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