VANTAGE - - Icons Dbs & Spitfire -

alive, so you sim­ply hold that state of af­fairs un­til the aero­plane is ready to fly. Ninety miles an hour is about right, though to be hon­est I rarely look at the speed – I can feel when she’s ready to fly and sim­ply ease back on the stick and we’re away.

You will of­ten see Spit­fires ‘ wob­ble’ af­ter take-off. That’s be­cause the un­der­car­riage lever is on the right side of the cock­pit and the pi­lot has to change hands in or­der to raise the gear. MKI Spit­fires didn’t have a hy­draulic pump, so the pi­lot had to pump a han­dle about 30 strokes to get the gear up!

A quick check that the gear is in­deed up and the en­gine is be­hav­ing, set course, and you can now take a deep breath and marvel at the ex­pe­ri­ence that is un­fold­ing be­fore you…

The el­lip­ti­cal wing of a Spitfire is sim­ply a thing of beauty, es­pe­cially if it’s painted sil­ver. The big RAF roundel and the gun bar­rels al­ways evoke thoughts of those that have gone be­fore me and the debt we owe. It’s a sight that I will never tire of. The view over the nose isn’t bad ei­ther: twin cylin­der-banks housed un­der the black bon­net and that huge pro­pel­ler disc. At any speed over 100 miles an hour the view for­ward is mag­nif­i­cent and un­ob­structed.

The Grif­fon is limited to 2750rpm so is a rel­a­tively lazy en­gine. Climb­ing out [the stage be­fore the air­craft reaches a level alti­tude] I’ll man­u­ally bring the rpm back to 2400 and 4lb of boost power and she’ll hap­pily climb at 155mph and in ex­cess of 2000 feet per minute. Not bad for a 70-year-old fighter. Imag­ine if we could use all the avail­able power…

Later Spit­fires were blessed with more fuel ca­pac­ity than the ear­lier mod­els. This air­craft has 25 Im­pe­rial gal­lons in the wings out­board of the guns, and I start to use that first. It also has two cen­tral fuse­lage tanks just in front of the pi­lot, mak­ing a to­tal of 118 gal­lons. A de­cent amount, al­though the big Grif­fon is us­ing 60 gal­lons an hour even at cruise power set­tings and a whole lot more at higher power.

This Spitfire is fit­ted with an ‘e’ wing, which de­notes its weapons fit. Each wing is fit­ted with a 20mm His­pano can­non and a 0.50in cal­i­bre Brown­ing ma­chine gun. This weapons fit was

pretty much stan­dard from the MKXVI on­wards, as it proved to be a deadly com­bi­na­tion.

The pi­lot would gen­er­ally use the can­nons for longer-range tar­gets, the ma­chine guns for closer tar­gets. He could also fire all four si­mul­ta­ne­ously to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect, as­sum­ing of course that his tar­get­ing was ef­fec­tive! Shoot­ing from a sta­tion­ary po­si­tion at a sta­tion­ary tar­get is one thing: shoot­ing at a mov­ing tar­get from a mov­ing gun-plat­form is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

For a dis­play, power is set at 2650rpm and 7lb of boost. Deft rud­der con­trol is re­quired through­out, as the air­craft’s bal­ance is ef­fected by both speed and power changes. The noise of the Grif­fon at dis­play power set­tings is al­most deaf­en­ing, the power stag­ger­ing, and the Spitfire lit­er­ally comes alive.

The con­trols are beau­ti­fully har­monised, al­though, not sur­pris­ingly, they stiffen up the faster you go. Pitch con­trol is pro­gres­sive, and it’s very easy to con­trol the amount of g you’re pulling. Left rud­der is re­quired as she slows down to keep her straight. The ailerons are nicely bal­anced and the air­craft rolls ex­tremely quickly for a fighter of its gen­er­a­tion.

