Flying the Spitfire XVIII

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Spitfire : The background

Of all the aircraft of World War II, the Supermarine Spitfire has spawned the maximum number of books and articles on its history and contribution towards saving Britain. We in India also remember the aircraft with fond nostalgia. But before I get on to assorted personal anecdotes about our Spitfires, a brief look at its history may be in order, especially for those whose knowledge about it is likely to be somewhat limited.

At the age of eight years, just when the Wright Brothers were flying the world’s first heavier than air machine, Reginald Joseph Mitchell was busy making model aeroplanes in his bedroom. He left school early and joined a locomotive engineering factory at the age of 16. Six years later he joined the drawing office of Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton. Within just two years he became its Chief Designer and specialised in designing seaplanes. He was soon made Chief Engineer of the company.

Within two years his Sea-Lion Mk II aircraft won the Schneider Trophy air race for Britain. Mitchell realised that to increase the speed of an aircraft its drag must be minimised and power maximised. His next designs gave up biplanes in favour of only one wing, with no rigging lines or supporting struts and the most powerful engine he could find. He even tried to reduce drag by making the pilot fly in prone position but had to give up the idea due to his extreme discomfort. His next seaplanes won the trophy outright for Britain. He then took up designing a land based fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Mitchell’s first design with gull wings failed to meet Air Ministry’s Requirement No. F7/30.

Mitchell straightened the wings, designed a retractable undercarriage and seated the pilot under a sliding canopy. Just then Rolls Royce developed the Merlin engine and Mitchell chose it for his new design, a private venture of the company. Aircraft K5054, the first Spitfire prototype, made its maiden flight on 5th March 1936 at Eastleigh Airport under the control of Vickers’ leading test pilot “Mutt” Summers. The prototype was fitted with a tailskid and a wooden twin-bladed propeller. Mutt Summers flew the aircraft around the airfield and assessed its handling qualities and operation of flaps. As has since become common practice (followed even for the LCA), he did not retract undercarriage on the maiden flight. After flying for a few minutes, Summers landed and announced to the anxious spectators that “all was fine and that he did not want anything touched”. Mutt Summers made three or four more test flights.

On 27th March 1936 test pilot Jeffrey Quill flew K5054, by then repainted high-gloss blue-gray, to obtain accurate performance figures (max level 335 mph at 17,000 feet). This was lower than Mitchell’s estimate of 350 mph. Supermarine had already been working on a new propeller with modified tips. This was fitted on the aircraft and this time Jeffrey Quill clocked 348 mph. (- we met Jeffrey Quill in the mid-Seventies when he was director of SEPECAT and came to India to offer us the Jaguars). Mitchell was happy with this and the prototype was offered to the RAF for trials on the 26th May 1936. It comfortably exceeded the F7/30 requirements and met the later F37/34 requirements for a very fast fighter aircraft fitted with eight guns. Seven days later on 3rd June 1936, before any test reports reached the Air Ministry, RAF placed an order for 310 Supermarine Spitfires. Since Supermarine started with an S, its chairman wanted the name also to start with S but for it to sound quite intimidating. Spitfire was chosen in preference to Shrike and Shrew. With eight guns fitted on it, the aircraft really did spit fire at its enemies. Reginald Joseph Mitchell passed away aged only 42. But his Spitfire became the most famous fighter of all time. All together 20,351 aircraft in about 40 versions were made.

The Battle of Britain officially covers the period from July 10 to October 30 1940. In these fateful days, the Luftwaffe lost 1598 aircraft and the RAF 902. The RAF had many more Hurricanes than Spitfires but the latter had the greater number of kills by a wide margin. This was partly due to the qualities of the aircraft but also because they targeted a large number of bombers. The heavy losses at around 6.4% attrition rate caused Hitler to give up the invasion of Britain. On June 21 1941, he attacked Russia instead, which resulted in his doom. The RAF used to observe the Battle of Britain Day on the second weekend of September each year. I had the opportunity to witness the flypast for its 50th Anniversary. This involved 160 aircraft including five Spitfires and two Hurricanes.

Spitfires in India

Some Spitfires had supplemented Hurricanes in the Royal Indian Air Force during World War II. When RAF was phasing out Spitfires, twenty of them were acquired by India. Our Pilots Instruction Course No.53 was commissioned in October 1950. Those of us who had opted for fighters soon reported to Ambala for conversion training. I flew the Spitfire XVIII solo after three dual sorties in the Mk IX. The training was routine till we came to height climbs. My first one was to 25,000 feet, which I managed without trouble.

Spit-AmbConv_Small.jpg (24223 bytes) Flight Cadets from the 53rd Pilots Course pose with a Spitfire FR XVIIIe at Ambala. In flying overalls is Iype Kovoor from the combined 51-52 Pilots course. Sitting on the nose of the aircraft, just behind the spinner is Plt Offr A Sudhakaran, who later died in a Gnat Crash and was awarded the Kirti Chakra posthumously.

