Spit­fire!

Maxi Gainza’s mag­nif­i­cent Mk VIII, the best of the Mer­lin-en­gined breed

Pilot - - FRONT PAGE - Words Maxi Gainza

It’s been some time now since I flew a Spit­fire for the first time, but I re­mem­ber it as if it were yes­ter­day. It was on a warm sum­mer af­ter­noon in Brem­garten, a quiet for­mer NATO air­base in the south-west cor­ner of Ger­many, close to the Rhine. The Spit­fire stood in the sun, its elfin lines and air of poised de­fi­ance as al­ways bring­ing to mind a lost age of grace and gal­lantry. As I drew near, a touch ap­pre­hen­sive, it sud­denly dawned on me that of all the air­craft types I had been priv­i­leged to fly, from Tiger Moths to fast jets, it was all for this mo­ment.

The Spit­fire was a rare Mk VIII, the best of the Mer­lin-pow­ered types ac­cord­ing to Su­per­ma­rine Chief Test Pi­lot Ge­of­frey Quill. It was all the rarer for be­ing en­tirely orig­i­nal, with ev­ery skin panel and struc­tural part the ones it had on the day it rolled out from the Su­per­ma­rine works in Southamp­ton. Even its Ro­tol four-bladed wooden pro­pel­ler was orig­i­nal−woe be­tide that I should by ac­ci­dent turn it to match­sticks. Only the life-ex­pired mag­ne­sium-al­loy riv­ets had been re­placed af­ter Robs Lam­plough, its for­mer owner, had it shipped back from Aus­tralia to the UK in 1979 for a lengthy restora­tion, dur­ing which ex­tra care was taken in pre­serv­ing its au­then­tic­ity.

The rea­son for the Spit­fire’s time-cap­sule con­di­tion was that it had never flown since the day Mary El­lis, the Air Trans­port Aux­il­iary ferry pi­lot (of whom more later) de­liv­ered it from Eastleigh to Brize Nor­ton for ship­ment to Aus­tralia on 15 Septem­ber 1944. Ar­riv­ing too late for ac­tion in the Far East, it lan­guished for years in its con­tainer be­fore be­ing sold on to an Aus­tralian, who went as far as

re­assem­bling it then left it hang­ing un­der a hangar roof un­til Robs came along and took it off his hands.

It was dur­ing its restora­tion in Bris­tol that Robs found Mary’s sig­na­ture on the bot­tom left-hand wind­screen frame. Though faded, he could still make out ‘P.O. Mary Wilkins [her maiden name] A.T.A.’ Robs tracked Mary down in Sandown on the Isle of Wight and even­tu­ally re­united her with her old charge, fac­tory se­rial num­ber MV154.

I too wanted to meet this leg­endary lady who, as I pre­pared for my first dance with MV154 (now painted as MT928) was still alive and well−as she re­mains to­day, re­cently turned 100 and still driv­ing her­self around. All the more pres­sure then not to bend this pre­cious heir­loom.

Not for the first time I ran my hand along the wing’s lead­ing edge dur­ing my walkround, mar­vel­ling at how seam­lessly it ta­pers from the beefy wing-root to the sharp­ness of the trail­ing edge well be­fore reach­ing the wingtip. The lead­ing edge is con­stantly curv­ing, ever so slightly at first, then in­creas­ingly so be­fore round­ing the tip with a cal­lig­ra­pher’s flour­ish. No end-plate

Only the life­ex­pired mag­ne­siu­mal­loy riv­ets had been re­placed

ef­fect to be ex­pected, I thought. And yet, this dou­ble-el­lip­ti­cal won­der of a wing− dou­ble in that the lead­ing and trail­ing edges are asym­met­ri­cal in or­der to ac­com­mo­date a straight wing spar−has very re­spon­sive ailerons and a be­nign stall. And while of­fi­cially cleared to Mach 0.84 (ver­sus M

0.75 for the P-51 Mus­tang) and ca­pa­ble of more−one pi­lot sur­vived reach­ing M 0.94 in a power dive be­fore the pro­pel­ler dis­in­te­grated on him−the Spit­fire comes in to land at un­der seventy knots.

