‘I FEEL I AM THERE IN SPIRIT WITH ALL THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE ME’
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.