HERE IS absolutely nothing routine about your first warbird sortie.As an experienced pilot it is normal to get into a ‘routine’ with regard to any flight. Whilst any sortie requires thought about how to get‘up and down’, the majority of the planning process is spent on the execution of the mission in the middle. Quite the opposite when dealing with your first Hurricane ride!
I am absolutely pre-occupied with not only how I am going to get it airborne, but more importantly how I am going to get it safely back on the ground. The plan is simple enough: take-off, climb to height, some general handling and aerobatics, a practice forced landing and then a few circuits. All of this I have done on numerous occasions in one of our two DHC Chipmunks and more recently with John Romain in a North American Harvard, but there are no two-seat Hurricanes and who would want to be known for bending one of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s aircraft?
The ‘routine’ I refer to is more the mindset required and that starts hours earlier than the planned sortie. A ‘Met’ brief at Coningsby establishes that the weather is suitable and within limits, and although I will not be going far from home, I pay particular attention to what the surface wind is up to — where is it coming from and at what strength.
I arrive at the Flight and establish what time Sqn Ldr Clive Rowley mbe will brief me on the sortie. Having handed over Officer Commanding BBMF to Sqn Ldr Al Pinner mbe, Clive remained as the Fighter Leader for the first half of 2006. As such he was responsible for teaching the new ‘fighter pilots’. I know full well what is required of me today, but we will brief it comprehensively all the same and he will take me through the process as if he were flying it himself.
I will always try to give myself enough time to sit quietly and reflect on what I am about to do. It is not so much the content of the sortie but more a mental mind map of what is going to happen so that you are better prepared when it does.Think through the sortie in chronological order and ensure that you know what you are going to do, when to do it and what to do in the event of things not quite going according to plan.
A comprehensive brief follows to ensure that every angle is covered and although it really just clarifies the order of events, it gives Clive an opportunity to throw a few emergency situations at me and to see if I have thought them through.
A quick visit to flying clothing to get my helmet, active noise reduction (ANR) box and gloves and then to the out-brief, which we go through together. I sign the Form 700 which releases the aircraft from the engineers and into my care, then I nip off for a quick ‘nervous pee’ on the way out of the building!
The Hurricane is sitting resplendently in the sunshine on the concrete pan outside the BBMF headquarters. As I approach, I greet my groundcrew and note that the fighter is sitting level, with no apparent leaks, that a fire extinguisher is present and that the taxiway is clear in front and there’s nothing behind. It would not be the first time that a starting Merlin has sandblasted or pebble-dashed whoever or whatever is behind it!
I climb onto her via the port wing root and carry out my initial cockpit checks. At this stage everything is off and therefore safe, and I slide down off the wing and start my ‘walk-around’ checks.These are really nugatory, as I know that the groundcrew has lovingly prepared her this morning, but it is another part of my ‘routine’ and continues to focus my energies in the right direction.
The Hurricane has a very wide undercarriage track, which makes it easier to ground handle; it also has very soft balloon tyres and long-throw shock absorber, more of which later.The radiator, central under the fuselage, cools both glycol and oil, and because it sits directly behind the propeller wash, the aircraft does not suffer from overheating problems as some types do.
None of our fighters carry weapons; even the cannons on ‘PZ’ are replicas.The aim is to keep the all-up mass down as low as possible in order to reduce airframe and engine stress, and therefore fatigue.The tail and rudder are both very large and ‘broad chord’, which is one of the reasons that we fly the Hurricane first on the BBMF — she is easier to control in yaw as a result.
I climb over the cockpit wall and settle into the bucket parachute and adjust the rudder pedal travel. I have spent hours sitting in this cockpit, but it was always in the hangar whilst I learnt my checks and familiarised myself with the controls and systems. Now the adrenalin is flowing as I strap into first the parachute, and then the aircraft harness.This is the real deal and don’t I know it!
Clive watches me go through the pre-start checks, and content that all is well he pats me on the shoulder, wishes me luck and then slides off the wing himself.There is little more he can do than hope that all he has told me has sunk in and he watches with bated breath!
The cockpit of a warbird is at best functional. By today’s standards it is an ergonomic disaster, but if you bear in mind when it was designed, it all makes sense. I push the plunger of the Ki-gas pump in and out five times and then feel the pressure as the pump fills with fuel.The next five to seven strokes of the pump squirt fuel into the Merlin engine inlet manifold, not too much or it will spit huge flames out of the exhaust ports during the start, and not too little or it will not start at all. OK, ready!
