Flying a Spitfire is almost certainly the thing on the top of any pilot’s wish list and there’s good reason for that. The Spitfire is an iconic aircraft, its shape, sound, handling and record are all the stuff of legend. Although responsible for downing considerably fewer Luftwaffe aircraft in the Battle of Britain than it captured the nation, and the world. It remained in production for the duration of the conflict, and after, was constantly modified, enhanced and updated, with over 22,000 examples being built. It is sad then, that there are only in the region of 50 currently flying today. To fly one of those few examples is a privilege and an honour. It is something that I had the opportunity to do in 2019.
The tale of reaching that point, of how the training and life choices bring you to the situation where you are asked to fly a Spitfire, is a different story; this is about the flight.
Walking out to the Spitfire, having completed two training sorties already that day, I am numb. It is as though I am watching myself from above, like a dream. Whilst I knew I was working towards flying it solo, I didn’t think it would be today. It was a surprise when Rats said to me, “do you want to have a go on your own then?” and I realised he hadn’t been doing the post-sortie paperwork after all. He’d been speaking to John. I run through everything in my head, all those lessons and tit-bits gleaned from the previous three and a bit hours flying it so far. I walk slowly, trying to get my nerves under control, conscious that there is a large and growing audience behind me that I just blank out. I am conscious that this, above all else, is the culmination of my short flying career to date. A career that so nearly never even got off the ground. Seven years ago I flew my first solo. Today, I solo the Spitfire. I am acutely aware of the trust that has been placed in me, but also that what I am about to do is a privilege and not a right. If I mess it up, that’ll be it.
Reaching the aircraft which is poised, pointing to the sky and wanting to fly, I clamber onto the port wing to place my helmet, kneeboard and bits on the parachute which is the seat cushion. I scan the cockpit to make sure all the switches are in the right place, where I left them a little less than half an hour ago. A look in the rear cockpit and I see that the engineers have been out and “solo’d” it by removing the parachute, securing the harnesses and latching the canopy closed. It’s getting real.
I conduct a brief walkaround, moving clockwise from the port wing root. Checking that there are two of everything there should be, I take a few deep breaths. As well as a check, it’s a preparation, an exercise in focus with my fingertips running along the leading edge of the wings, over the prop, and down the fuselage. Stroking the aircraft, like a racehorse before a race, asking her to be nice to me and not throw me off. Ours is to be a mutual agreement, if we both do our respective jobs then everything will be OK.
Walkaround complete I’m up on the wing again, this time getting in. Door down, stand on the seat and gently lower down into the seat. It is cosy, but there is enough space. Straps fastened, helmet on and plugged in, gloves on, and we’re ready to go. A final run-through in my head of what I need to do because once the engine fires there is a ticking clock counting down as the radiator temperature goes up. Sitting in the front cockpit of a Spitfire is a world away from sitting in the back. They are both part of the same aircraft, but the front is something else. The shape of the bulletproof screen in front, the instrument layout, the position relative to the wing and the view of the colossal engine stretching away in front of you for what seems like an eternity. It’s the driving seat.
A quick check all around, try not to count how many people are watching, fuel on, primed accordingly, throttle set, stick back, “CLEAR!!” and press the starter and booster coil buttons. There’s a mechanical clunk, the prop starts to rotate, a puff of smoke, count four blades and mags on. More smoke and the engine fires into life. Check the throttle, eyes scanning the instruments, and the engine settles down to run. The noise. The noise is something unlike any other aircraft I have flown. The aircraft shakes around the engine, and the sound is quite rough on the ground. Rough but loud, even with a noise-cancelling helmet!
No time to rest on parade daydreaming, having flown already today the engine comes up to temperature almost straight away, after start checks complete I call up for taxi. Of course, I can see nothing ahead, one of the early lessons you’ll have as a taildragger pilot is to check your immediate taxi route before you get in, because once you’re in you can’t see it. Moving off requires a little bit of throttle as we’re parked on the grass, but once moving just about 1000rpm is sufficient and the engine runs smooth. It’s only a short taxi to the hard area abeam the holding point where I will carry out the power checks.
Everything is satisfactory in fairly quick time, I am struck again by the noise. Exercising the big V12 Merlin at 1800rpm to check the mags the aircraft is straining to be let loose, but holding firm on the brakes. Check idle, then back to 1000rpm or so for the pre take off checks to then taxi and line up. An aircraft on final, a glance at the radiator temp and not wanting to put that chap on final off, I say I can hold. But I turn into wind just to give it a little more cooling airflow. As he lands the radiator temperature is climbing, not near its limit, but climbing. Note to self!
