Flying the Supermarine Spitfire

Flying the Supermarine Spitfire

By Charles Scott Williams, UVU Aviation Adjunct Faculty

Spitfire, a name that conjures images of an elliptical winged silhouette that achieved glory during the Battle of Britain, was designed by Mr. R.J. Mitchell and first flown in 1936.  Move forward 76 years and I find myself at the Biggin Hill Airport in England, a former Royal Air Force Base during World War II, scheduled to fly the Spitfire T9 model. Our enemy today is not a gaggle of Messerschmitt 109’s or Heinkel 111’s, but the English weather. Luck was with us and the often cloudy sky was clear with light surface winds. Arrival at the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar for the Spitfire flight began with a preflight briefing via two videos, the first on the legalities of the flight and the obvious differences and risks associated with flying in an ex-military aircraft vs. that of a light civilian aircraft or airliner. Pretty easy to figure out you’re strapping into a fighter and should not expect inflight entertainment and a hot meal served by a Flight Attendant. The second preflight video is one your ears perk up for as bail out and potential pilot incapacitation procedures are covered. The big, “What if” is that of the front seat pilot becoming incapacitated. The landing gear lever is located in the front cockpit and should the front seat pilot become unconscious the back seater is in a quandary. You can’t “dangle the Dunlop’s” or lower the landing gear from the aft cockpit. An option is hitting the silk as they say, parachuting to safety. Bail out procedures, known as the “arc” consists of a pattern from the right side of the cockpit, sweeping counterclockwise to the left, which includes lowering the seat to the lowest setting, pulling the red tab at the canopy 12 o’clock position, ejecting the canopy with both elbows, opening the cockpit side door, then unfastening your safety belt. If the canopy should give any issues to being opened and discarded for bailout there is a crow bar in a bracket located on each cockpit fold down door which can be used to break the canopy as necessary for egress. The next step is, literally the biggest step you’re likely to take in your life, stepping over the side into space. A unique safety item included in the parachute harness of the Spitfire is that of having a static line to deploy your parachute. As you fall away from the aircraft the static line pulls the D ring of your parachute and it deploys. If this fails you can simply pull the D ring and deploy the parachute yourself. Normal cockpit entry and egress procedures are covered as well. Prior to heading out on the tarmac I met my Instructor Pilot, Mr. Don Sigournay, an ex-Royal Navy Hawker Harrier Pilot and current Spitfire Pilot. Don asked my experience in flying and briefed me on the route that we would fly over the southern London area. Don asked if I had any questions and I asked to reconfirm that the landing gear can only be actuated from the front cockpit and also of the operation of the engine coolant door control. The notable fairings on the underside of the wings house engine, intercooler, and oil cooler radiators. There is what amounts to a cowl flap for the engine radiator which is manually controlled in the cockpit to manage airflow across this radiator to maintain an optimum engine coolant temperature. Neither landing gear nor the radiator cooling flap can be controlled from the aft cockpit. Questions answered, we walked out to the aircraft. The mobile stairs used to board the aft cockpit made the entry easy and having the left side fold down cockpit door helps those, like myself that are vertically challenged, get both legs over the cockpit side.

Photo by Charles Scott Williams
Photo by Charles Scott Williams

The handhold when entering the aft cockpit is the cockpit forward windscreen. You use this as a handhold and step onto the seat, then put your feet on the floor and sit down. Three major items to do after being seated, don your parachute, fasten the 4 point safety harness, and put on your flight helmet. The parachute is prepositioned in the cockpit so all you do is slide each arm into the respective shoulder harness, fasten two leg fasteners, and lastly fasten the chest strap. The 4 point safety harness has a lap belt and two separate shoulder harnesses that connect to a central connecting point. I was surprised that it wasn’t a 5 point safety harness. The flight helmet goes on last and after an intercom check with the Instructor Pilot, you’re set to go. In the event of an intercom failure you look at the front seat pilot in the mirror atop the forward cockpit canopy and give him the thumbs up that all is well or a thumbs down that things aren’t quite so wonderful. I didn’t start or taxi the airplane but noted that the start was relatively quick and as the aircraft had already flown on the morning of the flight there were no delays waiting on the Rolls Royce Merlin 66 to warm up. There are no toe brakes atop each rudder pedal. Braking is accomplished pneumatically using the hand brake lever located on the Dunlop spade; the “spade” is the donut shaped hand hold on top of the flight control stick and the brake lever looks just like a hand brake used on a bicycle. If you want to turn left, push the left rudder pedal and apply the brakes by squeezing the brake lever. The left undercarriage brake is applied and the aircraft turns left. Want to make a right turn? Apply right rudder and squeeze the brake lever. To stop straight ahead, neutralize the rudder pedals and apply the hand brake. To set the parking brake, squeeze the brake lever and adjust the mechanical lock on the spade to hold the brake lever in the closed or applied position.

