The Trinidadian pilot who flew the 'Silver Spitfire'
Silver Spitfire: The Longest Flight is a feature-length documentary following a British expeditionary team’s attempt at the world’s first circumnavigation of the Earth in an 80-year-old Spitfire fighter plane. The journey is a test of human and mechanical endurance, considered by many to be impossible.
Taking viewers inside one of the most iconic and loved aircraft ever built, pilots Matt Jones, Steve Brooks and Ian Smith MBE embark on a daring four-month odyssey, taking off from the historic Goodwood Aerodrome on 5th August 2019, that spans 26 countries and 46,000 kilometres - learning lessons about themselves, their home and the fragility of the borders that define our planet.
The Spitfire is one of Britain's most iconic aircraft, regarded as a defender of freedom and a beacon of hope. But many people may not know that during WWII, this quintessentially British aircraft was piloted by men from across the world.
According to the RAF museum, 'During the Battle of Britain one-fifth of Fighter Command’s aircrew came from overseas and 16 nations were represented in its squadrons.' This gives a flavour of the international makeup of the RAF including European exiles from Poland, France and Czechoslovakia, and pilots from Commonwealth countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Caribbean.
One such Caribbean airman was Flight Sergeant James Hyde who came from St Juan, Trinidad. He flew the eponymous 'Silver Spitfire', Spitfire MJ271, on two separate missions during WWII. Flight Sergeant James Hyde was one of 6,000 Black Caribbean men who volunteered for the RAF, including 5,500 as ground staff and 450 as aircrew. Unlike the American Air Force, the RAF had fully integrated aircrew. ‘Everyone was mixed in together,' Mark Johnson, the great nephew of RAF navigator, John Jellicoe Blair told Sky HISTORY. ‘So you would have a New Zealander gunner, a navigator from Jamaica, a bomb-aimer from Newcastle; they all flew in the same aircraft, they all lived in the same quarters, they all fought and served together.’
Sadly, the contribution of Black airmen of Caribbean and West African origin who risked their lives during WWII, has long been overlooked.
Notable Black airmen from WWII include heroes like Navigator Ulric Cross, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1944 for his bravery; Navigator John Henry Smythe who was shot down over Germany and ended up in Stalag Luft; and Flight Sergeant James Hyde , who ultimately gave his life after being shot down during the Battle of Arnhem.
Flight Sergeant James Hyde volunteered to join the RAF on 6th June 1941, arriving for training in Britain in 1942. By November 1942, he was flying a Spitfire on convoy patrols over the North Sea with 164 Squadron. Hyde was then posted to 132 City of Bombay Squadron at RAF Detling in 1943.
Whilst operational with 132 Squadron, James flew the 'Silver Spitfire' on a sortie on 27th April 1944, escorting Martin Marauders, a twin-engine medium bomber, on a mission to attack gun emplacements in the Hardelot-Furnes areas of France. All of the aircraft made it back in one piece. That afternoon saw Hyde go again on a similar sortie, this time to attack marshalling yards around Arras. The ‘Silver Spitfire’ would go on to complete 51 missions during the war.
Sadly Flight Sergeant James Hyde was not to fly the 'Silver Spitfire' again, but he remained with 132 Squadron. After promotion to Warrant Officer, he was killed in action in 1944. He took off on 25th September, tasked with providing aerial cover during the battle of Arnhem. He was intercepted in a dog fight over Nijmegen and shot down.
As pilot Matt Jones says in Silver Spitfire: The Longest Flight: 'The Spitfire means so much to so many people and I feel the responsibility to remember all of the people who gave their lives. That story is extremely important and it's that story we want to continue to be told so that it passes on from generation to generation.'
Find out more about the history of this iconic aircraft and join its incredible journey across the world in Silver Spitfire: The Longest Flight, coming to Sky HISTORY on Sunday, 12th November at 9pm.