A few words on flying the Spitfire:


Okay, let me rephrase that: a few inarticulate syllables on flying the Spitfire. There’s no way I’m going to be able to unpack today’s events into a coherent blog post, so I’ll bounce around. Bear with me.

I’ll skip the part about Bing and Al and I shooting the breeze last night in the pub. Suffice it to say that they’re wonderful, wonderful people; I’m honored to have them shepherding me through this training, and look forward to staying in touch with them as friends.

I’ll skip the part about the hours of systems training with Bing this morning. Pore through the diagrams, then go out to look at one of the uncowled Spits to trace the actual plumbing, then back in to make sense of it. I will say that when I explained my understanding of the undercarriage lock pin rotation to him, he looked startled: “You’ve described it exactly – either you’re very clever or you’ve gone mad.”

I won’t describe the intense, overwhelming feeling of butterflies in my stomach as Al and I strapped in and Bing handed me my helmet (“You okay?” I couldn’t tell him I was close to throwing up from nervousness. “Yeah, fine. Fine.”)

I’ll start from the moment that Al pushed the power forward to 6″ of boost and we bounced and bounded across the grass at Duxford and launched into the sky in an earshattering clatter of pistons and prop tips. Gear up (handle down, one, two, then forward three, four, wait for the lever to pop, then switch hands back to the stick), boost off, carb flap and radiator flap to flight position. One wing low turning north to crosswind, then “All right, Pablo – you’ve got the controls. Climb at 180 and enjoy.”

The noise really is deafening, even through the helmet. The squelch on the intercom is crap too, which doesn’t help. I have to ask him for confirmation that I’m actually flying the plane, but when I wiggle the stick and the plane leaps in response, I don’t feel any resistance. Holy…

“Hang on – I’ve got the controls. Follow me through.” I’m sure I’ve done something wrong, but then I spy the traffic Tower’s called for us. The other Spit flying that morning is inbound, and has broken off its approach to try and jump us.

Al’s pulled the power back, so I can hear him now. “Oh, this is too easy – he’s got way too much overtake.” RATS, it turns out, is a helicopter pilot, and has underestimated his total energy trying to come around us in a descending turn. Al converts our speed to altitude and reverses sharply in a wingover. Five seconds later, RATS is pinned as squarely in our sights as a moth on a collector’s table. Al calls out the obligatory shot and breaks off – he’s not a man to rub his fighter pilot experience in the face of a fellow instructor.

My brain is still trailing about 30 seconds behind all of this, just now reaching the God-I-wish-I-had-a-camera-there stage when Al hands the controls back to me. But there’ll be other camera opportunities – Al didn’t want me to be distracted from the experience of my first Spitfire flight.

The sky, after weeks of rain, has opened up into a storybook blue, laced with tufts of late morning cumulus. Looks just like a James Dietz painting. After a couple of Dutch rolls to demonstrate the plane’s yaw (omigodomigodI’mflyingaSpitfire) Al tells me to aim for one of the open patches and climb on up to 5000′.

I ask if I can do some steep turns (“Sure – whatever you want.”) and I haul it on over to 60 degrees. It comes over immediately. There’s no hesitation, and practically no force on the stick – it just comes over. Just like that. I tug a bit to bring us around, and suddenly my head and arms are heavy. It takes a few seconds in my insta-groggy state to realize that we’re pulling upwards of three G’s. But I just…? I remember flight manual: “neutral stability, very light on the controls.” You just think about which way you want it to go, and it’ll slam you into the seat in its haste to get there. Not even the Pitts felt like this.

Al wants to demonstrate wingovers. He warns me “These aren’t the mild ones they teach you back in the US.” I contemplate telling him not to worry, that I’m used to doing them far more than the 30 degree lazy 8’s specified in the US Practical Test Standards. But I hold my tongue, and I’m glad I do.

“Up we go,” he narrates, “feet in the sky, then roll to around 120 degrees and pull to maintain 1G positive.” I look up at the neat little fields of Cambridgeshire above my head, then we pivot and are pointed at the ground again, diving past 220 mph in a graceful, swooping recovery. I’m speechless.

“Now you do one.”

It takes a couple of times before I get it right, but right side up will never be so fun again.

Al talks me through a couple of loops and rolls, but the Gs are getting to me, and it’s time to return for some demonstration landings.

Okay. I don’t think I’m going to talk about the landings. He demonstrated a few, and I tried a few. He had kind words for my freshman effort and called my last two landings “good”. But I didn’t have the heart to ask if that was in the traditional pilot sense of “any landing you can walk away from”.

Tomorrow, we’re going to do it again. Three sorties, if I can last that long. And I promise – on at least one of them, I’ll bring along a camera.

[Okay, that’s enough writing for today. I am so wiped out.]

BTW: not me, below, but RATS taking off a little earlier in the other Spitfire:

3 responses to “Inarticulate

  1. What does RATS stand for? Did I miss something, or is it a jargony thing?(While I'm willing to cop to this one, in general I'm ever so grateful that there's no way for a blogger to track the Google searches inspired by any given post post…)


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