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Tuesday
May022017

Flying the Legendary Spitfire

By David Brown

Richard Paver’s superb shot of MJ627 shows the classic lines of the Spitfire/ (via Heritage Hangar)For many years, I had harbored the desire to fly a Spitfire. This dream started when I was allowed, as a schoolboy, to sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire at RAF Woodvale, and had persisted since my early flying days in England. Together with fellow Air Cadet, Alan Walker, I had spent my weekends at Woodvale supporting operations to fly other Air Cadets at 10 Air Experience Flight, which enabled us at the end of the day to wangle a quick 15-minute flight in the Chipmunks. After college in England, and more Chipmunk flying with the RAF and in civilian life, I started a career in the flight testing of jets, initially in England, and flew light aircraft at weekends.

I still had the Spitfire dream, but Spitfires (especially two-seaters) are rare. Time passed and we moved on, Alan advanced into airline flying, and eventually progressed to a Senior Captain position with Cathay Pacific flying the mighty Boeing 747. By then, I had moved to California where I worked in Flight Test and various Advanced Design groups, taught aeronautical engineering at a university and the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, and was lucky enough to be involved on the periphery of various warbird operations. We corresponded occasionally, and I saw on Facebook that he now flew a Robin, G-FEEF (aka Fifi), which he based in England. He was also an accomplished warbird pilot and flew Spitfires, Hurricane Sea Fury, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and even the notoriously tricky Messerschmitt 109… pretty impressive.

Ready to start with the author in the rear cockpit. Spitfire MJ627 piloted by Clive Denney on the ramp at Biggin Hill. (Clare Brown)Last summer, my wife and I spent a three-week vacation travelling in Europe and later planned to meet family in Surrey, England, as it was a couple of years since we had all been together. We would finish off with a trip to London for the weekend to celebrate my birthday, then drive back into Surrey for a couple of days before returning to California. It would be a busy weekend. Our son, Simon, would be on business in Europe and was scheduled to fly into Gatwick on the Sunday morning then join us later.  He suggested that it would not be far out of our way to drive from London to Surrey via Biggin Hill. He would meet us there. (Biggin Hill was a very significant airfield during the Battle of Britain). My wife and I had last visited Biggin Hill while at college. It just so happened that Biggin had a Heritage Hangar full of Spitfires… How could I resist? And so our plans were changed… just a bit.

On a Sunday morning in August, the same time of the year as the Battle of Britain, we drove into Biggin Hill and found Heritage Hangar. The staff greeted us and escorted us inside. It was an impressive sight. Heritage Hangar looked like Aladdin’s cave with Spitfires shoehorned into every corner. We walked slowly through the hangar, marveling at various Spitfires and even a Messerschmitt 109. Two-seater MT818 was inside while MJ627 was on the ramp outside (There are only eight two-seat Spitfires flying in the world). As we were being shown this lineup of Spitfires, I was suddenly aware of an aircraft taxiing towards us. Improbably it was Robin G-FEEF, which shut down outside the hangar. With a big grin on his face, Alan Walker stepped off the wing, walked over, and shook my hand. Almost at the same moment our son, Simon, arrived by car from Gatwick. One look at their faces gave the game away. They had got me. My birthday present was to take flight in a two-seat Spitfire. My dream was about to be realized.

A few minutes later, I met Clive Denney, who would be my pilot, and I was fitted out with a flight suit, gloves, and bone-dome. We briefed in the hangar. Clive would conduct the takeoff and landing and get us in and out of Biggin Hill airspace. I would fly the Spitfire for the rest of the sortie. There was no time to have butterflies.

MJ 627 after our day’s flying is complete. The red patches on the wing indicate the position of four of the 0.303 Browning machine gus originally fitted. Inboard of these were a pair of 20mm cannon, now removed. (David Brown)I walked out to the Spitfire and slowly walked around it. The huge four-blade propeller and the V-12 liquid-cooled Merlin engine dominate the Spitfire. Tail-down, it squatted outside the hangar.  Elliptical wings made it difficult to manufacture, but they are aerodynamically efficient and aesthetically pleasing. This actual Spitfire left the Castle Bromwich factory in 1943. As it entered service in the fall of 1944, it has D-day stripes on the rear fuselage and under the wings. It is coded 9G-Q to honor 441 Squadron RCAF, with whom it served. It had one kill to its credit, a Messerschmitt 109. As a Spitfire Mk 9, with a more powerful Merlin than the Spitfire IIs in the Battle of Britain, it had improved performance to combat the later Messerschmitt 109s and the FW 190s, which entered service in the following years.  