Ca­vort­ing around the sky in a Spitfire is an ex­pe­ri­ence of mag­i­cal pro­por­tions and one that is dif­fi­cult to cap­ture on pa­per. You’re in God’s play­ground in an ex­tra­or­di­nary thor­ough­bred that’s in its ab­so­lute el­e­ment. Loop­ing and rolling in the sun­lit si­lence is a joy, and I feel I am there in spirit with all those who have gone be­fore me. I can­not imag­ine the fear and tur­moil of hav­ing to fight for one’s life in such an aero­plane, but Spitfire pi­lots con­sid­ered their mount as an ex­ten­sion of their very be­ing and I know ex­actly what they meant.

The ex­cite­ment al­ways has to be tem­pered, though. The devil on one shoul­der is say­ing ‘en­joy this Smithy – you’re fly­ing a Spitfire!’ while the an­gel on the other shoul­der is say­ing ‘you’ve got to land it, you’ve got to land it!’

The ra­di­a­tor flaps are open on the way back to the air­field to cool the en­gine, which will be hot hav­ing been at high power for aer­o­bat­ics. Then comes the land­ing. Wartime air­fields were large oval grass fields and a pi­lot could land in any di­rec­tion that was into wind. Mod­ern run­ways are, of course, bolted to the ground, fre­quently caus­ing a cross-wind is­sue. In fact, the char­ac­ter­isics that make a Spitfire rel­a­tively easy to take off are re­versed in land­ing.

All is straight­for­ward un­til the later stages. Gear and flaps down at the end of the down­wind

leg, you take a curv­ing ap­proach with the speed around 100mph and the run­way in sight. But on fi­nal ap­proach ev­ery­thing starts to con­spire against you. First the run­way dis­ap­pears from view un­der the nose. You’ve also prob­a­bly got wind drift to deal with, though this can be a ben­e­fit, as in some cases it can be enough to be able to see down one side of the nose.

Pe­riph­eral vi­sion is the name of the game in the 30 se­conds or so it takes to fly the air­craft down to­wards the thresh­old. Speed is be­ing bled back to­wards 85mph as you ‘cross the fence’ and at the ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment the air­craft is flared, the throt­tle closed and any drift kicked off just be­fore the wheels touch.

Sim­ple in con­cept, but not so easy in real life. Power-off in­tro­duces all the torque and aero­dy­namic ef­fects of take-off but in re­verse. The prop-wash that pre­vi­ously made the rud­der and el­e­va­tor ef­fec­tive has now gone and any for­ward speed and there­fore air­flow over the rud­der is be­ing blanked by the nose. The nar­row un­der­car­riage and for­ward cen­tre of grav­ity con­spire against you too, any de­vi­a­tion from true be­ing quickly mag­ni­fied, re­quir­ing prompt hand and foot in­puts to keep her straight.

Early Spit­fires had dread­ful brakes but land­ing on grass made slow­ing down a lot eas­ier. The XVIII’S brakes are very much bet­ter by com­par­i­son but need to be used with re­spect, as they’re strong enough to raise the tail and con­se­quently cause the prop to strike the ground. An­tic­i­pat­ing what she’s go­ing to do next, keep­ing her on a short rein, and fast hands and feet are all re­quired to avoid pal­pi­ta­tions!

Once she’s safely shut down, I can un­strap and climb out of this beau­ti­ful fighter. From my first flight in a Spitfire more than 500 hours ago un­til this very day, I kiss her as I get out: I’m thank­ing her for be­ing well-be­haved and bring­ing me safely home. But re­ally it’s an ac­knowl­edge­ment of how ex­tremely for­tu­nate I am to have been af­forded the lux­ury of fly­ing her. I am never alone when I’m up there. The spir­its of all those that have flown her and her sis­ters are al­ways with me.


Left To­day, Spitfire pi­lots use only a frac­tion of the power that would have been avail­able to wartime pi­lots, but the per­for­mance is still im­mense

Above DBS’S regis­tra­tion refers to Smithy’s old squadron. 41 (F). Dur­ing the war, the squadron flew Spit­fires

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