Flying the Hurricane with Rob Erdos

Parked on the ramp, the Hurricane evokes a mixed sense of frailty and terrific solidity. Beneath a fabric covered exterior is a tubular truss structure like a bridge. The wings are not just thick, but seemingly fat, as if it had just eaten something.

It’s a big aeroplane. The long climb to the cockpit starts by pulling a stirrup-shaped step from the lower fuselage. This in turn pops open a hand-hold, as if the aeroplane were extending me an invitation. Climbing over the tall canopy sill, my first impression was an immediate sense of sympathy for anyone who faced combat from that cramped cockpit. The canopy frame gives the impression of peering from inside a bird cage. There are blind spots big enough to hide… well, a Messerschmitt.

The Merlin starting procedure is reminiscent of prodding awake a dragon: Preset the levers and knobs. Select the magnetos on. Press both the Booster Coil and Starter buttons, and the big propeller slowly begins to turn. There will be rumbling and smoke. The engine is often indecisive at first, and you may need to turn on the boost pump to keep it running. With perseverance, you are rewarded with the smooth seismic rumble of an idling Merlin.

Taxiing the Hurricane is painless once you become accustomed to the pneumatic lever-differential braking system. A bicycle brake lever on the top of the spade grip routes air to the brakes, and pedal movement determines the amount of differential braking. Very British. The Hurricane sits placidly upon its wide landing gear; the tail firmly planted behind you. Ground handling is easy, with none of the nose-over anxiety that attends taxi and run-up in the Spitfire. The engine temperatures quickly stabilize, allowing an unhurried run through the take-off checklist. Word of warning: set the throttle friction to maximum. Now do it again using both hands. Ready to roll?

One wisely opens the throttle slowly on an old fighter to ensure that your feet are ready to counter the propeller’s directional wanderlust. The rudder is generous in size and awash in Merlin-motivated airflow, so tracking the centerline during take-off is easy. We perform reduced power take-offs for engine longevity, however a hint of right aileron is still good medicine against propeller torque. Upon opening the throttle, the first of the Hurricane’s personality traits asserts itself. It is loud! Perhaps it’s the fabric skin or that the pilot sits quite far forward, but it’s loud even by Merlin standards. There is sufficient propeller ground clearance that normal take-offs may be done from the two-point attitude. It’s nice to see where you are going. Try that in the Spitfire and you will likely leave the propeller tips in the runway.

When the Hurricane is ready to fly, it’s wise to be decisive about it. The maximum under- carriage speed is a ridiculously low 104 knots, requiring quite a “zoomy” pull-up to get the wheels in motion before exceeding the limit. This is a busy period. Upon lift-off you give the brake lever a squeeze to stop the main wheels turning, then change hands on the spade grip. The undercarriage is controlled by a unique H-shaped lever mounted on the lower right cockpit sidewall. The lever controls both flaps and undercarriage. Okay, grab the lever and move it upwards on the inboard side to raise the undercarriage. At this point something will begin to attract your attention - as the roar of the Merlin begins to subside. Throttle friction! It creeps. You were warned. Quickly change hands again on the spade grip to allow a jab of the throttle back to climb power (+4 lbs of boost), then set the propeller to 2650 RPM for the climb. Easy, no?

Upon my first take-off I believe I discovered why they called it a “Hurricane”. Normal take-offs are performed with the canopy fully open, to enable escape in the event of an engine failure and roll-over. Airflow trying to negotiate the corner around that steep blunt windscreen is torn to turbulent shreds. The wind and buffeting in the cockpit are horrendous! That first take-off was accompanied by peals of helpless laughter as my map, checklists and test cards swirled around the cockpit, and the loose ends of my parachute and harness straps beat upon my face. Needless to say, I have learned, and everything is securely stowed for take-off.

My first airborne impressions of the Hurricane were a bit of surprise. It’s…well, wobbly. During maneuvers the Hurricane is heavy, but pleasant. Rudder coordination isn’t optional, but not uncharacteristic of its vintage. Attempts at trimming the aeroplane are never fully satisfactory, and you can’t really take your hands off the stick for very long. The control forces are quite high; a situation not aided by horrendous amounts of control system friction. In this regard, comparisons are inevitable. Wartime lore has it that while the Spitfire was more agile, the Hurricane was a more “stable gun platform”. Sorry. In terms of classical stability the Spitfire wins by a small margin on all counts. Nevertheless, the Hurricane’s firm control feel gives it a sense of solidity that would complement an adrenalin-charged young fighter pilot.

Flying the Hurricane is certainly work, but it’s not that hard work. So why, after 30 minutes in the cockpit, am I dripping with sweat? Gosh, it’s hot in there! The engine oil and coolant radiators are mounted in the “bathtub” structure beneath the fuselage, with all of the hot fluid lines running down both sides of the cockpit interior. Consequently, it gets mighty hot. Of course, you could open the canopy. It’s a choice between being swirled or poached. My preferred compromise is to crack the canopy open about six inches.

A normal approach starts with a fighter-style overhead break. I always look inside for a moment to ensure that I work the silly H-shaped lever in the right direction: inboard for undercarriage, outboard for flaps. Undercarriage and flap extension are both just slow enough to always raise a pucker of concern. Expect a BIG pitch trim change with flap extension, and it’s normal to run out of aft elevator trim on approach. Elevator effectiveness is poor in the 3-point attitude. Leave a trickle of power through the flare or it will drop out from under you. The landing is almost - pardon the pun – a bit of a let-down. It’s easy. The Hurricane’s undercarriage is wide and soft, and the directional stability and response allow adequate tracking through the roll-out. Compared to the Spitfire, there’s even enough download on the tail to allow some use of brakes.

The Hurricane is now a 70 year old design, and represents an era when the monoplane fighter was still being invented. It’s neither comfortable nor carefree in the manner of modern fighters, but if you could compensate for a few idiosyncrasies it did its job very well. Even today, the Hurricane has a lot to teach us.

Rob Erdos, Vintage Wings of Canada
Photos: Peter Handley - Rob Erdos, right, takes Canadian Air Force test pilot Major Eric Volstad through a cockpit check-out.

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