Something You Never Forget
While in England, Robertson decided to join the Fairoaks Flying Club in Chobham, Surrey. ” Being involved in aviation is like meeting a beautiful woman you never forget,” he said. There, he soloed in a Tiger Moth, a de Havilland biplane that the English used in the late thirties to train young RAF pilots. He had decided that if he could land a biplane in a crosswind, he could land anything. He later joined other aero clubs.
He also acquired his first Tiger Moth, which he flew across the Channel to Normandy, France, to film “Up From The Beach.” ” I had it over there for a while during filming, and then shipped it over,” he said. “Then I worried about parts, so I ended up looking around and finding another Tiger Moth on the other side of the globe out at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. It was for sale for virtually nothing. I bought it thinking I could cannibalize it when I needed parts. When it arrived in San Pedro, we cracked open the case and it was in better shape than the first one. I ended up getting a third for the same reason. So, for a number of years, I was the proud owner of three Tiger Moths.”
While in England filming “633 Squadron” for United Artists, Robertson became interested in the de Havilland Mosquito bomber. “ In the film, we had probably the very last Mosquito bombers left,” he said. “We had five. I tried to buy one, so I could bring it back to America, but I was subverted by someone who will remain nameless, who screwed things up so nobody got them.”
Robertson said that during the filming, one Mosquito bomber was destroyed; the scene called for an airplane to hit a truck. “ To make it genuine, they had to make this bomber explode on the ground,” he said. “Nobody was in the cockpit, of course, but they had this special-effects guy running behind it with long wires, so he was able to trigger it off when it hit this truck. It exploded. That broke my heart. Then we watched it burn. It was called the ‘wooden bomber,’ because a lot of it was made out of wood, which made it very light, and fast. That central spar was made of very highly compressed wood. I watched it burn for over three hours, and that spar was still intact. It was amazing how strong it was.”
Although he wasn’t able to acquire a Mosquito, while filming, Robertson learned that the Belgium Air Force owned three Spitfires, another aircraft that attracted his interest.
“ In World War II, they had been using them for towing targets for jets,” he said. “That was the fastest thing they could get, since they weren’t using jets to tow the targets.”
When he got back to America, knowing there were very few Spitfires left, he proceeded to see if he could buy one. He was able to acquire one that had the Belgian registration of OO-ARF.
“ I got my friend Neil Williams, who had been Britain’s top aerobatic pilot and a test pilot for the Royal Air Force, to go over and get it,” he said. “He virtually begged me to let him fly it. Of course, everybody–particularly every Englishman–would give their right arm to fly a Spitfire, because there were not that many left.”
He said that later, Williams (who was subsequently killed while ferrying a Heinkel bomber from Spain to England, in the mid-seventies) wrote him an emotional and lengthy letter telling him what it meant to him.
Robertson said that the RAF was so desperate during World War II that some pilots went directly from the Tiger Moth, a very slow biplane, to a Spitfire, although usually they went to an intermediate plane.
When asked if he ever flew the Spitfire, Robertson grinned and said, “People ask me what it was like to fly a Spitfire and I tell them, ‘Well, I’ll give you the same answer I gave my insurance adjustor, which is, “Of course I didn’t fly it!” That’s my answer, and I’m sticking to it!” Robertson had the Spitfire for about 20 years.
“ I was having it worked on some of the time, in the States. When you get an airplane like that, it takes a lot of upkeep. It’s a queen and you have to treat it like a queen. Later on, I let Tom Poberezny keep it at EAA, so people could see it,” he said. “I also had it up at the Air Zoo, in Michigan.”
He said it was a similar situation to his Messerschmitt. “ There’s a provision that we can fly it when we need to,” he said. “I want the public to be able to see it, because it’s a piece of history, but if I request it, I’m allowed to take the Messerschmitt out and fly it. That’s the provision we had with both Oshkosh and the Air Zoo; that way we could keep it running and maintain it.”
About five years ago, Robertson sold the Spitfire to telecommunications pioneer Craig McCaw. “ He respects the airplane as much as I do, because he realizes it’s more than a fighter plane,” Robertson said. “That airplane saved western civilization as we know it today. People say, ‘How can you say that?’ Well, long before the atom bomb, they had the Battle of Britain, which turned the tide of World War II.
“ In the Battle of Britain, no matter how those pilots flew, the Hurricane, which was a fine airplane, wouldn’t have tipped the balance against the Germans. The Spitfire did. Without it, they would have lost the Battle of Britain, and all historians agree. Had the Germans won the Battle of Britain, England would have had to negotiate with Germany, and Germany would then have been able to put its total forces against Russia, and they would’ve won. Had it not been for that one man, Mr. Mitchell, who designed it, the war would’ve been entirely different.”