Jack Hemings AFC, former RAF Squadron Leader, and early pioneer of Mission Aviation Fellowship [MAF] – the world’s largest humanitarian air service – took control of a best-loved WWII aircraft.
On Monday 5 February, Jack Hemmings seized a miraculous break in the blustery weather and took off from London Biggin Hill in one of the Heritage Hangar’s iconic Spitfire aircraft. It was a special charity flight courtesy of Fly A Spitfire to honour Jack, his WWII RAF service and the charity he co-founded in 1948. The flight also took place to mark the 80th anniversary year of D-day and honour MAF co-founder and D-day landings RAF veteran Stuart King, who passed away in 2020.
Jack’s historic flight on Monday aimed to raise funds and awareness for MAF, the charity he helped launch alongside Stuart King in a Miles Gemini aircraft. Jack’s JustGiving page, as well as numerous press interviews, noted the importance of MAF’s ongoing aviation services in isolated parts of the world, as well as the first pioneering survey flight which saw him and Stuart crash into an ‘undeveloped hillside’ in Burundi.
“Neither of us were injured except a bruise and a cut on my little finger,” Jack smiled. “But I have been called Crasher Jack ever since.”
Although he was set to make history, before getting into the cockpit, Jack said, “I’m told it’s a possibility I could enter the record books today, but I’m not interested in records, I’m just interested in getting in and going!” He proceeded to walk across the apron alongside chief Spitfire pilot Barry Hughes at truly impressive speed, then clipped himself into the rear seat of the only surviving Spitfire prototype of any mark: the 1944 VIII trainer (registered MT818).
This particular aircraft took part in regular display and air race scenes after WWII, and it became the fastest piston engine aircraft to complete the famous London to Paris Air Race in 1959. It wore numerous colour schemes, before receiving a Mark 266 Merlin engine in Gloucestershire, UK, and appeared at the Masterpiece London event in 2011 at the South Grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.
After pulling the canopy shut, the Spitfire was cleared for take-off, and Jack was waved off by a small crowd compromising reporters, RAF dignitaries, MAF friends, and his son Adrien.
Photographed against a patchwork of Kentish fields from a chase plane, Jack could be seen waving and smiling as he performed three victory rolls during the adventurous 20-minute flight. Safely coming back into land, Crasher Jack had accomplished another extraordinary later life achievement.
Pulling back the canopy outside Biggin Hill’s Heritage Hangar, Jack told members of the press that the experience was “delightful”.
“I was surprised by how heavy the controls were,” he added, “But that’s probably because I’m just a bit rusty. It was rather bumpy up there, but the overall experience really was absolutely delightful.”
Jack’s son Adrian Hemmings, who took a seat in the chaser plane, was immensely proud of his 102-year-old father and all he has achieved in his aviation career.
Adrian said, “Dad did have a few very bad crashes during the War and in the early days of MAF – but thankfully today he landed very smoothly. We’ve been brought up on stories of his adventures across Africa in the tiny Gemini plane – but when you see footage from those times, it really is very impressive. At the age of 25 he flew thousands of miles across unchartered territory – that’s younger than my kids. It’s quite extraordinary. It has been a very wonderful day, and he has achieved so many inspiring things. We should never take that for granted.”
Spitfire pilot Barry Hughes confirmed he had lost none of his touch in flying, saying “It was a real privilege to fly Jack today.”
The Venerable Dr (Air Vice-Marshal) Giles Legood – the RAF’s Chief Chaplain – was among the special guests invited to celebrate Jack’s historic achievement. He said: “It was wonderful to see this inspirational man fulfilling one of his dreams. It is much deserved. Having helped win the peace as a WWII pilot, Jack was a huge force for good in co-founding MAF, which has changed the lives of countless millions in delivering humanitarian aid.”
Also there to congratulate Jack was Group Captain Jonathan Hughes – Commanding Officer of RAF Northolt, home to the 32 Royal Squadron and the King’s Colour 63 Squadron. He said: “It was a huge privilege to meet Jack and to have been invited to witness such an historic event, supporting such a worthwhile charity as Mission Aviation Fellowship. Jack is such an inspirational person, and I am sure this event will capture the hearts of the Nation and inspire many to pursue their dreams of flying. To see Jack flying in a Spitfire today is motivation enough for me to aspire to live to be 102 years old!”
When asked how he manages to maintain so much energy into his centenary, Jack concluded: “It’s not incredible being 102. You just get up every day and go about your business. It’s the present moment which counts – and this one was very special indeed.”