Flying a plane: It’s not exactly brain surgery

Neurosurgeon PETER KIRKPATRICK is giving up his job to become a WW2 Hawker Hurricane display pilot. The 56-year-old from Cambridge has bought a Battle of Britain Hurricane which is currently being restored and is having special flying lessons. Anglia Press Agency
Neurosurgeon PETER KIRKPATRICK is giving up his job to become a WW2 Hawker Hurricane display pilot. The 56-year-old from Cambridge has bought a Battle of Britain Hurricane which is currently being restored and is having special flying lessons. Anglia Press Agency

A Suffolk historic aircraft restoration company is helping one of the country’s leading brain surgeons start a new life - flying his own iconic Battle of Britain fighter as a display pilot.

Peter Kirkpatrick plans to swap the operating theatre at Addenbrooke’s Hospital for the cockpit of a 350mph Hawker Hurricane and instead of making complex life and death decisions about patients with serious head injuries he will start a new and very different career in the skies.

The painstaking task of rebuilding the 76-year-old warplane has been undertaken by Hawker Restorations of Milden near Sudbury, world leaders in putting Hurricanes back in the air who have worked on or rebuilt all of the 13 Hurricanes now flying.

The 56-year-old specialises in neuro-vascular surgery - the extraordinarily delicate and precise medical procedures required for people usually suffering severe head traumas after accidents – but he is currently undergoing final pilot training in America.

It will have taken two years and around £2 million to get the fighter - original RAF number V7497 - ready for take-off again. It was shot down over Kent during the Battle of Britain in 1940 which successfully halted German plans to invade Britain, and the remains were dug up around 40 years ago.

Mr Kirkpatrick, who has also trained other specialists, explained: “In some respects flying is like surgery - there is very little room for error. Both involve the hand and eye co-ordination and though the Hurricane is much less-sophisticated piece of machinery in the end it comes down to having to make very rapid life-or-death decisions.

“I believe passionately in the history of these aircraft and the role they played in the last world war. Thanks to the courage and bravery of the young men who flew them we enjoy much of what we enjoy today and to be able to fly a Hurricane is a huge privilege.

“There are only about a dozen in the world still in an airworthy condition and although the Spitfire may have garnered more attention it was the Hurricane that was the real workhorse of the war - and the Battle of Britain statistics prove it.

“It will be fantastic to fly one, as a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives seventy five years ago - without them we would have lost the war.”

Mr Kirkpatrick has held a private pilot’s licence for a number of years and progressed to a Pitts Special, a high-performance American aerobatic aircraft, but wanted to take on a project that would end with him taking the controls of a Hawker Hurricane.

But he needs further lessons before he can take up a Hurricane - and he is currently learning to fly a Harvard T6, a powerful single-engined advanced trainer aircraft used to train pilots from the RAF, USAF and the Commonwealth during World War II and into the 1970s.

It will have taken 28,000 highly-skilled man hours and before it can take off and it will have to undergo strict CAA airworthiness tests. Hawker Restorations’ Andrew Wenman said: “Few aircraft are more historically significant than the Hurricane, and although it has been overshadowed in the public imagination by the Spitfire it was the Hurricane that actually won the Battle of Britain.

“Legendary test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown said: “It literally saved the country”, and in the military circumstances of 1940, the Hurricane could be said to have saved the world.

“In all 14,583 Hurricanes were built, compared to 22,000 Spitfires. But in the Battle of Britain the Hurricane was the mainstay of RAF Fighter Command and shot down many more enemy aircraft - 656 to 529 - and was more successful than all other air and ground defences combined.

“We are delighted to be in partnership with Peter Kirkpatrick and thrilled that the Hurricane will be kept in the Battle of Britain hangar at Duxford where it will be regularly displayed and on view to the public.

“When this aircraft is completed and a further two to fly before January next year it will increase the number of flying Hurricanes to 13 flying and Hawker Restorations have participated or re-built the majority of them.

“Fewer than five more are likely to be restored in the next decade while there are about 45 Spitfires flying, with another 25 under restoration.

“The average Second World War pilot had 200 hours’ flight experience before going into combat but with appropriate instruction, a competent Private Pilot Licence holder should be able fly a Hurricane within 50-60 hours.”

The project costs around £2 million and Mr Kirkpatrick, married with a nine-year-old son, is now seeking a partner to come in with him to own and operate the Hurricane. The costs of keeping the Hurricane in the air are not cheap - insurance for air displays is £50,000 a year, operating costs are £2,000 and it will need an £10,000 engine rebuild every 250 flying hours. But some of the running costs can be covered by appearance fees at air shows.

Mr Kirkpatrick’s plane came off the production line at the Vickers factory at Brooklands - serial number V4797 - in early1940 and joined 501 squadron at the start of the decisive Battle of Britain.

The last pilot to fly it was Pilot Officer Everett Bryan Rogers who after his commission was posted to 501 squadron stationed at Kenley near Croydon on September 12th 1940

Three days later he destroyed a Dornier Do17 bomber and on the 28th he was shot down by Messerschmitt Bf109’s over Deal, he bailed out, unhurt. His Hurricane, V7497, crashed near East Sutton.

Later in the war Rogers was serving with Bomber Command and was awarded the DFC as an Acting Squadron Leader with 640 Squadron, operating in Halifax bombers.

The citation followed an incident when a shell burst beneath the tail-plane of his aircraft on a bombing raid as it approached Sterkrade in Germany. The Halifax turned on its back and fell towards the ground, out of control.

Rogers eventually managed to right it, checked the crew was unharmed and then went on to bomb the target and afterwards flew safely home. He left the RAF as a Squadron Leader and died in 1960.

It was identified during aviation archaeology more than 20 years ago and key components of its airframe were recovered and when its history was discovered it was decided to restore it to flying condition after a “nut and bolt” rebuild to retain its period correctness.

Anglia Press Agency