FEATURE: Flying with Chipmunk WK514

On May 22nd 2016 at Old Warden airfield, a celebration took place to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the prototype de Havilland Canada Chipmunk, CF-DIO-X. The commemorations included a formation flight of 16 examples of the type in a ‘70’ formation, and one of those aircraft in ‘Blue Flight’ forming part of the ‘7’ was WK514 (G-BBMO). This immaculate ‘Chippie’ is maintained and operated by the Mike Oscar Group, who proudly preserve one of the most unique individual airframes in the country.

WK514 was one of 100 Chipmunks ordered by the RAF bearing the serial ‘WK’, and is believed to have been flown on delivery from the de-Havilland plant in Broughton on the 9th of January 1952. 2 days later WK514 entered service with No.51 Group, which was part of the newly established No.5 Basic Flying Training School at RAF Desford. However this was for only a short period of time, as following a decision by Parliament in December of 1952 in the light of post-war economic struggle, RAF Desford and 5 BFTS were closed down by the end of July 1953. WK514 was therefore one of the aircraft transferred to No.22 Reserve Flying School at Cambridge Airport, however this was also a short-lived posting as by the spring of 1954 the RAF closed down all RFSs following a review of RAF training requirements.

WK514 in 1953, with No.22 RFS at Cambridge Airport. Photo courtesy of Mike Oscar Group historic photo archive

As a consequence, on the 27th of May 1954, WK514 began a unique service in Fighter Command. Initially ‘514 was posted to No.226 Operational Conversion Unit (which operated Gloster Meteors at the time) where it most likely served as a general runabout and communications aircraft, as well as no doubt providing air experience flights for members of the Air Training Corps. Between October 1954 and July 1958 WK514 was used on numerous occasions by the Commander HQ of Metropolitan Sector No.11 Group, Air Commodore Samuel Charles Elworthy, and was adorned with the metallic finish and blue lightening flash and rank pennant on the left cowling, that it wears at the present time. During this time it was flown out of RAF North Weald.

Following a brief tenure with the Station Flight at RAF Odiham for 5 months concluding in November 1958, WK514 was designated as surplus to Fighter Command requirements and was once more relocated. During the following 11 years, WK514 served at RAF Kemble with No.5 Maintenance Unit, RAF Chivenor with 229 (Hunter) OCU, Filton Aerodrome with the Bristol University Air Squadron (BUAS) and RAF St Athan with the University of Wales Air Squadron. Finally ‘514 was moved to RAF Church Fenton and No.2 Flying Training School in October of 1969, in what proved to be the aircraft’s final posting with the RAF. After 4 years with No.2 FTS the WK514 was retired from RAF service on the 12th of October 1973.

WK514 in 1964, with Bristol UAS, Aircraft “O”, at Abingdon. Photo courtesy of Mike Oscar Group historic photo archive

After an impressive 21 years of service in various roles within the RAF, WK514 is thought to have been sold for £300 into civilian ownership, where it was given the registration G-BBMO (hence the group name ‘Mike Oscar’). The aircraft went through 6 civilian owners and numerous colour schemes, including a lurid canary yellow scheme that the aircraft wore from some-time between 1974 and 1987 until its eventual sale to what went on to become the Mike Oscar Group in 1997. In 2002, following a period of restoration, the aircraft was returned to its present scheme, representing its Fighter Command service in the 1950s. The Mike Oscar Group operate WK514 largely out of Wellesbourne, its “home” for the past 19 years, although the aircraft can frequently be seen up and down the country during trips by the respective owners.

So what is so unique about WK514’s incredibly busy career in the RAF? Well, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it is believed that WK514 is the only surviving de Havilland Chipmunk to have served with RAF Fighter Command in the 1950s, so it is no surprise that the aircraft’s current custodians celebrate this uniqueness with its stunning ‘silver and blue flash’ scheme. Those of you that attended the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2014 or 2016 may have noticed this wonderful aircraft tucked away in the static park, just two of WK514’s many appearances (unfortunately on static display) at airshows around the country. This ‘Chippie’ may have been flying for 64 years already, but I for one hope that it flies long into the future, as a shining example of one of the most often forgotten and unfairly underrated aircraft type.

