FIRST SOLO

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What was it like for a "sprog" pilot, with less than 200 hours' total flying experience, to fly a Spitfire for the first time? ALEC LUMSDEN, who did just that in 1941 provides the answer
Source: Aeroplane Monthly, July 1996
The very sight of the Supermarine Spitfire, that beautiful and ageless little gem of an aeroplane, can hardly fail to inspire a quickening of the pulse. Neither can the curious whistle which the early models make in flight, nor indeed the throaty roar which emerges from the Merlin's stub exhausts at full bore, or the crackle as the throttle is chopped as the aeroplane passes over the hedge before touchdown. Such are the emotive sights and sounds which still keep people staring at what, as a design, is now well over 60 years old.

Thankfully, a surprisingly large number of Spitfires are still kept flying. To fly a Spitfire was the ultimate dream of many a young, hopeful pilot. So many superlatives have been written about its performance - and about this, that or the other outward feature of the Spitfire's appearance - that certain other very important things tend to become swamped. For example, what was the Spitfire like for a "sprog" pilot to climb into for the first time (in the writer's case, aged 19 and having amassed a total of 166hr 20min flying experience in his logbook, in only two types of training aircraft, during eight months)? Having passed the point of no return, with a youthful ambition about to be fulfilled, was there perhaps a sudden feeling of panic, or of inadequacy?

Only a liar or a fool would say "no". Had those almost endless hours in deHavilland Tiger Moths and Miles Master Mk Is, in which every imaginable eventuality had been taught and practised, really been enough? One hoped the answer was "yes".


The whole atmosphere of the aerodrome was alive with the noise of engines being run-up, of aircraft taxying, taking off and landing.
The writer's first encounter, in anger, with the Spitfire occurred at No 58 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Grangemouth, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, now submerged by a huge petrochemical installation, in mid February 1941. Apart from a couple of Master Is, 'used by the instructors for checking out newcomers, there was a surprising number of Spitfire Is to be seen.

The station commander was Gp. Capt. Carnegie, a well-known flying-boat pilot, and the chief flying instructor was Wg. Cdr. H.A.Y. Hogan, formerly of the Long-Range Development Unit, whose Vickers Wellesley bombers held the long- range record for a formation flight from Ismailia to Darwin.

The whole atmosphere of the aerodrome (as it was then called - not "airfield" - we had heard of, but not yet encountered Americans), was alive with the noise of engines being run-up, of aircraft taxying, taking off and landing.

At that time, very soon after the end of the Battle of Britain, Spitfire OTUs were equipped with ex-squadron Mk Is, many of which were distinctly tired, having of necessity previously experienced only two speeds, "flat out" and “stop".

They were still extremely hard-worked at OTUs, since not only were trained pilots urgently required to replace considerable numbers of casualties, but the expansion of Fighter Command was going on apace, with new squadrons being formed as quickly as possible. The challenging impact of meeting the Spitfire, rather like encountering a Grand Prix racing car, was such that it really dared you to have a go. A first approach to one at that time almost inevitably caused a sense of surprise. To begin with, the Spitfire was not very large and. by comparison with present standards, as a fighter it certainly was small. It had an all-metal structure instead of the plywood and fabric of the trainers one had grown accustomed to.

There was the smell of the thing (there is nothing quite like the smell of a hot engine) and the noise of it, Licking away as it cooled from the previous run, one of many impressions vividly described by Alex Henshaw in his book Sigh for a Merlin, Then there was the whirring of the gyro instruments as they very gradually slowed down, taking minutes to do so.
Entry into the Spitfire was by the port wing root and a fairly slippery climb up the smooth wing skin, There was no seat cushion - one relied upon the parachute for this. The first lesson with one's instructor was to learn the cockpit layout, the "tits" or taps, control levers and switches upon which one's future depended. Instinctive knowledge of where every- thing was to be found and operated instantly (and with- out looking) was as a lifesaver, whether the emergency be sudden bad weather or being jumped by an unfriendly Messerschmitt or perhaps even by one's own flight commander, out to catch a dreamy pilot unawares. This was not too difficult because one had the Pilot's Notes to learn first and, on the whole, these were well written and illustrated. These had to be memorised, because Pilot's Notes were not supposed to be taken into the air. In any case, on a fighter "scramble" there would be no time to run through a checklist, Vital Actions having to be done by instinct while taxying or even during take-off.
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Above, a Spitfire I cockpit, Note the undercarriage hand-pump with its "Chassis" selector lever beneath it in the "Down" position.
The view directly ahead was nil.
The cockpit was surprisingly small, with little enough room, even for maps, and reading them when one was lost could be a nightmare, In any case, there were not too many things to learn, apart from speeds and temperatures.

