Spitfire solo

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Spitfire’s first flight, so we followed one private jet pilot on his quest to solo in this iconic aircraft

By Matt JonesThe Spitfire is to me a beautiful piece of engineering, an incredibly powerful machine and an aircraft imbued with emotion of the times it lived, and fought in and the victories it enabled. I never really considered it a possibility that I might ever get the opportunity to actually fly one. The most I imagined was that I might one dayget the chance to sit in the back for twenty minutes or so – if I were very fortunate.Well now, thanks to my employer, Steve Brooks – a man who has given me so many opportunities that I can’t really begin to thank him enough – I have been much more than just very fortunate.

Last year, Steve asked me to learn to fly the company-owned Spitfire (as he too intends to do at a later date) explaining that he felt it very important for the younger generation to gain the skills required to ensure that these aircraft can continue to be flown for many years to come. Steve believes today’s Spitfire owners are merely very privileged custodians who must do what they can to continue to keep this legacy of our heritage alive for future generations.

First read the manual

In preparation for training I read The Compleat Taildragger Pilot by Harvey S Plourde, Conventional Gear by David Robson, and Haynes’ recent Spitfire ‘workshop manual’. My training started in earnest with John Hart at Filton, Bristol, where the aircraft was then maintained by The Aerial Museum, who took a great deal of time over a period of weeks explaining the different systems on the aircraft, how they worked, where they were located and what they looked like.

John put me in contact with Russell Eatwell as a suggested Instructor. Russ had been the head of Fixed Wing Standards in the Navy, having most notably had a tour in and then instructed on the Sea Harrier. At the same time he was heavily involved in the RN Historic Flight at Yeovilton, where he flew the Sea Hawk and the Swordfish. On leaving the Navy Russ flew Rolls-Royce’s Spitfire XIX until its rebuild commenced last year.

Russ structured a two-week intensive training course for me at RNAS Yeovilton, where we used Chipmunk G-BARS to brush up on my tailwheel skills – I had approximately 30 hours of tailwheel experience prior to starting this course and about 3,000hr total time, fixed-wing ? before converting to the ‘Piston’ Provost G-MOOS, a heavier and more powerful type. During this time, I also had an introduction to aerobatics and formation flying as well as the obligatory circuit-bashing in all conditions. I made landings on hard and grass runways, and ultimately worked up to the famous Spitfire Curved Approach (SCA). Russ also arranged for me to fly with, and receive instruction from some other very notable display pilots during this time, namely John Beattie and Dave Mackay. I owe a great debt to CO Mike Abbey and everyone involved with the RN Historic Flight for all their kindness and help.

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The next step was three short acclimatisation flights in the rear of the Spitfire with Russ in the front. The first of these was my first ever flight in a Spitfire and was the fulfilment of a dream in itself. I couldn’t stop smiling. The idea of these flights was to get used to the noises the aircraft makes (mostly due to the pneumatic system which operates the flaps and brakes) and the sound of the Merlin itself, as it roars into action.

A lesson learnedThen came another highlight, my first day in the front seat. I had quite a moment when we first got airborne from Kemble, looking down the nose of the aircraft, seeing the twelve exhaust ports of the 1,750hp V12 Merlin engine, glancing left and right to see the elliptical shape of the wing tips that makes the Spitfire so identifiable as the country’s best-loved aircraft. I could hardly believe that it was all happening ? and happening to me!

Russ took me to the practice area at 5,000ft where he demonstrated the effect of the torque reaction and why we have to be so careful in managing the incredible power of this machine. We started with basic clean and configured stalls and the aircraft seemed to have no vices in these scenarios, needing only a moderate application of power for the recovery.

In the preflight brief we had discussed at length the manoeuvres we were to undertake but nothing prepared me for the aircraft’s reaction in the ‘base to finals’ stall, the aircraft rolling suddenly to the left (with the torque) from a right turn. I have to be honest; this really scared me. Lesson learnt with great effect: Don’t get slow, and add power very, very carefully. It is also worth noting that this all happened at a ‘recovery’ power setting of four inches of boost, out of a possible sixteen inches – wow!

Then it was back to the circuit for approaches and landing demonstrations followed by my own attempts. In our next flights we spent a great deal of time in the airport vicinity learning about the required path around the circuit, with me experiencing the Spitfire’s curved approach and then trying to replicate it. We also covered practice force landings and glide approaches. Here I was again surprised, this time at the rate of descent following an engine failure. At 135mph – the best glide speed – you’ll lose1,500ft in a 180 degree turn. So not many options in the circuit, and one reason why we kept in so close.

As Filton closed at weekends from the beginning of August, we spent quite a lot of time training at Kemble, where we were extremely well looked after by Brian Jones and his team at Aeronautics/Delta Jets. On 2 September I met Russ for another day of flying, and having seen a bottle of champagne in the back of his car I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps today was going to be the day. We flew to Oxford (where the aircraft will eventually be based) and did four circuits.

On completion of the last one, Russ asked me to take him back to Kemble as he suddenly ‘wasn’t feeling too good’. Oh well, not today then, I mused. On the flight back, I asked if he was okay but only received polite but short answers from him. It was only on engine shutdown that he gave me the news – nothing wrong with him at all! So minutes later, there I was with the motor running, this time alone in the aircraft. Russ’ brief was one circuit at 1,000ft, one low approach to go around and one landing. And that’s exactly what I did.

On getting airborne, at first I just couldn’t stop grinning. Here I was in a Supermarine Spitfire in the air on my own. Amazing! And the smile only got bigger once I’d put it back down on the ground again… in one piece.

There had been an event held in the Aeronautics hangar that day and there were probably sixty people still there at the time I undertook this flight – no pressure then – all of whom were there to share my excitement. They’d even persuaded the brass band to stay to play me in. I was really emotional – full of joy – a truly incredible experience.

The "Merlin concerto"As this great event in my flying career took place during the RAF’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I couldn’t help but reflect on the big difference between my training and that of a wartime pilot. Our aims were of course so different: my objective is to be able to demonstrate a Spitfire, a valuable historical artifact and to be trained to a level that as far as possible guarantees its preservation. Back in 1940 the young pilots were rapidly learning to fly and fight with the Spitfire to defend our skies from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe.

In 2010, having 3,000 flying hours, with 65 hours of tailwheel time, I am currently considered a very low-time Spitfire pilot. By contrast the very young combat pilots of WWII were heading into battle with as little as 40 hours flying in their logbooks of which only ten were likely to be in the Spitfire.… and I have heard unsubstantiated but very believable stories of even less!

With the training I’ve had now, I can’t begin to understand the rate of learning those wartime pilots were expected to attain – and remember of course that I’m currently only permitted to take off, transit and land. In that time they’d have had aerobatic, formation and combat training too. I doff my cap to their ability and fearlessness and thank them for their bravery. A remarkable and quite unbelievable achievement.

One thing that’s not surprising whilst flying this aircraft is the attention it draws wherever you take it. When you are on the ground, there are people with cameras everywhere. When it’s in the air, people stand still and look to the skies, and car drivers pull to the side of the road to steal a glimpse – and of course to enjoy hearing the Merlin concerto that is its heart.

One man recently had a photo taken in front of the aircraft while holding its propeller and later told me that it had been his dream just to be that close to a Spitfire, but that he had not thought it would ever happen. Reactions such as these to this all underline what I already know: how lucky I’ve been and what an immense honour it is to be involved at this level. The next step I am aiming for is a CAA Display Authorisation for low-level flypasts. After this I’ll start the training that will eventually allow me to fly in formation and to fly aerobatics for the purpose of displaying the aircraft. I just can’t wait to get going.