One of the country’s top Spitfire pilots visits Swindon as part of Swindon Remembers, a week of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, writes Graham Carter of Swindon Heritage.
Phill O’Dell will give a rare insight into his vast experience in an illustrated talk at the Central Library on Wednesday at 7.15pm, with the audience also having the opportunity to put questions to him.
Phill is the chief test pilot for Rolls-Royce and has flown around 40 different types of aircraft, including, during its recent tour around Britain, the Vulcan bomber. But he is best known for flying Rolls-Royce’s Mk XIX Spitfire and other versions of the iconic Second World War fighter, either in displays or with student pilots.
Among the pilots he has flown with in a two-seater Spitfire is Prince Harry, who joined Phill earlier this year to launch The Spitfire Scholarship, a scheme that retrains wounded, injured and sick ex-service personnel to fly the plane.
“I’d previously talked him through the procedure of starting a Spitfire, but this was the first time we’d flown together,” said Phill. “He was great company and a very, very good pilot.”
Phill’s talk will give an impression of what it’s really like to fly the Spitfire, and although he promises to reveal not just the pros but also the cons of the plane, don’t expect any romantic image you might have about it to be destroyed.
“It’s nearly perfect,” he said. “It’s a wonderful plane, and everything you might imagine.”
And he also points out that many of the veterans he has spoken to – the men who, in his words, “flew it for real”, in combat – had an affection for it that ran very deep indeed.
“Many of them have told me that, when they were up there, they felt the Spitfire was keeping their loved ones safe at home.”
From 1943, some of those Spitfires were manufactured by Supermarine at South Marston in Swindon. The town has another reason to remember those brave airman in the coming week.
In all, 544 Allied pilots, including many Polish and Commonwealth airmen, were killed in the Battle of Britain, and thanks to a famous speech by Winston Churchill in August 1940, they are now remembered as ‘The Few’.
Swindon Remembers will pay tribute to them all, but one in particular: Sqn Ldr Harold Starr, who was born in Regent Street in 1914 and was buried at Radnor Street Cemetery after he was killed on 31 August 1940.
Harold flew a Hawker Hurricane, the other iconic fighter in the Battle of Britain, and Phill will explain in his talk that while Spitfires and Hurricanes may look similar to the casual observer, there are significant differences.
“The Spitfire was faster, and the Hurricane was the real workhorse of the battle,” he said. “They are very different planes because the Hurricane was effectively almost from a different generation.”
Phill, 51, admits that he was been ‘very, very lucky’ and ‘extremely privileged” to have flown such aircraft, but spends much of his spare time giving back to aviation, and using the inspiration he has felt since he was a boy to inspire others, especially young people.
Nine years ago he co-founded fly2help, a charity that boosts people who have been going through tough times by giving them inspiring flying experiences.
“Aviation can change people’s lives and has the power to inspire in lots of ways. It’s powerful and energetic, and a wonderful environment to be in.
“So at fly2help we use aviation to inspire and enthuse, and to show people who have been going through a bad time that they are cared for.”
The charity, wihch is based at Kemble, also encourages youngsters to consider careers in aviation, which includes not just jobs in air, but also on the ground, such as firemen or air traffic controllers. Or – echoing Swindon’s proud aviation industry heritage – helping them to become aircraft engineers.
Tickets for the talk cost just £1.50 for library members or £2.50 for non-members. Advance booking is recommended (by phoning the library on 01793 463792), but if seats are still available on the night, you may pay at the door.
The talk is part of Swindon Remembers, a week of events marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The week culminates in a flypast over his grave on Tuesday, September 15 (Battle of Britain Day) in the presence of the Duke of Gloucester, Honorary Air Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
For more information, see www.swindonheritage.com.
See www.fly2help.org to find out more about the charity and how to make online donations.