One of the youngest pilots in the display world and one half of the renowned Trig Aerobatic Team, 28-year-old Richard may have been born into a flying family, but he has only got to the top through his own hard work and skill.
Words Colin Goodwin Images Philip Whiteman & Keith Wilson
The perfect day. Whiteman and Goodwin have struck lucky with the weather and have had a gorgeous flight in the Editor’s Cub from Buckinghamshire to Suffolk. The day improves still further when we hear the unmistakable rumble of a Merlin in the distance. “Mum,” says Richard Grace, without looking up. It is unlikely that there is another 28 year-old lad in the world who, when he hears a Spitfire in the overhead, can safely assume that his mother is at the controls.
“I was four when my dad died,” says Richard of his father, Nick. “I can remember him, but not really the flying part of his life. The Spitfire that he restored first flew the year I was born.”
I remember reading that Carolyn Grace learned to fly after her husband was killed in a car accident and then swiftly progressed to the Spitfire. “No,” says her son, “Mum was flying before she had met Dad. She flew a Stampe that she still owns.”
We’ve flown into Bentwaters, the vast ex-USAAF airbase on the Suffolk coast just south of Sizewell nuclear power station. We almost missed our waypoint at the old RAF Lavenham airfield on the way here, but you couldn’t miss Bentwaters. As long, that is, as you remember that it is the large airbase on the left as you come in from the West as otherwise you might try landing at Woodbridge, which is parallel to it and only a few miles away. Both Woodbridge and Bentwaters were RAF stations during the war (Woodbridge was built as an airfield where ailing bombers returning from Europe could land) and used by the USAAF in the Cold War.
Various Cold War jets were based at Bentwaters, including Phantoms. Latterly A10 ‘Tankbusters’ were stationed here, until the station closed in 1993. You have never seen so many blister hangars, dispersal areas and weapons storage bunkers. In one of these hangars, once home to a F-4 Phantom, Richard Grace and his mother operate Air Leasing Ltd. “Dad started the company in 1980 purely to support his own projects. As well as the Spitfire he had a few other aircraft on the go including a Tempest V.”
I’ve come across several youngsters who, through over-generous parents or hard graft, have equipped themselves with cars that their contemporaries can only dream about. A Ferrari with a twenty-year-old at the wheel can be a worrying combination and it takes a wise head to not fling the thing into a ditch while showing off to mates. But Carolyn had the prospect of her son taking the controls of a Spitfire. What could possibly go wrong?
“I’ve wanted to fly the Spitfire as long as I can remember,” says Grace. “And just wanted to be around exciting aeroplanes.
“The first machine I laid spanners on was The Fighter Collection’s Hurricane, at Duxford when I was thirteen. I’ve always loved fixing things. I had my first flying lesson with the Cambridge Flying Group — who still teach on Tiger Moths — when I was fifteen and still at school. At first the school encouraged it, but when they realised that I wasn’t thinking about anything else but flying they became less keen. I eventually continued learning to fly in Canberra — my mother is Australian — and finished the course at Earls Colne when I was 19.”
Richard then followed the well-trodden path of a tailwheel conversion at the Tiger Club. The next move, however, wasn’t quite so logical. “I saw a Cassutt racer for sale for £12,000. I’ve always loved single-seat small aeroplanes and they don’t get much smaller than the Cassutt. Everyone told me not to buy it because they thought I’d kill myself in the thing. Not an unreasonable opinion, since the Cassutt’s nickname is the flying coffin. ‘Buy a Cub instead,’ they said — but I ignored them and bought the thing anyway. By this time I was working on aircraft at Earls Colne. I’d fly the Cassutt virtually every day, even for a short blast during my lunch hour. I learned to fly in that Cassutt.”
Cassutt fever really bit and Grace bought another two, painted the trio all the same colour, and launched himself into the display world as ‘The Dukes of Cassutt’. “I flew with my pal Dave Puleston, who was another Earls Colne stalwart and, like me, served time making tea and sweeping the floors at Duxford. Dave’s 36 years old and along with Peter Kynsey is my flying mentor. I’d always wanted to do display flying — I love the cameraderie. I’ve pretty much known everyone in the display flying world since I was a kid, so it really is like a big family to me.”
