More About Spits
She never failed to thrill me and my heart was filled to bursting as I jumped down off the 15cwt truck early the next morning. The sun was clearing a thin mist, just picking up her outline as the dew dripped from the trailing edges of her wings. She was catlike, sleek and lovely, with beautiful wings, ready to pounce and she was all mine. Her rigger stood near the wing root, a soaked 'chammy' leather in his hand where he had been wiping the canopy. His grin was cheerful in the chill but I noticed that his lips were chapped.
I had forgotten nothing, it was all so ...so right. A quick adjustment of the 'chute straps, all four harness straps on, pin in. Elevator trim OK, rudder trim full to starboard to stop the swing to port on takeoff. Let left & right hands fall automatically on controls for a few moments. Unscrew "Ki-gass" pump, (this is a priming pump that injected raw fuel into the inlet manifold of the engine) a few pumps until resistance is met, nod to fitter who is standing by starter trolley, he nods back. Switches on. Four or five squirts of Ki-gass. Oh! Please, please catch! The prop turns, a BLAT! and she catches, left hand on throttle, BLAT again and she catches again ...madly pump Ki-gass and that wonderful burble as all 27 litres burst into life and then that sweet sound as she settles. Push in Ki-gass and screw tight.
Slowly run up to full throttle as she strains against the chocks, the rigger is lying across the tail to stop it rising, switch off the port magneto; very little drop in revs. Test starb'd mag; very little drop. Thumbs up. Fitter and rigger pull chocks away. Glad to see them both. (A WAAF was once taken for an unscheduled ride on the tail of a Spit!) Each aircraft has a fitter responsible for the engine and a rigger to look after the airframe.
Today I was flying a Mark I. This was the first Spit used in the Battle of Britain and was the only Mark to use a hand pump to raise the undercarriage. The pump lever was a magnificent long shaft ending in a spherical knob, the whole being covered with smooth black plastic. Perhaps the salient characteristic of Spitfires were the wonderful flying abilities and in particular the incredible sensitivity of the elevators, the slightest forward or backward movement of the control column gave an immediate response. Every tyro pilot was watched with amusement as the tendency was for the aircraft to 'porpoise' as, with the right hand pumping and the left on the stick one had to be most careful to keep the left hand still. Another little trick was to remember that the wheels were locked up by pins against which they rested. After a short time the air leaked out so that when the time came to let the wheels down, 'up' had to be selected for a couple of pumps. My instructor had been kind enough to warn me of this. Even when operated by hydraulics care had to be taken to ease off these pins whether up or down.
My brief for the flight was to practice forced landings and D/F homings (being directed to base by radio) . Later in the day was devoted to cross country and navigation. These exercises were of great importance and were carried out with due seriousness. The temptation to try her out was almost too much to bear but somehow I resisted. Just as well. There were spies up there and air discipline was strict. I was conscious that my record had to be improved for a while: the C.O. had not forgotten the unfortunate affair in the mess and he never forgot a slight. The 'bull' was constant. We were drilled as we were before we started flying. We just could not understand it. What was he trying to prove? Perhaps he was annoyed at being put on training but why take it out on us?
Aircrew affected the habit of leaving the top button of our tunics undone. That came to an end. We had a bad name for discipline on the ground but in the air it was absolute. P.T. was reintroduced and we were treated like raw recruits. Only a couple of us were officers and it seemed that something or other had to be knocked out of us. I had the feeling that my comment that I had found the commando course was hardly "testing" had got back to him. I had to keep my nose clean. My sole object was to get my time in and to get on Ops. The next flight was to be a climb to about 30,000 ft. This was quite new to me and was to be savoured. My cockpit check was extra careful that day and she climbed sweetly away. My brief was 'about' 30,000 and I was determined to make the best of it. At around 16,000 the air pressure is about half that at ground level which results in any gas expands to twice the volume so I usually found that 18,000 was the best time to reduce it! Fortunately I never had trouble with my ears. I was determined to make 40,000 but my poor old lady could not make it. The sky was an incredible blue up there. She started to labour and before long I was in a very 'nose up' near powered stall. She was struggling and My God! My knees were cold ! The seaman's stockings could have been twice as thick. She just could not go higher and then we just fell out of the sky.
She fell like a stone and the air was too rarefied to give any 'feel' to the controls at such low airspeeds. At last the rudder brought her into a straight dive and then the ailerons brought her level until she was under full control. Oh! She was so completely wonderful "Christ! Pull yourself together!" That could be fatal. I had been watching the sky before falling out of it. A long weave and I could be sure that I had the sky to myself Not likely but the odd Me 110 or Dornier came over as a gesture from time to time. A quick glance at the altimeter surprised me in that she had dropped so much so fast in the thin air. There was a momentary temptation to turn the ring to 'fire' and press the 'tit' to be sure that the guns were in good shape but it vanished and the rest of the flight was an ecstatic enjoyment of aerobatics with the luxury of altitude to squander.
I entered the circuit at 1,000ft with that lightness of heart that comes from being completely at ease, with oneself and the universe. Flip flaps toggle: welcome hiss as they go down. Instant change of attitude to 'nose down' and feeling of increased stability at low speeds. The descent in a sweeping curve, always watching the touchdown point along the engine on the Port side and that last moment levelling that left one completely blind ahead. Ready to catch her with a blip on the throttle and equally ready to correct a swing to Port on the rudder bar.
Life was good! My logbook records 31.OOOft. sic.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002