Behind the lens – Alex Prins

In the spring of this year I first approached the Mike Oscar Group, the operators of WK514, with the intention of organising an air-to-air photo-shoot. Lots of time and effort was put in by Roger Chamberlain and the Mike Oscar Group to get both the Chipmunk and a photo-ship in the same place at a time convenient for those involved, for which I am extremely grateful. As a result on the 31st of August I travelled to Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield to carry out the much anticipated photo sortie; the journey there was extremely overcast and rainy and I began to doubt whether the flights would be possible at all. Following some frantic messaging we agreed to meet at Wellesbourne to plan the flight, and hope that the weather cleared up in the mean time.

And so, at 2pm I arrived at Wellesbourne’s Touchdown Café to meet the flight crew for the various sorties we had planned: Roger Chamberlain was to be the photo-ship pilot, with myself flying as a passenger; Nick Coley was the Chipmunk pilot, with Jasper Chamberlain in the rear tandem seat photographing the photo-ship for the owners that had kindly allowed us the use of the aircraft. Over a bacon butty in the excellent airfield café we ran through all of the necessary pre-flight planning, such as the safety precautions and radio communications protocol. We chose the radio call-sign “Gaydon Flight” as we intended to visit the former RAF airfield during the sortie; Nick’s experience in the RAF made this exercise a highly professional and educational experience, as we planned everything to the minutiae. During this briefing we discussed the various shots that we were aiming to achieve, and what locations we intended to visit during the sortie, as well as how we would communicate to ensure that we got the best shots possible in the safest way.

Following this briefing we then visited Jon Simmons in the airfield control tower to discuss the flight, and crucially to gain permission for some overflights of the airfield, which we hoped to use to photograph WK514 over her “home”. Jon was extremely accommodating, and we were fortunate to be given permission to carry out a series of low flypasts along the runway. Once we had organised the finer details of the flypast, we went to prepare the aircraft for the flight; luckily by this point the band of heavy rain that had threatened to jeopardise the exercise had moved beyond the airfield, so we could begin to prepare in earnest. Whilst Nick and Jasper prepared WK514, Roger and I set up the Cessna 182 ‘BAFL’ that was to be the camera-ship. After much consideration we decided that I would be better situated in the rear of the aircraft, where I would be best placed to capture shots from both sides of the aircraft, and would have plenty of room to move around safely – the drawback to this was that I would be shooting through tinted Perspex.

Finally, after much planning and trepidation, following the necessary pre-flight checks both aircraft were started up, and we taxied for take-off. We positioned both aircraft on the runway whilst Nick carried out further checks in the Chipmunk; during this time we decided that with the wind conditions at the time a formation take-off would not be safe, so we agreed upon a streamed take-off with a 5-second interval. Then, with one final check with Jon in the tower, we took off from Wellesbourne’s main runway. Almost immediately we were caught up by the speedier Chipmunk, despite our head-start, and so I began to photograph the aircraft and coordinate with Nick to gain the best angles. As we entered the Wellesbourne circuit, Nick’s RAF experience paid dividends in allowing some excellent close-formation flying, all the while altering the Chipmunk’s relative height and separation from the camera-ship to vary the photographs.

We performed two flypasts along the runway, with the Chipmunk essentially undertaking touch-and-goes, to allow me to capture the aircraft from above, with the hangars and tower of Wellesbourne serving as an excellent backdrop. After this, we flew a further flypast to allow Jasper in the rear of the Chipmunk to photograph our Cessna ‘BAFL’ in a similar manner, to provide photos for the owners of the aircraft that had so kindly allowed us the use of their aircraft. Once we had safely left the circuit, we headed east to the site of the former RAF Gaydon, which would serve as an outstanding background for the photo shoot. On the way, Nick moved the Chipmunk to an appropriate distance away from us in order to allow for some more energetic manoeuvres. For a brief moment I was able to enjoy a “dogfight” scenario, with the Chipmunk carrying out a series of plunging passes alongside us.

