Jeff Ethell's Pireps
- By Jeff Ethell
- Air & Space magazine, January 1995
The symbol of Britain's refusal to give up during that dark summer of 1940, the Spitfire won the hearts of both pilots and public in World War II. Regardless of the version, with either Rolls-Royce Merlin or Griffon power, all Spitfire cockpits are virtually identical and wonderfully compact. Climbing in really is (to use a very worn turn of phrase) like pulling the machine on. If everything is done correctly, the Spitfire is one of the easiest aircraft to start. The engine usually fires within two blades and runs like a clock.
While the Merlin-engine versions run very smoothly, the larger Griffon-engine machines feel as if they are angry. The sound from the exhaust stacks and the vibration transferred to the seat of the pants communicates visceral power, almost a desire to go kill something. Any hot-rod lover would enjoy this sensation of unbridled horsepower, this impatience to be turned loose and hunt. Every fighter I've been in is great fun to fly but only a very few are brutally straight about why they exist. The Griffon Spitfire is one such machine.
With enough warmth in the coolant and oil, a flip of the parking brake catch releases the brake lever on the spade control grip and the aircraft is taxiing with minimal power. The first time I had the opportunity to fly a British aircraft with this hand operated air brake system I was skeptical about it being very effective compared to hydraulic toe brakes. Within a very few minutes I was completely won over. It is far easier to manage, particularly on run up when one has to really stand on most American fighter rudder pedals. The source of high-pressure air is controlled by the brake lever on the spade control grip, or stick. The rudder pedals modulate the distribution of pressure to the left and right main wheel brakes. If the pedals are even, equal braking is applied to both sides; as one rudder pedal is applied then more brake pressure is fed to that side. Strength of application is delivered by the hand lever on the grip. The major benefit to all this is having one's feet and legs almost completely relaxed most of the time.
Lining up for take-off is intimidating with that Rolls-Royce engine sticking way out in front. There is no sense in thinking too much about it. Throttle up slowly to prevent a lurch to the right (if in a Griffon Spit where the propeller turns the opposite direction from American aircraft)...left foot moves forward almost in concert with the left hand to keep the nose straight. Monster torque shoves the right wing down rapidly, very much like the P-40, until full left aileron and full (give or take a minuscule amount) left rudder is held. The Rolls is a wounded dragon bellowing horrendously.
There is so much raw power and noise, and you are so tightly focused on keeping everything under control, the actual lift-off at around 90 kts goes by almost unnoticed. Switch hands, move the gear lever down to disengage it from the slot, inwards through the gate and then smartly all the way forward, hold momentarily, then let go. If all is well, the lever snaps outwards through the upper gate, then springs back into the upper slot. Its easy to spot a new Spitfire pilot...the aircraft porpoises as the pilot changes hands and works the gear lever.
Sitting behind this demon V-12 churning out so much power is intoxicating...the earth falls away at a rapid rate, at least for something with a propeller. A look around reveals the excellent visibility out of the bubble canopy. This lessens, to a degree, the impression of being buried within a Spitfire, though that feeling of being a part of the machine does not change. The elevator is very light while the rudder is stiff and the ailerons even more so. Every Spitfire I've flown takes a bit more muscle to roll than most fighters. As speed increases both rudder and ailerons get heavier, resulting in a curious mismatch at high speed...one has to handle the almost oversensitive elevators with a light fingertip touch while arm-wrestling the stiff ailerons. Pilots had to keep this in mind during combat, particularly when going against the Fw 190 which had a sterling rate of roll and exceptionally well harmonized controls. That being said, the aircraft is very well balanced and delightful to maneuver. Whipping a Spit around the clouds ranks right up there at the top of aviation's great experiences.
The aircraft stalls like a Piper Cub. Though a wing tends to drop, there isn't the slightest mean streak in it unless you cob the power, which produces a very violent torque roll. Power off, gear and flaps down, main fuel tanks full, it stalls at 65 kts, which is ridiculously slow. Add a slight bit of power and that drops to 60 kts. With that enormous snout, I try to make a curving approach to landing at about 100 kts in order to keep the runway in sight as long as possible. By the time I'm rolling out across the field boundary, if at max landing weight, I should be no faster than 85 kts with power and 95 kts in a glide. At lighter weights these speeds can be reduced by 5 kts.
All Spitfires are exceptionally easy to land with no inherent tendency to swerve or groundloop. Just reduce power to idle, flare to a three point attitude and she sets down on a feather almost every time. This is a great surprise to most considering the narrow track undercarriage and full swivel, non-locking tailwheel. Why doesn't it drop a wing violently or make the pilot stomp on the rudders? I wish I knew. The genius of managing to combine light aircraft characteristics with such high performance is nothing short of miraculous compared to most other wartime tailwheel types. One or two landings in the Spitfire and you are in love for life.