An Interview with... Spitfire Pilot Justin Helliwell | Realm & Empire

An Interview with... Spitfire Pilot Justin Helliwell

Posted on October 28, 2015 by Realm & Empire

Image courtesy of theblakokid

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to pilot a Spitfire?  We certainly have! Today, we are delighted to welcome RAF Commander Justin Helliwell to the blog for a quick chat about how he became a pilot and just what it is that makes the Supermarine Spitfire so special. 

R&E: Hi Justin, good to have you here. So, let's start at the beginning, what made you want to be a pilot? 

As a young child I spent many summer holidays with my grandfather who was a wireless operator on Royal Air Force bombers during WWII; so I grew up watching aeroplanes with him at nearby air bases in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I read lots about the Battle of Britain and Royal Air Force, learned about the aircraft, designers, pilots, tactics and leaders so by the age of 12 I knew more than I think the average military pilot knows today!

Image courtesy of Carly Hodges

I fell in love with the idea of flying, Service to your country and the brotherhood of the fighter pilot; by the time I reached University it was a simple step to join the University Air Squadron, learn to fly whilst still at University then progress into the Royal Air Force on graduation. From there, I’ve never looked back.

Image courtesy of Craig Sluman

R&E: How long have you been flying Spitfires?

I’ve been flying Spitfires and Hurricanes since April 2014, although I’ve been flying jet fighters since 1997.  I’m very lucky and privileged in that, as a Commander at Royal Air Force Station Coningsby, I fly modern jet Typhoon fighters as well as the honour of displaying Spitfires and Hurricanes with the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as well. We have 6 x Spitfires (including the only airworthy Spitfire that actually flew in the Battle of Britain); 2 x Hurricanes; 1 x Lancaster; 1 Dakota and 2 x Chipmunk training aircraft.

All the aircraft are Royal Air Force machines and superbly maintained by Royal Air Force engineers. We display all over the UK and northern Europe from large airshows with 100,000+ people to small village fetes with 150.The aircraft are National treasures and we love to show them off to the public to remind them of our National Heritage and their iconic place in our history.

Image courtesy of Sarah Gray 

We often find even the sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine is enough to turn heads and even reduce people to tears. They are a beautiful piece of British engineering.

R&E: Which design feature impresses you most on this aircraft?

The Spitfire is a fighter pilot’s dream machine. Everything you read about them is true. Most impressive is the light and easy handling of the aircraft making her an absolute peach to fly. Displaying the Spitfire, the beautiful roll rate and stable turn is simply breathtaking - but - as a fighter pilot I know the importance of easy and stable handling: it’s essential for air combat and gunnery.

Image courtesy of Paul Elliot

We often forget the Spitfire was designed to destroy other aircraft and its awesome handling lends itself to this essential fighter characteristic. I noticed it from the moment I flew my first Spitfire (a MkXVI). The Spitfire is the ultimate fighter aircraft of that generation. Fact! 

 Photos courtesy of blakokid and

Images courtesy of Claire Hartley and @theblakokid respectively

R&E: Over the past few weeks you’ve been involved with some incredible air displays for the 75th anniversary of the BOB - which moment has stood out for you?

2015 has been an epic year to be involved with the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

We’ve been lucky enough to be involved with some very poignant events, fly-pasts over Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace; mass Spitfire and Hurricane formations at the Royal International Air Tattoo, Biggin Hill and over the North of England.

(Click on the pic below to see an epic clip of Justin flying over London for the BOB75 service). 

All were something to remember, however, the events post the Goodwood Revival on Battle of Britain Day (15th Sep) will stay with me forever. Firstly, I got to meet Prince Harry and also Tom Neil, a Battle of Britain veteran fighter pilot and legend - one of Winston Churchill’s “The Few”— and someone I had grown up reading about. I flew a MKVb Spitfire, one of 33 Spitfires and Hurricanes, around the south of England ‘on patrol’; just like in 1940. I was one of the front 4 Spitfires with Tom Neil in the back seat of a 2-seat Spitfire alongside me. 

It was breathtaking and I’ve got to admit I was overcome on a couple of occasions, the first before I’d even taken off! It was all captured for a Channel 4 documentary and they did a great job in the edit for broadcast. What Tom’s generation did for us was remarkable; their sacrifice gave us the freedoms we enjoy today. They were the greatest generation Britain has ever had. Without doubt. 

R&E: Finally, what's your favourite piece from the Realm & Empire Flyers collection?  

The Black Wool Peacoat is by far my fave out of your range. It’s on my Christmas list… ! 

Incredible, inspirational stuff! Thanks again Justin! 

The Realm & Empire Spitfire Scramble sweatshirt is now available online, here.

If you liked this you should read: An Interview with… Will Greenwood and A tour of Langton Brewery.

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