Regi­nald Mitchell, the cel­e­brated Su­per­ma­rine Chief De­signer, once said to the lesser-known Bev­er­ley Shen­stone− who de­serves much of the credit for the Spit­fire’s wing−that he didn’t care what shape it ended up hav­ing pro­vided they could fit guns in it. Mitchell sim­ply wanted the thinnest aero­foil pos­si­ble in the in­ter­est of speed, which he got. But were it not for

Shen­stone’s ge­nius−and his pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing on sim­i­lar wing de­signs at Heinkel in Ger­many be­fore the war−the Spit­fire’s wing could have been fast but plagued with han­dling prob­lems, not least of which might have been high-speed aileron flut­ter.

Tak­ing the plunge

As is al­ways the case when go­ing up in a sin­gle-seater for the first time, there is only so much you can pre­pare for it by read­ing, mem­o­ris­ing cock­pit drills and pick­ing the brains of ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lots, all of which I’d done. It only re­mained to take a deep breath and hop on board, trust­ing to the Spit­fire’s well-man­nered rep­u­ta­tion and my few hours on Yak-3s and Mus­tangs.

Ear­lier that week I had taken her out (I often slip into the ‘she’ when talk­ing of Spit­fires) for a taxy­ing test, al­ways ad­vis­able when first strap­ping into a sin­gle-seater. The Spit­fire han­dled well, in spite of a free-cas­tor­ing tail­wheel and a close-set main un­der­car­riage, and thanks to my be­ing fa­mil­iar with the Bri­tish way of steer­ing−which I learned with the Yaks−of squeez­ing a stick-mounted brake lever while push­ing the rud­der pedal in the di­rec­tion of the turn. Only the coolant tem­per­a­ture grabbed my at­ten­tion: it rises faster than in the Mus­tang or the Yak-3 as a re­sult of the wing-mounted ra­di­a­tors get­ting no ben­e­fit from the prop­wash. On a warm day you must be air­borne in seven to eight min­utes or face hav­ing to abort the take­off and shut down on the spot.

As I low­ered my­self into the cock­pit I felt en­veloped in Bri­tish­ness. The faded gar­den green on the walls and wind­screen frames has none of the grimness of other mil­i­tary hues, grey or dun. It is redo­lent of sum­mer mead­ows, cricket pitches, pot­ting sheds, and wil­lows on a river bank, as if you were tak­ing a cor­ner of an English field into the air to de­fend a way of life which is unique on earth−free, gen­tle, hu­mor­ous, wrought through the cen­turies, and well worth fight­ing for.

Else­where the cock­pit means busi­ness, with levers, switches and but­tons strewn

As I low­ered my­self into the cock­pit I felt en­veloped in Bri­tish­ness

around a black-on-black in­stru­ment panel and gauges placed in typ­i­cal Bri­tish make-do fash­ion. The rpm and boost in­di­ca­tors are cast in per­ma­nent gloom in the top right-hand cor­ner un­der the glare shield, the fur­thest from the fly­ing ones. The coolant and oil tem­per­a­tures sit rather low for my lik­ing un­der these−you need cock­tail party eyes to take it all in. Left of the tem­per­a­ture gauges is the oil pres­sure ver­ti­cal dis­play, again sim­i­lar to a Tiger Moth’s and most other Bri­tish air­craft of the time but cal­i­brated to 120psi, a clear re­minder of the 1,650hp the Rolls-royce Mer­lin can un­leash at full throt­tle. A red warn­ing light you hope never to see come on in flight is all you have for fuel pres­sure in­di­ca­tion.

For awk­ward­ness, lit­tle beats the P11 com­pass, also com­mon to the Tiger Moth and later Bri­tish makes, sit­ting be­hind the flat, broad lower seg­ment of the con­trol stick, level with your shins, where it’s hard to see. The over­sized un­der­car­riage lever, quaintly marked ‘Chas­sis’ is placed against the right cock­pit wall, so that you need to change hands straight af­ter take­off to raise the gear through a care­ful se­quence of down, side­ways and up­ward moves, with pauses in-be­tween so as not to in­ter­rupt the hy­draulic flow and so risk a ‘hung’ un­der­car­riage. There is no cock­pit floor un­der the seat. You keep your feet on the ped­als at all times, rest­ing your heels on the rud­der con­trol rods un­der them, below which is the void. Drop a pen and it will plunge to the bot­tom of the fuse­lage where it can’t be re­trieved in flight. The pedal stir­rups are two-tiered, the top bar de­signed to shore up a tad your g-tol­er­ance by slightly short­en­ing the ver­ti­cal dis­tance to your heart if you step your feet up.

