Part one: reflecting on the first flight in an almost completely original Mk VIII. Words by Maxi Gainza and photos by John Dibbs
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 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 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 spring-loaded 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.
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 wing-loading, 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 190-200 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 much-missed 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.
Part two coming soon.
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