WING MAN

‘Smithy’ has flown ev­ery­thing from Chi­nooks to Jaguars, but fly­ing a Spitfire is spe­cial, as he ex­plains

VANTAGE - - Icons Dbs & Spitfire - WORDS IAN SMITH AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY JOHN DIBBS

THE COCK­PIT is roomy once you’re strapped in. Ba­sic, func­tional, but ev­ery­thing is within reach. The MKXVIII’S bub­ble canopy is a joy, af­ford­ing vis­i­bil­ity un­heard-of un­til the later stages of the Sec­ond World War. Most fighter pi­lots shot down dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain never saw their ad­ver­sary.

Start­ing is easy once the big V12 has been primed with fuel, al­though start­ing a warm Grif­fon is an art form and it’s not un­com­mon to see it spit flames from the ex­haust ports if it doesn’t start straight away. The noise is sim­ply in­cred­i­ble, though, dis­ap­point­ingly, it doesn’t sound the same in­side as it does when you are out­side. In­side, it’s just bloody noisy!

When teach­ing new pi­lots to fly the Spitfire,

I have al­ways likened her to a thor­ough­bred race­horse. Keep her on a tight rein, an­tic­i­pate what she’s go­ing to do next and you will be in for an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ride: let her have her head and you’re go­ing to be out of the sad­dle and won­der­ing what on Earth hap­pened!

The ap­pli­ca­tion of power needs to be very care­fully done, es­pe­cially on the ground. The Spitfire may be an icon, but it is not with­out flaws. The wheel-track is very nar­row and the cen­tre of grav­ity very well for­ward, which can lead to trou­ble. The for­ward cen­tre of grav­ity means if you’re care­less with the power you could tip the air­craft onto its nose. Not good.

Of equal im­por­tance is the need to counter the torque pro­duced by the en­gine and main­tain di­rec­tional con­trol. If you were daft enough to smash open the throt­tle in an XVIII you’d be off the side of the run­way faster than you could blink. Then there are the gy­ro­scopic ef­fects with a big pro­pel­ler that af­fect all man­ner of aero­dy­namic prop­er­ties when power is ap­plied and the tail lifted off the ground.

It’s also dif­fi­cult to taxi a Spitfire for the sim­ple rea­son that you can’t see where you’re go­ing! You will see a Spitfire pi­lot weav­ing like mad and hang­ing out of the cock­pit so he can check the way ahead is clear.

Both Mer­lin and Grif­fon are wa­ter-cooled, re­quir­ing ra­di­a­tors in the slip­stream. Early Spit­fires had rel­a­tively small ra­di­a­tors and were prone to over­heat­ing on the ground. The XVIII has mas­sive ra­di­a­tors with flaps that can be con­trolled from the cock­pit, so at least over­heat­ing isn’t an is­sue.

Pre-take-off and power checks are con­ducted at the last minute, and then, with tem­per­a­tures and pres­sures all in the green, it’s time to let this thor­ough­bred open her lungs and fly!

Pe­riph­eral vi­sion is paramount as you gen­tly open the throt­tle, ap­ply­ing rud­der to keep her straight. As soon as the prop-wash cov­ers the tail, the rud­der and el­e­va­tors be­come ex­tremely ef­fec­tive, the tail can be raised a few feet and you can fi­nally see where you’re go­ing. Not too high though, as the 9ft di­am­e­ter pro­pel­ler tips are now a mat­ter of inches from the run­way in front of you. Air­speed is al­most im­me­di­ately

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