Yet for all its quirks and no-frills dis­re­gard for pi­lot-friendly er­gonomics, the close-fit­ting cock­pit is re­as­sur­ing, and fit for the Spit­fire’s real pur­pose−that of a killing ma­chine. There is a gun­sight, again orig­i­nal and in work­ing or­der, and a rocker-switch on the spade grip for fir­ing four .303 ma­chine guns or two 20mm can­nons, of which only the bar­rels re­main. You im­me­di­ately feel at one with the plane, en­sconced in a thicket of pipes, hoses and con­trol link­ages−all ex­posed for quicker ac­cess−which an­i­mate this most fem­i­nine-look­ing fighter, hence per­haps ( pace Rud­yard Ki­pling) the dead­lier for it.

Even though not my first time, I still set about start­ing the Mer­lin with some trep­i­da­tion. I moved the heavy-duty bake­lite switch by my left thigh back­wards for bat­tery on, in­stru­ment nee­dles in­stantly flick­ing alive, then pressed and held down the oil primer for three min­utes amidst the pierc­ing whine of the oil pump send­ing up lu­bri­cant to the over­head camshafts to pre­vent me­tal wear on the cams and rocker fin­gers, as would hap­pen should these rub to­gether dry dur­ing the start.

Fuel on, fuel se­lec­tor han­dle checked (the Mk VIII has ad­di­tional wing tanks for­ward of the spar), mags on, throt­tle care­fully cracked open, pro­pel­ler pitch con­trol fully for­ward, like­wise the springload­ed fuel cut-off lever next to it. Fuel pump on, prime for six or seven sec­onds, then off again or it might flood the car­bu­re­tor on start, at least in this Mer­lin model. Brakes on. I hooked my right calf round the stick to hold it back and, splay­ing my right-hand in­dex and mid­dle fin­ger hor­i­zon­tally, pressed the Start and Boost Coil but­tons si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The en­gine thun­ked as the blades swung by

and quickly caught in a star­tlingly loud stac­cato of awak­en­ing cylin­ders, rip­pling smoke past both sides of the cock­pit which soon cleared as, with a last ju­di­cious jab of fuel primer, it set­tled down to the plummy growl of a well-tuned Mer­lin.

Taxy­ing out, as I said, was no prob­lem, ex­cept for the un­easy thought that I was about to com­mit the fly­ing equiv­a­lent of a Turner paint­ing to the air in my in­ex­pe­ri­enced hands. That, and watch­ing the coolant tem­per­a­ture creep past 60°C by the time I reached the hold­ing point.

Run­ning up the en­gine the tail be­gins to lighten at mi­nus-two boost (one unit of boost equals two inches of man­i­fold pres­sure, zero rep­re­sent­ing 29.92 inches stan­dard sea-level at­mos­phere). I opened no fur­ther while check­ing mags and cy­cling the prop twice, try­ing not to rush things while notic­ing the coolant rise to 95°C.

No time to waste. El­e­va­tor trim set to half a di­vi­sion nose-heavy, rud­der trim full right, throt­tle lever fric­tion tight (a big must, or the ac­cel­er­a­tion will push it back when you let go of it on the climb-out for gear re­trac­tion). I lined up on the cen­tre­line, grate­ful for Brem­garten’s 45m-wide run­way, with oo­dles of con­crete ahead and a gen­er­ous over­run. The wind was light so, mind­ful of the warn­ings I’d re­ceived of watch­ing for the swing (the Spit­fire has no tail­wheel lock), I gen­tly opened the throt­tle, feet ready to re­act on the ped­als.

