WEST SUSSEX: For Prince Henry of Wales it was supposed to be a 31st birthday present like no other; the chance to fly in the largest formation of Spitfires and Hurricanes assembled since the Second World War to honour the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
During yesterday's event at Goodwood Aerodrome in West Sussex, the Prince was due to fly in one of four two-seater Spitfires along with three fellow special guests: Wing Commander Tom Neil, the only surviving ace from the Battle of Britain, and two wounded veterans of the modern era, Corporal Alan Robinson and Private Nathan Forster, who suffered terrible injuries in a bomb blast in Helmand Province.
But when one of the vintage Spitfires developed a mechanical problem, the Prince was quick to give up his seat to ensure all three veterans could take to the skies. He wished Pte Forster well as he took what was planned to be the Prince's place in the cockpit of Spitfire PV202 and captured a photograph on his mobile phone. He then promised 95-year-old Wing Commander Neil that he would look after his bone-handled wooden walking stick while he was in the air.
As the aircraft trundled on to the runways, the Prince, sporting a rugged ginger beard and dressed in an olive green flying suit, was left waiting in the wings. At least he was consoled by a group of schoolchildren singing Happy Birthday, to whom he waved.
Yet even for those watching from the ground, the flypast made quite some spectacle. Around 40 Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Bristol Blenheim bomber soared up from the aerodrome before dispersing and flying in formation across wartime airfields dotted all over the south of the country. The fighter planes flew in groups of four, the unmistakeable snub-nosed Spitfires and sleek Hurricanes banking over Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and the waters of the Solent.
For the few dozen surviving pilots of the 3,000 heroes of the Battle of Britain, the fight for national survival that raged above England in the summer and autumn of 1940, there was an acceptance that yesterday's scenes will be the last major anniversary in which they will be able to take part.
Even the most stoic among them are getting on. Wing Commander Neil, who during the dogfights 75 years ago brought down 14 enemy planes, admitted that when he approached the Spitfire cockpit he did have some reservations about actually getting in.
"I'm not a young man any more and not very good at bending in the middle, so I didn't think I was going to do it," he said. "But after a couple of minutes or so inside it felt absolutely normal, if a bit lumpy.
"I kept a careful eye on the instruments and made sure they didn't get out of control. I also kept looking among the clouds for any Germans."
Wing Commander Neil, who piloted a Hurricane during the Battle of Britain but has also flown 22 different marks of Spitfire, claims during wartime the pilots rarely experienced any issues with their planes. "Of course back then we were dealing with brand new engines," he said.
As for the Prince's willingness to offer up his seat, he says he deserves a medal. "He is a lovely boy. I don't think he ever expected me to come back alive but when we landed he gave me my stick back and congratulated me. I said, 'There is nothing to congratulate me about'."
At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, just 640 RAF Fighter Command planes were pitched into battle against 2,600 of their Luftwaffe counterparts. September 15 is seen as the pivotal day of the war within a war, when the Germans launched their largest and most concentrated assault on London, and British Spitfires and Hurricanes repelled waves of attacks. In total, between July and October, 544 personnel from Fighter Command were killed. Their heroic efforts were enough to prompt Hitler to abandon Operation Sealion, his plan to invade Britain.
The Prince met numerous veterans who had attended the flypast. In an interview for Channel 4, he said: "I can't begin to even bring myself to comprehend what they must have gone through.
"Knowing that they had as much warning as they had, with more and more aircraft taking off, taking off, taking off and then getting that phone call saying 'Right scramble, off you go lads' and not really knowing what you are going to be confronted with, the different weather conditions, different conditions you are fighting in, these things are just full of fuel as well and a couple of rounds in the wrong place."
He said of the Spitfire: "It's unbelievably basic, it was designed so anyone can jump in it and fly with confidence. I just sat in there and was in awe of the fact that you fit into it, the noise, the vibrations, boys with toys. It's that excitement but then you take yourself back and think what must it have been like for those guys breaking up through the cloud cover and up into God's playground and off you go."
The other two veterans invited to take part in the flypast had both won places on a Spitfire scholarship programme which trains wounded servicemen to fly vintage aircraft.
The scholarship was established by the Boultbee Flight Academy and is supported by the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry's Endeavour Fund, which donates money and offers practical help to sporting and adventure challenges for wounded ex-service personnel.
Pte Forster, from South Shields, Tyne and Wear, served in the Parachute Regiment but suffered severe damage to his left leg in an IED blast while on patrol in Helmand Province in 2011. He won a place on the scheme alongside Corporal Alan Robinson, an RAF aircraft technician from Market Rasen, Lincs, who lost a leg in a motorbike accident that same year.
The training programme the pair followed was similar to that of their Second World War predecessors, undertaking their first flights in a Tiger Moth and Harvard, before finally getting into the cockpit of a Spitfire itself.