The Supermarine Spitfire is one of the most beautiful airplanes to ever take to the skies, and an effective one too, with a sterling record during the Battle of Britain. In this trip into the Air Facts archives, Nancy Miller takes us inside the famous Spit for a look at what it was like to fly one. She should know—she logged nearly 1,000 hours ferrying airplanes for the RAF.
Once upon a time, as the war clouds threatened but before the storm had broken, the prototype of the now famous British Supermarine Spitfire was flown – in March 1936. This plane, more then any, has captured the imagination of most people and has licked the pants off many Germans. It is credited, with its close pal the Hawker Hurricane, with having saved Britain in 1940. It has always aroused the admiration and awe of any pilot or aviation enthusiast. The very clean lines, the graceful elliptical wings, its appearances in all attitudes has moved many people into saying it is one of, if not the most graceful, beautiful aircraft in the world.
Now there isn’t much that can be said about military aircraft – you know why. But since there are so many American military pilots (and no doubt many others) who want to fly it (the greatest compliment), I might be able to give an idea of how the Spitfire behaves without giving away any important secrets. After all, the German test pilots probably know more about it than I do.
Getting in isn’t bad except on a muddy or icy day. You step directly onto the port wing and draw yourself up by grasping where the small hinged door swings down. The cockpit is narrow and a 200-pounder would have a tight squeeze. There are metal runners beneath the rudders so that you can rest your feet. The rudders themselves are double-deckered and you can use either level. They are adjustable but being an awkward operation, I often curse long-legged test pilots. The seat is adjustable up and down only. The cockpit is fairly full of gadgets but not nearly so much as American fighters with all their little switches. There are two main operations which upset most Americans, (1) the brakes, and (2) the landing gear lever.
The stick in the Spit is topped by a circular rim about an inch in diameter, with a lever just behind it. Using your right hand, you pull the lever like a squeeze-grip and this operates the brakes. The harder you pull, the stronger the brakes. You differentiate which brake is to be used by applying slight rudder. Full rudder is not necessary and you don’t have to stretch your feet out of shape.
Those who have never used this system find it confusing at first, but once used to it, it is excellent, as you can feel the whole action. British pilots usually dislike hydraulic toe brakes at first and find them quite confusing. Both systems have their merits.
As to number two, the landing gear lever, this is on the right side of the cockpit and necessitates a change of hands to operate. This explains the little up and down jerk a Spit sometimes does just after takeoff. More embarrassing is when the throttle slips back just when you put the left hand on the stick and the right on the lever. The throttle tension wheel, unfortunately, is poor and the throttle may be tight half-way and loose at full travel.
The instrument dashboard isn’t too overloaded. Dead ahead is a full blind – flying panel, the six instruments well set out and the big master compass below the dash. The few engine thing-a ma-jigs are at the right, and the flap control, elevator trim tab indicator, landing gear lights, mag switches, at the left. The flap control indicator is unusual. It’s just a flat piece of metal and moves either up or down on a pivot. There is no intermediate position.
The throttle and pitch levers are on the left in a good position. On most Marks, the mixture control is automatic and there’s a cut-out lever outboard the throttle, which is moved forward when starting and for automatic running, and back to shut off.
There is no tail wheel lock, the wheel being strongly self-centering. Two wheels left of the seat are the trimmers. There is no rudder indicator, one turn from either end being neutral. The elevator trimmer, the larger wheel, has an indicator like a rate of climb, the middle position being neutral. There are other gadgets around, radio, emergency air bottle for the landing gear, jettison equipment, oil dilution, etc., but all we’re trying to do is check out, not fight in it.
With parachute on, harness fastened, cockpit check completed, you call “all clear” and “contact.” Starting isn’t difficult but you certainly wish you had another pair of hands! Switches on, throttle cracked, wobble pump (if fitted), doper, press two buttons (booster coil and starter), catch the engine on the doper (right hand), plop the mixture lever into automatic and use the throttle with the left hand. It’s a hectic few seconds! The full-throated roar is sweet music. It doesn’t take too long to warm and run-up, and it’s difficult to taxy far on a warm day (if any!) without the radiator (glycol) temperature zooming to 120 degrees Centigrade, at which time the engine must be shut off and left to cool. To run up, it is necessary to have two men lie on the stabilizer so that the plane won’t nose over.
Taxying calls for care as the long-nosed Merlin and Griffon engines block the forward view. Zig-zagging is easy by use of coarse (full) rudder, and a bit of throttle, and very little brake is needed except in a cross-wind. The narrow landing gear scares most newcomers, but it is absolutely amazing how well the gear stands up to all sorts of landings especially in a cross-wind. I have taken them in with 20-25 mph winds at 45-50 degrees off the runway and with the proper correction they have set down three–point quite nicely. There’s only a slight tendency to weathercock and it can be corrected by coarse rudder or a touch of the squeeze brake.
The take-off has need of a gentle, firm hand, not that used for a B-24 Liberator. The elevators are very sensitive. You can open up quickly except in later Marks where the torque is more pronounced. Very little rudder will keep a straight course and only the slightest forward pressure on the stick will pout the Spit “on its mark.” There is no forward view but I never had any either when my 200-pound instructor sat in the front of my Piper Cub!!
