Duxford-based Classic Wings has a new Harvard on its fleet – we sample the flying experience on offer to pilots and enthusiasts. Words Colin Goodwin | Photos Philip Whiteman
It is the most poignant end to a story in a motoring magazine that I’ve ever read. The brilliant writer, Phil Llewellin?who sadly is no longer with us?had been touring notable places of Battle of Britain history in a Bentley Mulsanne (the feature appeared in Car in August 1990, fifty years after the battle).
In his last paragraph he noted that on 18 July 1940 a student pilot who’d just celebrated his 23rd birthday, had taken off from RAF Ternhill in Shropshire on a training flight in a Harvard. Tragically he crashed and was killed. Phil went on to report that in September that year the pilot’s widow gave birth to a son who, fifty years later was commissioned to roam the country gathering Battle of Britain material in a red Bentley Mulsanne.
That was the first time that I’d heard of a Harvard. Until then Harvard was an Ivy League college in America. I next met the aircraft in another piece of atmospheric writing, Geoffrey Wellum’s fantastic First Light ? in my opinion the finest book about flying to come out of the Second World War. Wellum’s description of being lost in a Spitfire over the North Sea strikes a chord with any pilot who has been lost in bad weather. Wellum also describes brilliantly his training in Harvards during which several friends were killed in the American aircraft. When I read it it reminded me of Phil Llewellin’s story and the death of his father.
I doubt that many people have a romantic fascination with the Harvard. It is not by any stretch a beautiful or pretty aircraft. It looks big and dumpy, both on the ground and in the air. It is not even by reputation that great to fly and word is that it has some evil habits. All this may be so, but I’ve been busting to fly in one for years.
There are two based at my White Waltham base, one a newcomer and another that’s a long term resident. I have lurked next to them with my flying kit in a ‘ready for action, Sir’ pose but so far no free rides have been forthcoming.
But as is often the case, lady luck stepped in. The Editor rang: “Classic Wings at Duxford have been on the blower,” he reported, “they’ve just got a new Harvard, to be operated alongside their fleet of Tiger Moths and de Havilland Rapides and wonder if we’d like to pop up for a go? You fly it and I’ll capture your grin on the Leica.”
So here we are on a lovely sunny day at Duxford. Chuffing cold, but great flying weather. There’s another reason that I’ve been champing for a flight in a Harvard: I’ve been in the back of a Tiger Moth and a Spitfire and this advanced trainer will therefore complete the experience of following a student fighter pilot’s journey into combat.
We’re met by Classic Wings’ Stuart Etheridge and Dale Featherby. Etheridge is one of the directors of the thriving business and Featherby will be my instructor for the flight. Outside Classic Wings’ office (one of Duxford’s many WWII huts) sits G-BDAM.
This is a Harvard with a long and well travelled past. Built by Noorduyn in 1943, AT-16 Harvard IIB FE992 (its original serial number) was taken on charge in April of that year by the Royal Canadian Air Force and was used for training at Moncton, New Brunswick and then at Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Here’s another personal Harvard connection: my dad’s best friend in the war, after whom I’m named, trained on Harvards at Moncton before flying my dad about in a Wellington. I have a lovely shot of him being given his wings by WWI ace Billy Bishop with a row of Harvards stretching out behind.
After the war it was sold to the Swedish Air Force (becoming a Sk-16A in the process), then flew in UN colours in Lebanon before leaving the service and entering private ownership in Norway. From Norway the Harvard travelled to Booker and became G-BDAM. Throughout the ’80s FE992 passed through several hands including Aston Martin and Pace Petroleum owner Victor Gauntlett, The Harvard Formation team, and Norman Lees and Gary Numan’s radial pair display team. The Harvard returned to Canada in 2003 before being bought by Classic Wings and returning back to the UK for a full refit in 2016.
It’s a big beast, the Harvard. Featherby is going up front, I’ll be in the back. “There are a few controls that you don’t have in the back,” he explains. During training during the war the instructor would sit in the back from the off because the student would have already done a lot of hours in a basic trainer and the instructor himself would have been extremely current on the Harvard. It’s quite a step up into the rear cockpit which a nineteen-year-old Goodwin would have found easier than this 55-year-old old example.
First impression is of an extremely spacious cockpit. Second is of a very solid and agricultural environment. The joystick is a very sturdy affair that looks as though it is strong enough to prop up the side of a building. In front of me is a simple panel with the usual WWII instrumentation including an artificial horizon that looks very difficult to use, rpm and manifold gauges and a smattering of T & P gauges for the engine.