When Land Rover celebrated its 65th birthday in 2013, it held a gathering at a country house in the Midlands. There was a fabulous array of historic models parked around the place and a decent amount of open land to try out a few of the cars.
Just before lunch, a Royal Naval helicopter from RNAS Yeovilton put on a display over the grounds and then landed in front of the house. It was delivering a 65th birthday cake for Land Rover.
After the photoshoot was over, I found myself sitting next to one of the helicopter crew at lunch.
When I heard RN man Andy was based at Yeovilton, I asked him whether he knew much of the Royal Naval Historic Flight planes based down there, specifically the Hawker Sea Fury.
It turned out he often flew in the two-seater Sea Fury and the Swordfish biplane when the aircraft were on the summer air show circuit.
Well, as much as I am deeply fascinated by the car industry, a man who flew Sea Furies put me straight into the realm of childhood fantasy. When I was a kid, I didn’t have pictures of cars on my bedroom wall. I had a Sea Fury poster.
The Hawker Fury was just too late to see action in WW2, but it was about the ultimate expression of the piston-engined fighter. A huge aeroplane, it was powered by the spectacularly complex Bristol Centaurus radial engine, which had two rows of nine cylinders and was good for 2500bhp.
I forgot all about Land Rovers because I was riveted by Andy’s stories of keeping the Sea Furies flying, of dropped piston rings and the loss of two Sea Furies in quick succession: first in 1989 (engine failure, ditched in the Firth Of Clyde) and then in 1990 (engine failure on take-off from Yeovilton).
Tricky things, those Centaurus engines. They’re immensely complex (have you ever seen an animation of how sleeve valves work?) and, when you see one in pieces, I can’t imagine how blokes armed only with pencils and log tables managed to bring them to life.
Anyway, I kept in touch with Andy and promised I’d visit Yeovilton (there’s a great museum at the airbase) when I had a nice car for a weekend.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, social media blinked into life just seconds after the RNHF’s two-seater Sea Fury VX281 had crash-landed at an airshow at RAF Culdrose.
It was a horrible few minutes before it became clear that the Sea Fury had been successfully crash-landed by Lt Cdr Chris Götke after the engine had suffered some kind of failure.
A relief, but another example of my favourite (and relatively rare) aeroplane was now wheels-up in a field, with the propeller blades bent around the nose.
This May, Andy called me and invited me to the RNHF supporter’s day at the airbase. A perfect cue to wrangle my first weekend in Autocar’s Ferrari FF loan car. Great, I thought, a chance to snap the Ferrari in front of the single-seat Sea Fury that’s nearly airworthy.
It was a small gathering, beautiful old planes and tea and cake. I thought it couldn’t get better until I was introduced to Lt Cdr Chris Götke himself. Even though he had just been awarded the Air Force Cross for bringing the Sea Fury down safely at an air show, he was almost comically polite, modest and self-effacing.