLEG eventually wound up in Air Leasing’s current base in the Spitfire Blister at Sywell; that aeroplane changed hands to Michael Wright in 2020 and remains on the company’s books.
Richard says of the Yak-3, “once you’re airborne, you’re off, you’re out of there, no hanging around. It climbs quickly and cruises fast, which made it a great aircraft to ping between Sywell and Duxford in. Flying a high-performance fighter like that, sensitive handling is critical. It has a higher wing loading than the Spitfire and could bite you if you were unkind to it – say, if you were pulling too hard for the airspeed you were at. It was a good exercise in learning the ‘sweet spot’ of something that was a more demanding aeroplane than the Spitfire. Good practice for what was to come with the likes of the Mustang and Buchón.” Richard’s profile in the warbird industry paid dividends; away from Sywell, Peter Monk invited him to fly the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar’s Spitfire Mk IX MK912 and Hurricane AE977 from Biggin Hill, the latter paving the way for him to pilot Graham Peacock’s Hurricane P2902 several years later.
Most enticing of all was Pete Kynsey’s diminutive Cosmic Wind Ballerina. “I remember seeing the Cosmic Wind in TFC’s hangar when I was a kid”, Richard says, “and I couldn’t quite get my head around why it existed. I think my enthusiasm for the Cassutts largely owes itself to my fascination with the Cosmic Wind and it’s an aircraft I’d always thought about flying.” That day came in 2014; several years on, Richard’s affection for the little air racer still shines through. It was, he says, “an exceptional privilege to fly it. It’s something else. With just 100hp you can fly two or three rolls at the top of a loop mid-display. That’s just outrageous. It has these fun quirks too – the first time you fly a hesitation roll, you find out how much your ears can hurt if you clobber them against the canopy! It’s perfectly harmonised – I found the ailerons were the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of using, but it was a little light in pitch for someone of my size. I’m too fat for it, evidently! I reckon at Pete Kynsey’s weight it would be one of the best handling aeroplanes you could hope to fly.”
Better still was Pete’s invitation to display Ballerina at Duxford’s September Air Show 2014, this being a duo of contrasts with Mark Miller’s de Havilland Dragon Rapide on Saturday and Dave Puleston in a Cub on Sunday. “I was taken aback – me, really?” he jokes, “and wanted to make sure I did the thing justice. It’s a truly wonderful machine and with its manoeuvrability, it wasn’t hard to put together a dynamic display!”
Back at Bentwaters, Air Leasing’s expanding profile soon bore fruit. David Arnold’s decision to base his unique Seafire LIIIc PP972 with the company led to the completion of its long-term restoration, culminating in its maiden flight in June 2015. Richard took the Seafire for its first public appearance at Flying Legends the following month and continued to fly it semi-regularly until its owner opted to park it at the end of the 2017 season. “You do sit and ponder the fact that you’re flying a unique aircraft”, says Richard of the Seafire and aircraft of its ilk. “I think you feel the pressure directly before and directly after a flight. If you’re too worried about it being the ‘only one’, you’d never take-off, so you’ve got to think about it when you need to think about it and focus on the flying when you’re in it.”
Next up for David Arnold was the Hispano-Suiza-powered SE5E G-BLXT, one of 50 of the type built by the Eberhardt Steel Company. Air Leasing reassembled and surveyed the aeroplane at its Sywell base ahead of its first post-assembly flight on 21 October 2016. “I flew the SE5 on two flights. The first flight, the moment I took off the airspeed indicator packed up – not the first time a vintage ASI has upped and died on me. On the climb out, I found the engine was misfiring and it didn’t fly particularly nicely. Without the ASI, my landing wasn’t the prettiest.”
How did the experience of flying a near 100-year old design compare? “I’d wanted to fly a World War One aeroplane for the longest time. I discovered that for me, and this fundamentally applies to me alone, the cure for wanting to fly a World War One aircraft was to fly one. Rest assured, now I’ve done it, I have no desire to ever do it again and know that it’s just not for me!
