Spitfire for 2

Britain's buzzy little warbird is a joy to fly

August 1, 2004

When Bill Greenwood of Aspen, Colorado, decided to buy a warbird he was a 450-hour Mooney pilot with zero tailwheel time. He realized that with his limited experience, he would need something a little more docile to fly than most warbirds. From his research and conversations with other warbird pilots, he decided the airplane of his dreams would be a Spitfire.

Greenwood located an instructor in Erie, Colorado, and chose to get up to speed on tailwheel flying the way pilots did it in the old days: He found a Piper Cub and practiced until he "could keep the thing on the runway," then moved into a Boeing PT-17 Stearman, where he gained another few hours of experience. Next he climbed aboard a North American T-6 owned by John Hess, where he logged another 15 hours, including several hours in the backseat to simulate the Spitfire's limited view. It was in this round-motored Texan trainer that Hess soloed Greenwood. When finished with his tailwheel transition, Greenwood figures he had about 20 to 30 hours total tailwheel time.

He bought Spitfire TE-308, a Mark IX version built in the spring of 1945 at the Supermarine Aircraft Factory at Castle Bromwich, England. He doesn't think it ever saw combat because of its late manufacture, but it does have some interesting history. This aircraft was the main camera plane for the film Battle of Britain, shot in 1968. Producers mounted a movie camera in the Spitfire's front seat to shoot air-to-air footage and the pilot flew from the rear cockpit. The airplane also appeared on camera in several scenes.

With his new airplane, Greenwood took the final step toward becoming a full-fledged warbird tailwheel pilot by flying with former Navy flier Earl Ketchen, who for years had flown North American P-51s and Corsairs for the Tired Iron Racing Team at Reno. They flew 20 hours together in Greenwood's Spitfire before Ketchen let him solo it at Dalhart, Texas, on the way back from an airshow. Greenwood describes that first flight alone in his Spitfire, "I had the feeling that I was soaring...a feeling of buoyancy...." That was almost 20 years ago.

Greenwood's aircraft was one of about 20 Spitfires chosen in 1950 and 1951 for conversion to the two-place trainer configuration. It was probably picked because it was such a low-time (almost new, in fact) airframe. The Supermarine factory at Southampton, England, moved the front cockpit forward 13.5 inches, installed a full set of controls and instruments in the rear, removed one of the fuselage tanks, and installed four small fuel tanks in each wing, reducing the total fuel capacity from 168 to 108 gallons. You can do everything in the back of the two-place Spitfire except start it and talk on the radio.

A Spitfire for You

Historic Flying Ltd. (HFL), located at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford Airfield near Cambridge, England, will build an "as new" or, as they call it, a "zero-time" Spitfire especially for you. Their British craftsmen begin with either a former gate guardian (those aircraft ignominiously impaled on poles at the entrance to many airports) or some other incomplete, tired, or wrecked airframe and rebuild the machine from spinner to rudder post with original parts if possible, or new parts — which they manufacture in house — when original ones cannot be found or are too far gone to install on the aircraft. The company prides itself on authenticity and attention to detail, integrating modern materials and equipment only when safety is improved by doing so. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engines on these aircraft are overhauled in the United States at Universal Airmotive near Chicago.

HFL was formed in 1988 to rescue some of the many gate guardians that dotted the United Kingdom countryside, offering fiberglass replicas in return for these rare flying machines that rightly belong in the sky, not on a stick. The company's first restored aircraft flew in 1992 and it has put 11 Spitfires back into the skies since. Two more are currently in progress. The price for one of these like-new Spitfires is just south of $2 million U.S. — MMC

Six of the 20 converted Tr.9 Spitfires went to the Irish Air Corps, including Greenwood's aircraft. It was owned by the Irish until being purchased by N.W. Samuelson for the movie in 1967. Ironic that this quintessential British airplane was bought from the rival Irish for a movie about "Britain's finest hour." Also interesting is the fact that the Brits never used two-place Spitfires to train their own pilots.