Then on November 25, I was to climb to 30,000 feet. We had been thoroughly briefed on how to use oxygen for the flight. The dangers of its lack were hammered into us. The flight started well in beautiful weather. I could see the snow-capped Himalayas immediately after take-off. Things were fine until at 17,000 feet I noticed that I was panting a bit. It did not strike me that anything was wrong. At 23,000 feet I felt that something was amiss, but (surely) not with me. I immediately selected maximum power by cutting in the supercharger and setting the boost to 18 lbs. The aircraft climbed even faster. At 27,000 feet things began to go dark. I was having difficulty making out the difference between sky and land. Everything was turning grey even though the sun was shining. By then I was sure that something was wrong with me. Luckily I concluded that I had to get down, and soon.

I remember closing throttle to idling power and watching only the rate of descent. The instrument had a will of its own. It seemed to show descent and quite suddenly a climb. Every time I saw it going up, I instinctively pushed the stick forward. Outside, there seemed to be many black specks in the greyness all around me. Surely there were other Spitfires infesting the same airspace and I took violent evasive action to avoid hitting them. Fortunately, I was coming down most of the time. Suddenly at 12,500 feet things cleared. There were no other aircraft anywhere near me, or away from me either for that matter. The sky was clear and blue. I looked down to find that the bayonet connector of the oxygen supply tube was not connected to the mask. Lack of oxygen (hypoxia) does funny things to one. But, I did not get the promised headache, which is supposed to be common after such an episode.

When I described all this to the doctor, he told me that I was extremely lucky to be alive. Several pilots had died due to the same error in previous courses. What had saved me was long distance swimming during my days at the university. I had a high lung capacity, developed by hours of swimming. He knew this also from my chest expansion of five and quarter inches even though I was quite skinny (and still am).

Posting to the Battle Axes

I joined the Battleaxes (No. 7 Squadron) in March 1951 stationed at Palam. The Squadron had six Spitfires and six Vampires. There were fourteen pilot officers from the previous course Nos. 51-52; the two were merged due to the 1947-48 operations in Kashmir. Our course was also delayed during training by six months. These seniors picked on me with the challenge that I had to roll a Spit below 100 feet, or else I was not fit to be in their unit. I flatly refused to attempt it. But then having won the flying trophy in my course, I knew that I was not a bad flyer.

I was also told to always be on a lookout for aircraft attacking me from behind. If you got “bounced” by one, it cost you a bottle of beer. The entire unit consumed these when an adequate stock got built up. On my second sortie in a Spitfire, I saw a Tempest of our neighbours No. 8 Squadron trying to get on my tail. At the time the only thing I knew was that I had to keep the enemy in sight to prevent him from aiming his gun camera at me. I dodged him for almost fifteen minutes before he gave up. While taxying back together, he made a rude gesture at me. After he arrived in the crew room, he got the shock of his life to discover that the Spitfire in the hands of the most junior and inexperienced pilot had outwitted him.

My first close call came during simulated front gun attacks at houses of Bahadurgarh. Aiming at a door of a hut, I almost flew into it. At the last minute I realised my predicament and pulled hard on the stick and opened full throttle to 18 lbs boost. The aircraft mushed and I saw a kikar tree higher than me on my right. The aircraft pulled away. A lot of dust was raised on the ground and other pilots in the formation thought that I had ploughed into the ground. Fortunately I had not even touched it with any aircraft part. Perhaps only a Spitfire could manage such a feat.

One day the C-in-C of the IAF, Air Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw Chapman came to fly a Spitfire XIV of the fighter reconnaissance squadron also based at Palam. He was doing low flying when another Spitfire bounced him and broke below him. The bouncer was shocked out of his skin when on landing he discovered that he had attacked the C-in-C’s aircraft. He and the rest of the unit, including the Squadron Commander, were quaking in anticipation of the repercussions to follow. When the C-in-C landed, he asked the Squadron Commander to pass on his compliments to the pilot who had attacked him. He commented that it was a good attack, well executed, and showed that he should have been flying a lot lower if he wanted safety from being bounced. A veteran of both the world wars, he said that age was obviously catching up with him.

007 Spit

The Commander in Chief of the IAF in 1951, Air Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman regularly flew around the country visiting IAF airfields in a Spitfire. Here he is seen with Gp Capt Harjinder Singh on a visit to Kanpur.


During an exercise near Ambala, our formation was to attack a ten feet by ten feet brick wall set up as a target. The three senior chaps ahead of me all missed it. My semi-armour piercing high-explosive rocket hit it dead centre and made a hole in it but did not explode. The spectators were sorely disappointed. Later the IAF started firepower demos at Tilpat which were much more dramatic. These have now moved to Pokhran where private individuals have no opportunity to witness what the IAF can do.

