Flying G-ILDA: now with video

Spit Mk 9 at Kidlington 3.JPGI’m about to go flying in this beautiful machine.

I know. I can’t believe it either.

But about an hour after I had taken this shot, I had flown her from here (Oxford Kidlington) to Farnborough with a couple of visits on the way to show her off to deserving people. You’ve got to share something as beautiful as this, haven’t you?

Back into the hangar for a moment. We haven’t even pushed her out onto the pan yet.

The aeroplane

Let me introduce you: She’s a Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mark 9 with tandem dual-control cockpits, UK registration G-ILDA, RAF serial SM520, in-service 1944.

In the far left of the picture (above), with his back to camera, is the aircraft commander for the flight, Al Pinner. He’s pretty well qualified for this job. He’ll be talking to camera at the end of this piece, answering my questions about what it’s like flying - not just G-ILDA – but other Spitfire marques. 

Meanwhile (below), that’s me, proudly sporting my military flying kit for the first time since my last working sortie at RAF Linton on Ouse in 1978.

Me and Spit Mk9 at Kidlington.JPG

In his present incarnation as v-p operations at TAG Aviation Europe, Al’s task that day was to ferry G-ILDA to TAG UK’s Farnborough base to to operate a display sortie from there the same evening. The display was to be overhead nearby Tylney Hall, where a large bunch of TAG senior pilots were gathered for their annual briefing. What a way to fire them up. More of that later.

The briefing

Al briefs me: on the way to Farnborough, we are going to salute a friend a few miles to the south west of Oxford with a victory roll or two, call overhead Tylney Hall to locate it and do a couple of passes to work out a display line for the evening, and head for our destination which is expected to be active on runway 06. To get there we’d have to pass by RAF Odiham and, as I am about to find out, when Al’s flying G-ILDA he offers any base he communicates with at least a low pass.

With help from the ground crew, who handle G-ILDA with a reverential deftness, Al and I push the aircraft out of the hangar into an afternoon of dappled skies, light breezes and gin-clear visibility.

The cockpit

I climb into the rear cockpit and Al leans over the side, pointing out all the controls and answering my questions about what I should expect to see on the engine instruments. Actually the picture below is the forward cockpit, slightly roomier than mine.


Spitfire-cockpit.jpgThe cockpit’s a very close fit. The instrument panel was invented before ergonomics were: dials are inserted wherever there’s a space. All black-and-white, no “proper” compass, just one of those directional gyros that operates in the horizontal. Al warns me not to snag the un-guarded gear lever by mistake because the undercarriage would retract on the ground if I did. When I want to open or close the canopy I have to lower my seat one click because the vertical adjustment lever snags the canopy handle; then raise it again when the canopy is where I want it.


david spit.jpgThe engine start

Having checked I was strapped snugly into my ‘chute harness and seat, Al climbs into the front cockpit. Controls full and free, electrics on, clear prop, and the big Merlin roars into life, blasting an exhaust-charged slipstream past my open canopy. The Spitfire rocks gently with the torque. I’ve never felt more alive.

There’s an intercom, but it’s intermittent and totally outvoiced by Messrs Rolls and Royce. Al can see me in his mirror, I can see his face in it, and hand signals can substitute.

I follow through on the controls while Al taxies out to runway 19.  She’s a beast on the ground, you can’t see ahead, and steering’s the weirdest form of differential braking you could possibly conceive.  I look right and left and see rapt faces on the pan, in the tower, in ops room windows. G-ILDA’s a star: life’s on hold for everyone she passes, which she does with her nose in the air.

We hold short for power checks. Brakes on, power up, rpm set, let the big machine’s oil warm up. Mag drop’s a bit dramatic, so give her a bit more running time to clean the plugs.

The take-off

Then clear to line up and we’re away like a greyhound out of the traps, the huge Merlin singing loudly but much more sweetly now she’s been given her head. Likewise, the beast on the ground becomes a bird, light as a feather once she’s slipped the surly bonds of earth.

We head south west at about 3,000ft to salute Al’s friend. When close, Al increases the boost and rpm, sets a gentle descent before pulling up firmly and, with nose high, into a victory roll. I watch, knowing it’s my turn next.

When I ask Al how much nose-up before starting to roll, he doesn’t give it to me in degrees: “Put your feet on the horizon.” And, he adds, keep the g positive all the way over. So I do that, imagining I had just made a kill and was performing a celebratory roll above the runway back at base before being hauled into the Flight Commander’s office and told to behave.

I get a word from Al on the way over the top because I relaxed the back-pressure, allowing the g to drop away. With a soul in the back seat, the tandem Spit’s centre of gravity is pretty far aft which makes it twitchy in pitch, so a relaxation feels more like a reversal. So he makes me do it again, the bastard.