Supermarine built 24 Marks or models of landplane Spitfires and five or six models of the folding-wing, tailhook-equipped, carrier-based variation called Seafires. All told, about 20,000 Spitfires and 3,000 Seafires were manufactured. Originally delivered with a Rolls-Royce Merlin 70, Greenwood's aircraft now has a high-altitude-optimized Merlin 76 engine, which is more commonly found on the de Havilland Mosquito bomber. With its two 20 mm Hispano cannons and four Browning 303 machine guns, the armament on this aircraft is just as it was in the war, though the guns have been rendered inoperative.

As with all of these aging beauties, maintenance is an issue. "You never have everything working just right with these old airplanes," Greenwood admits. Ray Middleton, a likeable Brit who owns QG Aviation at Fort Collins, Colorado, has taken loving care of Greenwood's Spitfire since he bought it — and before: Middleton maintained it for the previous owners, Don Plumb of Canada and Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM fame, who kept the airplane in Maine's Owl's Head Transportation Museum during his ownership.

If you ask Greenwood how much money it takes to keep a Spitfire in the air, he quotes aviation writer Gordon Baxter, who, when asked the same question about his Mooney, replied dryly, "Well, all of it, of course."

"It takes three times as long and twice as much money to do most things," Greenwood laments. "But it's something you love. Most years it takes at least 25 grand to keep it running, and some years it's closer to a hundred grand." He admits that he spent more than $47,500 10 years ago to do a "light overhaul" on his engine, but just loves the Rolls-Royce Merlin. "It's the finest engine ever made...." Gear legs are getting tough to find, as are cowl fasteners. Surprisingly, though, Spitfire prop blades still can be bought new — and they're cheaper than Mustang blades. In this nether world of warbird maintenance, "cheaper" is all relative. Greenwood is entertaining the idea of finding a partner to share his beloved Spit.

Your first impression of the Spitfire's cockpit is that the pilots who flew it in the 1940s surely must have been smaller than today's average Yank — it's tight! The Mustang cockpit is much larger and the Corsair's is like a living room by comparison.

The only way out of the Spitfire's rear cockpit is with a small canopy crank; if that doesn't work, you have a nifty 18-inch crowbar clipped conveniently to the cockpit sidewall for prying your way out of the wreckage.

These water-cooled Spitfires can get hot on the ground because the radiators are outboard of the prop blast and behind the gear; on our first flight, temperatures were in the low 40s and the Merlin was quite happy during taxi out and runup. But on a summer day at Oshkosh, with temperatures nearing three digits, Greenwood says the airplane has about 15 minutes on the deck before it gets too hot to fly. When airborne, lowering gear or flaps makes coolant temperatures rise because of the reduced airflow, requiring a bit of planning.

I sure wondered about ground manners when I first walked around the Spitfire and inspected the narrow, pigeon-toed gear, but my fears were unfounded. Taxiing is accomplished via hand-operated airbrakes, like many British and Eastern European aircraft; I've flown a Yak and a MiG with similar arrangements and found them odd only for the first few minutes. The idea is to add rudder pedal in the direction of the desired braking, then squeeze the hand brake (mounted on the spade atop the control stick) to direct air pressure to the side you want to slow or stop. There is neither lock nor steering on the tailwheel; but the rudder is rather large and you can steer the airplane on the ground, though lethargically, at around 20 knots.

The two-place Spitfire is blind as a bat from the rear cockpit, somewhat better from the front, though that long Merlin V-12 is a formidable hiding place for people, cars, and even small hangars. I've flown many taildraggers considered blind, but the backseat of this one certainly is near the top of the list: The combination of high instrument panel, low seating position, canopy frames, and fuselage structure between the two cockpits makes for very little forward visibility. The seat is vertically adjustable, but you need to leave it a couple of notches below max elevation or it will prevent you from getting the canopy opened.

No flaps are used for takeoff. When you unleash the Merlin's 1,710 horses, noise level is industrial strength. But the aircraft does not dart or require extraordinary pilot skill to keep it straight. The Spitfire flies off tail low at about 60 knots; climbing at around 140 knots provides tolerable visibility. You retract the gear by switching hands, pushing down on the gear handle, then pulling up and forward momentarily until the red "up" light in the center top of the panel goes out.

On one departure, Greenwood pushed the power to 12 pounds of boost and the airplane shot upward at 4,000 fpm. Pretty impressive for a nearly 60-year-old airplane at a density altitude of more than 7,000 feet. Max is 18 pounds of boost.