“The big break warbird-wise really came from Graham Peacock”, continues Richard; more Second World War fighters were on the way with the formation of Peacock’s Anglia Aircraft Restorations and Fighter Aviation Engineering fleets. First came the ex-Iraqi Air Force Hawker Fury Richard had shipped to Australia several years prior. Imported by Air Leasing and painted by Steve Atkin’s Warbird Colour Ltd as prototype Sea Fury SR661, Richard flew the aircraft’s first public display in its new guise at Flying Legends 2016.
“When I flew that aircraft in Australia I was 25 and had limited Spitfire time under my belt. It felt like a big jump to a higher-performance aeroplane. I then went on to fly the Yak-3, which is definitely a high-performance aeroplane. When I took off from Duxford in the Sea Fury, I just felt at one with it. It was the first major job we worked on outside of ‘407 and having worked on it quite extensively I know pretty much everything about its systems and behaviour – the reasons why it does the things it does. It has its moments when you’re flying it, for sure, but it’s an absolute joy and is a bit of an animal.”
Richard was back in the Fury at Duxford’s Meet the Fighters airshow in September 2016, leading his mentor Pete Kynsey in TFC’s Bearcat. “I can’t particularly process that and don’t bother trying! I think when I look back over everything, that’ll be the one. How many people have the opportunity to lead their mentor like that, let alone in those aircraft?” The pair reprised their close formation aerobatic routine at Flying Legends the following summer. This author has fond memories of interviewing Stallion 51’s Lee Lauderback during their Friday afternoon practice: “Those are some shit-hot pilots, my God!” the man with over 10,000 Mustang hours commented as the pair transitioned seamlessly from echelon to slot at the bottom of their opening loop before climbing into a quarter clover.
That aside, Richard cites flying the prestigious ‘Joker’ routine at Flying Legends 2017 – displaying the Fury solo whilst the massed ‘Balbo’ formation assembled to the south – as a career highlight. “I have no idea what I did to bag that slot! It’s the most ridiculous privilege that I don’t feel I deserve in any way. Everyone would love to be the ‘Joker’ and Paul Bonhomme was the only non-Grey to have flown it [FL2000, Spitfire Mk XIV MV293]. You have the freedom to fly an unrestricted solo display, which is an honour not many people get at ‘Legends. The Fury is the perfect aircraft for that, and you can just fill the sky with big high energy manoeuvres while PK’s off south getting the troops into order. It’s got to be the pinnacle of warbird solo display flying.” He was back in the coveted display slot at Flying Legends 2019, this time flying a stunning ‘double Joker’ alongside Nick Grey in the Bearcat that stoked golden memories of the Hanna and Grey ultimate big pistons era of the mid-1990s.
The Fury was soon joined under the Anglia Aircraft Restorations banner by Spitfire Mk XIV MV293 and TF-51D Mustang Miss Velma (now Contrary Mary), both acquired from TFC in 2016. Shortly afterwards, Hawker Restorations Ltd completed the restoration of Hurricane Mk I P2902, and Spitfire Mk Vc EE602 arrived from Biggin Hill. In spring 2018 came P-47D Thunderbolt Nellie B, imported from the USA to join Peacock’s Fighter Aviation Engineering stable. It is, Richard says, perhaps the sweetest of the fleet. “My first flight in Nellie B was such an amazing experience, I found myself near as damnit laughing as I was climbing away from the aerodrome”, he recalls. “It was a glorious day back then; early May 2018, the aircraft’s second flight since returning to the UK, wall-to-wall blue, pre-7am start and no one around. I was only up for ten minutes for some general handling but had such a good time and felt so at home immediately – it’s like a warbird in slow motion! I grew up around the aircraft when it was with TFC as No Guts, No Glory and watched it do some wonderful displays. I always loved it – it’s just cool, isn’t it?
