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Flying the Chippie

The ‘poor man’s Spitfire’

Pilots who know vintage warbirds often remark how the de Havilland Chipmunk feels like a fighter from days gone by. “It sounds and smells like a fighter plane from World War II,” says Damian DelGaizo.

Chippie Flying

Photography by David Tulis You too can fly a (poor man’s) Spitfire off the grass at Andover, New Jersey—it’s almost like a Royal Air Force airfield. The Chipmunk sports a tapered wing, the recognizable de Havilland empennage. The Chipmunk has a narrow fuselage that mimics a World War II fighter.

"Climbing in is like a vintage fighter, too. You slide back the canopy and wriggle yourself into the narrow cockpit.” DelGaizo should know, since his New Jersey flight school is home to the only Chipmunk in the United States available for flight training, or perhaps a “pretend it’s the Battle of Britain” flight. Rat-a-tat-tat! Fans of the little British/Canadian military trainer often call it “the poor man’s Spitfire.”

“I like that it’s a sensory experience, with the sound, smell, and feel from the World War II era. There is a reason why they call it the ‘Poor Man’s Spitfire,’” says Bundock.David Bundock is an airline pilot and Chipmunk owner.The DHC–1 Chipmunk is a tandem, two-seat, single-engine, tailwheel military trainer designed and built by de Havilland Canada, a subsidiary of the famed British aircraft manufacturer. It was developed after World War II as a replacement for the 1930s DH.82 Tiger Moth biplane, which had been the British primary trainer for decades and was by then long outdated.

The Chipmunk was designed by a Polish immigrant, Wsiewolod J. Jakimiuk, who had designed military and civil aircraft in Poland before the war. He and many Polish aeronautical engineers fled through France to England at the war’s outbreak in 1939. Geoffrey de Havilland sent him to Canada to head their engineering department. In mid-1945, Jakimiuk was asked to design a replacement trainer around the de Havilland Gipsy Major engine.

Chippie details

The distinctive curve of the vertical stabilizer is a signature of many de Havilland designs. This British-built Chipmunk wears the Canadian maple leaf. The Chipmunk’s British engine is inverted, with the cylinders facing downward. This Chipmunk’s Gipsy Major is not very dripsy, but when oil is needed there’s a plentiful reserve.

The Chipmunk

During development, the trainer was often simply referred to as the Jakimiuk. One day at a production meeting, de Havilland Canada managing director, Phil Garratt, suggested the name “Chipmunk.” He enjoyed watching chipmunks scurry around his country cottage the previous weekend and thought it would make a good name. From then on, many de Havilland Canada aircraft were named after Canadian wildlife, such as the Beaver, Otter, and Caribou.

The Chipmunk made its first flight on May 22, 1946, flown by de Havilland test pilot Pat Fillingham, who crossed the pond from England to test the design. Fillingham reported that the aircraft was delightfully light on the controls and “devoid of obvious vices.” He told the design team they “had a winner.”

A total of 1,283 were built. Only 217 were assembled in Canada; 1,000 were made in the United Kingdom, and 66 under license in Portugal until the final aircraft was delivered in 1956.

Chipmunks were used as the primary training aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Air Force, and several other nations until the 1990s.

Today, there are about 350 airworthy Chipmunks around the world, most owned by civilians. In the United States, almost all the 100 Chipmunks fly under the experimental category, but a few received FAA standard airworthiness certification and are authorized for commercial use, demonstration flights, and instruction.

Long and winding road to New Jersey

The Chipmunk at Andover Flight Academy has traveled the world. Currently owned by British native David Bundock, it resides at DelGaizo’s flight school in northern New Jersey. Bundock and DelGaizo use the Chipmunk for tailwheel training, basic aerobatics, and just to give pilots a “fighter experience” without the exorbitant cost of flying a P–51 Mustang or Supermarine Spitfire.