Conversion to Vampires

We soon gave away our Spitfires to Nos. 14 and 15 Squadrons and converted fully to Vampire jets. The Battleaxes moved with all their sixteen Vampires to Jamnagar for armament training in March 1952. No.2 Squadron with Spitfires also came in for the same training. One day the very portly ruling prince of Jamnagar, His Highness the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar was IAF’s guest to watch Spits and Vamps attack ground targets at the nearby Sarmath range. While having beer after the event in the mess tent, he remarked that the Vampires were no match to the Spitfires. He also remarked that he would not have been scared to stand at the target when Vampires were attacking it. As the junior most officer of the unit, I could not tolerate this adverse comment. I at once said that a target his size we would have never missed. There was pin drop silence at this rather rude remark. The Jamsaheb thought over it for a moment then burst out laughing. He said, “I deserve that young man“. Suddenly everyone found the comment very funny. But he was not far wrong; the Spitfires had done far better than the jets.

Firing from a Spitfire, MSD (Mally) Wollen scored 44% hits (corrected by a factor) on the drogue being towed by a Dakota. This very high score was said to be the result of him thinking about housing and other problems caused by his recent marriage. Apparently when you are not concentrating too hard on aiming your guns you shoot a lot better. But later, on his next visit to Jamnagar Flt Lt Mally Wollen scored 81% hits from a Vampire. It seems domestic worries or their lack has nothing to do with scoring hits.

IM ‘Chopie’ Chopra’s Bale out

My friend IM (Chopie) Chopra (now retired from the posts of Chief Test Pilot, MD and Chairman of HAL) was not so lucky. He describes his experience in his own words.

“I first flew Spitfire Mk.XVIII on July 28,1951 in Conversion &Training Flight in Ambala. After about 12 hours of conversion training I was posted to No 14 Squadron that was formed at Ambala in September 1951. I have over 300 hours on Spitfire Mk.XVIII. My impression about its flying qualities are: –

“(The aircraft was) extremely manoeuvrable and handled very well throughout the speed range. (It was) a good machine for air-to-air combat and tail chase. I think it was a good stable platform for armament work although I did not fare that well at Jamnagar. The power available was large. The throttle had a gate at 12lbs and in an emergency one could go past the gate to get 18lbs. Sudden throttle movement to high power settings had to be avoided on account of high torque leading to yaw on the ground and at low speeds. The propeller had a large diameter. One had to be careful not to push the nose too far down during take off for fear of touching the ground. One of the squadron pilots doing a low retraction during take-off lost 9 inches of the propeller. He continued with the sortie as if nothing had happened. The engine tended to heat quickly on the ground even with the radiator flaps open.

Spit-InderChopra_Small.jpg (15995 bytes)Plt Offr (later Wg Cdr Retd, Chief test Pilot then Chairman HAL) IM Chopra poses by an Mk XVIII. Note white spinner with black roundels.


“I had to bail out at Jamnagar while on a live air-to-air sortie. The sky was overcast and the practice air-to-air with 20mm live ammunition was being done at about 2500 ft. I fired at the drogue coming in from the left. A lot of bullets hit the drogue. It burst at the back and started to flap. I stopped firing and broke down as briefed. At that time the angle off was pretty low – about 15 degrees. While in the break, the drogue broke off from the tow link and passed over my right wing. The small rope attached to the drogue got stuck between the horn balance of the elevator and the right tailplane. The rope was over the elevator with the drogue flapping at the back. It appeared now that my aircraft was towing the burst drogue.

“I had very little control on the elevator. I turned towards land gradually losing height because I could not move the elevator. By the time I reached land the height had reduced to about 1200 ft. I trimmed the aircraft nose down slightly, opened the canopy, opened the small door on the left, removed my helmet, put my right hand on the rip cord handle and then rolled the aircraft to left to invert. I went out of the aircraft cleanly and after counting 4-5 secs pulled the ripcord. Much to my relief the parachute opened and I started to enjoy the downward descent to the ground. I landed on the ground safe and sound. The date of this bail out was April 5,1952 and the aircraft No.HS679”

Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh lovingly maintained the last flying Spitfire, a Mark VIII, in Kanpur. He sometimes used it as his personal transport. It was a rare privilege if you were allowed to fly it. All I did once in it was to start it and taxi it for the AVM’s forthcoming flight.

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Vintage flypast: Supermarine Spitfire VIII   NH-631 buzzes the podium at low-level during the flypast. Note the line of static aircraft display.

This aircraft has been in the Air Force Museum now for a number of years as a part of its vintage flight. It last flew on Air Force Day, October 8 1989, with test pilot Air Vice Marshal AS Lamba VrC, Commandant ASTE, at the controls. A little later a Mirage 2000 crashed while demonstrating downward rolls. The flying of vintage aircraft was discontinued after 1989 and they have sometimes been towed past the reviewing Chief of Air Staff. This is a sad end of the flying days of a most popular World War II fighter with a glorious history.

Copyright © GP CAPT KAPIL BHARGAVA. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of GP CAPT KAPIL BHARGAVA is prohibited.


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