“I remember knocking around at a Duxford airshow the day after a big birthday ‘do’ in Cambridge, suffering from my very first hangover and not doing particularly much. Some of the Fighter Collection chaps thought it would be funny to have me pull the chocks on the Thunderbolt as it was sat there whomping away before a display – that’ll clear your head, for sure! Once I got into flying myself, I had no expectation that I would ever fly an aircraft like the P-47 and even once I got onto the bigger warbirds, I always thought it would be an aeroplane that would elude me as Thunderbolts are so rare. That first flight definitely gave me a genuine feeling of elation – airborne in it finally after all these years.
“Aerobatically, there’s a sweet spot in each of these aeroplanes”, Richard adds. “I spend a lot of my time initially on a new type at height, just descending to the airspeed I want to be entering aerobatics at and pulling up into the vertical, checking the airspeed in the vertical and seeing how fast I can get it going in the climb. If I enter at the same airspeed and find a higher airspeed in the climb, it means I got the G loading right at the bottom. Then I know where the sweet spot is for a relevant speed. I’ll know that if I’m slower, I’ll need to pull slightly more to stay in that sweet spot. You have to spend a lot of time flying these figures to optimise the performance of an aeroplane.”
At Duxford, the most suitable airfield for display practices, this means “flying large orbits just below Stansted airspace [4,500ft] at climb power until the aeroplane is going as fast as it can possibly achieve in level flight at that power setting. I’ll then start a very steep descent towards the airfield. In a Spitfire, that would be near vertical – in the Thunderbolt I’m lessening that angle slightly due to the weight of the thing, but the objective is to fly the aeroplane as fast as it will let me go. I construct my vertical display routine around gate airspeeds. My first manoeuvre is a vertical 80° vertical climb and half roll, followed by a loop. What happens next depends on the type. I know that at my entry airspeed, the reverse Cuban will give me enough altitude to recover, and it’s the loop that’s key. For that reason, I’m usually only checking my gate entry airspeeds for the first two figures, as that’s where I need to exercise caution.
“Regardless of the entry airspeed, I’ll aim to keep the over-the-top airspeed consistent by adjusting the amount of elevator input in the first half of the figure. The key is to ever so slowly apply the elevator to creep the accelerometer up, never pulling more than 4G as an absolute maximum. If you exceed that, the G loading will cause the wing to ‘mush’ and you’ll induce drag. The power-to-weight ratio of these warbirds isn’t too clever and if you pull too hard into a manoeuvre, you’re going to pay for it down the line as you’ll have nicked the airspeed and energy.
“It’s good practice to monitor engine parameters in the climb rather than staring blankly at the altimeter”, he adds, explaining that he closely monitors both oil temperature and pressure at regular intervals throughout a display sequence. “If the engine’s going to fail, I want to know at the top of the manoeuvre to give myself maximum altitude to work with. The extreme of that is the Sea Fury, where I’ll be checking the oil pressure every 30 seconds. You train yourself to do that until it’s instinct.”
That risk mitigation, he says, comes from the philosophy that “warbird flying is about having the ability to manage the aeroplane to the extent that you can cope when things go wrong. Capacity is key. It comes in stages – first off, you need the capacity to fly a complex historic stick and rudder aircraft that may have ‘interesting’ handling tendencies and critical engine management. Then you need extra capacity to do that in the airshow environment, flying dynamic low-level aerobatics in tune with all the altitude, distance and timing restrictions that are critical to airshow flying. The final stage is having the capacity to be in that environment and have the ability to instinctively deal with any technical issues and save yourself and the aircraft, but you don’t know that you have that until it happens to you. That’s the pinnacle of it. I’ve not been put in the position to prove I can handle that, but you train yourself relentlessly to have the knowledge and experience to deal with it when it happens.