This aircraft in 1950 was converted to a two-seat trainer (hence the T-9 designation) and served as a fighter trainer with the Irish Air Force, then was owned by a succession of private owners. It is currently based at Biggin Hill and operated by Heritage Hangar

Flying the Spitfire

The Spitfire cockpit belongs to a no-non-sense war machine; Throttle and elevator trim wheel are on the left, Firing button is on the spade grip (for a two- handed grip on the stick at high speeds). The Blind Flying panel is in the center, and engine gauges on the right. The seat pan con-tains the parachute. Rudder pedals have an upper set of footrests. Under high g, the pilot can resist g forces better using the upper set of pedals. (David Brown)It was time to climb aboard my Spitfire. With the small door on the left-hand side of the cockpit lowered, I climbed into the rear cockpit. I sat on the seat-type parachute, and with some assistance strapped into the parachute harness, tightened my chute straps, then the seat harness. Next I learned the procedure for emergency egress: lower the seat, jettison the canopy, open the cockpit door, and jump out.

Then I raised my seat until my bone-dome just cleared the canopy, using a lever down by my right hand (it bore a strong resemblance to an MG car handbrake I remembered from my youth) and checked out the cockpit.

I learned to fly with the RAFVR on Chipmunks. The Spitfire instrument panel is in some ways reminiscent of the Chipmunk, with basically the same blind flying panel, including a large turn and slip gauge and a large P4 magnetic compass down at the base of the stick. I must admit the engine department is a tad more complex in the Spitfire with the addition of boost gauge, propeller, and supercharger controls. We now had a pneumatic system (for the brakes and flaps). The substantial throttle is mounted on the left-hand cockpit wall, while the gear selector labeled “Chassis” was on the right-hand wall. I recalled that Spitfire pilots had to change hands on the stick while retracting the gear after takeoff. Still, nothing’s perfect. A small switch on the top left of the panel controls the flaps (pneumatically operated and selected either fully up or fully down). The control column itself is a hefty item split part way up to give full aileron movement without banging into your knees. It is topped by a spade-grip with a gun safe/fire switch.

My ground crew raises the cockpit door by my left elbow and it clicks into place. The canopy slides forward and locks above my head.

Make no mistake, this is a serious military airplane. The cockpit door panel by my left elbow contains a crowbar (painted red) designed to smash the canopy if it jams closed. The cockpit is just adequate; my shoulders touch on either side. I’m more than six feet tall, but it’s not cramped. Alan Walker had stated previously, “You do not just sit in a Spitfire, you wear it.” That’s a perfect description.

Taxiing the Spitfire is done cautiously. The narrow gear, poor visibility over the nose, and powerful engine combine to make the task difficult. The stick is kept back to stop the Spitfire from tipping on its nose. MJ 627 carries the Squadron markings Q-9G, an authentic Royal Air Force camouflage paint scheme for late in WWII and Invasion black and white stripes, which all Allied aircraft carried for the invasion of Europe in June 1944. (Clare Brown)In a moment of deja vu, I realize that the last RAF tailwheel aircraft I was in was a Chipmunk, and Alan Walker was with me on that occasion. Now, an accomplished warbird pilot himself, he is standing at the wingtip to keep an eye on me. I appreciate that, and we exchange a mutual thumbs-up. Clive Denney climbs into the front seat. We establish communication over the intercom. We confirm the procedure for my taking the controls and if we lose communications. Basically, we will be using the intercom, backed up by wiggling the stick to confirm change of control. If we lose the intercom, we will revert to visual signals. (Clive has a rear-view mirror, and I can see his eyes in his mirror). My cockpit is about three feet behind Clive and a couple of feet higher than the regular cockpit.

The mission plan is that Clive will takeoff, clear the Biggin Hill Airspace, (Gatwick airport is close by and Heathrow airspace extends over the top of the field), and then hand control to me. I am cleared to check on the handling of this legendary fighter as far as we can accomplish this in the indifferent weather, and let me experience what it was like to fly the Spitfire in this historical airspace where the Battle of Britain had taken place.

Denney completes his pre-start checks. We confirm communications over the intercom. It is time to prime and start. There is a moment of silence, then the propeller starts to turn slowly, and the Merlin engine fires up with a burst of smoke from the exhaust stacks. The Merlin is loud, despite my noise-cancelling headset. The engine warms up at 1,000rpm, and I watch the radiator temperature rise. The pneumatic brakes are released and we turn onto the taxiway. As Denney taxies, I keep one eye on my Radiator Temperature Gauge. One of the less endearing design features of the Spitfire is that the radiator airflow is blocked by the lowered landing gear, so ground operations are always carried out with one eye on the rising engine coolant temperature.

