Fanging it just 20m above the sea’s surface in a Spitfire, and travelling at a cool 250knots doesn’t really rate as responsible flying. Doing it through The Needles on the Isle of Wight? That is exactly what Dan Mercer did.
This was part of a journey around the entire coastline of Britain that Dan and his friend and co-pilot Duncan, completed earlier this year, to raise awareness for the need of new blood donors in Great Britain. Dan has worked alongside Iridium for 20 years, which is where his connection with Spidertracks comes in. Iridium helps power Spidertracks’ technology, so it was a no-brainer using a Spider unit during the adventure.
Having a Spider in the cockpit meant the team had the reassurance that someone back at HQ was watching their progress in real-time, especially seeing as they were spending significant flying time over remote regions of the country and water. It also meant those following the journey and those who were expecting his arrival could see their flight path online, and could roll out the welcome mat, so to speak, at just the right time.
Anyway, back to the journey...
The first overnight stopover on this epic fundraiser flight was at Goodwood Aerodrome near Chichester. Home to Boultbee Academy, it’s the only place in the world still training Spitfire pilots. They have four restored Spitfires in their fleet; two of which are rare two-seater TR9 training planes, and the other two being single-seater Mark 9’s. One of these is known as the City of Exeter Spitfire, and other, the Silver Spitfire, which has been restored in polished aluminium, and currently on its own world tour, also using a Spider.
Dan parked his R44 next to the City of Exeter Mark 9, and proceeded to spend some time in Boultbee’s special simulator. This has been built from genuine Spitfire parts, over half of which saw service in World War II, offering the pilot an ‘as close as you can get’ experience of handling and flying the real thing – in fact, it's used as part of the training hours for the Spitfire type rating. Naturally, Dan and Duncan both tried their hands at ‘threading the Needle’ – flying between the Isle of Wight’s rocky landmarks at speeds that would be reckless in real life (unless you had a Messerschmitt on your tail, obviously, which Dan may or may not have been imagining). The duo made the real-life pass through The Needles in the R44 the following day, in decidedly bumpy conditions.
From there, it was go, go, go - a journey that Dan & Duncan both admit was tiring but more rewarding than both initially imagined. They stopped each night at local landmarks, visited a variety of blood banks, and educated and encouraged locals to “pledge a pint” for a cause that the pair both are highly passionate about. The life of Dan’s wife was saved by a vital blood transfusion after suffering unexpected internal bleeding, and Duncan received a transfusion on the very first day of his life.
“The white cliffs of Dover, the counties of Devon and Cornwall, the West Coast of North Wales, Caernarfon, the English Lake District, and all the way around the Scottish Highlands were simply spectacular,” says Dan. One fond memory was landing in a remote spot called Wardhouse in Scotland where, after setting down in front of a spectacular ruin, the helicopter was greeted by friends and locals from the village with a picnic on the grass.
“It was an amazing flying experience,” says Dan. “We saw just about every type of British weather, good, bad and highly changeable. We met the most wonderful people in the hospitals, the blood centres, airfields, castles, pubs and hotels all the way round.”
And of course having the Iridium network and Spidertracks providing flight following capability meant that - despite being at times in very remote locations - eyes were always on them, and their location was known at all times.