As everyone will be well aware, from our previous reporting, the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group has been working hard to restore Hawker Typhoon Mk.IB RB396 back to flying condition, using a significant amount of original material from this aircraft, which force-landed in the Netherlands during the closing stages of WWII. The organization is dedicated to preserving the legacy of those many unsung heroes who built, flew and maintained Hawker’s iconic fighter/ground attack aircraft and, as part of this effort, they have been highlighting the stories of WWII Typhoon pilots. One such event took place recently, on October 3rd, 2020, when the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group organized a remarkable flight for Bernard Gardiner, one of the last remaining WWII Hawker Typhoon pilots and a strong supporter of the project to rebuild RB396. He flew the Hurricane and Typhoon during the war, but one aircraft eluded him – the Spitfire. Bernard originally joined the Royal Air Force on October 3rd, 1940, while the Battle of Britain raged overhead. Now, almost exactly 80 years later, the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group (HTPG) arranged something incredibly special for him.
The Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group arranged for Bernard Gardiner to fly the Spitfire, the one aircraft which eluded him during WWII, 80 years on from his first signing up. This event arose, in part, as a thank you for Bernard’s staunch support of HTPG’s fundraising efforts to rebuild the sole surviving combat veteran Hawker Typhoon. More than anything, however, this flight placed Bernard as a figurehead for all of his brothers and sisters in arms – it was a symbolic message of thanks to both him and them for their service during WWII.
The 98-year-young Bernard now resides on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands just off the French coast (occupied by Germany during WWII). Chris Winch kindly flew him to historic Duxford airfield for the day of his Spitfire flight, touching down at 11am. It was from Duxford, the former RAF station where 56 Squadron had the honor of introducing the Typhoon into operational service, where Bernard’s Spitfire sortie would take place. Aerial Collective, an arm of the Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo), provided this flight. This was fitting, as ARCo, under the leadership of John Romain, are the engineering partners for the rebuild of Hawker Typhoon RB396.
After his arrival at Duxford, and a period to stretch his legs following the journey from Jersey, it was time for Bernard to meet the pilot for his special Spitfire flight: three time Red Bull Air Race champion and HTPG ambassador, Paul Bonhomme. Indeed, this was Bonhomme’s first official duty as project ambassador, and Bernard could not have been in safer hands. After a thorough pre-flight meeting, where Bernard briefed Paul just as much as the other way round, it was time to get kitted up and “scramble!”
The Supermarine Spitfire Tr.9 which Bernard now found himself sitting in was originally built in 1943 as an HF MkIXe fighter variant. She saw service with 73, 326 and 253 Squadrons, before receiving post-war modifications into a trainer with a second, fully-kitted out cockpit seat with flight controls. Bernard remarked at how all of the controls fell so naturally to hand, with the similarities between the Hurricane and Typhoon that he remembers fondly, being easy to spot. Bernard’s excitement was clear to see, even to someone who went on after the war to have a full commercial flying career; the Spitfire’s magnificence can have an incredible effect upon people.
“Clear prop!” – with a bang and a puff of exhaust smoke, the Spitfire’s Merlin engine fires into life. After a quick warm up, and with a wave from both Paul and Bernard, they were off, taxiing across Duxford’s hallowed turf, an airfield which has witnessed so much history. As Paul and Bernard took off and climbed up into the Cambridgeshire sky, the emotion from their family and friends assembled on the ground below was palpable. Once airborne, and with all checks complete, Paul handed over control to Bernard. Paul said afterwards that he could tell Bernard was a Typhoon pilot, because as soon as he handed over control, “[Bernard] wanted to be down on the deck with the trains!”
The stick and rudder moved naturally, as though Bernard last flew yesterday. Enjoying the autumn sky, some maneuvering, even some aerobatics and, of course, that view of the famous elliptical wing, Bernard said afterwards it was “…just brilliant. Thank you; you’ve made an old fighter pilot very happy!” As their time in the skies came to a close, Paul took control again to bring the Spitfire back to base. They made a low pass across the airfield, with a fighter break up into the circuit and the classic Spitfire curved approach to land. Taxiing back in to ARCo’s hangar, the smile on Bernard’s face was clear to see, even from the other side of the airfield. After 80 years since joining the Royal Air Force, Bernard had finally flown the Spitfire!
Bernard Gardiner was one of over 1,200 pilots to fly the Hawker Typhoon in combat during WWII; a perilous task given that 56% of these gallant men paid the ultimate sacrifice. Gardiner was one of the lucky ones. Added to these pilots associated with the Typhoon are the thousands involved with designing, building, testing, delivering and maintaining the type during the conflict – a good number of whom were also casualties on the ground. The HTPG exists to create a living, breathing, working and flying memorial to preserve the legacy of their sacrifice in the country’s time of need. Hawker Typhoon RB396, once complete, will become that memorial. If the funds can be raised soon enough, it is just possible that Bernard might be able to witness the first flight – although he has already declined to fly it, stating that at 102+ it might not be the best idea!!
HTPG Trustee, and main organizer of the event, Sam Worthington-Leese, whose own grandfather flew the Hurricane and Typhoon, thanked everyone who had played a part in arranging and executing the day. In particular, he highlighted John Romain, Anna, Jack and all the staff at the Aircraft Restoration Company and the Aerial Collective, Paul Bonhomme for looking after Bernard in the air, Hideaway Studios for capturing the day, the news and media outlets who covered the story and everyone on the HTPG who supported the planning, or the day itself. “Without them,” he said, “it could not have happened. Together, we have helped to make that old fighter pilot, very happy.”
Now is the time to help them! Help them create the memorial that Bernard and those brave men and women deserve. Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group has already raised in excess of £750,000 of the £5million required. With your help and support, this can become a reality. The Supporters’ Club is the bedrock of the project, allowing the achievement of many incredible things already. By joining up as either a Platinum, Life or Annual subscription, you will be directly contributing to the rebuild effort of Hawker Typhoon RB396.
The Platinum Club was established on April 1st, 2020, the 75th anniversary of RB396’s final flight. The Club exists to enable the acceleration of the rebuild, with contributions on a larger scale. As a member, contributing on this level, you can have the exclusive reward of your name, or that of a veteran/family member, etched onto the aircraft to be a part of the memorial forevermore. In addition, you will receive a guaranteed and complimentary invite to the official first flight event, an invite to the yearly Platinum Club dinner to socialize and share motivations with fellow supporters, and a host of other exclusive benefits. For more information and to support this project, visit www.hawkertyphoon.com