Switches ‘ON’, wind up signal to the groundcrew, and then place one finger on the boost button and another on the start button. Showers of sparks are thrown into the cylinders as the engine turns and sucks the prime fuel in and the Merlin fires into life. I catch the RPM with the throttle and my left hand, and set it to ground idle, but I cannot impress upon you just how incredibly noisy and powerful a 12-cylinder, 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin sounds the first time you are strapped in behind one! I have not even taxied yet and I am nearing emotional and sensory overload.
Radio call to the tower, then chocks away and I move forward under the guidance of one of the groundcrew. A gentle squeeze of the bicycle-type brake lever on the control column and I can feel that the brakes are working, and then onto the rudders to swing the nose from left to right as I taxi forward.The view over a Hurricane nose is not as bad as that of a Spitfire, but in the landing attitude, as it is now, you can’t see very much and I would not be the first taildragger pilot to taxi into something hidden behind the nose.
Quite a long taxi today and I quickly get used to the rudder throw and brakes.Warbirds are notorious for having poor brakes by today’s standards, but of course they landed on grass in the old days and slowed down pretty quickly.The advice to not hammer them but use full rudder before brake and then only sparingly, seemed to do the trick, and before long I am lined up on Runway 25.
Pre take-off checks are read from the Flight Reference Cards (FRCs) to ensure that they are done properly. It’s not that we can’t learn them, but there are three different types within the BBMF fighters and it just ensures that we use the correct techniques for the appropriate aircraft. I leave the power checks until last as this is the final chance to make sure the engine is on song before you demand a lot of power from her. All set and I’m ready to go.There is nowhere to hide now!
POWER AND GRACE
I know that the Hurricane will want to swing left on take-off, though a wind from the left today will reduce that tendency; so as I gently apply more and more power I feed in more and more right rudder to keep her straight.The control column is almost immediately allowed to ‘float’ to neutral and I check that the Merlin is revving to 3,000rpm and that I have 6 inches of boost (12 inches of boost is available).
The noise is simply astonishing, and within seconds a gentle push forward on the control column has the tail lifting into the air. Precession and slipstream effect all contribute to divergence in yaw and I make repeated rudder inputs to keep her nose pointing down the centre of the runway. I am so totally absorbed looking out through the bullet-proof windscreen that I fail to recognise the speed cue to lift off.The Hurricane floated away from the ground with amazing power and grace.
Simply stunning, and such was my awe at what was going on that I barely remembered to change hands so that I could raise the undercarriage with my right one! Two big red lights indicate that the gear has retracted safely and I then reduce the engine boost to 4 inches and bring the RPM back to 2,400, which is climb power.
I start a gentle right turn to the north, then switch the radio to approach and let them know that I am airborne. I am flying a Hurricane and it’s the first time that I have had any spare capacity to even recognise the fact! She is climbing strongly as the speed settles at 130 knots and the steady beat of the Merlin sends energy through the airframe.
For the first time I am able to assess the out-of-trim forces and then reduce both pitch and yaw to zero using the respective trim wheels.There is no trim in roll, but she is very light on the controls and seemingly in trim.
Oh yes,‘Ts’ and ‘Ps’ need checking constantly! That is to say the temperatures and pressures -everything is in its rightful place on the gauges so I can now look out of the side windows and marvel at the shape of her wings and reflect on the fact that for the first time in my life I am flying a World War Two fighter.
The angel on my left shoulder is telling me that I have found the Holy Grail and I would have settled for that, but the devil on my right is saying,‘‘Gotta land it! Gotta land it!”
CHARMING TO FLY
Very quickly I’m at 7,000ft and I slow her down towards the full stall.The controls are certainly still very effective even at the light buffet, but they are a little sloppy. The buffet margin is good, but I recover before getting to the fully stalled condition, as big warbirds are prone to very severe wing drop which requires thousands of feet to recover from. The engine picks up immediately from idle and the massive three-bladed prop claws at the air and drags us promptly away from the stall.
I then repeat the same exercise but with the gear and flap down.The flap masks the pre-stall buffet a little bit but other than that it is little different. I clean up the gear first and then the flap and check the ‘Ts’ and ‘Ps’ again as I am back at full power.