We taxi past the Biggin VOR and stop on the taxiway for Runway 21. We check that brake and pneumatic supply pressure are okay. Magneto checks are carried out quickly, then generator checks, and we get takeoff clearance and turn onto the runway.

I recheck my trims, and that the rudder-trim is full right.

“OK back there?” I confirm that I’m ready to go. The stick is pushed hard right in anticipation of the Merlin’s torque mashing the left gear into the runway. The noise level rises to an overwhelming roar as the Merlin is unleashed. I can feel the nose trying to swing left and Denney applying right rudder to counteract it. The Merlin is steady at plus-four boost. (Modern operations baby the engine in deference to the fact that Merlins are now 70 years old. In wartime use, it was not uncommon to use plus-seven boost or more on takeoff of a heavily loaded Spit). 

We smoothly accelerate, and the Spitfire comes off the ground. The gear comes up and the throttle is eased back. We accelerate to around 190 mph and are covering the ground at better than three miles a minute, with the farmland of Kent unrolling below. Off to our right and only six miles from Biggin is Kenley, which shared the brunt of the German raids. Kenley is no longer used for power flying, just as a gliding school

Clive’s voice brings me back to the present.

“You have control”

I’ve waited a long time for this

“I have control,” I confirm.

It’s easy to say, but uttering the words sends a shiver down my spine. 

Spitfire airborne, with the unmistakable sound of the V-12 in-line Merlin engine echoing across the field. Main gear is retracting. The tailwheel on all Spitfires stays down. (Clare Brown)I’m flying a Spitfire, one of the most potent piston engine fighters of its day. This is the stuff of legend. I cautiously take hold of the stick and shift my feet on the rudder pedals. I start by moving the spade-grip cautiously to the left, then to the right. The horizon tilts then reverses. The ailerons are precise and light. The rudder is heavier, but the sideslip needle responds instantly and settles showing a degree or so of left sideslip. I attempt to zero the slip needle with the pedals. It’s not as easy as I thought. After all, I’m counteracting about 1,000 horsepower rather than the 145hp of the Chipmunk. A barely perceptible fore-and-aft movement of the stick enables me to adjust our altitude by a few feet. The Spitfire holds altitude well. We are sliding under a cloud deck, which limits us to 2,000 feet. Speed settles at 215 mph. The Merlin is barely breathing hard.

Wow. I’m flying a Spitfire.

Clive says “Come left,” and I instinctively clear our flight path left and forward, noticing in my foreground the classic elliptical wing of the Spitfire adorned with the red and blue of the RAF roundel, then bank left towards the town of Sevenoaks. We roar over the Clacket Lane Services on the M5, heading east. Of course, the British motorway system did not exist in the ‘40s, but the farmland beneath is unchanged. At this point, my intercom fades away in its battle with the roaring Merlin… I see Clive’s gloved hand in his rear-view mirror indicating that I should proceed straight ahead. I roll out of the turn and we settle on a northeasterly heading. After a couple of minutes, we fly over the M25 motorway again as it heads north. Then we fly over the M20 and past Brands Hatch Motor Racing circuit, which coincidentally is the site of the British Motorbike Championships running this day. The fields of Kent are sliding past below us. It’s August in the southeast of England. In July and August 1940, the Battle of Britain raged across the sky in this area. I shiver and scan the sky for Messerschmitts. 

At the start of the Battle of Britain the RAF had around 900 fighters, mainly Hurricanes and Spitfires. Across the channel, the Luftwaffe had three air fleets, made up of 3,500 aircraft. Initially targeting convoys in the Channel, the Luftwaffe moved on to hitting the RAF airfields. The fighting was ferocious. On Sept. 7, 300 bombers escorted by 600 fighters hit London. The Luftwaffe lost 29 planes; the RAF lost 38 planes and 20 pilots. The following day, the Luftwaffe lost 28 planes and the RAF 19.  By now, invasion barges were massing in French ports, and the invasion of England was planned late in September. The biggest raid was on Sept. 15. The German armada came in over the Channel and over Kent in two waves, the first comprising 100 Dornier Do 17 bombers escorted by 400 fighters. Every RAF Squadron was airborne to defend against the Luftwaffe, and when Prime Minister Churchill, who was visiting the Control Center in Uxbridge asked about reserves, he was given the answer, “We have none.” It was that close. At the end of the day, 40 bombers had been shot down. The German High Command could not stomach such losses. The invasion was postponed indefinitely.

I bank left, rejoicing in the handling of this fighter, until we are headed south again, then reverse course with a right turn until the London docks are on the skyline to the north, through the blur of the propeller. The Luftwaffe devastated the east end of London and the docks. I pull out my aeronautical chart. We are over the middle of Kent. The Thames is three minutes to the north, and Beachy Head on the South Coast is 10 minutes to the south as we cruise at a leisurely 210 mph as we range across Kent. It’s all frighteningly close. There is no time at all for an enemy bomber fleet to cross the Channel.

