Flying the Spitfire - with Mike Potter

The Supermarine Spitfire: has there ever been a more universally admired airplane in the history of flight? Perhaps I reveal a personal bias – after all, I was born in London in 1944 and the Brits’ love for that plucky little fighter may well have been programmed in my DNA – but I think everyone feels a surge of excitement when they approach a Spitfire, especially an airworthy one throwing off the smell of fresh glycol, hydraulic fluid and engine oil.

Forgive more superlatives, but I can not think of another man made object which is so elegantly beautiful in form, and so deadly in function. The remarkable talent of R.J. Mitchell, the Spitfire’s brilliant young creator, shines through.

First impression from visitors is almost always, “It’s so small!” The Spitfire actually has, within an inch or two, the same overall dimensions as its bulky American cousin, the Mustang, but its slender fuselage and curvy elliptical wings tapering to nothing at the tips, certainly make it appear small and almost delicate. Even the slim, tightly cowled engine belies the 1720 HP it can give you. This is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing and only the four bladed thirteen foot diameter propeller hints at the raw power in this little airplane.

Step up on the wing, ease yourself in the seat and you will find the cockpit snug in a most comforting way. There is room enough to move your hands and feet, but no more. You will feel not that you are sitting in an airplane, but that you have “put it on” like your well worn leather flight jacket. Next, you might notice how simple the airplane is; no complex systems to manage, minimum information displayed. There is logic to this. Once airborne, there is nothing to do but fly and fight. The airplane will take care of itself.

Starting is typical Merlin. Manually prime with the Ki-gas pump – too little and it won’t start; too much and you will have an exhaust stack fire, much to the entertainment of onlookers, but guaranteed to raise your own pulse rate. Once the engine is running, I like to remember the words of my colleague, Rob Erdos: “Once you start a Merlin, your IQ drops by one half.” So the checklist, securely strapped to my left leg, becomes my best friend.

Taxi with great care. The pneumatic brakes, applied with a bicycle-like brake lever at the top of the stick, are feather light and very effective. Since the Spitfire is extremely light on the tail – only 7 inches separates its centre of gravity from the main wheels, compared to nearly 50 inches on a Mustang – she is just waiting to give the unwary a very expensive trip to Hoffmann Propeller for a new prop.

After standard run up and pre take off checks, you are lined up and ready to go. You have just had your last look at the runway since the Spitfire’s long nose gives you no visibility ahead and, with the tail low take-off that the Spitfire requires to ensure prop clearance, that is not going to change on the roll.

Ease the power in sloooowly. It is not visible to the spectators, but that big propeller will give some remarkable asymmetric forces on the take off roll and, with a max power take-off, you will need full right deflection of both aileron and rudder to keep it straight. Keep the tail low and it will fly off uneventfully. Yes, the gear retraction is a bit clunky and you do need to change hands to do it, but that’s part of the Spitfire’s personality and it won’t get you into any trouble.

Now you are ready to experience the magic. Controls are so light and responsive that the airplane seems to go where you want just by wishing it. (Did I really move that stick?) It casts your mind back to that feeling that you were “putting it on” like a jacket. I have never felt so seamlessly integrated with an airplane before. Surprisingly the controls are not harmonized. Stick forces for aileron are closer to being normal, but the elevator forces are extraordinarily light and demand the gentlest touch. And, like all fighters of this era, you need your two feet as well as your hands to fly or she will skid and slip all over the sky.

Considering all the power and performance packed into this little airplane, the stall characteristics are benign. With flaps and gear down and the weights we fly at today, stall speed is less than 60 knots. There is lots of warning, little tendency for a wing drop, and recovery is routine and immediate.

The only challenges on landing are poor forward visibility and the need to be pretty comfortable with three-point landing technique. A gently curving approach to the runway threshold will solve the visibility problem. (And, by the way, all those World War II Spitfire veterans were taught that way and will expect to see it.) Over the fence at 90 knots and a last look speed of 80 knots and you will be well set up. Take a good look at the cross wind as you come short final and program your mind for how much side slip you want to feed in on the flare, because it is not easy to judge the drift once that long nose starts to come up. Flare to a tail low or three point attitude, remembering again how light and responsive the elevator is, and enjoy the arrival. It may jiggle around a bit on that ridiculously narrow undercarriage, but there is no mean streak in this airplane. Although the tail wheel is free castoring, the big rudder is very effective as long as you are reasonable fast with your feet.

Oh, and easy, very easy, on the brakes.

At this point it is worth a moment’s thought for the Spitfire’s arch rival in the sky – Messerschmitt’s Bf109. When our Spitfire pilot disengaged from a fight and headed home, his thoughts might easily turn to a beer with his buddies in the pilot’s mess. The 109 pilot, on the other hand, must have still been giving some serious thought to getting on the ground safely. While the Spit is such a pussycat, it is estimated that about one third of all 109’s built were destroyed in take off and landing accidents with major loss of life. It is reputed to be a very difficult airplane to land.

Taxi to the ramp (or to “dispersal” if you still have your head back to the 1940’s) but waste no time since, on a warm day, that glycol will heat up to the red line in a very short time. The shut down is normal, then pause for a moment to remind yourself what a privilege it is to fly one of the most beautiful and important aircraft ever designed.

And, finally, take a moment to reflect on the remarkable story of R. J. Mitchell. Mitchell started his design of the Spitfire in 1934. Although a young man, still in his thirties, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer the year before. But Mitchell never allowed his illness to keep him from this vital work. After the first flight of the Spitfire prototype in March 1936, Mitchell lived barely a year. When he died one Spitfire, the prototype, was flying; 20,333 were to follow. He died knowing that he had created a good airplane but having no idea that, within a few years, his Spitfire would change the course of history.

R. J. Mitchell, with the extraordinary Spitfire he created, is an inspiration to us seventy years after his death.

Michael Potter , Vintage Wings of Canada
Photo: Peter Handley.  Photo of R.J. Mitchell: Vickers


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