Having learnt and been tested on cockpit layout and procedures by the instructor, the new boy returned to the crew-room to await his turn to fly. His flight commander first checked that he was confident and, hopefully, competent, then told him which aircraft to fly and to sign the Flight Authorisation Book and the Form 700, which stated, through the signatures of mechanics in the various skilled trades, that the aeroplane and engine were serviceable.


After the paperwork, a quick visual check ensured that the Spitfire looked OK- pre-flight inspections of the aircraft at that time being fairly cursory, amounting to checking that everything was in place and moved (if appropriate). One tended to rely on the fitter and rigger and their colleagues in the Flight to keep an eye on technical matters, although, sooner or later, it was realised that this was a shortsighted approach to any aeroplane.

The pilot was expected to ensure that the aeroplane was parked clear of obstructions, with chocks in front of the wheels and nothing fragile and liable to be blown away behind it, before strapping on the parachute harness (later we did this in the cockpit, with the harness laid out for quick assembly) and then, at last, an ungainly clamber aboard.

By today's standard the cockpit had a rather untidy layout. Despite this, it had the relatively new standard blind-flying panel, as introduced in the Gloster Gladiator and the more recent Miles Master I advanced trainer. It was a great improvement on earlier types, in which instruments were screwed on more or less where there was room for them. The blind-flying panel comprised six instruments grouped in the centre of the main panel, on flexible mountings, For anovice trained on wooden aeroplanes the Spitfire was a little "tinny'' and rather awesome. The "bonnet", sloping steeply upwards and stretching far ahead of the pilot, seemed enormously wide. The view
directly ahead was nil. The big exhaust stubs further restricted the view and lent emphasis to the repeated commands of the instructor that the nose must constantly be swung to and fro while taxying, using the differential brakes, to make sure of not hitting anything. This in itself produced problems, because the brakes were operated by compressed air, of which more anon.

In the earliest Spitfires the hood or canopy was flat-topped, allowing the pilot's head to touch it in bumpy air, particularly if the seat was raised near its upper limit. This was both uncomfortable in flight and inconvenient as regards seeing outwards. These hoods were soon changed to the domed type, hut the sides still tapered, leaving very little sideways room for the head. A break-out panel and a short spiked "crowbar" were incorporated later, to assist sliding the hood back against outside suction in an emergency. Still later a bulged hood replaced the flat-sided type, providing greater comfort. Nevertheless, with all modifications the cockpit was still fairly tightly tailored, especially for a large pilot.

The early windscreen was curved, causing distortion of the view to the side and ahead, and a thick, bullet-proof slab of glass was added to the outside front of the screen. The windscreen in later Spitfires was composed of flat panels and the bullet-proof glass was brought inside, in front of the reflector gunsight. Most of these modifications were the result of experience in the early days of operations, before and during the Battle of Britain. However, it was the fate of many pupils at OTUs at about this time to train on aircraft which were still unmodified. This was in no way a help, but put novice pilots very much on their mettle.


My own first experience was in K9817, a Spitfire I from the first production batch. It was powered by a Rolls- Royce Merlin III driving a two-pitch de Havilland "bracket-type" counterweight operated propeller, controlled by a knob on the instrument panel which was pulled "in" for coarse pitch and pushed "Out" for fine pitch. (Constant-speed propellers were still to come, as far as we were concerned.) Starting, cruise, and stopping engines fitted with these early D.H. propellers was made in coarse pitch, fine pitch being used only when high power was demanded .of the engine, for example take-off; in the climb, during combat and (very important in the case of an overshoot) when landing.
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Above, Spitfire MK I K9814, like the author's first solo Spitfire, K9817 was part of the first production batch of 310 aircraft delivered to the RAF between July 1938 and April 1939. Assigned to 5 OTU, K9814 crashed at Aston Down on June 3, 1940. K9817 survived the war and was finally struck off RAF charge in June 1947
the sound of a Spit grinding its way ominously slowly in coarse pitch on take-off, or when overshooting, is something not easily forgotten.
Alec Lumsden
Failure by the pilot to remember to put the propeller into fine pitch for take-off resulted almost inevitably in catastrophe, and the sound of a Spit grinding its way ominously slowly in coarse pitch on take-off, or when overshooting, is something not easily forgotten. Nor is the result.