Bundock grew up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, England (about 35 miles east of London), flying with his father in the family’s Piper Lance. At age 14, he received an “air experience” flight, given by the RAF to young members of the Air Training Corps, in a Chipmunk—and he never forgot the airplane. Bundock moved to the United States as a young man and briefly worked on Wall Street before becoming an airline pilot. Today, he is a JetBlue Airbus A320/321 captain flying routes across the United States and to South America. Like many pilots, Bundock went to DelGaizo to “reinspire his flying” by earning his tailwheel endorsement in a vintage Piper Cub, and he then bought the Chipmunk in 2019.

Bundock’s Chipmunk was built in 1952 at the British de Havilland factory and sent to the University of Southampton air squadron, a college group much like the U.S. ROTC program. British students trained in it until 1964 when nine Chipmunks were given to the Kenya Air Force to train that new nation’s military pilots. It was based at the historic Wilson Airport in Nairobi, which is today the general aviation airport for the Kenyan capital. In 1973, it was returned to England and put up for sale. It and other Chipmunks were imported into the United States by a Georgia native, Robert E. Rust, who made the effort to get the airplanes certified by the FAA.

The aircraft went through several owners until 2019 when Bundock decided he wanted a Chipmunk, and one with a FAA standard airworthiness certificate. He posted an online “want to buy” advertisement and received a response from a Chipmunk owner in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bundock bought the airplane—which was painted in the color scheme of the Royal Canadian Air Force—and flew it home. “That was a cold flight, as the British-built Chipmunks don’t have cabin heaters, but the Canadian ones do,” said Bundock.

Chippie cockpit

If your eyesight is sharp, you can read the wing-mounted fuel gauge from the pilot’s seat. There’s no glass panel in a Chipmunk’s cockpit. The compass is worthy of a steamship. A spartan switch panel is at the pilot’s left elbow in a 1953 DHC-1 de Havilland Chipmunk owned by David Bundock at Andover Airport in New Jersey, October 18, 2022. Photo by David Tulis.

Once in New Jersey, Bundock re-registered the Chipmunk as N829WP to reflect its original British military designation, WP829. So today, Bundock’s Chipmunk is a Canadian design that was built in England, now flying in the United States under Canadian colors.

Flying the ‘Chippie’

The Chipmunk is very British. Not only do the Brits drive on the “wrong side of the road,” their aircraft engines turn the “wrong way.” They spin counterclockwise (viewed from the cockpit), which causes a right-turning tendency, so American pilots must learn to stomp the left rudder pedal to keep straight during climbs. The designers meant this to be a trainer and actually canted the engine to the right to increase the right-turning tendency in order to prepare pilots for transitioning into increased horsepower fighters.

On the walk-around, you’ll notice the aluminum fuselage and wings, with fabric covering the control surfaces and the wings’ trailing edges. The company was known for building airplanes from wood, and the Chipmunk was de Havilland’s first aircraft with all-metal construction. Being a trainer, the Chipmunk does not have a baggage compartment, but a space behind the rear seat can hold 40 pounds of gear. It sports a distinctive vertical stabilizer, the signature of many de Havilland designs.

You’re likely to notice a puddle of oil, too. The Chipmunk is powered by a 1930s, four-cylinder inverted inline engine called the Gipsy Major, which was used in many British light airplanes, including the Tiger Moth biplane. The engine is essentially a de Havilland Gipsy engine modified to operate inverted, with the cylinders below the crankcase. This allowed the propeller shaft to be in a high position without the cylinders blocking the pilot’s view over the aircraft’s nose, but it also caused high oil consumption (up to four pints per hour), which required refills from an external oil tank. Improved piston rings helped reduce this problem, but the engine is often called the “Dripsy Major” because it drips or blows out so much oil.

When performing the preflight inspection, hopefully you’ll remember to open the left cowling and prime the carburetor before climbing aboard.