“If I come back and the accelerometer shows anything near 4G, it would show I’ve not flown the aeroplane to the optimum performance I strive for and I’d beat myself up over that. I shouldn’t need anything more than 3G for the type of manoeuvres I’m flying. I feel I’m there to show the public the aeroplane in a way that demonstrates its optimum performance whilst remaining effortless for myself and the aeroplane. I chastise myself when I don’t achieve it – if I’ve had to throw away a manoeuvre I’ve made work in the past, which I will merrily do, it is deflating. For me, perfection is an immaculately positioned, exceptionally safe display showing what the aeroplane you’re sitting in can actually do.”
On the engineering front, meanwhile, the arrival at Sywell of the cache of Hispano HA-1112 Buchóns from ‘Connie’ Edwards’ Big Spring ranch in Texas was a watershed moment for the burgeoning Air Leasing. The ex-Spanish Air Force airframes had participated in the Battle of Britain filming in the late 1960s and then lay dormant for decades until Richard travelled to west Texas on behalf of Australian investors who sought to overhaul two of the aeroplanes to flying condition.
“A couple of days after arriving, we ran the numbers and were awarded the job pretty much immediately”, Richard says. “I pulled the engines out, boxed them up and had them exported to the UK. Boschung Global bought them and sold one [‘White 9’] to Graham Peacock, two to Australian investors and kept one for themselves [‘White 5’], and we did the overhauls to flight of all four – they were in such good condition, I’m reluctant to call them restorations.” Two-seater ‘Red 11’ was the first to fly, followed by ‘Yellow 7’, ‘White 9’ and ‘White 5’. Three of the four wear their Battle of Britain film clothes; ‘White 9’ was instead repainted into Luftwaffe ace Uffz Edmund Roβmann’s JG 52 markings.
The painting of the Buchóns in Luftwaffe markings is a point of contention with many aviation enthusiasts. The question is asked time and time again – why aren’t they painted in their original Spanish Air Force colours? It’s a point Richard has debated ad infinitum. “Bar ‘White 9’, the schemes are authentic to those airframes as they are reproductions of their Battle of Britain film markings”, he says. “I would love to paint a Buchón in a Spanish scheme, of course I would – who wouldn’t want to see that? Maybe one day. People do need to appreciate the fact that they are aeroplanes we’re building for an airshow audience and they’re painted at the request of their owners with that in mind. They’re historic aeroplanes but they’re not World War Two combat veterans of great historical significance. In fact, their roles in Battle of Britain may be the most interesting facet of their history and it’s entirely appropriate to put them back into their film schemes.”
It’s in yellow-nosed Buchón ‘White 9’ that Richard flies the echelon left slot in the Ultimate Fighters display team. Established in early 2019, the team combines Graham Peacock’s Thunderbolt, Mustang, Spitfire Mk V and Buchón in a dynamic three act 15-minute sequence featuring four-ship formation aerobatics, a mock dogfight and close formation duo manoeuvres. All four pilots are close formation specialists; Richard and Dave have flown together for over a decade in Cassutts and Pitts Specials, whilst Jon Gowdy and Andy Durston are well-known for their Fireflies Vans RV-4 duo. “After years of leading Dave around in a Pitts Special, I wanted to do a bit of following. To get to not be at the front of the Ultimate Fighters I had to agree to fly the Buchón. That’s how far I was willing to go!
“Jon, Andy, Dave and I sat down and discussed what we wanted to achieve, what could be achieved and how we could do it, and then we went out and flew it in increments. That process couldn’t be rushed. The Thunderbolt went off with the Spitfire, Mustang and Buchón in turn to work up vertical aerobatics with them. They’re all broadly from the same era but each have completely different points where power, loading and airspeed become critical. If we weren’t such proficient aerobatic pilots who were very current on high-performance aircraft, I don’t think we’d have got it together. We figured it out in three sorties and had the whole thing nailed in ten hours of flying, but we weren’t sure we could do it until we did it.
