Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Tuesday, 1 April 2008 13:04 UK

'We were the blue-eyed boys'

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News defence correspondent

The Spitfire maintains an almost mythical symbolism

Veteran Frank Blinkhorn's eyes light up as he walks around the gleaming Spitfire in the hangar at RAF Coningsby, touching its polished sides with reverence.

The iconic plane has been lovingly serviced at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby, ready to fly again - albeit for commemoration displays, rather than over enemy territory.

Frank Blinkhorn was just 17 years old when he joined the RAF in wartime Britain, and was given only eight hours' training in a Tiger Moth to prove he could go solo. He was then sent to Canada to qualify as an RAF fighter pilot, flying Harvards, Hurricanes, Spitfires and the original Typhoons.

He won his wings on his 19th birthday, returning to England to fight the Luftwaffe.

Many of his comrades died in the skies over enemy territory. He himself was lucky to return alive.

"A lot didn't come back - and I nearly didn't," says the 86-year-old.

"I was shot down over Boulogne harbour on 8 May 1944, just a month before D-Day.

"We were on a reconnaissance flight for D-Day, and one of our jobs was to fly out to Germany to do a weather recce for the big bomber raids coming up.

"We were coming back out of Boulogne and I got a ground shell in the engine - and in those days there was no ejector seat, so you had to ditch."

His plane ditched into the cold waters of the Channel in the midst of a minefield.

He was knocked unconscious, but was rescued.

Frank Blinkhorn
We could walk with our heads held high. I remember walking up Oxford Street with my fiancee when I came back from my training in Canada, walking past Selfridges, which was ablaze after being bombed
Frank Blinkhorn
WWII Spitfire pilot

Despite his close shave, Frank Blinkhorn is still lyrical about the joys of his days in the RAF.

"The most wonderful thing about flying is to go up on a grey day like this and chase the clouds in the sunshine above. It's a different world, a fantasy world."

But as the RAF celebrates its 90th anniversary, he feels sad that the respect his generation of pilots received appears to have lessened for today's servicemen and women.

"I think it's a tragedy. During the war, we were the blue-eyed boys.

"I don't think the armed forces today generally get the recognition they deserve - people seem to think more of veterans like me these days than the people doing the job now, which is wrong."

The recent heated public debate after it emerged that staff at RAF Wittering had been advised not to wear uniforms while out in the streets of Peterborough still resonates here at RAF Coningsby.

The station commander, Group Captain Stuart Atha, hopes the 90th anniversary will provide an opportunity for the RAF to raise awareness of its role amongst a wider public.

Unchanging values

"What we do is in the far blue yonder, often out of sight. The danger is that because you can't see it, people are not so aware of what we do," he says.

He points out that at the end of Frank's time in the RAF in 1945, one million people in Britain were part of the Royal Air Force.

"Everyone had a friend, a neighbour, an aunt or an uncle in the RAF.

"But now we are just 42,000 or so people in the RAF, so there are large sections of the country that don't see us on a day to day basis."

Nonetheless, Group Captain Atha believes that some things in the RAF have remained much the same.

Eurofighter Typhoon
The RAF has defended the introduction of the Typhoon

"Though we've developed, I think some of the core values have not changed. Service, duty, sacrifice: these are not qualities you hear too much about in society today, but they lie at the heart of what we do in the air force, regardless of whether you were defending the skies over the UK in 1940 or if you are flying in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan today."

Today at Coningsby, the runway is dominated by the new Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets noisily taking off at enormous speed, blazing a shimmering heat haze in their wake over the Lincolnshire countryside.

With 50 already in service, the third tranche of Typhoons on order may have to be cut back or delayed to save money in Britain's overstretched defence budget.

None has so far seen service in Iraq or Afghanistan, as the Typhoon was conceived in the 1980s as a next-generation fighter capable of defending the West against Soviet air attack.

They are currently being converted to equip them to launch attacks against ground targets.

Wartime nostalgia

At Coningsby, Flight Lieutenant Antony "Parky" Parkinson is preparing for take-off in his Typhoon and is enthusiastic about their capabilities.

"The raw performance of the Typhoon is amazing. The aircraft is incredibly powerful: we can go up to 55,000ft in a heartbeat.

"They can carry a lot of ordnance, and they are incredibly agile and manoeuvrable. And you can stuff them full of clever avionics - it's a thrilling experience to fly one."

As he walks around the hangar chatting to Flight Lieutenant Parkinson, Frank Blinkhorn still feels a certain nostalgia for his own wartime flying days.

Key moments in the RAF's 90-year history

"We could walk with our heads held high. I remember walking up Oxford Street with my fiancee when I came back from my training in Canada: walking past Selfridges, which was ablaze after being bombed."

Yet his greatest admiration is reserved for the "Bomber Boys" who went up in Lancasters on bombing raids over enemy territory during WWII.

"You'd see the Lancasters going out, knowing that one in seven of them would not come back. Each had seven men on board. They didn't get the credit they deserve," he says.

"They're talking about giving them a medal - all these years later. That was real bravery - to go out knowing that one in seven of you wasn't coming back."

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