I should have cocked up a second time so I’d get a third!

Anyway, off to Tylney Hall for Al’s dry run. There it is, a beautiful manse surrounded by lawns and woodland. And more of those rapt faces, alerted by the sound of the thrumming Merlin, gazing up as we steep-turn to show off the Spit’s glorious wing profile.

We wing away, and Al calls Odiham. They take Al’s offer of a pass above the runway, and as we pull up they hand us over to Farnborough.

The arrival

This is the only disappointment of the flight. We want to run in for a victory roll, or at least a run-and-break to downwind, but Farnborough says traffic is holding for us so we have to go for a straight-in to 06.

Have they no soul?

Straight-in for a Spitfire is no joke. From a curved final approach you can see the runway. I can’t see it at all over the high nose until we are flaring and the edges enter my peripheral vision.

But we have both rolled back our canopies for a wind-in-your-hair final approach, so at least we get that.

Rapt faces everywhere as we taxi in. They clearly all expected us.

I climb out and Al clears the rear cockpit, removing ‘chute and harness in preparation for his solo display over Tylney this evening.


Pinner-&-Learmount.jpgThe evening display

Off to the hotel for me. Out of the TAG car at Tylney, still in my flying kit. The guests’ awed glances say they think I’m the guy that did the mini-display overhead an hour or so earlier. Sorry Al, but I enjoyed that moment!

Change for dinner and out onto the evening terrace to await G-ILDA’s arrival.

The rising Merlin growl signals an imminent appearance, and Al roars over, then swings into exquisite aerial ballet above the darkening tree-line. 

I am one of the rapt faces. But this time I’m different. Now I know why we won the Battle of Britain.


7 Responses to Flying G-ILDA: now with video

  1. Rory Kay 2 September, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Outstanding. You lucky sod.

  2. Catherine 2 September, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    You lucky thing!

  3. David Connolly 3 September, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Tally Ho !- BoB indeed. Congrats on being an associate member of “The Few”-you Jammy Bastard. I’ve only ever rolled a PA-28 as a de-facto test pilot.

  4. David Learmount 3 September, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    I received this email from John Laming about his first flight in a Merlin-powered Mustang in the RAAF during the 1950s, and thought he wouldn’t mind if I posted the bit about the aeroplane and left out the bits about Bondi Babes.

    David L

    Dear David,
    I have just read your lovely story of flying the
    two-seat Spitfire. Your enthusiasm for the Spitfire brought back vivid
    memories of my first flight in a Mustang with the Royal Australian Air
    Force. That was in 1953. I thought you might like the attached story. I
    have added a sequel to that story as well.

    Kindest regards,

    John Laming.
    Melbourne, Australia.

    Having been cleared for take off, I closed and locked the canopy, tightened the throttle friction nut and carefully lined up. The forward view was now blocked by the engine. A glance at the rudder trim confirmed that it was correctly set to 5 degrees right bias, and after a last look at the coolant temperature I set the radiator shutter from open to auto. This ensures automatic regulation of the coolant temperature during the rest of the flight.

    And then it was on for young and old. With the control column hard back to lock the tailwheel I released the brakes and slowly opened the throttle to 61 inches of manifold pressure. There was no real trouble in holding the aircraft straight down the runway providing you don’t force the tail up and cause a gyroscopic swing to occur. However, the sheer volume of noise from the Merlin almost deafened me while at the same time the acceleration pushed me back hard against the seat. After the small throttle movement of the Wirraway, I seemed to be forever pushing the Mustang throttle forward. Having never ridden a donkey, let alone a beast like a Mustang, I found it had quickly got ahead of me by the time I realised I had passed lift-off speed.

    Once airborne, I remembered the pilots notes caution not to apply the brakes lest they were hot and seized on. After fumbling the gear lever to up, I felt the satisfying clunk of the gear locking into the wings. With another long pull back on the throttle to attain climb power of 44 inches of manifold pressure, I eased back the pitch lever from 3000 to 2650 rpm. By now the speed had got to 150 knots without trying and once settled into the climb I noticed the VSI steady at 2500 fpm.

    It was then I realised that I had been holding my breath! The sheer magic of flying the nearest thing to a Spitfire kicked in, and I thought how wonderful it was to be alive and flying this fantastic aircraft. Yet all things are relative, and when only a few weeks later I was asked to fly a Mustang on short notice, after having by then flown single seat Vampires, I bitched like crazy because I didn’t want to fly a noisy old Mustang after a jet engine Vampire! Such is the arrogance of youth and as I write this today, I would give my left whatsit to fly a Mustang again.

