Battle of Britain 80th commemoration: Flying among clouds with the ghosts of The Few

I dip the wing tip into a cloud and gently ease back the control column. The Spitfire pirouettes through the sky in a balletic arc.

The weather outside my snug canopy is as glorious as it was for much of that summer in 1940 when earlier versions of this aircraft, accompanied by the growling Hurricanes, fought the Battle of Britain.  

We drop into a layer of sharply-defined cumulus between 2,000 and 4,000 feet.

Flying inside the marshmallow city we soar around puffy tower blocks and up and down high streets, pulling up hard into a barrel roll when the brilliant white walls of a dead end close in.  

Richard Grace, of Ultimate Warbird Flights, sits in the front cockpit of this tandem Mark IX Spitfire. He has generously – and bravely – allowed me to take control of the aircraft to experience a little of what The Few went through in the skies over southern England.

Mr Grace’s father rebuilt  ML407 having seen it advertised in the back of a paper in 1979. 

Along with other wartime fighters – including an American Mustang and German Messerschmitt – Mr Grace flies for film companies and individuals from Sywell aerodrome in Northamptonshire. He first flew, in a Belgian version of the Tiger Moth, on his mother’s lap aged about two weeks old.

“I’m lucky to have grown up in aviation,” he says. “This will never become a job. Having the opportunity to compare all these fighters is just brilliant. 

“The Spitfire is definitely the best flying of all of them.  Pop up above the clouds and it’s silky smooth. That’s where it’s at its best. It’s a phenomenal performer.”

It certainly is. But that performance comes at a price. 

For the majority of the war a Spitfire’s standard fuel capacity was 86 imperial gallons, with a burn rate in the cruise of about 40 gallons an hour. In combat though, with manifold pressure to the engine boosted by selecting ‘wartime emergency power’, the engine would guzzle three times as much. 

It was a “woefully small amount of fuel,” Mr Grace, 36, says. “The Spitfire was definitely an interceptor fighter. It was designed to take off, climb rapidly and dispatch whatever had arrived”.

The main and small reserve fuel tanks were directly in front of the cockpit, with little separation between them and only a 1mm thick aluminium screen between them and the pilot. Crash-proofing around the tanks was only introduced much later in the war.  If just one bullet tore through that area of the fuselage the pilot would soon know about it, Mr Grace says.

Likewise, the Spitfire’s centre of gravity, regardless of ammunition load, was just in front of the pilot. It made for an aircraft that was sufficiently, but not excessively stable; a fighter needs to be nimble in the skies, not too comfortable on the air. 

A low stall speed helps too. The early model Spitfires (Marks 1 to 5), had a stall speed of around 40 knots with gear and flap down, much slower than aircraft with comparable top speeds, such as the German Messerschmitts. 

Air-to-air combat was usually won by the aircraft that could maintain control at low speeds to turn sharper than the opponent. Spitfires and Hurricanes were thought to have the tightest turning radius of any wartime fighters. 

But with a cruising speed in level flight of about 220mph, the Hurricane couldn’t get into (or away from) trouble as quickly as the Spitfire at 250 (their maximum speeds were at least 50 per cent more). 

The Hurricane, with its tubular steel structure held together with metal bolts and wooden fairings, was a bit of a brute. 

Great in a fight –  Hurricanes shot down more aircraft than all other air and ground defences put together in the Battle of Britain – but so heavy pilots said it almost needed two hands to control. 

“The Hurricane feels like the control column is almost set in cement at high speed,” says Squadron Leader Mark Sugden, a serving Typhoon pilot and member of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. “Whereas, if you think about doing it, the Spitfire has already done it.”

“The Hurricane is an assault on your senses, it’s very loud, it flies how it looks,” he says. “The Spitfire is an assault on your emotions.”

Spitfire required only light forces on the control surfaces, particularly the ailerons, even at high speed, as the monocoque construction of stretched skin over a lightweight aluminium frame made it much lighter. 

It was ground-breaking for its day, Mr Grace says, a revolution in aircraft design which took future improvements well. Very few aircraft could be developed from a 900 horsepower engine to a 2,000 horsepower engine and still fly just as delightfully, he says.

“They knew they’d built a great aircraft. I just don’t think they knew how good,” he says.

I know how good. 

Back in the sky we dive to 280 knots and I bring the control column back with the slightest pressure. The aircraft soars in a graceful loop. I look out the side to watch the wing go through the vertical. Belly to the sun we arch over the top and dive back towards the earth. Magical stuff.

Mr Grace has almost 2,000 flying hours, 400 of which are in Spitfires. I have just over a thousand, mostly helicopters. The Spitfire’s perfect design flatters what one of my instructors once called my ‘agricultural’ handling.

In contrast, Battle of Britain pilots would have only had about 100 flying hours on the simple de Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft before progressing to Spitfires. It was a big leap. 

In the early days of the war pilots could have had only 15 hours on Spitfire before they were flying in combat on front line squadrons. 

“It’s worth giving a moment’s thought to what it must have been like to be shot at after such little time,” Mr Grace says. “Not very enjoyable I would imagine”.

The twin cannons of the German Bf109, firing exploding shells straight down the line of the Messerschmitt’s fuselage, outmatched the machine guns of the Spitfires. Although the British fighter had four such guns on each wing they had to be zeroed, at a range of about 200 yards, to ensure the rounds had maximum effect. 

“It was like throwing gravel at them and having bricks come back,” Mr Grace says. 

In the sky above Northamptonshire it’s time to head back to Sywell aerodrome. 

Eager to squeeze a bit more time in the cockpit I breezily ask: What’s the difference between a barrel roll and the iconic Spitfire victory roll? Mr Grace is happy to take the bait and steers the aircraft around one of each, surrounded by the city of clouds. 

During the Battle of Britain the aircraft would have been kept permanently warm by RAF groundcrew so they could go at a moment’s notice. 

Cold oil was too viscous to provide optimum performance: the Rolls Royce Merlin III engine (the early variant used in the summer of 1940) needed to have oil at 15 degrees celsius or higher for take off. It had only a single supercharger so lacked performance at altitudes above around 15,000 feet. 

On the ground the pilots would have been most concerned with the temperature of the radiator under the right-hand wing. On a reasonably warm day the engine, optimised for 60 degrees celsius, could reach boiling point within five minutes. 

The smell of the glycol coolant would be the first sign of a problem. If worked hard on a hot day the engine could overheat in flight; deadly when Bf109s were hunting. 

In the air the pilots would have only loosely monitored the instruments to make sure the engine was behaving. “Most of the time their heads would have been on a swivel,” Mr Grace says. “The biggest danger wasn’t the engine letting go!”

We cruise back to earth and, with only a touch of pedal to account for the slight cross wind, land smoothly. We taxi and park on the grass in front of the cafe, packed with socially distanced aircraft enthusiasts. 

“It’s a special day when you put Spitfire in your log book,” Sqn Ldr Sugden, 41, tells me later. Obviously I’d forgotten to take mine and vowed to post it for the all-important entry in the ‘Aircraft Type’ column.

Sqn Ldr Sugden tells me he never takes for granted that he’s able to enjoy “part of our nation’s flying history.”

“It looks beautiful and sounds wonderful. You can’t help but fall in love with it.

“We talk about flying with ghosts, those people who have flown the aircraft before you. It’s a very emotional experience,” he says.

“When you’re airborne, you can hear them talking to you.”

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Follow me on twitter (@domnicholls) or check out the Telegraph Defence section for more quality Defence and Security journalism. Photo by Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph.


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