After wriggling into the narrow cockpit, pilots should leave the straps loose enough to reach down by their left knee to flip the large “ground/flight” switch. Ergonomics was not a consideration of the Chipmunk’s design, and switches were stuck “in any old place there was room,” says Bundock. The interior is painted flat black, and trying to peer into the cockpit for switches and levers is like looking into a dark cave on a sunny day. On the floor between the pilot’s legs is a large compass that really looks like it belongs on a ship. The rudder pedals are adjustable, but the seat is not. Pilots sit on seat parachutes when performing aerobatic maneuvers; otherwise thick black leather cushions are installed.

Starting the Chipmunk is straightforward: After the “ground/flight” switch, flip the two magneto switches, open the throttle a bit, and depress the starter pushbutton. Originally, Chipmunks used a shotgun cartridge starter, but those have long since been replaced with more convenient electric starters. One radio master switch activates the modern radio and transponder, and “then, that’s all, off you go,” says Bundock.

Like most tailwheel airplanes, S turns are needed for taxiing. The tailwheel is fully castering, but nonsteerable, so differential braking is used to steer on the ground. There are no toe or heel brakes; a hand brake lever will apply drag on the discs so that when you depress a rudder pedal, that brake is applied. Press the right rudder pedal and the braking is applied only to the right wheel, and such. Pull it fully to park.

On the right side is the flap control lever, with a handle like a bicycle brake, which has two flap settings of 15 and 30 degrees. Takeoff is normally made without flaps, but in hot weather with both seats occupied, one notch is preferred.

Like World War II fighter airplanes, the last step before takeoff is to close the canopy. For being a sporty airplane meant to train fighter pilots, takeoff is anemic. When the throttle is pushed forward the rudder becomes effective almost immediately before the Chipmunk lifts off at about 45 knots. Remember, it yaws right, not left. The Chipmunk is not highly powered, with a maximum rate of climb of about 800 fpm, and less in hot conditions. However, once it has some altitude beneath it, the Chipmunk really shows its stuff. The controls are well balanced, light, and responsive, and it rolls into turns smartly and smoothly. “It’s a little pitch sensitive, but a delight to fly,” says Bundock.

So today, Bundock’s Chipmunk is a Canadian design that was built in England, now flying in the United States under Canadian colors.The Chipmunk is capable of light aerobatics, since the engine doesn’t have an inverted fuel system. “You’re not staying there [inverted] for long, the engine will start to sputter, but as soon as you put positive Gs on it, it’ll come back to life,” says Bundock. The Chipmunk is stressed for plus-6 to minus-3 Gs, and it’s an excellent trainer for stalls, spins, loops, hammerheads, Cuban 8s, and barrel rolls.

A strong pre-stall buffet gives pilots plenty of warning, and full stalls may be sharper than many pilots are accustomed to. The Chipmunk will drop a wing during uncoordinated flight, and using the ailerons to lift a stalled wing can aggravate the roll. It’s recommended to use cross-controls for spin entry and full forward stick is needed to recover. “If you use the right control inputs, it’s fine. As long as you do what you’re supposed to do, which is the point of a good training airplane,” says Bundock.

The Chipmunk’s never exceed speed is 155 knots, with a best glide speed of 60 knots. It should be slowed to 55 knots on final and landings made with flaps, either 15 degrees or 30, which will improve forward visibility. The canopy may be opened to the first detent at any airspeed, but to the second only when flying slower than 90 knots. At slow speeds on approach, many pilots will slide the canopy all the way open for that “fighter returning home from battle” feeling.

Pilots should idle the engine awhile before shutdown to allow temperatures to stabilize. Don’t pull the mixture control, but switch off the magnetos and advance the throttle fully forward to stop the Gipsy.

With only 22 gallons of fuel available, your Battle of Britain experience is limited to about two hours, which goes by far too quickly. But, after shutdown, the sound and smell of the 70-year-old airplane will linger, and dreams of flying against the Luftwaffe over London may be an after-effect. It’s not quite a real Spitfire, but it’s a lot more accessible to the average pilot. Take that, Herr Göring!

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and frequent contributor to AOPA media.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.

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