Having got the Sutton harness done up, and plugged in the radio and oxygen leads, the pilot's next action was to check that the brakes were "on", air pressure and fuel sufficient, both fuel tanks "on" and the engine was ready to start. After checking that the external trolley mounted accumulator battery was plugged in and the engine primed if necessary with the Ki-Gass pump, the throttle would be opened a trifle, After a call of "all clear?" to the groundcrew, the main ignition and starting magneto switches would be turned on, a final call of "Contact" made and the starter button pushed. A thump as the starter dog engaged was followed by a heavy, grinding noise as the engine turned over part of a revolution, followed by a few puffs of blue smoke and, if the throttle had been set correctly, the engine settled down to purr quietly as it warmed up. As soon as the engine fired, the starter button was released and the starter magneto switched off. The groundcrew then disconnected the heavy electric lead to the accumulator, whose "chore horse" charging motor was rattling away on its trolley, and closed the fuselage 12V socket door.

During the short warming-up period the pilot ran through the series of Vital Actions, ensuring that everything worked as it should, particularly the flying and engine controls. The early Spitfires had one rather Small radiator for the ethylene-glycol coolant (rather too small, it seemed, sometimes), so it warmed up quickly. It was located under the starboard wing, where the slipstream was fairly fast, the oil cooler balancing it to port.

Taxying could be hazardous for a. variety of reasons. Apart from the nil-view ahead, the aeroplane was nose-heavy and could not safely be taxied fast in case the brakes were needed in a hurry and, in any case, the narrow-track undercarriage made steering by the differential brakes rather imprecise, unless a burst of throttle was used on the rudder. This required caution because, in turn, it increased the speed, so compounding the problem, and many a novice found himself in difficulty, especially in a gusty tail or crosswind, until he got the hang of the thing.

The radiator had a shutter, a flap operated by the pilot by means of a lever, and it was kept open on the ground while the pilot (if he was wise) kept a hawk-like eye on the radiator temperature. A long taxy downwind could cause stagnation in the cooling airflow and result in a plume of glycol steam and a boiling engine. There was then no option but to switch off as quickly as possible and let it cool down (which was unpopular with the groundcrew, who had to drag out a starter battery), unless one was lucky and could quickly swing into wind and gently increase revs while watching the radiator temperature gauge. Once understood, the system was efficient and would cool quite quickly if the atmosphere was cold.
There was quite a lot to do.
With the cockpit hood locked open, having reached the take-off point, stopped crosswind and facing the circuit traffic, the pilot again made Vital Action checks of instruments, engine (tighten the throttle friction), propeller (in fine pitch), flying controls and trim, as well as making radio contact with Flying Control (ATC in present-day language).

In January 1941 the Grangemouth OTU was operating from a single, newly-built but unfinished runway, the upwind end of which was still occupied by a working and smoking steamroller. There was plenty of room, however, for the sprog pilot, even if it appeared daunting. When you were satisfied that all was in order and (in the absence of a flying control caravan) the downwind visible arc was clear of approaching aircraft, a gentle throttle opening turned you into wind, you straightened the tailwheel and, with a bootful of right rudder to keep the thing straight, the throttle was slowly opened to the take-off stop. Because it was a right-hand tractor unit, the Merlin's powerful torque could cause a dramatic swing to the left while the port wing dipped noticeably towards the ground, a feature of the Spitfire made all the more apparent by its narrow-track undercarriage.

With care and experience this was quite easily managed, but to the novice it was probably the most hair-raising moment of his life. The Spitfire fairly exulted in the power under its big bonnet and, once unleashed and accelerating fast, the beast had to be kept more or less straight and under control and, hopefully, returned undamaged to the care of its groundcrew, who were not uncritical of the performance of the pilot.

An example of this is the often-quoted behavior of the early Spitfire Is, whose hydraulics for raising the undercarriage were hand-pumped, as soon as the aeroplane was well clear of the ground, the pilot, who should have tightened the friction on the throttle lever to prevent it from creeping back, removed his left hand from the throttle and changed it to the stick (as it was still called). He attempted to keep straight and level and on no account climbing for a few seconds, to build up to climbing speed, while keeping a sharp lookout and, with his right hand, moved the "Chassis" (undercarriage) selection lever to "UP". Having done this, he grasped the long, black pump handle, again with his right hand, and began to work it backwards and forwards to retract the wheels.

A flapless and almost brakeless landing on a first solo was not for the faint-hearted.
Having an extremely sensitive elevator control, the Spitfire responded with enthusiasm to any fore and aft movement by the left hand on the stick in sympathy with the pumping action of the right hand. The result could be entertaining for the onlookers, the aeroplane proceeding in an undulating path while the wheels slowly disappeared into the wings. When locked "UP", with red lights showing on the indicator and little tell-tale knobs flush with the upper wing surface, the pilot hanged hands once again, throttled back, closed the hood and climbed at the recommended speed to circuit height of 1,000ft while still trying to keep a sharp lookout for other aircraft in a busy circuit, with other pilots in similar predicaments, possibly not looking where they were going. Hopefully, he also remembered to go into coarse pitch and watch his temperatures and pressures. There was quite a lot to do.