“Ideally the lead aircraft sets its power, tightens the throttle fiction and the wingmen fly off that. With Ultimate Fighters, Jon has to make power changes in the Thunderbolt from the lead position, which is unorthodox, and he has to make those power changes at exactly the right place or else he’d be shedding each wingman at different critical points. The Thunderbolt also has a radial engine so Jon has to pull the power back while the propeller’s pulling the aeroplane in the climb, not at the top of the loop. It’s all about anticipatory power changes. I don’t envy him, in all honesty, and I’m quite happy to sit in the Buchón staring at Jon doing the hard work in the Thunderbolt’s cockpit!”
The Ultimate Fighters made their public debut at Flying Legends 2019. A busy three months followed with well-received displays at events across the UK. 2020 was shaping up to be another good year for the team at home and abroad until the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed the airshow season. “We’re incredibly lucky to have an owner in Graham Peacock who wants his aircraft to be seen and has given us the resources to take our time putting together something special. That process is costly and requires an awful lot of trust and investment from an owner. The success we’ve enjoyed is down to him.”
Ultimate Fighters aside, the Anglia Aircraft Restorations fleet has kept Richard very busy indeed. There have been memorable flights aplenty, but the resurgence of the warbird-heavy European airshow has yielded some particularly wonderful moments. “We’re lucky to see the return of European airshows with a budget. Paris Air Legend at Melun-Villaroche is a great show, particularly for a start-up, and the first event [in 2018] was epic. We took six aeroplanes out to Melun [Thunderbolt, Spitfire Mk V, Hurricane, two Buchóns and Yak-3] along with Andy Durston in the Wildcat, flying in loose formation all the way down to Villaroche. I remember being at Duxford in the ‘90s when TFC and OFMC blasted off to European shows, so it’s cool to be able to do that myself with my friends now. The stuff dreams are made of.
“Jon Gowdy and I had a magic trip to Hahnweide in September 2019, flying way down into Germany in the Thunderbolt and Buchón. We had a little time to play with so whizzed through a valley on the way down. How could you not? I remember Jon turning around at one point, opened-mouthed in awe. The flights down and back were very enjoyable, but the event itself was phenomenal – although landing the Buchón on a runway with that adverse camber was not and I vowed that if I go back, it won’t be in the Buchón! Hahnweide is what airshows should be. It’s the place to go if you love pure aviation; made by people who love aviation for people who love aviation. I can’t get over the fact that you walk down the airfield and on one side you have this mad line-up of warbirds and light vintage aircraft and on the other side you have beer, sausage and chicken served every 20 metres. Calm conditions in that scenery, it was just staggering.”
Though 2020 saw next to no air display flying, Air Leasing’s hangars at Sywell remained a hive of activity. Ultimate Warbird Flights’ passenger rides in the two-seat Spitfire and Mustang proved popular over the summer months, and IXT ML407 is spending the autumn and winter undergoing a major overhaul. Though Buchóns ‘Yellow 7’ and ‘White 5’ have departed to pastures new on the continent – to Germany and Hungary respectively – another, G-HISP, awaits overhaul to flying condition. Spitfire Mk XIV RN201 was imported from the USA by Air Leasing and has since been flown by both Richard and Pete Kynsey, whilst Spitfire Mk IX MH415 made its first post-restoration engine run in early October and is well on the road to flight.
On the long-term restoration front, Graham Peacock’s Messerschmitt Bf 109G is currently waiting in the wings and work has begun on his latest P-51D Mustang project, this being the rebuild of well-known Mustang Janie into a new guise. Significantly, Richard’s own Spitfire Mk XII EN224 (photograph below) has also been progressing slowly. “It’ll fly one day, we just can’t put a date stamp on it”, he reveals. “Our guys have been working on it, it’s just not a priority at the moment.