    After climbing quickly to 15,000 feet, it was time to get the feel of the Mustang at high speed. The aircraft was a delight in aerobatics although I shied away from upward rolls (340 knots entry speed) in case I stalled and spun off. Having carried out a roll off the top of a loop at 300 knots and barrelled around some fluffy cumulus, it was time to try an intentional spin. The pilots notes warned against leaving power on during a spin because as much as nine or ten thousand feet may be lost during recovery. That was a serious height loss in any language, and although practice spins were not recommended to be started below 12,000 feet, I climbed back to 15,000 feet just to make sure. I was glad I was wearing a parachute!

    Having checked all clear below, I closed the throttle fully and gradually raised the nose. There is a marked yaw when power is changed in the Mustang but I was ready for this and kept the aircraft in balance. At the pre-stall buffet it was a case of full rudder in the direction of the desired turn, and full back stick. Then we were away, with the nose falling steeply initially, then rising above the horizon, while the rate of turn in the spin alternately slowed and speeded up. Having quickly carved off three thousand feet, I thought enough is enough and took standard recovery action. There was the expected slight delay in stopping the spin as the rate of turn increased momentarily, then the recovery was complete and I pulled out of the dive. No great drama, but having been brought up on Wirraway spins, I can vouch for the old saying that if you can fly a Wirraway, you can fly anything.

    Then I carried out some dirty stalls but apart from one particularly vicious wing drop because I had not kept an eye on the skid needle, the recoveries were quite docile. A few steep turns and a fun-run through some cloud tops then it became time to go home. While I was tempted to flash over the airfield in a classic fighter buzz and break, it was clear that with only 210 hours up my sleeve, a sedate circuit entry would be more appropriate for my level of experience. A good decision, as it turned out a few minutes later.

    The downwind checks included radiator shutters to auto, flaps to 20 degrees, mixture to run, and carburettor air to unrammed filtered. Over the fence was planned at 100 knots. Everything went fine until shortly before turning base when I selected the gear lever down and nothing happened. Thank goodness I had the Pilots Notes with me.

    ATC cleared me to circle the aerodrome while sorting things out. The book said to rock and yaw the aircraft. I did that but the wheels stayed up. There was plenty of fuel so endurance wasn’t a problem, but it was late in the afternoon and I didn’t want to miss the last train to Sydney. The CO came on the radio and led me through the remaining emergency procedures, which included pulling the fairing door emergency control. To my relief the landing gear locked down and I returned for another crack at landing.

    The view over the nose on final was fine until the round-out when the runway disappeared and I was left with only a limited side view. After a prolonged float, which was too high for comfort and with the Merlin merrily popping and crackling away, the Mustang hit firmly on all three points. With the stick full back, the landing run was kept moderately straight by use of the lockable tailwheel.

    As the Mustang rolled to a stop I slid back the canopy and unclipping my oxygen mask savoured the scent of country fresh air. The feeling was wonderful and after retracting the flaps and opening the radiator shutters, I made a careful one-eighty and taxied back towards the shade of the tall Norfolk pines. A relieved CO gave me a pat on the back for bringing his Mustang home in one piece, and the ground staff invited me to their Mess for a drink. The first beer went down as the last train to Sydney pulled out of the station.

  5. David Connolly 4 September, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    “while the rate of turn in the spin alternately slowed and speeded up. Having quickly carved off three thousand feet, I thought enough is enough and took standard recovery action”
    “While I was tempted to flash over the airfield in a classic fighter buzz and break, it was clear that with only 210 hours up my sleeve, a sedate circuit entry would be more appropriate for my level of experience. A good decision, as it turned out a few minutes later”…Bravo !(And where is Bondi Bravo Juliet, I ask ?) Viva la vida, John, you played it sang-froid cold. A breathless narrative of a master craftsman, especially when considering the present and pertinent “real feel to artificial feel to no feel from stick to central yoke to side stick. to life is for living, as one will be dead for an infinite period of time. You were clearly far, far too conservative to ever become a fiat currency investment bankster, delinked from the gold standard. You knew when enough is enough to avoid shooting yourself in both feet with one leveraged bullet. No blunder down under for you sir.
    And I do like your way of drinking John(Ice Cold In Alex), as I always say, “Never again until the next time !”…And as Oscar Wilde said ,”work is the curse of the drinking classes”…QED !

  6. Kay Hevey 8 September, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Wow David, I love the Spitfire. It always brings a lump to my throat when I see them flying and you must have been over the moon to have the opportunity.

  7. Gordon Weare 31 March, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    All I see now is my late Dad sitting in a Spit in Malta… whenever I see a Spitfire now. Spit = Dad.