For a pilot, every plane has its own personality, which always reflects that of its designers and colours the mentality of those who take it into action.
The Spitfire, for instance, is typically British. Temperate, a perfect compromise of all the qualities required of a fighter, ideally suited to its task of defence. An essentially reasonable piece of machinery, conceived by cool, precise brains and built by conscientious hands. The Spitfire left such an imprint on those who flew it that when they changed to other types they found it very hard to get acclimatized.
Pierre Clostermann. ‘Flames in the Sky’. Chatto & Windus, 1952.
The day I flew a Spitfire for the first time was one to remember. To begin with the instructor walked me round the lean fighter plane, drab in its war coat of grey and green camouflage paint, and explained the flight-control system. Afterwards I climbed into the cockpit while he stood on the wing root and explained the functions of the various controls. I was oppressed by the narrow cockpit, for I am reasonably wide across the shoulders and when I sat on the parachute each forearm rubbed uncomfortably on the metal sides.
“Bit tight across the shoulders for me?” I enquired.
“You’ll soon get used to it,” he replied. “Surprising how small you can get when one of those yellow-nosed brutes* is on your tail. You’ll keep your head down then! And get a stiff neck from looking behind. Otherwise you won’t last long!” – and with this boost to my morale we pressed on with the lesson…..
Four days later I made a mess of the approach, but this time with disastrous results. I had been instructed to land at Sealand and deliver a small parcel of maps which were stuffed into my flying-boot. The circuit at Sealand was crowded with [Miles] Masters and I weaved amongst them for a favourable into-wind position. There was a stiff wind across the short, grass airfield and I aimed to be down close to the boundary fence so that I had the maximum distance for the landing run. I came over the fence too high and too slow and the fully stalled Spitfire dropped like a bomb. We hit the ground with a mighty crash and I had a little too much slack in the harness straps, for I was thrown violently forward and pulled up with a nasty wrench across the shoulders. For a few yards we tore a deep groove in the ground, then she slithered to a standstill in a ground loop which tore off one undercarriage leg and forced the other through the top of the port mainplane. I switched off the petrol cocks and the ignition switches and stepped out.
Johnnie Johnson, ‘Wing Leader’, Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1956.
*Messerschmitt Bf 109s
I can remember doing aerobatics in the Spitfire right from the start, perfect vertical rolls, straight as a die. It was a terrific thing. The Spitfire and Hurricane were austere inside. There weren’t many bits and pieces……
Someone showed us all the things you should do and shouldn’t do, and off we went. I can remember going off the ground, got the wheels up, came round parallel to the strip. I can remember doing a roll one way and a roll the other and it was just straight in. We’d never seen anything like them…..
[When a fuel supply problem called for an emergency landing] I was turning to go up the strip to land, and I could see I wasn’t going to make it. They’ve got the flying angle of a brick when you cut the motor back. I couldn’t land on the road. There were trucks and motorbikes, troops, all sorts of people were coming down the road. So I had to go to the side. There was a big row of trees and these bunkers for the rice. In the finish I just pushed it into the ground. I was doing about 140 mph, a wheels up landing and it went bump, bump, bump, then it stopped. Ruined the aeroplane, a bloody shame.
Vic Bargh quoted in ‘Ketchil’ by Neil Frances. Wairarapa Archive 2005.
The Spitfire Mk.IX was photographed at Wings Over Wairarapa airshow, New Zealand.