The sound of throbbing engines is never far away from the busy Kent village of Headcorn. Its charming high street is always crowded with cars and motorcycles, as it is still a very commercial place of small shops, offices, supermarkets and banks, set either side of a road that leads from Maidstone to Tenterton and from there, on to the coast at Rye. This is a very pretty road and a favourite with both sports car enthusiasts and bikers, as it winds its meandering way across the countryside, I drive it a lot myself, a most enjoyable trip in a fast open car in early spring’ before the roads get tangled with tourists.
High above the village, in the warm summer skies, still more engines can be heard, as Headcorn also has an airfield where private flyers keep their aircraft and fly from, for pleasure and business.
The local skydiving community also have a base here, so the sound of twin propeller aircraft overhead makes shoppers look up to see the colourful paracute canopies drifting down to the landing point. On early mornings and still summer evenings one is also likely to see a group of hot air balloons ascending, to drift low over the rural landscape, the roar of the gas burners echoing around the lanes as they slowly gain height. Helicopters too are often heard, as some local business people fly themselves to London and back every day on an airbourne commute.
Around here we are all used to these sounds, they are part of Headcorn.
Now, for some folk of a certain age there is one engine sound which is embedded deep in our memory, and which they can identify immediately whenever heard. This sound is the deep throb of a twelve cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin engine, possibly the most important aero engine of world war two, as so many allied aircraft used it as a power source.
During the war, Headcorn airfield was known as RAF Lashenden, an advanced landing group airfield, and from here flew at various times, Hawker Hurricanes, Supermarine Spitfires, and American P51 Mustang aircraft, as well as many other types at various times. Both American and Canadian flyers were based here, flying daily on sorties across England and over France.
Today, the airfield is called Headcorn aerodrome rather than Lashenden, but the old wartime buildings still exist and there is now a small but interesting museum recording its time as a wartime base for the United States Army Air Force. It is also the last WW2 airfield in the UK which still has grass runways, so when you see a take off or landing here you are witnessing history.
A number of beautifully restored vintage airplanes still fly from Headcorn, including a large group of Tiger Moth biplanes, several Spitfires and the occasional Messerscmidt 109, as well as Dragon Rapides, and sometimes a reproduction Fokker Triplane, taking off from its historic grass runways, sometimes giving spectacular local displays.
Model aircraft are sometimes flown too, from gliders to Jets, some of these are almost half the size of the real thing!
As well as these tangible, exciting and vintage planes, being flown by enthusiasts, there are a few less tangible flyers over the village and airfield, they have been flying for years, and have become a local legend.
This is the Lashenden ghost flight, destined to haunt the airspace over Kent with their spectral presence, reliving their experiences of the wartime past in the twenty first century present. Who these ghostly flyers are we can only speculate, but fly they do, and possibly will for evermore. I dearly hope so.
The ghostly droning voice of a powerful engine approaching the landing strip is often heard on nice quiet summer evenings, as the day turns to twilight and the sky glows with the red clouds of sunset. The unseen aircraft makes a low approach over the village, the snarling note of the motor changing in pitch as it turns and then prepares to put down, the sound echoing above the trees and rooftops. The air feels still but suddenly electric with energy, as the invisible plane throttles back and the low bump of wheels are heard on the grass, rolling to the turning point of the perimeter. Then there is nothing, apart from the lonely howl of a dog in the distance, and suddenly the phantom landing is over, all is quiet.
Who brings this plane in on summer nights, is it an American airman back from France, or a Canadian or British Spitfire pilot returning home, or maybe, just trying to return, after fighting the enemy over the English Channel and being lost in time?
We may never know who was destined all those years ago to make this unseen flight and ghostly landing, time and time and time again.
I sometimes speculate about what this airbourne ghost pilot sees, as he guides his plane into a perfect landing. Is he seeing a WW2 airfield, or is he wondering at the modern changes on the ground before him with the passing years ?
Maybe he was a friend of the two airmen who still haunt the local pub at Egerton, a small village close by. They are occasionally seen sitting on the wall outside the pub, talking and drinking together like old friends, but silently, It is said.
‘As though players in a very old film, with faded but strong images, and easily recognisable as yankee airmen in their leather jackets’ I was told by an old chap, who claimed he had witnessed them several times in the gloom of closing time, as he left the pub for home. ‘They seem very friendly, and both look up at the sky as they talk together, as though waiting for someone to arrive back’. ‘I plucked up my courage and approached them once, but they just sat there and ignored me, fading away as I looked at them’ he told me. Indeed, the pub at Egerton had been a favourite watering hole with the airmen from Lashenden, and still has photos from the wartime period on its walls today.
Strange aircraft have been seen here too, from the village playing field of Egerton, which has a very good commanding view over the Kent countryside. These planes are seen in formation, silently approaching from a distance, five or six in a group and with one lagging behind somewhat. As they get closer to the turn point for the final approach to the airfield, the vision whisps away slowly, as though they are becoming misty and being swallowed by clouds, even on lovely cloudless evenings, with the golden sunlight glinting off of their silver wings as they disappear and fade into the ether. They are perfectly silent and seen late in the day, usually well after the present day airfield has closed for the night, the hangers have been safely locked and the staff have left for home.
The airfield at Headcorn also has the ghost of a dog, he or she sits patiently at the end of the runway, alert and apparently waiting. It is described as a light brown setter like creature, could it still be waiting for its master to return I wonder, seventy five years after he started his engine, taxied to the runway and flew out of Headcorn to a place and fate unknown?
Across the lane, just down from the airfield entrance, a deserted and crumbling house can still be seen, standing back in the grounds. Its aspect today is one of strangeness, as this area now is a sought after place to settle and live, and although neglected and dilapidated the house looks as though it could be saved, restored and refurbished into a good sized family home once more.
It is said that a small ancient sports car or maybe a Jeep, can sometimes be seen driving into the gate from the lane, it stops at the side of the drive, its passengers seeming to enter the house through the front door after walking from the car. These are tall men in long coats, and are welcomed by a young woman as they pass up the steps. To me if seems unusual for three ghostly figures to be seen together, although I suppose it might be an energetic slip in time giving a vision of the past. At some point I will have a look at this house myself, the story is interesting as many airmen were posted to local families for living accommodation in the area, close to the airfield, perhaps this is one of the homes they used, and are now bound to for eternity.
Should you find yourself in this corner of Kent, do try to find time to visit Headcorn and its airfield. Great days can be had here, as you can tour the hangers, visit the museum and watch very close to the airstrip as the planes, both modern and vintage take off and land, as well as be taken for a flight in a Tiger Moth biplane yourself, to experience the thrill of open cockpit flying.
You may even see the RAF pilot instructor, Charlie Brown, landing his beautifully maintained 1940 Polish squadron Spitfire here to refuel, before he flies back to do a victory roll over the RAF memorial on the top of the famous White Cliffs, at nearby Dover. He does this frequently throughout the year.
Charlie is probably the most experienced Spitfire pilot of all time!
From our house nearby, we see many aircraft fly over, and likely, some ghosts, but one sound always brings us out into the garden to look, the beautiful song of a Merlin engine at full throttle, which to many of us English folk, is the true sound of survival.
A survival that we owe to the very young pilots, many just out of school, who fought the Battle of Britain on our behalf, without thought for themselves, in the sky above Kent.
May we never forget them, and may they fly in peace, forever. We in England owe them so much.
Copyright – Ken DaSilva-Hill 2017
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