Somehow, I always knew that one day I would fly a Spitfire. Coincidentally, when that eventful day arrived it happened to be the anniversary of my first solo some 22 years previously. It had been a long wait and I’d come a long way since taking Cessna 150a, G-ARSB, into the air at Carlisle airport on 2 August 1967.
Back to the Spitfire. I had recently joined Rolls-Royce at Bristol as a Test Pilot to carry out the initial testing on a new Pegasus engine for the United States Marine Corps AV8-B Harrier, the Pegasus 1161, or the -408 as the Marines call it. With up to 3000lb more thrust that the existing engine, the test program proved to be most exhilarating. Even better than that, I discovered on my arrival at Filton that there was a Spitfire F Mk XIV sitting in the hangar next to the Harrier. I asked the obvious question to find to my delight that my predecessor had flown the machine and a replacement pilot was wanted. The only proviso was that the new pilot had to be tail wheel qualified. Holding my breath I advised the Chief Test Pilot that I had learned to fly the Harvard at Boscombe Down some years previously and that I was a current member of the Harvard Formation Team. He said he would see what he could do and a few days later the answer arrived in the affirmative. At last, my wish would be fulfilled.
During testing of the Harrier, the Spitfire engine replacement progressed. During this time, I interrogated just about every heavy piston aircraft pilot I could find on the handling qualities of the Spitfire and similar type aircraft. Unfortunately, all this did was fill me with apprehension as to what would happen on my first solo. Tales of torque that will spin you off the runway, propeller un-stalling that produces uncontrollable swing at an unpredictable time during the take off run and rudder effectiveness that was too low to contain the gyroscopic swing on raising the tail did nothing to increase my confidence. Fortunately, two very good friends let me into the secret that the Spitfire was one of the easiest tail wheel aircraft to fly, and they assured me that I would have no problems. That’s all very well, I thought, they had done it, but at that time, I hadn’t!
Several ground runs were carried out before the aircraft could take to the air with its new engine. On one of these I was introduced to the delights (and extreme power) of the Griffon. The aircraft had been chocked and the tail had been strapped down onto a metal bar set in the concrete of the servicing pan. After switching on ground power and fuel, and after checking the other systems and setting the throttle about 1 inch open and the propeller lever fully forward, I was ready to prime. A cock selects either internal or external fuel for this process – the external supply is for a high volatility fluid for starting in cold climates – and a large manually operated pump injects the fuel into the engine. Several pumps are required to charge the system, then two or three full loads are squeezed forward. A wind up is given to the groundcrew, which must be acknowledged, then magnetos are switched on, the booster coil pressed, confirmed operating by a buzzing noise, followed by the starter. It was then that I received my first shock. Was it my imagination, or did the aircraft really appear to rotate about that enormous propeller rather than the other way round. I didn’t get time to think about it, the aircraft kicked one way then the other as the engine tried to fire, the prop ratcheted in sympathy, then with the noise that every one loves, the mighty griffon burst into life. The starter was released and oil pressure, the life blood of any engine, was checked. Following a warm up of about five minutes, the oil and coolant temperatures were above limits for a run up (15 and 60 degrees centigrade respectively). The magnetos were checked for dead cut by turning each off in turn and checking that the engine still ran, then with a signal to the ground crew, the power was increased. The right wing lowered with the torque, but the noise was horrendous. I looked to the groundcrew for confirmation that all was well and found three of them leaning on the left wing tip to prevent the wheel from lifting over the chock with the extreme torque. How on earth was I going to control this beast on the runway?
I needn’t have worried, the two colleagues who said I would have no trouble were absolutely right. With fear and trepidation, a few weeks after the ground runs, I sat behind that mighty griffon, pointing down runway 27, and requested take off clearance from Air Traffic Control at Filton. It was duly granted and I slowly opened the throttle not knowing what was going to happen next, but whatever it was, I was ready for it. The aircraft accelerated smoothly, the controls became effective quite quickly and the tail came up of its own accord. I drifted right as the aircraft broke ground, but ignored it as the next priority was to raise the gear to prevent overheat of the engine.
I’d spent some time in the cockpit over the previous weeks. The groundcrew had kindly raised the tail to the take off position for me, so that I could see the propeller clearance available and have some idea what the picture through the windscreen should look. They also put the aircraft on jacks so that I could try the undercarriage lever with a hydraulic rig attached. The undercarriage lock is rotated mechanically by the cockpit lever to become a down lock when down is selected and an up lock when selected up. When selecting down, should the hydraulics come on line before the up lock is rotated, then the lever will be blocked in a mid position by the force of the hydraulics acting on the up lock. The lever could be forced through, but by far the best method of operation is to apply gentle force to the lever whilst progressively pushing negative G – a pull up prior to this manoeuvre is advised. At an indeterminate point in the proceedings, the lever will move and down selection will be possible. The required smart movement of the lever was duly practised so that the situation could be avoided in flight.
I was now accelerating in the climb, with hands gripping the controls with the strength of an engineer’s vice, as it slowly dawned on me that I had one of the most delightful flying machines in my hands. The controls were, in general, effective and harmonious. The ailerons can be somewhat heavy, but the feel was pleasant non the less. I relaxed and took in hand a most wonderful flying machine. My two colleagues were right, but then, if it were difficult to fly, how would the pilots of the day, with their limited flying experience, have fought it so successfully during the second world war.
I’ve yet to run out of rudder during the take off, or note the effect of propeller the un-stalling. No doubt the problems exist, but I like to think that the Spitfire’s design counters them so perfectly that the pilot has little to do except fly naturally.
I tried one or two stalls during the flight. Apart from some instability at stall break and a slight wing drop there was nothing of great note. Stall speed was about 60 knots. I also tried the undercarriage and flaps. The latter proved to be the most interesting. The flaps come down in about 0.5 seconds, and retract over about 10. As they come down there is an instant change of trim. The nose lowers by about 5 degrees and the control column comes back of its own accord, by about 2 inches. There is little for the pilot to do except wind in a small amount of trim on the cockpit wheel to annul any residual force on the control column.
Landing also proved to be without incident. Control was positive, all the way to wheels touch and there was little tendency to swing. There is a common misconception that the narrow track of the Spitfire undercarriage causes it to swing. Not true, it does lean away from wind, however, and it must therefore be “flown” all the way down to walking pace. It is the distance of the undercarriage in front of the centre of gravity that is by far the most important factor in the swing equation, the undercarriage track serves only to accentuates it. The Harvard, for example, has a wide track undercarriage. But since it is located far infront of the centre of gravity, it has a worse swing than the Spitfire. The disadvantage on the latter is the aircraft’s propensity to nose over when brakes and or power are used to excess.
This, then was the start of a much longer tale that extends to the mark 18 in one direction and the delightful mark 5 in the other, but that, as they say, is another story.
© A J Sephton