Monday, February 20, 2012

Spitfire Conversation: An Interview with VW Pilots Rob “Loves Alliteration” Erdos and John “Man of Few Words” Aitken

With March and our next Warbird U ground school - the Spitfire - just around the corner, we thought we would tease and tantalize you with a few facts about the iconic fighter.


Vintage Wings (VW): In your opinion, what makes the Spitfire such a unique and well-loved airplane?

Rob Erdos (RE): Adoration for the Spitfire is at least partly aesthetic.  The elliptical wing planform is nearly unique in aviation, and both highly functional and visually distinctive.  The desire for elliptical wings comes from a rule in aerodynamics that induced drag is a minimum if the spanwise lift distribution is elliptical, and that would result in an elliptical wing shape.  The trouble is that it's devilishly difficult to manufacture, and in most cases a straight tapered wing was considered "close enough".  Not so with the Spitfire, and the result is an aeroplane that is readily identifiable and gorgeous.

John Aitken (JA): It looks just right, has an easily recognized shape, and it is the iconic Battle of Britain and wartime fighter.


“Every kid should own one.” John Aitken

VW: What is one thing about the Spitfire that most people don’t know?

RE: The Spitfire's designer, Reginald Mitchell, was a household name in England long before he put pen to paper on the Spitfire.  He designed the Schneider Cup racing seaplanes that brought glory to England during international races in the 1920's and 1930'.s   His seaplane designs were so famous that when the large Vickers Company sought to buy Supermarine, the continued participation of Reginald Mitchell was a condition of sale of the company.  Sadly he never lived to see the place that the Spitfire would earn in history.  Mitchell saw the prototype fly, but died of cancer before the Spitfire became synonymous with the Battle of Britain.

JA: Maybe that is has the typical ‘Brit’ air-type wheel brakes and that, even for pilots used to toe brakes, they are not difficult to learn how to use. Also, the Hawker Hurricane had more ‘kills’ during the Battle of Britain.


VW: How does it handle?

RE: People probably don't realize that while the Spitfire is a glory to fly in the air, it is very out of its element on the ground.  The Spit has extremely poor ground cooling, limiting the engine to as little as five minutes of taxiing on a hot summer day before it overheats.  The Spit has very short undercarriage legs (owing to the thin wings...again a legacy of Mitchell's experience building racing aeroplanes), and those short legs don't extend very far ahead of the centre of gravity.  The Spit is consequently prone to nose-over on the ground on rough terrain or due to heavy braking.  

In flight the Spitfire easily deserves the rapturous praise for handling that it has earned.  The flight controls are very light and responsive.  The turning performance is arguably the best of the WWII fighters, and the performance remains exhilarating even by modern standards.  The only oddities are that the ailerons are relatively heavy compared to the elevators; a situation described as poor "control harmony".  

JA: On the ground, a little tricky but in the air, like a dream. Control forces are light making it very easy to manoeuvre.


VW: Does it have any big “gotchas”?

RE: The biggest "gotcha" of the Spitfire again arises from the short undercarriage legs.  Take-offs and landings ABSOLUTELY MUST be conducted from the 3-point attitude.  "Movie-style" take-offs where one raises the tail and runs along the main wheels are a no-no lest one lose the propeller tips in the runway.  Propeller clearance constrains the take-off and landing technique.

JA: the nose is very light – you must use care to use minimum power manoeuvring on the ground lest you pull the tail up and nose over damaging the prop (and your ego). Also, it is unbelievably noisy at take-off.


VW: Anything else you’d like to add?

RE: By even the standards of many later WWII fighters, the Spitfire is extremely limited in range.  With 85 gallons of fuel in a single fuel tank (95 gallons in later models), the Spitfire can be out of gas in less than an hour under combat conditions.  Again this arose from the having a wing too thin to house fuel tanks, so all of the fuel is mounted in a single tank that is - ominously - installed directly in front of the pilot.  

JA: Every kid should own one.


To learn more, sign up for Warbird U March 24-25. And now introducing, Warbird U No Frills.


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