You open up to plus eight- or ten-pounds boost, which is around 48 to 52 inches of manifold pressure. I have taken some off at plus four, but it isn’t so nice. I have also taken one off at full boost, and my! did she jump! You can feel the power of the engine, like most fighters. If there’s a nice long runway, it’s a marvelous feeling to keep her smoothly on the ground until she just refuses to be a groundhog any longer. She wants to fly, so you let her ease off the ground without a ripple. Just a bare tip-of-the-finger sends her airborne; there’s no need of hugging the stick or pulling back firmly. The Spit likes to fly. All you have to do is give her a hint and she’ll do the rest.
As you leave the ground you switch left hand to stick, and right hand to the “C”-shaped landing gear lever. You press down a second, then left, up, right, and release. The wheels flatten out in the wings very quickly and the lever snaps automatically into an “idle” position. The Spit builds up to 160 mph rapidly, and the throttle and pitch can be adjusted to plus four and 2600 RPM. She climbs well, although the nose is a bit high.
On any takeoff, crosswind or otherwise, the Spit unsticks at an amazingly slow speed and it’s almost impossible to drag it off too slowly or drop a wing.
Adjusting the throttle to zero boost (30 inches) and 1900 RPM, you can relax and look around. Since you aren’t out to lose yourself in Britain, we’ll change the routine from the ferry job to some turns and a landing. By the way, the British call the practice of takeoffs and landings, “circuits and bumps,” and it’s strangely accurate. Bumps indeed!
Now remember, finger-tip touch is all that is necessary, and most of the time you don’t need rudder as the aileron gives a good turn. In a medium turn, little back pressure is used, but a tight turn requires a firm hand. When you bank there’s a feeling of remote control, almost as if your unconscious leaning into the turn did it instead if the stick. Aerobatics are pleasant but stalls and spins need plenty of altitude.
Coming into the circuit, you drop your boost a bit to slow down to 160 mph. Then change hands, push the gear lever up a second, left, down, right, and release. As the gear comes down, you check the green light, and the lever which slips into “idle” position. The nose drops a bit, but the trimmer is handy. Because of the blind nose, the Spit, as with other fighters, should be brought in at an angle to the runway so that the pilot may judge his approach and have a clear run. The Spit has a flattish, nose-up glide with flaps up at slow speed. Flaps bring the nose down but not enough for a straight approach. A nice 180 degree “U” approach can be started at 800 feet. If you find yourself coming in high and straight, you can make gentle S-turns with confidence.
Well, you are buzzing in at 110 and you just don’t think it should be any slower. But a bit of pressure soon changes your mind, as you zoom up. For Spits I to V, you can approach with a bit of motor at 85-90 mph, with a slight increase on later Marks, as they are heavier. Initial approach 95, slowing to 85-90 the last 200 feet of altitude. Quit jerking the stick—looks like a porpoise! Just relax and use only a couple of fingers on the stick. Break the glide gradually, using the same light touch and as she nears the ground, slide your hand around the stick and brake lever. You can feel the ship want to keep flying, and on a rough day, you must be quick on the controls in order to judge the actual “touchdown.” Just as she settles, you must pull back firmly, but not too far. Due to the high nose, most people don’t like to see it too high, and thus a tail first landing is rare. It’s somewhat like a Fairchild 24. You break the glide and continue to pull back, but just at the end you must suddenly pull in order to get the tail down. That’s about the only quick motion ever needed in a Spit.
As she touches and rolls, she rocks slightly. Directional control is excellent by slight, quick, firm use of the rudder. A touch of brake can be used but it’s usually not necessary—especially if you’re not used to that type of brake. The nose blocks the forward view, but you can keep straight by glancing off about 30 degrees to each side. The run is not long except for later, heavier Marks in a calm wind.
Now if you had decided, as most newcomers do, that 85-90 mph felt too slow and brought it in a 95-100, you’d be glad of a long runway. The Spit doesn’t want to sit down and if you give her a bit of rope, she’ll float all the way down the runway. You’ll make a half-dozen porpoising up and downs two feet off the runway before touching. It’s surprising how easy it is to land a Spitfire safely, even on its wheels, but how difficult it is to make a perfect three-pointer.
So you taxy zig-zag back to dispersal, after flaps up, radiator open (mechanical on some, automatics on later Marks), gyro caged, clear the engine at 1000RPM for 30 seconds, then pull the cut-out ring or bring the mixture lever into idle cut-out. Switches off, petrol (gas to you) off, and that’s that. The engineer will disconnect the battery, as there’s no main battery switch in the cockpit.
Nearly always someone asks “How does the Spit compare with the P-51 Mustang?” Well, I’ve flown many more Spits than P-51’s, and naturally I’m a bit prejudiced. There are other aircraft like a 51 in the air, such as the Grumman Hellcat (F6F) and Corsair (F4U), both being light and yet with a similar touch to the 51. But there’s nothing like a Spitfire!
Looking up in Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft for 1943-4, I see where the Allison-powered P-51 had a top speed of 370 mph, and the Spit V was 369. Spans had a difference of about two inches, horsepowers were within 100 of each other. The P-51 weighed about 1400 pounds more loaded, had less wing area, was longer in the snout, and landed faster. The Spit is rounded and graceful, the P-51 clipped and proud. There should not be any comparison because it just depends on the individual pilot whether he likes one better than another.
You may never see or fly a Spitfire but if you do, look at it and treat it as the high-spirited trusty thorobred that she is. She likes to fly as much as we do.