Puleston and Grace’s first Dukes of Cassutt display was at the Red Bull air race at Longleat, in front of a massive crowd. (I once sat in one of Grace’s Cassutts and it’s very tight inside the cockpit. If you’ve any hint of claustrophobia you’d absolutely hate it. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to fly one, let alone talented enough.) “I’m absolutely fascinated by air racers,” enthuses Grace. “Everyone has their favourite era and type, and mine’s the 1930s — the time of of the great American air races.” Dotted around Grace’s office are various flying books, the most thumbed of which is a book about the GeeBee racers. The ultimate, according to Grace. “A few weeks ago I flew Pete Kynsey’s LeVier Cosmic Wind. Absolutely fantastic — much better than the Cassutt. I don’t think I’ve been so excited about flying an aeroplane since I first flew the Spitfire.”
That epic event took place five years ago when Richard Grace was 23 years old. “I’d been up in the back with Pete [Kynsey] flying it and I wasn’t allowed to do that until I was 16. But then one day mum decided that I was ready to fly it myself. In truth she said I could long before I thought she would.” Naturally his mother wouldn’t have let him loose in the Spitfire if she thought he wasn’t capable or a safe pair of hands, but no doubt she was reassured by her son’s love of machinery: you’re less likely to abuse a machine if you love it and understand it and have actually worked on it.
When we arrived we parked the Editor’s L-4 Cub next to an even cleaner example parked outside the hangar. Grace and his colleagues have just finished restoring the machine and it’s absolutely gorgeous. He is converting an adjacent hangar into a multipurpose facility, which among other uses will enable the Graces to host events for the legion of supporters of the ‘Grace Spitfire’. There’s an event tonight, which is why Carolyn has just ferried the fighter over from its summer home at Duxford. In this hangar at the moment is a stunning Yak-3, one of a batch that was built using original tooling at Yakolev. Only its Allison V12 is not original.
“It’s typically Russian,” explains Richard. “Simple, tough, easy to work on and quite crude — but it works.” ‘Young Mr Grace’ will be displaying the Yak at Duxford’s Flying Legends. I’m green with envy, but it gets worse because no sooner had Grace told me that he hadn’t got much time in the Yak, he mentioned that he’d flown a Sea Fury in Australia with only a short briefing.
Standing out in the sun, parked opposite the Cubs is a pair of immaculate Pitts S-1D Specials. For the last couple of years, Grace and Puleston have been displaying the two biplanes up and down the country at displays. At the start of this year they teamed up with British avionics company Trig to form the The Trig Aerobatics team. “The really immaculate one is Dave’s,” says Grace, “he’s a bit anal. Have a look at the helicopter tape on the frame tubes…
“Despite its age the Pitts is still a brilliant display aeroplane. It doesn’t go faster than 200mph, which means that you can keep the display very tight and that the audience can always see what’s going on.”
I couldn’t agree more. State-of-the-art aerobatic machines can perform incredible manoeuvres, but they can end up being hard to watch and there’s a point at which they’re so extreme that you stop thinking of them as aeroplanes. I’ve seen Puleston and Grace in action and theirs is a brilliant display: super-close formation and at a pace that’s easy to follow. Best of all, ordinary pilots can just about imagine being able to do some of it themselves.
The Trig connection came about because the Graces needed a compact transponder for the Spitfire, not least because they could save a fortune in fuel by being able to fly through Stansted’s zone. “We saw what Richard and David were doing with their Pitts,” says Trig’s John Roper, “and we liked their approach and professionalism. More than that, they capture the spirit of aviation that we try to follow in what we do in our company.”
It could be difficult to like a bloke who at the age of 28 has 150 hours in a Spitfire and who regularly flies other amazing warbirds, but Carolyn Grace is obviously as good at bringing up children as she is at flying and operating a Spitfire. However, what makes young Mr Grace really likeable is that his passion for aviation is broad and all-encompassing. That he was beside himself with excitement at the thought of flying the Cosmic Wind, and the obvious pleasure he gets from talking to Whiteman about Cubs, proves he is so much more than the kind of bloke who will brag about flying Spitfires down at his local.