The Spitfire is a delight to fly. The controls are lighter than a Mustang in all axes, especially as you increase speed and controls stiffen. Elevator stick force per G is a little light and felt slightly divergent in pitch with my 175 pounds in the backseat. Greenwood's center-of-gravity limit for the rear occupant is 185 pounds plus parachute; but even with my lighter weight, the airplane is a handful to fly in formation in light turbulence because of the pitch sensitivity. Greenwood says it flies much nicer solo. I offered to verify that — for the sake of thorough journalism, of course.

The Spitfire's rudder is very effective, though not much of it is ever required. You roll a Spitfire with a four-inch spade ring mounted atop the control column, not by throwing the stick left or right. The reason? Only three fingers fit between my thighs and the fuselage side frames in the tight cockpit — not enough room for stick throw. This makes for a heavier feel because you roll the aircraft with your wrist instead of your forearm. Fore-aft stick movement for pitch changes is conventional.

The wing's the thing on a Spitfire. Not only is the elliptical shape sensual — you really notice it when you turn and sight up or down that beautiful span — but also it is one of the most amazing turning wings I've ever had the pleasure to fly. In a dogfight, the Spitfire can nearly turn up its own tailpipe without unloading or stalling. Amazing.

These amazing aerodynamic qualities are even more remarkable when you consider that the prototype Spitfire first flew in 1936, a mere 30 years or so after we first flew powered airplanes, long before computers were invented, and long before much of today's "common knowledge" about wing design was discovered. Here is a fighter that could engage the enemy at 300-plus knots, was capable of a maximum speed of Mach 0.85, yet could land comfortably in sod fields at 80 knots or less. This aeronautical feat is quite a tribute to R.J. Mitchell, the Spitfire's chief designer. Greenwood's fuselage is marked RJM in Mitchell's honor.

Slowing in the pattern is similar to most clean airplanes: You need to think ahead, especially since the landing gear and flap speeds are both 136 knots. The Merlin is rather unhappy at low power settings, and will shake and rattle rather enthusiastically if the throttle is pulled too far aft.

When you get the gear locked down, two wooden spatulas appear in the tops of the wings to confirm what the large green "down" light says in the top of the panel; the tail gear does not retract. Flap application — they're either full up or full down — initially pitches the airplane abruptly down, yet requires very little compensating elevator pressure or trim change.

Over the fence at 80 knots and touchdown at 60 is very comfortable and you have plenty of rudder authority to stop any crosswind excursions on rollout, though Greenwood prefers to limit his exposure to crosswinds less than 15 knots. Because of the stellar low-speed characteristics of this beautiful wing, landings are gentle three-point affairs, and the Spitfire has no interest in sniffing lights along the sides of the runway. It's a real friendly taildragger that any Citabria pilot could adapt to and fly easily after several hours of getting used to the higher power and wing loading.

On cross-country flights Greenwood commonly flies 350-nm legs, cruising around 11,000 or 12,000 feet at a leisurely 215 knots burning 47 to 52 gph; that makes for about 1.5-hour legs with comfortable reserves. With 108 gallons of fuel one has to plan cross-countries carefully. Greenwood has a 60-gallon drop tank for the aircraft but uses it very little since he's become more comfortable with crosswinds at small en route airports. He puts 50 to 75 hours on his Spitfire each year.

There are only five or six of these fine Spitfires-built-for-two left in the world, though the number of single-place airplanes is increasing as restorers create complete airplanes from wrecks, gate guardians, and parts. An English company, Historic Flying Ltd., is even building "zero-time" Spitfires for the well-heeled. (See " A Spitfire for You," this page.)

Ford builds Jaguars at the factory in England where these proud airplanes were once turned out by the thousands; the nearby airstrip has long since been paved over and houses are built on the land. Oh, to have been a young British fighter pilot in those good old days.... Bill Greenwood, Spitfire owner and former Mooney pilot, lives that dream just by going out to the airport.

Michael Maya Charles, AOPA 1082652, of Erie, Colorado, is president of Air Safety Experts, Inc. ( www.artfulflying.com). He is a full-time airline pilot with more than 30 years of experience as a pilot, aviation department manager, and mechanic.