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Matt Jones, Long-Distance Pilot
Over the last two-and-a-half years, a team of 14 specialists and engineers came together to meticulously restore an original Spitfire MK IX aircraft so two men could be the first ever pilots to take the iconic British aircraft on a round-the-world expedition.
The adventurous duo pulling off this feat are pilots Steve Boultbee Brooks and Matt Jones, who are also founders of the world’s only recognised Spitfire training school, the Boultbee Flight Academy in Goodwood, England.
Their expedition is dubbed The Longest Flight and is supported by luxury watch brand IWC as its main partner and official timekeeper.
The goal is to inspire young people to take an interest in mechanics and engineering, in a mission that covers more than 43,000 km.
Over the course of its trek through 30 countries, the Silver Spitfire, with its unique silver-chrome finish, is being pushed to its limits by extreme conditions during its flight.
At press time, Iceland, Canada, Russia, Japan, India and more have been covered and the plane is returning to Europe from the Middle East, with stops in Italy and Switzerland next.
Prior to The Longest Flight's take-off from the Boultbee Academy's base in Goodwood in August, Jones popped by Singapore to talk about the inspiration behind the journey, his passion for aviation, and Tom Cruise.
How did the idea of The Longest Flight come about?
Part of it came from taking my godson to see Pixar's Planes and Dusty Crophopper flies in a competition around the world. My little godson was so inspired by it; I came out and thought, “We could do that”. And if Pixar can inspire so many kids who've watched it, surely we can inspire the child that's in all of us by doing this adventure for real.
This expedition is quite different in the sense that you’re flying quite low so people can actually see the Silver Spitfire you're flying in.
Yeah, exactly, that's absolutely the plan. I've flown a jet around the world before - 10 years ago - and it made me realise the world is such a big place. But at 30,000 to 40,000 feet up in the sky, you have no idea what's going on down there. On this expedition, we want to be low enough that people can follow us on the IWC website and see where we're going to be that day on a live tracker. Then they can come outside and hopefully look up in the sky and really see the Spitfire flying over them.
As a boy, what sparked your passion for aviation?
I think very similar to my godson – I don't want to make this gender specific – but it seems boys more than girls when growing up would point to the sky at helicopters and planes and be fascinated by them. Honestly, I think I just never grew up! There's something very special about being in the air.
What was the most difficult thing about the restoration process?
There are just so many parts – 40,000 including rivets – and the plane was in its original condition when we bought it from a museum. It last flew in 1956 and like building a house, if you want to restore something, sometimes it takes three times longer than to actually knock it down and start again. So there were thousands of parts all over the hangar floor and we had to check each and every one to see if it was okay for flight. We also decided not to re-paint (the Spitfire) because from a distance it looks utterly exquisite and beautiful but if you get up close, you can see the marks (made by the people who flew it). It's a huge part of what we're doing on this trip – to get people to believe the story and heritage.
How different is flying a Spitfire from other planes?
I flew private jets for a while and as the pilot of an airliner, you have to make sure you don't scare anyone in the back – you don't want them to spill their drinks. But it's not the most freeing experience because of the way you interact with airports and other aircraft – it's very specific and controlled. With the Spitfire, it is sort of like a sports car in the sky – a vintage one – because you have an enormous amount of maneuverability and power... The Battle of Britain pilots would say, “You don't get into a Spitfire, you strap it on and it becomes a part of you.” The stick vibrates depending on how fast you're going – you get the vibration through your bum!
There's always the feeling of vulnerability being up in the air – does even the most seasoned pilot feel any sort of fear?
I think it's very important that you respect what you're doing. When you first start flying, you’re certainly nervous – there is that awareness that we are just a bag of blood, really, and if you don't treat (a plane) properly, it will hurt you - so you have to give it that respect. If you speak to race car drivers, before they race, they get into this place – in aviation, we call it the bubble. So if I was doing a display, an hour before take off, I find a space on my own and stop being that person whom everyone has come to see. Because if you stand next to your plane, you will be inundated with people who will ask if they can come and have a look. You have to turn off the interpersonal bit. If you go to an air show, you'll often see pilots looking crazy or mad, just walking around in circles continually, and it's particularly amusing when there's nine of them in a display and they're doing it together, just walking around. But that is a key part to getting the mind focused on being in the air.
So it's not like Tom Cruise in Top Gun?
Nothing like that at all. I've met him on quite a few occasions and what he has done in that film has inspired so many people to do this so, yeah, that's fabulous.
A commemorative IWC Pilot's Watch Timezoner Spitfire Edition “The Longest Flight” is out now. Limited to 250 pieces.