The defending Spitfires and Hurricanes had to climb flat-out to intercept the German raids. The Spitfires, with marginally better performance, were usually the ones to hit the high-flying Messerschmitt escorts, while the Hurricanes went for the bombers.

They were often outnumbered, with a couple of Spitfire Squadrons facing 50-100 Messerschmitts. The ace up the sleeve of the RAF was that they had radar, which enabled controllers to see the Luftwaffe formations forming up over France and crossing the channel and to vector the RAF Squadrons towards the raids. The Spitfires could just get to 20,000 feet in 15 minutes over the South Coast to hit the bombers.

Heading north, we are nearing the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge over the Thames, and I bank right towards Rochester, which in 1940 was the home of the Short Brothers factory building Stirling bombers, and which was also hit by Luftwaffe raids during the battle of Britain. I check my panel again. Engine instruments are all indicating normally, and radiator temperature has come down. We bank over the airfield at Rochester. Fortunately, the sky is clear of Luftwaffe Dornier 17s and Heinkel 111s. I turn right, heading towards the South Coast. I explored the South Coast by air many years ago flying a Tiger Moth biplane. Then I was covering the ground at 80mph. Now we are cruising at almost three times that speed.

The clouds are breaking, and I experiment with a few more medium turns, trying to put an imaginary bead on a Messerschmitt. The Spitfire is very responsive. It has a sports car feel to it. I progress to steep turns, initially to the left, and reverse to the right, and correct on the rudder, as the nose wants to slide sideways. I’m surprised at how little effort it takes in pitch to achieve significant g forces (Spitfire two-seaters were notoriously light in pitch because of their aft center of gravity), but I see how the tight turning circle could be used to deadly advantage to out-turn an opponent.

Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, George Unwin, said,  “…the Spitfire could sustain a continuous turn inside a Bf 109E, which would flick into a vicious stall and spin without warning if pulled around too tightly. The Spitfire would give a shudder to signal it was close to the edge, so when you felt the shake, you eased off on the stick”(Aircraft of the Aces-Legends of WWII by Tony Holmes and Iain Wyllie).

We head back towards Biggin Hill and circle over Sevenoaks. I’m soaking up the sensations of flying this machine and go around in another 360-degree turn, just because I can. It is pure fun. There’s an expanding patch of blue sky ahead, just short of Biggin Hill.

“We’ve enough space for a roll,” said Denney, “and I’ll take it from here.” I reluctantly relinquish the controls.

The throttle advances and the roar of the engine deepens. Then the stick comes back and we start to climb. We climb up into the blue, and the stick smoothly goes over to the right. The world tilts, we are inverted, and my view is of sun-dappled cornfields over the nose, then we are recovering to level flight, a victory roll. How appropriate for a Spitfire. We come back overhead Biggin Hill heading west. The throttle comes back, and once we are below 160mph, both flaps and gear are lowered. We get two green lights as the mains lock down, and I can see that the visual indicators on the top of the wing are standing proud as confirmation. We bank right onto a curving and descending downwind leg. The Prop control goes forward, and the engine note rises. Flaps are now fully down. Radiator shutters are checked open. Brake and pneumatic pressures are in the green. The Spitfire banks round onto final approach at 95 mph. Exhaust stacks are barking noisily. Denney maintains a curved approach to keep the runway in sight past the nose. We gently touch down for a tail-down wheel landing. We slow on the runway, Denney raises the flaps, and we backtrack on the runway then taxi back slowly. Back at the hangar, we idle for 30 seconds then shut down. The engine coughs into silence.

Before we flew, my son had said as my canopy was closing:

“You’ll enjoy it. Everyone who flies the Spitfire comes back with a grin on their face.”

He was right.

 

Thanks to Simon Brown, Alan Walker, Clive Denney, and the crew at Heritage Hangar for helping me participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

Specifications for Supermarine Spitfire Mk 9

Engine

Rolls Royce Merlin 61: 1565 HP

4 blade Rotol propeller

Fuel: 85 gals

Armament 2x20mm cannon and 4 x .303 Browning machine guns

Gyroscopic gunsight

Performance

Max speed: 408mph at 25,000feet

Cruise: 324mph

Stall clean: 94mph

Stall flaps and gear: 80mph

Rate of Climb: 3,950feet/min

Ceiling: 43,000feet

Dimensions

Span: 36 feet 10 inch

Length: 31 feet 1 inch

Height: 12 feet 7.75 inches

Weights

Typical TOW: 7,500pounds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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