Spitfires & Dreamliners: Transferable Skills between Flying Warbirds and Airliners
By Jon Gowdy, Chief Pilot of the Aircraft Restoration Company and Senior First Officer for an airline flying the Boeing 787. Originally published in the Summer 2023 Log.
I’ve been an active display pilot since I was eighteen years old and now fly the Dreamliner with a major UK airline. In this article, I’m going to take a look at some of the qualities that, in my opinion, help make a successful warbird pilot. I also want to highlight some of the transferable skills that professional pilots can bring with them to operating vintage aircraft and perhaps some areas where key skills are becoming increasingly rare.
I started flying tailwheel aircraft as a teenager, towing gliders at the local club. On leaving school I joined a company called Air Atlantique as a sponsored cadet, where I flew a variety of light twins as well as the company’s historic collection. I started flying airliners five years later with bmi at Heathrow but left to briefly enjoy a season flying Twin Otters for the British Antarctic Survey. Having scratched that particular itch, I re-joined bmi and eventually made it to a major airline, where I flew the A320, 767, 747 and now the 787. In 2016 I found myself in the right place at the right time and was invited by Richard and Carolyn Grace to fly their two seat Spitfire.
Besides flying the Dreamliner, I’m the Chief Pilot for the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford, having taken over the role in December 2021. We operate a fleet of approximately twenty warbirds including several marks of Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang, Lysander and the world’s only flyable Bristol Blenheim. You’ll have to trust me when I say that my great fortune at being able to fly such a wonderful collection of aircraft is certainly not lost on me.
It is fair to say that the two disciplines of airline and warbird flying have their contrasts. After all, the aircraft were built from the outset for two completely different purposes. One for transporting a payload safely, comfortably and efficiently from A to B, the other, for killing people with practically no regard for pilot comfort, little concern with efficiency and designed at a time when ergonomics wasn’t really a thing. It would be easy for me then to reel off a list of contrasts between the two, along the lines of engine handling, flying characteristics, instrumentation and so on.
However, what may not be so apparent are the transferable skills that have just as much a place in a Boeing as they do in a Spitfire.
So what skills would I consider transferable? Most of them it has to be said are non-technical. There’s no getting away from the fact that in general, airline pilot’s ‘stick and rudder’ skills are being steadily but surely engineered away. Most fly-by-wire types have removed the need to trim, use your feet and at the airline I work for at least, we’re not even allowed to operate the throttles ourselves! So to stand a chance at being a successful warbird pilot, you must fundamentally be a competent tailwheel pilot to start with. It’s not impossible to learn these skills at a later date, it’s just harder.
To my mind the most important skill is the ability to effectively analyse one’s own performance combined with a willingness to seek out feedback from our peers. It’s normally easy at an airshow to find people who will tell you how good it looked. That is, if they were watching and not in the beer tent at the time. As comforting as this is for one’s ego, it won’t necessarily help you improve. It’s much harder to find someone who not only understands what they’re watching but can offer you useful feedback about what bits worked well and what bits didn’t. This is made more challenging by the fact that by regulation (and common sense) we can only display aircraft with the minimum number of people on board.
For most warbirds that means you’re solo but we are generally our harshest critic and this can be a very healthy quality to possess.
Commercial pilots in my experience are pretty good at deconstructing a flight into the good, the bad and the why. The ability to take on board feedback in the constructive manner in which it’s nearly always intended is a key quality for someone looking to survive a lifetime of flying warbirds.
The next quality critical to a successful warbird flying career, and one linked with the previous point, is the ability to effectively control one’s ego. It would be all too easy to find your enthusiasm getting carried away with itself with the potential for costly results. We must remain conscious of how precious these aircraft are and what an enormous privilege it is to be trusted with them. I’m clearly not saying that there’s no place for having fun in these aircraft but allowing the naughty horns to make an appearance can have dire consequences. Most pilots do a pretty good job of focusing on the job at hand and do so with safety and an abundance of caution in mind.
Precisely the manner in which the owner of a warbird would hope that you operate their priceless flyable Ming vase.
Then there’s the ability to integrate well into a team. There aren’t many warbirds that are operated without significant help from other people, including engineers, hangar managers and airfield staff. Vital to the success of that team of people is an empathy for one another, in the same way that the best Captains demonstrate a clear understanding of the challenges faced by each cog in trying to keep the machine turning. It is definitely poor form to get back from a weekend of enjoying yourself at an airshow then leave for your well-earned beverage, before cleaning the oil and bugs off. You won’t endear yourself to the engineers if they come in on Monday morning to a messy aircraft that they took so much pride in ensuring looked its best when you set off on Saturday morning.
Another key transferable is that of workload and distraction management. Even the most junior of short haul First Officers will understand that it’s essential to manage one’s time effectively to stand any chance of finishing two crew breakfasts on a Heathrow – Manchester. Similarly, an airshow day can be extremely busy, particularly if flying more than one display. There are normally several briefings and walk-throughs that need to be done, food and hydration to consider, de-briefings, appearances at the ‘meet the pilots tent’, not to mention the potential pressure of having to position the aircraft to and from the event.
There are often a lot of people that want a slice of your time and amongst this, we need to allow enough time to fully prepare ourselves for the display itself. Each pilot will have their own idea of how much time they need to get into their ‘bubble’ and away from distraction. I know that for me, I need to be walking out to the aircraft thirty minutes before I’m due to hit the starter to feel I’m not rushed. Then, just like when we close the cockpit door and light the blue touch-paper, once you’ve got the engine running, the rest of the show normally falls into place.
Despite almost a century of aviation between the first flights of many of these warbirds and where we are today…
they are still teaching us that a lifetime spent flying aircraft is barely enough to scratch the surface.
A lot of the flying by ‘feel’ and mechanical sympathy required to successfully operate vintage aircraft may be being engineered out of modern cockpits in the interests of efficiency and minimising the potential for pilot error. But there are many skills that are useful in both.
One of the great joys of getting to fly these wonderful old aircraft is being able to share them with others. Be that at an airshow, taking someone on their ‘bucket list’ flight of a lifetime, or best of all, passing on some of the knowledge that I’ve been so lucky to accumulate about how to fly these fantastic flying machines.
This article was originally published in The Log Summer 2023, available to all BALPA members. Members can read more from this edition and over 15 years of other Log magazines in the Log Library.