what's it like to fly the Spitfire MkIX?

By Maj James Feuilherade

Here are my thoughts on flying the Spitfire MkIX of the South African Air Force Museum historic flight when posted to the SAAF Museum in 1999.

The South African Air Force Museum’s example was a Spitfire Mk IX LF or otherwise called the Spitfire Mk XVI when fitted with a Packard built Merlin engine.

The aircraft is basically a MkIX with the teardrop type canopy and the “clipped” wing tips, which many Spitfires had during the war. The clipped wing tips gave a better roll rate up to approx 20 000 Ft, although at those sorts of altitudes, rate of turn was reduced compared to the full elliptical wing. Most Spitfires used in a ground attack roll had the clipped tips for better low-level manoeuvrability. The clipped tips are workmanlike, but not as beautiful as the full elliptical wing, in my view. 

The “teardrop” canopy is interesting, as the canopy was tried out early in the war, and received very favourable comments from test pilots as to a much better all-round view from the cockpit. However, for some reason, it was only adopted towards the end of the war. Some people like the iconic Duxford commentator and ex WWII Spitfire XVI pilot Raymond Baxter, say this Mk of Spitfire was the ultimate as it still had the great handling of the MkIX, with the improved bubble canopy and the high rate of roll with the clipped tips. It was thought by many pilots that after the MkIX, the Spit started to get a bit too powerful and too heavy, causing some of the sweet handling characteristics to be lost. I think Alex Henshaw the famous Supermarine test pilot felt so. However, Jeffry Quill another famous Spitfire test pilot, found he actually favoured the hairy chested Mk XIV.

Our Spit was built at Castle Bromwich in 1945 and was part of a donation of 136 Spitfires given to the SAAF after the war for pilot weapons and air combat training. The SAAF Spits were used for weapons training, flying from Langebaanweg, to train pilots who went to the Korean War, to fly Mustangs and later F86 Sabres. The Spitfires were finally withdrawn from the SAAF service in 1954.

As to flying the aircraft, well what can I say? 

There are so many clichés, like “you become a part of the machine”, or “you just think of turning and it turns”, and “The aircraft becomes an extension of your own arms and legs” is another. Having flown the aircraft I can only say those clichés are true. 

To fly the Spitfire was the chance of a lifetime for me, having always been a diehard Spitfire and WW II aircraft enthusiast and modeller, from an early age. In this description, I have tried to tell of technical quirks and details of the Spitfire, that I have not normally seen in articles on the Spitfire.

You don’t sleep much the night before your first flight!! Our aircraft always started easily if primed correctly, I recall whilst looking out over the nose on starting, as the prop slowly turned on the starter motor. How huge the propeller blades looked. As she cranks, you also watched for an over prime by looking for flames along the exhausts. If this happened, you needed to keep the starter going. I overprimed it only once and spent an anxious few moments watching a horrible amount of fire, dancing about the cowlings, until she fired up, instantly blowing the flames away. I was used to clouds of smoke and the deep gentle burble of the Harvard on startup. 

This Merlin, if primed correctly, suddenly settles to an idle, sounding like a 1960’s V12 Formula one race car, a sort of crackle. At idle you can hear the clatter of the propeller reduction gearbox. Always a thrill. The aircraft has no steerable tail wheel and turns are done by using full rudder and differential braking.

The brakes are air operated and if used on the ground with the engine off, a loud hissing is heard which sounds, unheard with the engine running but sounding like mad Green Mamba’s, with the engine off on the ground. The brakes are also controlled by a little bicycle type lever on the control column spade grip. It sounds strange, but it works quite well. Brakes, flaps and radiator shutters are powered by compressed air. A small compressor, driven by the camshaft at the rear of the LHS cylinder bank pressurizes the system. The park brake is applied by squeezing the lever and then applying a little catch at the rear of the spade grip, locking the lever in place. Nice and easy. 

After a gentle power check, (open the throttle too much on the ground, and she can go over on her nose) of L&R mag’ switches and a quick cycle of the propeller pitch, allowing the revs to not fall below 180RPM, you are ready to go. The aircraft is actually quite simple and there are not a lot of systems to check. It’s important to have the radiators set fully open, and the rudder trim set fully nose right! On the runway, you can tilt your head sideways with the canopy open and see quite adequately past the long nose.

Opening the throttle, the aircraft accelerates very quickly, even at only a +6 to +8 pounds/Sq inch boost, which is just over half throttle. War emergency boost would go to about +18 boost. You have good directional and pitch control due to the slipstream over the tail. A tiny forward pressure on the stick gets the tail just off the ground, and the propeller spinner is easily held on the horizon. You can actually see a little of the top of the Spinner from the cockpit and this is easily held on the horizon during the takeoff.

