A Spitfire is the perfect lady – and so was my friend Carolyn Grace

Carolyn Grace sits next to her aircraft in May 2001 ahead of flying in the Imperial War Museum's air show - Andrew Parsons
Carolyn Grace sits next to her aircraft in May 2001 ahead of flying in the Imperial War Museum's air show - Andrew Parsons

It was a great shock when I heard about Carolyn's death last night. I first met her in 1985. I was working as a documentary-maker for Television South in Southampton, making one-hour specials, often attached to an anniversary.

Just north of Southampton is Eastleigh airfield, now Southampton Airport. It was the site of the first Spitfire flight in 1936 – and we were invited by the network to make a film about Spitfires inspired by this occasion. So I did some research and ended up in a place in north Cornwall called St Merryn. It was an old airstrip, very atmospheric, and I arrived on this bitterly cold March day. And inside one of the hangers was Carolyn’s husband, Nick Grace. He was a formidable figure – an ex-paratrooper who had dropped into Egypt as part of the Suez operation. He’d seen life in the raw.

He was an accomplished pilot but his real passion was restoring aircraft. He’d brought the bones of a Spitfire at an auction, and he had 17 tea chests full of parts, and he spent the winter putting the thing together. We filmed the later stages of the restoration and the first flight tryouts – a programme which became The Perfect Lady.

My father was in the RAF and I grew up mad about planes, but never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I’d be sat in the back whilst Nick put this restored Spitfire through its paces. I remember coming in upside down over the Seven Sisters off the coast of Cornwall – that was an unforgettable day. At the time, Nick and Carolyn were living with their two children in a rented cottage nearby and they got the plane in the air as spring was on its way – it was absolutely picture-postcard, just a joy.

Carolyn Grace prepares for take-off - Drew Gardner
Carolyn Grace prepares for take-off - Drew Gardner

We were all so proud to be part of its story. The Spitfire was an ML-407 that had been flown by a New Zealander, Johnny Houlton, at D-Day on the 6th June over the Normandy beaches. In fact, we found out it was the first Spitfire to bring down an enemy plane during the invasion.

Afterwards, Nick had put a second seat into ML-407 and he was thus able to turn it into a business, offering flights. And they did it very successfully. But a few years later, I heard the awful news that Nick had been killed in a car crash in West Sussex.

That left Caroline with a terrible problem. Firstly, she’d lost the man she was devoted to, the father of her children. And secondly, she had a business to run. Of course, she could have hired a display pilot to keep on with the flights, but she was an accomplished businesswoman and already had her pilot’s licence. So she decided to learn how to fly the Spitfire and get her display licence, and I suggested we make another film – Going Solo – about her, the Spitfire, and Nick. Plus the huge challenge of putting her life back together after the tragedy. And to her credit, she agreed.

It was an incredibly brave thing to do. In the air, a Spitfire is a joy: it’s finger-tip responsive, just the perfect lady. But on take-off it can be very tricky, and on landing, it’s got the aerial characteristics of a brick. And on Carolyn’s maiden flight, she had all the added pressure of the cameras and the film crew on the ground. But she thrived on it. By now, the business was booming. I had endless admiration for her. The scale of the challenge that a woman like her has to confront and master. It required a great deal of trust and courage to be part of that adventure.

Carolyn Grace in her aircraft - Andrew Parsons/PA
Carolyn Grace in her aircraft - Andrew Parsons/PA

She was 70 when she died last week. That age is very hard to associate with the Carolyn I knew. She was incredibly gutsy, resilient – mega-tough.

But most of all, I’ll remember her laugh. She could be very funny; she was tremendously loyal. And she had a very refreshing view of the world – she knew exactly when things toppled from something serious into the purest b-llocks. She was beset by all the problems that any businesswoman and Spitfire pilot would face. And yet, she had this golden ability to shrug it all off and laugh in the face of difficulties.

Aviation is a very male-dominated world, but she was a lighthouse. A role model. To do what she did for so long, and so well, is a model not just for any woman, but any man too. And therein lies the secret of Carolyn Grace.

Graham Hurley is a filmmaker and author of Permissible Limits