Photo by Charles Scott Williams

When taxiing onto the runway for departure there was a slight difference in height between the taxiway and the runway itself. Not a huge difference but as we taxied over this, the Vickers oleo pneumatic struts and Dunlop tires didn’t give a lot and it was more of a jolt than I expected. Obviously, Spitfire isn’t built for off road activities. The undercarriage is hydraulically actuated and the main landing gear is very narrow which historically has caused a lot of accidents during takeoff and landing.

Photo by Charles Scott Williams
Photo by Charles Scott Williams

The tailwheel does not retract and employs a Vickers oleo pneumatic shock absorber. Propeller types listed in the Spitfire Mark V Aircraft Flight Manual include de Havilland and Rotol. The four bladed constant speed propeller on the T9 was in the low pitch/high revolutions per minute setting for takeoff and the throttle was advanced for a reduced power takeoff, reduced power being used to preserve the 1,650 Horse Power Merlin. The tail was up almost immediately when takeoff power was applied and seconds later we were ascending. Don did the takeoff and a real report of the performance capability wasn’t possible as we did a reduced power takeoff. I can imagine in a scramble during WWII when full power was used this aircraft would get up and go. I mentioned to Don that I had previously flown the P-51 and he told me that compared to the Mustang the flight controls of the Spitfire were very light. To his word, after I had been given the controls, I found this to be true. In the Spitfire Mark V Aircraft Flight Manual which I had read prior to arriving at Biggin Hill, one description of aerobatic flight maneuvers refers to “flick” maneuvers. I can understand why they called them this because the cable/pulley flight controls of the Spitfire are so light and responsive that all it takes is a flick of your wrist and the aircraft rolls briskly and beautifully around the longitudinal axis. To help preserve the aircraft we kept the G load to no more than 2 G’s. Initially I flew straight and level to get a feel for the aircraft and then tried varying angles of bank, eventually reaching approximately 60 degrees of bank, while maintaining altitude. We then maneuvered to a sparsely populated area for aileron rolls. Don demonstrated the first roll by pitching down slightly below the horizon and as we accelerated to 240 knots pitched up just above the horizon. As the nose came up he applied full left aileron and around the longitudinal axis we went. I followed suit and “flicked” the Spitfire up and over as the clear English sky above momentarily traded places with the countryside below at a roll rate of 67.8 degrees per second.