Im­me­di­ately I felt fine. The Spit­fire ac­cel­er­ated straight down the run­way in a ris­ing, pulse-quick­en­ing roar, tamer than a Mus­tang, never mind the torque-dish­ing Yak-3. The tail flew up, with just a touch of right rud­der to counter the re­sult­ing gy­ro­scopic swing. Quick pause at zero boost to check en­gine Ts and Ps, then steadily on to plus-six, re­sist­ing the Spit’s ea­ger­ness to be air­borne as we raced through eighty knots, at which point, for all of its three tons, it leapt into the air, al­most like a light plane.

For all its three tons, it leapt into the air, al­most like a light plane

Now for the tricky bit. I held it in ground ef­fect un­til pass­ing 100 knots, just for good mea­sure, then eased the nose into a moder­ate climb and switched hands on the con­trols to reach for the Chas­sis han­dle, in­evitably caus­ing the pi­lot-in­duced wing-wag­gle to which Spit­fire be­gin­ners are prone, while also get­ting the hang of the short-armed lat­eral throw of the stick and of hold­ing the pe­cu­liar spade grip with the hand hor­i­zon­tal.

Gear lever down a bit and in­board to clear the lower quad­rant horn−pause− pull to the up­per stop−pause again, wait­ing for the red ‘UP’ light to il­lu­mi­nate, hoick­ing the nose higher so as not to over­shoot the un­der­car­riage lim­it­ing speed of 138 knots. At last the UP light came on, to­gether with a re­as­sur­ing thump from the wheels tuck­ing into their wells, and I could let the lever slide of its own ac­cord into its gate.

All this while I had my eyes in­side, busy as I was. Now I looked out, and for a few heart­beats the mes­meris­ing love­li­ness of the Spit­fire’s wing, now at work in its true el­e­ment, took my mind off ev­ery­thing else. A wing is gen­er­ally an ob­ject of beauty to the pi­lots they carry. But the Spit­fire’s goes be­yond the aes­thetic to the nu­mi­nous, stir­ring some­thing deeper. It’s not un­like the spir­i­tual up­lift be­stowed by the sight of a soar­ing gothic arch, or the in­ner ex­al­ta­tion the sweep­ing bow of a Vik­ing long­boat can cause, imag­in­ing it ef­fort­lessly cleav­ing the open seas.

Nau­ti­cal as­so­ci­a­tions spring eas­ily to mind when con­tem­plat­ing the fluid lines of a Spit­fire. Even its maker’s name−

Su­per­ma­rine−rings with a long fil­i­a­tion with the sea, be­fit­ting an is­land na­tion. From boat-builders to Sch­nei­der Tro­phy float­plane win­ners in pre-war years, the Spit­fire was but a nat­u­ral, fi­nal step from do­min­ion of the sea to the air.

Snap­ping out of my mus­ings, I opened up briefly to plus-twelve boost, as rec­om­mended, to clear the plugs−not that it felt nec­es­sary−then back to plus-six again, set­ting 150 knots for the climb, the var­i­ome­ter show­ing nearly 3,000fpm. Im­pres­sive, though lower than the Mus­tang’s ini­tial rate of climb and not a patch on the 6,000fpm I was used to in the pocket-rocket Yak-3. Lev­el­ling out at 4,000 feet and throt­tling back to plus-two, I set my­self to work. Pi­lots are nat­u­ral com­pen­sators; give us a barn door to fly and soon enough we’ll be declar­ing its mer­its. So first im­pres­sions on sam­pling a new air­craft count, even if they are in­evitably con­di­tioned by what you’ve been fly­ing of late.

Wind­ing the di­rec­tional trim back to neu­tral as speed in­creased to 200 knots, I found the rud­der sur­pris­ingly sen­si­tive− maybe the ex­tended rud­der ‘horn’ ac­counts for this−the ailerons on the heavy side, al­beit very re­spon­sive, and the el­e­va­tor light. Pow­er­ing up to 240 knots and rolling into a steep turn the ailerons be­came some­what stiffer but also live­lier, call­ing for del­i­cate foot­work to keep the turn bal­anced. Even with both hands on the stick I couldn’t reach full de­flec­tion, not that it’s needed, while the pull­back to hold the nose on the sweep­ing hori­zon re­mained light, now to the point of frisk­i­ness−it def­i­nitely needed watch­ing.