Once Nick had once more moved alongside us, we flew a single pass down the runway of the former Cold War RAF airfield of Gaydon, now home to Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover, as well as the neighbouring ‘British Motor Museum’.  The return-leg from Gaydon once more allowed some dynamic manoeuvres, and Jasper sat in the rear of the Chipmunk would have been forgiven for looking a little green on landing! Jasper was also allowed to briefly take over control of the Chipmunk to gain some valuable formation flying experience. With this final activity the flight was over, after nearly an hour of magnificent flying. Once both aircraft had recovered to the airfield, we put BAFL to bed, and carried out a debrief of the afternoon’s activities. This was once again an extremely enlightening and useful experience, as we evaluated every aspect of the sortie in order to better prepare ourselves for any future flights. As we concluded the debrief, Roger then surprised me with the very kind offer of a short flight in rear seat of the Chipmunk.

Strapping into the seat of the venerable RAF trainer, listening to the purring of the de Havilland Gipsy Major engine, I felt the same excitement that countless Air Cadets and trainee pilots alike must have felt at the onset of their first flight in the type. As we lifted off the runway and soared into the clear evening sky, I began to truly appreciate the charm of the aircraft, and the wonder of flight. Roger flew a series of banking turns to accustom me to an extent, to the G-forces of aerobatics, before performing a graceful roll and loop (at this point I found myself unintentionally cheering!). To top off the experience, I was allowed a few brief moments of piloting myself, as I took over control of the aircraft with the customary radio communication “I have control”. I must admit, I probably don’t have a future in the Red Arrows, as my turns were less than perfect! Finally, as we returned to Wellesbourne with the sun low over my shoulder and the water of the River Avon winking back at me, I was able to reflect on a superb day of flying.

Upon landing and shut-down, we were greeted by Nick who set about cleaning the interior of the engine cowlings, which had gained a liberal coating of oil during the aerobatics! With WK514 finally put to bed in her hangar, we left the airfield having completed a highly fruitful series of sorties – the drinks were definitely on me!

At the present time, Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield is under threat from a proposal to build 1,600 houses on the site. This would mean destroying the airfield, with the loss of a base for the 70 aircraft for whom the airfield is home (including WK514), and would jeopardise the future of the live-running Vulcan XM655 which fast taxis at the annual ‘Wellesbourne Wings and Wheels’ event. The Vulcan, which is the most powerful Vulcan in ground running condition, would be either trapped at the site on a housing estate, or possibly relocated at monumental cost and left as a non-running example as a result. The airfield has a rich heritage which dates back to 1941, when it was first used by RAF Wellington bombers of No.22 OCU. It now attracts 850,000 visitors annually, and the businesses onsite have an annual turnover of over £2 million per year – the destruction of the airfield would end the support for 1,500 airfield and market workers whose livelihoods rely on the site. Stratford-on-Avon District Council are supposedly in favour of protecting the airfield, however new proposals by the airfield owners to demolish the buildings onsite and render the airfield inoperable may prove difficult to counter. For more information about the threats to the airfield, and to join the Wellesbourne Matters Association to support the protection of the airfield, click here.

Finally, I would like to take this moment to thank as many of those involved in organising these flights as possible: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Roger Chamberlain and Nick Coley, along with the rest of Mike Oscar Group, for arranging the logistics of the operation as well as flying so fantastically throughout. Thanks also must go to the owners of G-BAFL for allowing us the use of the aircraft, and to Jon Simmons in the control tower for granting us the opportunity for some fairly unique photographs. It was a day spent in the best of company, flying in the best conditions, with one of the best classic aircraft, and the memories I gained will last a lifetime.

Alex Prins is a UK based photographer and aviation enthusiast, and also the deputy-editor of This is Flight. This is Flight wishes to thank all of those that were involved in the organisation and execution of the flight; finally we would like to thank Nick Coley for providing his excellent and substantial information about WK514’s history.