Lining up on the runway the other chap is clear, I straighten up and roll forward a few feet. This is it, time to go. Make sure the throttle friction is tight. With the stick back and to the right to counteract the torque I open up to +6 boost, moving the stick forward to neutral but still to the right as I do so. If you thought 1800rpm was noisy then this level of noise must surely signal the world ending, and it’s not even full power. As soon as the throttle is opened the aircraft begins to roll, the surge of power is immense. Almost immediately the tail comes up, hold it there, just a little tail low. With just a glimmer of runway now visible over the long nose, my feet are busy on the rudder pedals making many small adjustments to keep straight. Then we’re off. When the aircraft is ready she will simply fly off, just check the pitch so as not to climb too steeply, build a comfortable speed margin first. As the end of the runway passes by below I had better think about raising the undercarriage. Change hands on the stick, this is where you find out if the throttle friction is tight enough, and with the right hand select “down”, pause for the count of two bananas and then smoothly select “up” holding it firmly in position for one banana then release. As the undercarriage comes up and into the bays, there are a couple of clunks and then the lever springs to neutral, along with reassuring lights on the panel. Check all is good with that and then swap hands back.
Time now to reduce to climb power, bring the revs back in line with +6 boost, something like 2600rpm, then slide the throttle and revs back together, gently, to the cruise climb setting and aim for around 180mph. Check the rad flaps, instrumentation, Ts & Ps, weave to see where you’re going and clear off to somewhere quiet. Levelling off the aircraft will build speed quite nicely to something like 210-220mph at the reduced power settings, get her in trim and then….breath.
I am flying a Spitfire. What’s more, I am flying it alone. I check in the mirror to make sure there’s no one in the back; I am here alone. The clouds are perfect aviator’s clouds, puffy little cumulus scattered across the late afternoon autumn sky; what a day to be flying, let alone flying a Spitfire. I weave and roll in amongst the clouds with the Spitfire picking up speed as I lower the nose and seemingly going up forever as I raise it. At aerobatic power settings, which is nowhere near full power, there is plenty of oompf available. In and out of the clouds, diving for the gaps and passing through the valleys, then rolling over the tops, the Spitfire climbs, rolls and dives effortlessly. My battered, bruised and well-read copy of First Light with a letter from Geoffrey Wellum is in my leg pocket and I have a quiet word with him, for it is his book that got me here.
The Spitfire handles beautifully. The rudder is firm, but responsive, the ailerons are responsive, and the elevator is incredibly sensitive. It is, after all, designed to be a turning, dogfighting aircraft and so the ability to turn tightly is fundamental. It can certainly do that, should you need to. Nowadays, the manoeuvring is kept gentle, under 4g, to respect the fact that she is a 75+ year old aircraft. Everything falls nicely to hand inside, and the view is on another level. How can a wing, which is after all just a collection of shaped metal parts, instil such feelings in people? Looking out onto it, with its distinctive elliptical curve, is something I find very hard to describe, but it is such an overpowering feeling. As you pitch and roll the wing moves across the background, your lightest touch commanding it. To look out on that wing, from that cockpit, is a feeling like no other.
Why does the Spitfire generate these feelings? I don’t know. Perhaps it is the fact that it is regarded as having saved the nation in the Battle of Britain. Maybe it is not how it looks but what it represents, that saviour, but also the pinnacle of aviation desire. It could be my family links, knowing that my grandfather flew these very aircraft and so a sense of nostalgia and history. Or, it could be because I have grown up reading about this view, and this aircraft. Reading about stories of those who flew them, like Geoffrey Wellum, and hanging on every word of those descriptions wondering what it would be like for myself. Then, finally, having got the point of experiencing it myself I have found it to be everything that is written about it. Probably those who fly them experience these feelings because they have spent their entire life working towards this point, so there is some sense of satisfaction, of personal pride, even of achievement.
There is only one thing left now, and as I’ve been out longer than I should be, I must return this bird to the ground. Nudging the nose down she picks up speed, even with reduced power. Sweeping low across the airfield and breaking up into the circuit, the trickiest part of the flight is just about to come. And I know full well that the audience will be back out to watch with their scorecards.
Undercarriage down, increase the rpm, then the flaps down, and begin to curve in towards the runway. Into the flare and the view ahead completely disappears, hold off, hold off and then the rumble of the main wheels. Gently back on the stick to ease the tail down and the super-efficient wing that it is, thanks me for the extra mph or two I was carrying, and extra lift as a result, and decides to fly again. What feels like a hundred feet is probably more like one or two and then she settles back down on all three points, gently slowing to taxiing speed and I vacate the runway.
As I taxi back in, my mind is a whirl. Have I really just flown a Spitfire? The answer is definitely yes, but I can’t quite believe it. What an incredible experience, but more importantly, what an honour and a privilege, and one for which I am thankful to every person who has helped me on this journey.