Throt­tling back to zero boost and around 185 knots the Spit­fire seemed to come into its own. It now turned on a dime, or should I say a penny, and I could hold it in the pre-stall buf­fet with three-g and about 75° bank all the way down to 138 knots. What’s more, the buf­fet is vig­or­ous, an aero­dy­namic har­rumph which shakes the air­frame and slightly de­grades lon­gi­tu­di­nal sta­bil­ity as the dis­turbed air­flow par­tially blan­kets the tail­fin. You are well warned that it’s time to un­load, quite un­like the Mus­tang in which the buf­fet is but a faint rip­ple, and the Yak-3 which only light­ens on the el­e­va­tor and barely thrums un­der you as you reach max­i­mum an­gle of at­tack.

Even more sur­pris­ing were the stalls. Power off and straight ahead, the Spit­fire reached the g-break at 68 knots, wings level. Flaps and gear down, it stalled at an as­ton­ish­ing 62 knots with a slight wing rock­ing, ailerons still re­spond­ing. Roll in 45° of bank and goose the power to hold the nose up and it will stall at 80-82 knots with only a mild wing-drop which is eas­ily cor­rected.

Over time I have come to re­gard the Spit­fire’s ma­noeu­ver­ing sweet spot as in the 150-190 knot range, but it han­dles nicely down to 120 knots and even less, mind­ing of course you keep the slip-nee­dle in the mid­dle and heed the ever-louder aero­dy­namic protes­ta­tions to avoid pulling through max A of A. Nor­mally I would say that I ‘ride’ an aero­plane, par­tic­u­larly war­birds, but with the Spit­fire I feel I’m be­ing held.

Aer­o­bat­ics are a de­light, once you get used to the pe­cu­liar con­trol har­mony of quite heavy ailerons, light el­e­va­tors and lively rud­der. The Spit­fire’s lower wingload­ing, clean pen­e­tra­tion and ever-so- docile han­dling makes it the dis­play war­bird of my choice be­cause it’s the safest, not least be­cause you can bet­ter avoid a dan­ger­ous ki­netic en­ergy build-up when mo­tor­ing down­hill. And with the in­her­ent grace and beauty of its lines, no mat­ter from which an­gle, and the haunt­ing whistling of the su­per­charger over the classy roar of the Mer­lin, it al­most dis­plays it­self.

250 knots is about right for a four-g loop. On a hu­mid day the wings stream del­i­cate tip-vor­tices, the tight­est I’ve seen, like curv­ing gleam­ing scratches against the tilt­ing ground as we pull to the ver­ti­cal, and again dur­ing the re­cov­ery. At this speed and g-load the Spit­fire loops in 2,000 feet, go­ing over the top at 95-100 knots.

An early, gen­tle pull on the down­ward half of the fig­ure to get the nose un­der be­fore speed runs away will leave you with a 300-500 feet mar­gin on the re­cov­ery. You can loop at 240 knots and go over the top with as lit­tle as 85 knots, but it doesn’t look as well from the ground and then it’s harder not to over­shoot your en­try height. Loops at 260-280 knots only re­quire three-and-a-half g or slightly less and will ob­vi­ously in­crease the loop­ing di­am­e­ter, though not by much.

For aileron rolls, 160 knots is enough, mind­ing you raise the nose first. A 190200 knot en­try gives you more time to en­joy the sight of the hori­zon twirling be­yond the wind­screen as you ride in near weight­less­ness a par­a­bolic path, fi­ness­ing the rud­der to keep the fuse­lage in the slip­stream. Add another twenty knots and you can bar­rel-roll to your heart’s con­tent, wi­den­ing your roll radius the faster you en­ter. You can slow-roll the Spit­fire with­out the en­gine cut­ting when go­ing neg­a­tive (only the early Marks with­out pres­sure car­bu­ret­tors did so), but it’s not kind to the en­gine as oil pres­sure will only hold up for a few sec­onds.

But I’m still not there. For to­day, I end my first dance with a gen­tle aileron roll over the Rhine, just for the fun of it, and head back home.