Maintain this attitude and at 100 MPH, she lifts very smoothly off the ground. The Undercarriage is now raised by a quick hand swap from the throttle to stick, hoping you have the throttle friction on tight otherwise your hands will become a blur as she throttles back! The U/C lever on the RHS of the cockpit is moved down and out of the gate and holding it for a short pause to ensure the hydraulic system is pressurised. (When the lever is in the gate, either up or down, the system is idle and is not pressurised by the engine-driven pump). This is a bit tricky, as moving the lever too soon or too fast, can leave you with a partial retraction and with an undercarriage leg blocking the radiator intakes! Luckily this happened to me only once. 

The cure is to take the lever out the gate and hold it against the ‘up’ position. This should cause the gear to re-energise, continuing the ‘up’ cycle. Small metal hoops are visible located 2/3 way up the U/C legs. These engage in locking pins which have an angled end and are rotated by small cables and chains attached to the gear selector quadrant. The pins rotate so the angled face of the locking pins is presented to the travelling gear in the correct sense, they are then pushed back by the cycling U/C legs, snapping back into place, to lock the gear. 

These chains and cables, also visible in the wheel bay, are checked carefully pre-flight. If one broke, the locking pin would not rotate and you have no way of getting that gear leg down. To raise the U/C, you also experience your first taste of infamous British aircraft ergonomics! The U/C selector lever is on the RHS of the cockpit, so you have to change hands on the stick. You will soon learn if you’ve forgotten to set the throttle friction because if not, it will instantly close at this point, to idle, at a critical stage of the takeoff!

As the Spit accelerates further, coolant radiators are set to automatic, the canopy is closed and then you notice a rapidly growing pressure on your left leg as you try to counter that full right nose rudder trim setting! A few turns of the highly geared small rudder trim wheel sorts that out. I once decided to leave the rudder trim to see if I could override it, in the event of a trim failure. The rudder pedal pressure built up rapidly against my braced leg, pushing me up the seat, despite a tight harness. I very quickly wound the trim off!

Finally, you start to get your breath back and you can now devote more attention to how the aircraft flies. I remember watching a video on the Battle of Britain, and in the video a wartime Spit pilot Pete Brothers said the Spitfire seemed to read your mind and turn and do things without you seeming to actually do it with the stick. At the time I thought these were the quaint reminisces of an old warhorse, but after flying the aircraft I realised he was dead right. You do ‘just think of turning’, and she does it.

Basically, the Spitfire has no vices and it really is, very pleasant and easy to fly. The controls are so light and powerful, that it feels as though your hand is hardly moving on the stick if you throw the aircraft around. I am quite convinced that is why the Spit was so good in combat, as you can fly it to the limits all day, without your arm getting tired. Even at speed, you can hold it at a max rate turn on the light buffet, with a gentle two fingered pull on the stick. As a comparison, at the end of my instructor’s course in the SAAF, we practised aerobatics in a Harvard for a few days in a row, for the end of course aerobatics competition. After a few days, my arm was sore! You think you are maintaining pressure on the stick, but involuntarily, your arm relaxes. Remember this was also in a Harvard, which handled pretty well compared to most general aviation aircraft. This is one reason the Spitfire was considered effortless to fly. The “broken” stick (only the top part moves for roll control), also works well, as your arm is not moving all over the cockpit. With the clipped tips the roll rate is brilliant. My display routine involved a pass down the crowd line at about 300 Ft AGL, where I would do a straight roll. With a ghost of an upward pitch, check, and stick hard over, she rolled rapidly through 360 Deg. Out front, the nose stayed planted rolling on the reference point, with no yaw divergence. I’ve mentioned the rudder earlier but to add, it is extremely powerful indeed and requires very little use once she’s up and running. Both elevator and rudder trim are powerful and require small trim wheel movements to adjust. The rudder trim is a smaller wheel than the elevator trim wheel, which is slightly lower and further back.

The aircraft has very gentle stall characteristics, with no wing drop tendency. You get a nice buzz on the stick as you approach the stall giving you plenty of warning, and enabling accurate holding of a turn on the buffet (ie: max rate). 

The aircraft really does feel like a willing participant in the air and you instinctively know it will always give its best for you. I can understand now, how pilots grew to love it so much. 

Being able to out turn from under the guns of a 109 or FW 190, well you sure will get to love an aeroplane like that! At low power settings, the engine is actually remarkably quiet, but as you open the throttle into + boost settings, there is a wonderful growling that starts coming from under the rudder pedals upfront.

It is quite a sight in flight, looking out over that long elegant nose. The downward view is poor, as you are sitting almost directly above that broad elliptical wing. Once on an approach to Waterkloof, I was undershooting, plus the ROD had increased, which had all been slightly masked by those broad wings. I remember being a little surprised at the amount of throttle I needed to correct that.

