Realm & Empire: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – The Interview

When you look for a brand with classic cuts and a pure British heritage, look no further than Realm & Empire. Steeped with history, each garment they produce is inspired by original finds from the Imperial War Museum garment and print archives. Each new season is a creation from a new visit to IWM each time – you can’t get more British than that.

In keeping with their military theme, Realm & Empire visited the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, where they met with Spitfire Pilot Justin Helliwell, Wing Commander in the RAF. This exclusive access meant some more exclusive questions – it’s time to find out about the life of a fighting pilot…

 

What makes the Spitfire so special?

There’s a couple of things that make the Spitfire special. The first one is the physical design of the aircraft, which was well ahead of technology for its time. It’s a fighter pilot’s dream to fly, so from a design point of view it’s a very special machine.

But then you’ve also got the iconic link back to history, and to British history in particular. Whenever you fly one there’s a piece of that with you in the cockpit, which makes every flight special. So you add those two together, and overall it’s a bit of a dream machine really.

 

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What was your defence SERE training like?

SERE training took a long time actually. For those of us that don’t know what SERE means it’s the survival aspect, so if you get stuck behind enemy lines it’s how you escape and evade, and the whole idea is that you don’t get caught.

You start right from basic flying training just on how to survive off the land with the equipment you have – maybe a parachute, maybe your knife, and whatever else you’ve got in your survival kit. Then it’s about how to evade – how to hide, how to camouflage yourself. Most of all you have it drilled into you that you don’t ever want to be caught.

It’s one of the reasons why when we go away on combat missions we try and stay fit, and why we keep refreshing ourselves on this. It’s good fun, but those skills could save your life.

If you could rename the Spitfire what would you call it?

I’ve thought long and hard about this, but can you rename such an iconic piece of our history? To be honest I don’t think you can. The only other fighter that I really liked from a name point of view was the Mustang, which is the American version of the Spitfire and very similar in many respects. But again, each name from that era is intrinsically linked to each fighter, so I don’t think that you could decouple it. So I’m sorry to disappoint, I couldn’t think of anything better than the Spitfire.

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What is, or what would be your go to move in a dogfight?

In a dogfight, you’ve got to know and respect the person that you’re going against and the machine that he or she is flying. So it very much depends on where you meet them, how you meet them, whether you’re higher or lower, and any other factors. The first thing you try and figure out is “have I got the upper hand here, or am I defensive?”

If I was defensive then I’d try and use the weather to change the scenario. I’d try and get up into the sun if I could, and down into cloud, to try and change that around. If I’m offensive then I’m going to manoeuver as hard as possible and be aggressive with the aeroplane to try and get into a position to try and do something really awful, which is kill the enemy. So try and carry as much speed and as much height as possible into any merge, and then be aggressive to manoeuver and to kill as quickly as possible.

How did it feel when you flew your first Mk. XVI?

It was quite an emotional experience actually. With the first time you fly either the Hurricane or the Spitfire it’s all a bit of a whirl. After you’ve taxi’d and taken off and you’ve done all of your checks, eventually you realise that you’re actually airborne, and at that point it all hits you.

With the Spitfire it was amazing because there was a big difference in performance between it and the Hurricane. What I immediately noticed about the Spitfire was its handling characteristics, and the fact that it was a proper fighter. The roll rate, how quickly you could move the aircraft around the sky, you knew that all the stories you’d read from the veterans were correct, that it was a remarkable fighter aircraft. That was my first impression, and it gripped me all in one go.

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Bianca Matley

My name's Bianca, Menswear Editor. Contrary to belief, I love Eastenders but wasn't named after the character... heyday of hoops and ponytail quickly erased from memory. Times have changed (thankfully) and although I love beauty, I equally love a good men's oxford shirt and jacket or two, for myself of course. You'll now find me flicking through men's magazine pages and my favourites list is increasingly becoming male dominated. Dare I say, there's a lot to learn from their style...

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