Although the elevators were so light and very sensitive, the same could not be said of the" early fabric-covered ailerons, which became progressively harder to move at high speeds. After a deep breath, one's first ambition was to get the feel of the thing after such an avalanche of events, and then to get it home in one piece.

If there was one really unsatisfactory thing about the Spitfire I, it was its air compressor or pump. Perhaps it was a difficult item to maintain in good order, but the plain fact was that, as it was used to lower the flaps and operate the brakes ( to say nothing of the retractable landing lamps, when night flying), a tired or failed pump and consequent flap and brake failure resulted in a Spitfire seeming to go on for ever when a landing was attempted. A failure in this context included the alarmingly long time taken in flight by these early pumps to build up enough pressure in the air reservoir for the two vital retarding operations, since each flap-lowering and brake application resulted in the complete loss of that amount of air. A flapless and almost brakeless landing on a first solo was not for the faint-hearted.
The final act was to sign the Authorisation Book with a DCO (Duty Carried Out, if it had been!).
Alec Lumsden
Being cautious and having made a carefully-judged curved approach (wheels down and propeller in fine pitch) as prescribed, so as to get an idea where I was going, I suddenly became aware that the steamroller had disappeared behind the cowling but would obviously be uncomfortably close to where I was likely to end up. An overshoot was necessary; flaps were retracted at a safe height and speed and the wheels were laboriously pumped up again. A glance at the air reservoir gauge revealed that a lot of air had been used up when lowering the flaps. Another attempt was started, this time not so tidily. A second overshoot had to be made, amid a circuit which seemed to have become uncomfortably full of Spitfires and other types of aircraft, some of which were going considerably more slowly and therefore were overtaken on the outside. The Spitfire was most reluctant to slow down, the throttle when closed too abruptly producing a characteristic series of bangs and splutters as unburnt fuel ignited in the exhaust stubs. By this time the air pressure needle was on the red mark and, as instructed, a departure from the circuit was made to give the system a chance to build up a little, which it did, horribly slowly.

With the hood back and secured, a landing was finally and safely made, but lowering the flaps again had used up almost all the precious available air and the brakes were practically useless.

After taxying well clear of the landing area there was nothing for it but to switch off and await the comments of the rescuing groundcrew who, on this occasion, were pretty good-natured. A "trolley-acc", towed behind a Hillman van carrying a couple of airmen, soon had the engine running again and, with one man on each wingtip for steering, the Spitfire was taxied slowly back to dispersal and switched off, using the slow-running cut-out just in time to prevent the Merlin boiling in disgust at the treatment to which it had been subjected by yet another ham-handed pupil.
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Above, the author Alec Lumsden, takes a rest from gardening at the main gate at RAF Ibsley, in 118 Sqn, May 1941
With the whirr of the gyros and the ticking of the engine, which was already beginning to cool, there remained only the need to open the hinged door, grasp the top of the windscreen and thankfully hoist oneself up on the seat, clamber over the side on to the wing and then step down on to the ground, with a curious feeling of elation and relief that all that training was good enough after all. The Spitfire had accepted me as a partner in one of the most exciting and demanding combined operations. The final act was to sign the Authorisation Book with a DCO (Duty Carried Out, if it had been!).

It should be remembered that, in wartime, pupils came in all sizes and with all sorts of capabilities within the overall scope of the RAF's training scheme. It says a great deal for the Service's instructors that some of the thousands of pupils survived at all, let alone achieved the overall success they did. Today's aircraft cannot bear comparison, even though their pilots are just the same, but what of their training? The difference, over 50-odd years, is a phenomenon.

Nothing can overshadow the inspiration of R.J. Mitchell and the wonderful Supermarine team who were able to create such an amenable yet potent fighter.

The Spitfire was an aeroplane which the late Jeffrey Quill, the company's great chief test pilot, described as "a real lady".

For this pupil, flying it was very much a case of losing my heart, not for the first time perhaps, but to an aeroplane which was demanding but forgiving and which clawed me out of trouble (not always of my own making) on numerous occasions to follow - particularly when I was posted as the test pilot in charge at a Maintenance Unit.

Once grasped, the Spitfire Mk I and her successors, like the lady or the nettle, was not only pretty but fairly harmless when properly treated.


Article appeared in Aeroplane Monthly, July 1996