“There’s no difference between engineering and flying for me”, says Richard of his role as Air Leasing’s chief engineer, “and they are part of the same whole with equal importance. I wouldn’t do one without the other. It’s incredibly important to know how the aeroplane you’re flying works. You shouldn’t just read the pilot’s notes, you need to read the maintenance manuals. The best way I can convey the importance of that is to say that the T-28 pilot’s notes say not to pull the engine through. Now, you might get away with that for a while, but you’re risking hydraulic lock and a critical engine issue. The reason the pilot’s notes make no reference to the need to turn the propeller through is that it was the ground crew’s job to do that, and that’s described in the maintenance manual.
“Air Leasing is predominantly involved in maintenance, overhaul and assembly of customer aircraft. We have limited in-house resources and where restorations are concerned we’ll typically farm parts out to other specialist companies. We’ll then be involved in putting everything together, plumbing in the systems and carrying out the testing. That isn’t to downplay what the guys do at all and it sounds a lot more straightforward than it is! It can certainly be very intensive. We’ve worked through the night to get things ready for Flying Legends – aircraft like the Fury and Contrary Mary, where there’s a time pressure involved. They can be huge undertakings. The Tempest restoration for Graham is the biggest thing we’ve ever undertaken and coordinating that project and driving it to completion has been a bloody big team effort.”
That aircraft, Hawker Tempest Mk II MW763, is in the advanced stages of restoration at Sywell. When it flies – and it will fly soon – it will be the world’s only airworthy example of the type. As of January 2021, the airframe is complete and the aircraft sits on its undercarriage. Short of the propeller – which is weeks away from completion at the time of writing – it is almost ready for engine runs.
“I had hair when we started it!” Richard jokes. “It’s too big a project to do in-house, hence farming out each part of it. That wasn’t always an enjoyable process. The act of putting everything together and plumbing it in has been rewarding but very hard work. It’s a bloody interesting aeroplane and it’s lovely to work on something so different that will be unique as a flyer. It’s not often you get to work on something as rare as this and get such an intense look at its design and systems, some of which are antiquated and downright bizarre. It’ll be a pleasure to see the end of the restoration, which I mean in the most positive way possible!”
The completion of the Tempest project will be a culmination of sorts for the Grace family. “There’s a lot of passion in that restoration for me because of the family connection. My father was a big Tempest enthusiast and I have memories of climbing all over this Tempest II as a kid. I remember spending ages in the barn at our old house in Essex sitting in dad’s Tempest V. We had three Tempest and Sea Fury canopies set up almost like a greenhouse and I would run between them pretending I was flying. Amazing what your imagination can do when you’re a kid!
“I didn’t ever think we’d end up where we are now”, muses Richard. “There was never a plan for it. I don’t think you necessarily can plan for it. There are aeroplanes in the hangar that aren’t airworthy that need to be airworthy, so that’ll occupy the next couple of years of my life! One thing’s for sure – I certainly won’t be separated from our Spitfire and there’s no money in the world that could take it away from us. There is a responsibility to all of this and even if Air Leasing ended up with my family’s Spitfire alone, we would approach it with the same dedication and resolve as we do with a hangar full of aeroplanes.”
Dedication and resolve – words embodied by the Grace family for decades. Through Richard and Air Leasing, those virtues will doubtless enrich future generations of vintage aircraft pilots and engineers. As we sit in 2021, the company is responsible for the maintenance of one of Europe’s largest and most impressive collections of Second World War fighters. “It’s taken an awful lot of work to get us there”, Richard says, “and the success of it all doesn’t sit on any one person’s shoulders.
“I remember Nick Smith and I sitting in the pilot’s tent at Flying Legends when we were teenagers”, he reflects, “watching the clock as it approached 2pm and being ecstatic as the first warbirds fired up.” It’s a lovely memory that will strike a familiar chord for those who grew up in thrall to historic aircraft. “Back then we didn’t know how we’d end up, but we knew we wanted to fly these aeroplanes. I’ve never had a want to do anything else.”