Well after this, comes the other very important part, getting it on the ground and stopped, in one piece! After setting up on downwind, brake pressure is checked on the gauge (You want about 250 to 300 PSI), below 160 MPH, the U/C is lowered carrying out the same measured use of the lever. A push on the mixture leaver, to confirm it is set at ‘Auto Rich’, fuel booster pump on, prop pitch set fully fine, radiator set to open. and open the canopy. As you turn final, the U/C down indicator is rechecked and the throttle is briefly closed, to check the U/C up warning hooter is silent. This was always fun as with the canopy open and the throttle closed, the backfiring exhaust stubs sounded like 12 gauge shotguns going off in front of you! 

Then you selected flaps down. The Spit has only two flap settings, up or down to 64 deg. With the split flaps going down, the Spit pitches noticeably nose down improving your view and making speed control on finals relatively easy. This was fun as later on with experience, I could set a trickle of throttle, flying a ‘tight-ish’ base leg, then when I got to the point of TLAR (an RAF highly technical term meaning ‘That Looks About Right’), I would select flap, she would pitch nose down into a lovely curved approach to the runway, normally needing no further throttle adjustment. I was able to do this after only about 7-8 hours on the aircraft, the point being that’s what the Spitfire is like!

A quick check on air pressure to see if the flap system is not leaking. As mentioned the flaps are also operated off the air pressure system, they are held in the open position against aerodynamic load, by air pressure. So, if you lose air pressure because of a leak in the flap system, the stored air pressure in the compressed air tanks will rapidly leak and can easily exceed the small engine driven air compressor’s ability, to restore the pressure. In this situation, you will eventually have the flaps blow back. 

You will also have no air pressure to operate the brakes on landing. Coming in over the fence to cross the threshold at approx 100 MPH, I found the aircraft is easily landed by a slight hold off and touched down on the main wheels, with the tail wheel about a foot off the ground. The view is still adequate over the nose in this attitude and directional control is good. 

Now comes the only tricky part about flying the Spitfire. After lowering the tail to the ground, you have to be positive and quick with rudder inputs, as with no steerable tail wheel and no slipstream over the rudder (throttle closed), you have to be positive on the rudder to keep her straight. With that narrow track undercarriage, any swing must be stopped quickly, or it could fast develop into a ground loop. I never landed in a heavy crosswind, and I’m glad!

Braking to help directional control can be used but with caution as brake application depended on rudder pedal position and I found the brakes could be a bit ‘snatchy’. They are also operated by airbags, a system so beloved by the Brits! I was always worried about bursting one, so used very little brake at Swartkop, I would normally let her roll to the end, by which time we were almost at taxi speed…Losing a brake, even at low speed would be bad news as with no steerable tailwheel, not enough speed for rudder effectiveness, you would be powerless to stop a slow ground loop. However, even a slow ground loop would probably end up with the Spitfire on her nose and a very expensive propeller turned into matchwood! (Yes the propeller was made of wood!) 

Taxing back is straightforward, but an eye must be kept on the radiator temps as the landing flaps restrict airflow through the radiators. I would normally pick the flaps up immediately on clearing the runway, because of this. In fact, a wary eye is constantly kept on radiator temps in flight as the engine will overheat quickly if something goes wrong with the coolant system. In most aircraft, oil pressure and oil temp are closely watched. In the Spitfire, the coolant temperature is the one you watched! Speaking of the flaps, as I mentioned they are held down by air pressure, against aerodynamic load in flight. 

On the ground, they are held down against spring tension. Little metal flaps pop up near the trailing edge of the wing, indicating they are down. In flight, however, as I mentioned earlier, you would have to be unconscious not to notice the trim change, when the flaps extended. On the ground, with the engine off, they will still deploy, if there is still compressed air in the system. If you then select them to up, the compressed air holding them down is vented at the flap selector lever, making a mad hissing! Quite funny, and gets some surprised reactions from onlookers!

Once parked, throttle back at idle, a quick deadcut mag check is done. Finally, the mixture control is moved to ‘idle cutoff’ and the engine shuts down with a final pop and crackle. After all that you can finally relax and feel very relieved to have brought it back without bending it, and as a result, becoming the most hated pilot in the land!! It was a SAAF career highlight and an unforgettable experience to fly a Spitfire. An experience for which I will always be grateful to the SAAF indeed!

No doubt some modern aircraft handle as well, if not better than the Spitfire. However, considering when it was designed, its amazing beauty, despite its lethal function and the colossal history it nobly shoulders, it will always hold a special place in aviation. Long may those cherished examples in private ownership today continue to fly.