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Witt on Spits

Wonderful sound of a low-flying Spitfire
Witt's Mark 8 Spit DG-C in Burma from the original oil painting by Peter J Stuckey
I was amused by a recent TV story about the American Mustang that ‘won the war’ and also shot down the entire Luftwaffe!
I had the honour to fly Spitfires in Burma, an honour somewhat dulled by the opposition: not for me the challenge and pleasure of a go at the Luftwaffe who had bombed my mum and me in London in 1940.  We felt rather like vermin exterminators on our way out to Burma in 1943.  My squadron was equipped with the American Hawk, a sort of ‘Mickey Mouse’ fighter; we were re-equipped with the Spit Mk 8’s.  Better than the Mk 9, it had a retractable tail-wheel, a stronger main spar and an extra 24 gallons of fuel in the wings; in fact, in my opinion, it was the best model of all the Spits, including the later R-R Griffon-engined aircraft I flew.
Compare the opposition of the day: the Japs had aircraft that resembled copies of American fighters, perhaps made by the same people who made those nasty tin toys I used to cut my fingers on as a kid.  They were relatively easy to clobber, being no match for a Spit.  Without wishing to belittle our allies, the best American fighter was the Mustang, a British design specification with a laminar flow (thin) wing and fitted with the feeble Allison engine, superseded by the Packard built R-R Merlin.
One of my squadrons was equipped with the latest Mustang Mk 4 just at the end of the war and during the Palestine troubles.  On the other side of the airfield was a squadron of clapped-out old Spit 9’s.  Obviously there was great rivalry and during training sessions, or just for fun, mock combats were commonplace.  Never – but never – were we able to get on to the tail of a Spit, providing of course that the pilot wasn’t a complete berk who had not kept his eyes open.  The Spit boys in 6 Squadron used to take the mickey out of us and invite us to ‘come over and have a look at our lovely camera gun pictures of your lovely Mustangs’.  We were all experienced fighter boys, but we never managed to get attacking snaps of those Spits, although we had the so-called advantage of ‘battle flaps’ for ‘manoeuvre superiority’ on our Mustangs!
The other amusing US aircraft I instructed on was the mighty Thunderbolt, ‘10 tons of screaming s---’ we called it.  It was like a powerful brick if dropped, but took ages to get up to height.  It made a nice noise of tortured air and had admirable evasive action – undo the straps and run round the cockpit! 
I never flew a US Lightning, with the Allison engines, but remember intercepting them on a high-level exercise; we scrambled late, but caught them at a lower level.  We very easily brought back lovely pictures in our spits – no contest!  The Mustang was a few mph faster, eventually, than the Spit in level flight, but the Spit accelerated faster (it was 1,000lb or so lighter), had a greater rate of climb and could fly higher – I have had a Spit up to 42,400 feet, and a ‘low-level’ version at that, with the Merlin 66 engine.  The Spits’ manoeuvrability and turning power was far superior, although the Mustang did have larger fuel tanks for better range and could carry, externally, a 180-gallon drop tank.  The Spit had 30, 90 and 180 gallon drop tanks for photo recce, and covered Berlin.
OK, so I am biased, but I have flown well over 120 different types of aircraft from gliders to V-bombers, jet fighters of all sorts and shapes, experimental aircraft, commercial aircraft and various choppers, etc.  But none could capture that magic charm of a Spit, the design of that inspired genius R J Mitchell, not a committee, and made by real, dedicated engineers, of which my country was then so blessed.  The end product was a lethal thoroughbred of rare beauty, so well harmonised that you felt part of it: one just thought left, up or down, upside down, and it just seemed to happen, without consciously moving anything.
How can I describe the sheer pleasure the beautiful thing gave me in 1,000 hours of flight, with never a bullet hole to show, during two tours of ops, and never an aborted mission?  The complete antithesis is the modern ‘squirter’ with auto this and that, electronic jazz ‘with it’ systems and push buttons – rather like comparing an electronic robot with a racehorse. 
The limiting mach number of early jet fighters was around 0.75, while a Spit achieved 0.96, well on the way to the speed of sound (1.00 mach), during propeller trials at Farnborough; no one told us about compressibility during the war!  The ‘g’ suit trials at Farnborough demanded more than a limiting aircraft ‘g’ of around 4, which was about the operating limit for the then current 1950’s jet fighters.  Someone said,
‘What about using a Spit?’ 
The limiting ‘g’ of the Spit was 13g, so this we did and proved that the suit could raise the amount of gravity force a pilot could stand in combat manoeuvres by a large amount.
Back to the Spit, how can one describe the human emotions of a young lad, scared stiff thinking about ‘it’ during sleepless nights?  False bravado in front of the boys, boredom on ‘readiness’ – then:
‘Scramble, scramble, make angels 30 heading 090, 16 plus bandits!’ 
Everything goes flying – tables, chairs, cups of char. 
‘I’m not going to let “A” flight get off first!’
A flying leap into ‘her’, an eager thumb on the starter button, the other hand on the Ki-gas primer, all in excited go, go, go!  A fierce splutter then that heavy throb, accumulator plug out, chocks away, swirl of dust, the long nose surges forward.  Bugger the runway, straight across it, that feeling as the big throttle is pushed through the restrictor ‘gate’ to the +18psi boost?  All of a sudden she’s airborne, wheels are up, and this thing is making you feel part of it.  The feeling of 1,750bhp smoothly flinging one forward and upwards is indescribable – no jet has that initial acceleration or that lovely deep roar, or that lovely coughing splutter of a strangled giant, as the throttle is shut on landing.
It may interest those concerned that when we picked up a replacement aircraft we would get ‘Chiefy’, the Flight Sergeant engineer, to make sure it was a Castle Bromwich airframe and also that it had a R-R Derby-built engine.  There was a difference, a big difference, and I don’t need to say what – just, thanks.
And a word for private enterprise.  I wonder who put up the money for the dearly development days at Supermarine, and who made the Schneider Trophy racers leading to the Spitfire?  Our greatest enemy of all time was flexing his muscles on our doorstep, arming to the teeth.  Was it the ‘ban the bomb’ trendies, do-gooders, other rubbish, our Government or the Civil Service?  Good Lord no, it was Lady Houston and R-R!