Arial view from the Supermarine Spitfire

Unlike Merlin engine models prior to the 50 series; the Merlin 66 model installed in the Spitfire T9 employs a Stromberg Injection Carburetor which is good for negative G maneuvering. Unfortunately, the Merlin engine’s oil system is not designed to take negative G’s. Whereas the negative G carburetor solves the fuel flow problem in negative G maneuvering, this negative G environment can cause havoc with the engine’s oil distribution and cause damage. During combat air maneuvers, if your adversary is at your 12 o’clock position and pushes the nose over in a negative G escape maneuver; your option to follow requires maneuvering to maintain a positive G load. Could you push over into a negative G to follow the bandit at 12 o’clock? You could but in earlier model Spitfires you would lose fuel flow with the carbureted engine, and even with a negative G capable carburetor you could damage the engine due to improper oil flow. Your option to avoid this is to roll inverted and pull back on the spade maintaining a positive G load on the airplane. In the time it takes to complete this roll and pull back on the spade, your adversary is increasing the distance between the two of you. If the Spitfire had an Achilles Heel during combat maneuvering, the lack of negative G maneuvering was it. Another point to be made in Spitfire performance is range, specifically fuel quantity. The T9 model has 5 fuel tanks, 4 wing tanks and one fuselage tank for a total fuel capacity of 91 gallons. Earlier model Spitfires had even less internal fuel than this which equates to limited range in normal economical fuel flow settings and even less when a thirsty Merlin is being pushed to the limit in air combat. In the area of fuel management there is no mixture control for the later models of the Merlin engine as this is automatically controlled and there is no carburetor heat since the fuel and air is mixed at the supercharger. Due to the added cockpit in the T9 model the forward cockpit has been moved 13 inches forward to keep the center of gravity within limits. This modification also required the fuel system to be modified, reducing the fuel tank capacity in the fuselage tank forward of the front cockpit and moving 4 fuel tanks into the wings. To make room for the wing fuel tanks the Hispano 20 millimeter cannons have been removed and this space along with the space occupied by ammunition bays is now occupied by wing fuel tanks. GBMSB, or the wartime identification MJ627 still sports the Browning .303 machine guns in the wings of the aircraft. Like the flaps and landing light deployment, the cannon and machine guns of the Spitfire are charged and fired pneumatically. Gun camera activation is accomplished via pneumatic actuation as well. Pneumatic components are all powered via an engine driven pneumatic pump manufactured by B.T.H. or Heywood. The electrical system consists of an engine driven generator and cockpit mounted battery. Time waits for no one and the clock kept ticking no matter how much I enjoyed flying this magnificent aircraft, thus we headed back to Biggin Hill. Don pointed out the hangars at the aerodrome and I turned the aircraft in that direction. As we approached the traffic pattern Don took the controls for the visual approach and landing. Via the cockpit intercom, Don read aloud the landing checklist which includes ensuring that the parking brake is NOT set. Lowering the undercarriage yields a green down light in the cockpit if all is normal with the landing gear. Red tabs on the upper surface of each wing, manual undercarriage up/down indicators, retract when the landing gear is up and extend when the landing gear is down, a backup to electrical cockpit indications. In the event the undercarriage needs to be extended using an alternate method, the landing gear lever is placed in the down position and carbon dioxide gas under pressure is released and ported in the down actuators of the landing gear. The split-flaps and landing lamps are pneumatically deployed and retract with spring and or air load assistance. Options for flap settings are either fully retracted or fully down. Don slowed to a stabilized final approach speed of approximately 100 miles per hour, configured with the undercarriage and flaps down, and made an outstanding crosswind landing on runway 21 at Biggin Hill to a full stop. After clearing the active runway the flaps were retracted and as the pneumatic pressure was released, allowing the flaps to retract, I felt a rush of air in the floor of the cockpit. Like a Formula 1 race pit crew at the ready, the Heritage Hangar ground staff timed the roll up of the mobile stairs to the aft cockpit and chocked the undercarriage mere seconds after the Merlin was safely shut down. I’ve said many times that I was born forty years too late and should have been a fighter pilot during World War II. I would have been first in line to fly in the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadron. Nearly eight decades after the Battle of Britain I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to fly the Spitfire, a legendary aircraft that turned back the tide of evil long ago with much owed to the “few” mentioned in Sir Winston Churchill’s famous speech of Royal Air Force Pilots during that time.

Post Flight (L) Instructor Pilot, Mr. Don Sigournay and (R) Charles Scott Williams  Photo by Sabra Williams
Post Flight
(L) Instructor Pilot, Mr. Don Sigournay and (R) Charles Scott Williams
Photo by Sabra William

If you would like to experience flying the Supermarine Spitfire the good folks at The Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar can help you gain the flight experience that I have described above. They can be contacted at:

Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar
Hangar 528
Biggin Hill Airport
Kent TN16 3BN

Phone 01959576767

Fly A

An excellent reference for Spitfire aircraft information is:
THE SPITFIRE V MANUAL, Published as an RAF Museum Series by Greenhill Books, London