As with all war­birds, never mind jets, you must plan ahead for slow­ing down to cir­cuit speed. I ran in over the run­way, throt­tling back smoothly on the break into down­wind and flip­ping the ra­di­a­tor flaps from au­to­matic to man­ual which adds a bit of drag while as­sist­ing cool­ing. The un­der­car­riage, once ex­tended, partly blocks the ra­di­a­tor in­takes so coolant temps, which showed around 80° dur­ing flight, will soon be­gin ris­ing. I de­layed un­til late down­wind be­fore reach­ing for the gear han­dle, and this time held it hard against the lower stop (along with my breath­ing) un­til the green ‘DOWN’ light and the one for the tail­wheel came on.

The flaps have only two po­si­tions, up and down, and when down they block the ra­di­a­tor ex­hausts, fur­ther de­grad­ing cool­ing. Abeam the thresh­old I tipped into a gen­tle curv­ing base, slow­ing to 120 knots, and waited to roll out on short fi­nal be­fore drop­ping them. There is a marked nose-down ef­fect as the flaps come down, and a much bet­ter view for­ward, but in the cor­ner of my eye I could see the coolant temps ris­ing.

I let speed taper to ninety knots, al­most against my na­ture, feel­ing the buoy­ancy of those wings but un­used to com­ing in this slow in a war­bird. As I crossed the bound­ary I was still too fast. Power back to a trickle… eighty knots−and still too fast, as the run­way thresh­old grew and flat­tened ahead of me. Seventy-five knots and still those gen­er­ous wings were ladling out last help­ings of lift, ailerons fully re­spon­sive as I ini­ti­ated a gen­tle flare. Power to idle and−be­gin­ner’s luck per­haps−the main tyres greased the tar­mac in a per­fect tail-low wheeler at about 68 knots, the Mer­lin pop-crack­ling ap­prov­ingly. I ‘flew’ the tail down, feet on high alert on the ped­als−but we kept track­ing down the cen­tre­line with just the odd dab on the brakes once the rud­der lost au­thor­ity some­where below forty knots. Quickly, flaps up to re­store flow through the ra­di­a­tors, coolant tem­per­a­ture creep­ing just past 100°C but still ok.

We came to a stop in less than 700m. Taxy­ing in I slid open the canopy and let out a deep breath, catch­ing a heady mix of Mer­lin ex­haust and mown grass as I breathed in again while lean­ing out to see ahead. From a deep re­cess in my mind a happy child­hood mem­ory bub­bled up of when I hand-flew an Air­fix Spit­fire model round my bed­room.

But there was more to come. A few weeks later I was off to Dux­ford with MV154, ac­com­pa­nied by Achim Meier in a Cor­sair F4U-5 and the late and much­missed Marc ‘Leon’ Mathis in a Mus­tang T, both aero­planes also based in Brem­garten. Our ob­jec­tive was Fly­ing Leg­ends, the best air­show in Europe, if not the world, to which we had been in­vited.

I end my first dance with an aileron roll over the Rhine, just for the fun of it

Next month, read Maxi’s story of tak­ing part in Fly­ing Leg­ends, and fi­nally meet­ing the equally leg­endary Mary El­lis.

The ‘faded gar­den green’ cock­pit of Maxi’s MKVIII looks just as it did in 1944 — save for the mod­ern GPS!

PHOTO: CHRIS­TIAN BRAMKAMP

Maxi’s Spit­fire aloft over a Con­ti­nen­tal land­scape very dif­fer­ent to that of its Hamp­shire birth­place

Left: Lethal beauty: that lovely wing plan form was adopted in the in­ter­est of ac­com­mo­dat­ing the Spit­fire’s orig­i­nal eight .303 Brown­ing ma­chine gun ar­ma­ment — and in­spired by Heinkel’s ear­lier el­lip­ti­cal-wing de­signs

Above: Built four years af­ter the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, Maxi’s Mk VIII nev­er­the­less looks com­pletely in its el­e­ment fly­ing close to ‘the white cliffs of Dover’

Pho­tos John Dibbs

To­day’s owner Maxi Gainza with for­mer ATA pi­lot Mary El­lis, who de­liv­ered the air­craft to Brize Nor­ton in 1944

Maxi looks al­most in­tent on draw­ing a bead on John Dibbs’s cam­era­ship in this shot, taken over the English Chan­nel

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