The next event is to accelerate to 270 knots, which is our normal operating maximum speed. This is a lot less than it is capable of but again we are reducing the stress and strain of flying too quickly.These aeroplanes have to last for ever after all.
The controls stiffen as the speed increases and I suppose you could describe them as heavy at the top end of the speed range, but they are very responsive and beautifully balanced. Lots of trimming in both pitch and yaw is required through any speed or power change in a big piston. One thing that is very apparent at speed is the noise! Even with ANR, the racket is quite deafening and it is mostly wind noise from around the cockpit.
Time for some aerobatics and the Hurricane is simply charming to fly! Your feet are actively engaged keeping her in balance as the speed changes, but she is beautifully harmonised and very stable. I had wondered how I was going to cope with the circular ‘spade’ grip control column top, but my right hand fell naturally to the 2 o’clock position and it was almost intuitive.
A lot of what I am writing is in hindsight of course. I am simply flying a Merlin-engined Hurricane on my own and throwing it around a beautiful clear blue sky in Lincolnshire — no finer way to spend one’s time!
RETURN TO EARTH
Anyway, the devil is winning over the angel and it is indeed time to return to the circuit and carry out a practice forced landing to start with. We try to replicate the characteristics of the big pistons in the Chipmunk as much as we can, and the rate of descent is not unlike that I have seen before.
I put the gear down to simulate the drag of a seized or wind-milling engine and then judge my way around the finals turn to ensure that I could make my landing area.
We are always alert to the fact that engines fail at the most inconvenient of times and each pilot must know instinctively what to do in order to minimise risk to others, themselves and then to the aircraft. Most of us are of the opinion that we’ll ride it out to the end in order to save the aircraft and then hopefully walk away ourselves.
The overshoot definitely grabs my attention. On take-off I have the rudder trim wound fully to the right to ease the swing.This is now somewhere in the middle and I am using take-off power to overshoot.The swing of the nose to the left is almost shocking and requires a strong right leg to keep her in balance. I have to wait until I am 200ft above the runway before raising the flap and then the gear before turning downwind.
Crikey, what a handful and I didn’t even touch the ground! The circuit is empty and I can’t remember having to work so hard while flying alone to keep an aircraft under control.There is a lot to do and whilst none of it is particularly difficult, it is challenging in a type that you are flying for the first time.
Remember my mentioning the big balloon tyres and long travel undercarriage? Well on my first approach to roll I cut the power a little too early and thereafter the Hurricane’s elevator runs out of authority to stop the subsequent nose drop and resultant rate of descent. All I can recall is that we arrived in a slightly undignified manner and said tyres and undercarriage promptly bounced us back into the air — some 12 feet I was to learn later in the debrief!
Shaken but undeterred I listened intently to Sqn Ldr Rowley’s debrief on the radio and set myself up for a second go. Whilst not exactly getting the hang of the Hurricane, I felt as though I was now at least hanging onto her tail rather than water-skiing behind her.The second roller was almost passable and the right leg was primed to cater for the swing as the power came on.
All that remained was for me to do something similar, but instead of rolling I would bring her to a halt. I was careful not to cut the power too early and despite a little skip, we arrived quite nicely and as I peddled furiously to keep her in a straight line I gently squeezed the brake lever to slow her down.
The ‘war stories’ about ground looping big pistons were ringing in my ears as I got her down to a respectable speed and started the short taxi back to dispersal. Every aspect of this operation is still unfamiliar, and whilst a little more comfortable with my surroundings I am still on edge.
The Hurricane is now safely back where she came from and having briefly checked the magnetos at l,500rpm, I pull the Lean Cut Out and the massiveVI2 in front of me slows to a stop and then rests. Still focused I read the checks out of the FRCs and shut her down completely.
I can see Al, Clive and the boys not far away, and a bottle of Champagne, so I guess the immediate debrief is not going to be too bad — but my heart is still racing and the emotion of the occasion is overwhelming. I had achieved a life-long ambition to fly a Hurricane.
I felt proud and honoured to have been given the opportunity to fly an aircraft that is part of the nation’s heritage and to say my own thank you to the ‘Few and the Many’.Your sacrifice assured that I had the opportunity to chase my dreams.