Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

And Just When You Least Expect It...

Duxford, England

The morning was a challenge. What would I do to while away the next 48 hours, waiting for my Spitfire ride? I have seen (almost) everything in the museums at the airfield. I enjoy waiting for things about as much I enjoy being boiled in oil while having my eyes jabbed with sharp sticks. There must be another way of "framing" this situation.

I'm sitting there in my hotel room thinking about my dilemma when through the open window I hear that awesome roaring sound of the magical Merlin-engined SPITFIRE! I leap to the window and stick my head out to get a better look. Sure enough, those lovely elliptical wings are impossible to mistake, as is the green-brown camouflage paint and the black and white "invasion stripes". It's on final approach to runway 24 at Duxford, but going much too fast to be landing, so it's got to be going in for a low pass, and probably a full aerobatic routine. I watch it until it disappears past the end of the building and then run to the other side of the hotel and watch through the window facing toward the airfield.

The pilot is definitely doing a full routine. I can't see it all because I am so far away, about two miles, and the plane dips out of sight below some trees, but it's great to watch and try to predict exactly where the plane will reappear. At times it comes very close to the hotel, which is at the very edge of Duxford, the closest inhabited building to the airfield.

What was I complaining about? Something to do for the next 48 hours? How could I be so blind? It's right here in my own back yard. I could watch these planes all day long. There is nowhere else in the world where I could enjoy watching Spitfires play in the sky, and takeoff and land on the grass. And it's free! And not just Spitfires, but there are all kinds of toys that might be going up at any moment.

So I will go back to the airport, with a fresh attitude. I might not be able to fly one myself right now, but I can certainly watch, and imagine, and drool.

I'm downstairs and outside waiting for the taxi and another Spitfire is growling closer, then flashes overhead, straight and level, and just keeps going to the northeast. It's the double-bubble canopy of OU-V, Carolyn Grace's Spitfire, the one I'm supposed to fly on Monday. There can be only one explanation for this: Carolyn must be giving a ride to some lucky guy, it must be the "Yank" she mentioned, from Chicago. That means they'll probably be back within the hour. If I get over to the airfield quickly enough, I can catch their arrival and landing.

And besides, I've got to talk with Carolyn about my ride on Monday. She wanted me to meet her at an air show in York, which is a two and a half hour train ride north of here, and Monday is a Bank Holiday, so the train schedules are infrequent. I was thinking about going up there the night before, but she says the Spitfire has zero room for baggage. I'm not looking forward to waking up to my Spitfire ride without a shave and brushing my teeth and fresh clothes, so it looks like I'm going to have to get up real early on Monday and take the only (very early) train that will get me to York in time to make my takeoff time slot at 1300 hours.

The taxi arrives just as Carolyn returns from her flight, and on the ride over to the airfield I am watching her Spitfire circling overhead, coming in for the low pass and aileron "victory" roll. We pull up to the front gate, I jump out, pay the driver and run a couple of hundred yards to where I can see them just coming in over the numbers for a perfect landing on the grass.

I ran over to my biplane, planning to be standing near it when they taxi past, so I can wave hello, to announce my presence on the field without being intrusive. I had in mind a discreet wave of the hand, as I was leaning nonchalantly up against my biplane, almost not even noticing the Spitfire until the last moment. However, my natural enthusiasm overwhelmed me and I gave a huge sweeping wave of the entire arm, and even jumped up in the process. I did this twice, just to be sure it was not missed. (I'm going to have to learn to get control of my emotions one of these days.)

After Carolyn and her passenger dismount and take about 10 minutes to talk over the flight, I mosey on over and catch her eye. She smiles briefly, then walks over to me with a more serious look. She is concerned about the weather in York. It's raining there now, with ceilings down to 700 feet. If it continues that way for today, she won't be flying the Spitfire up there. And the weather is supposed to be even worse tomorrow, the day I'm supposed to fly. So she wants to wait a little bit and see what the weather is going to do today, and if it looks like it's going to continue to be bad in York, and if it's ok with me, then she'lltakemeupformyflightthisafternoon.

Heavy emotional content received...
Brain temporarily disengages during decoding of last transmission...


She....will....take....me....up....for....my....flight....this....afternoon? What? I can fly the Spitfire today? In the air? Me? Spitfire? Today?

Hey, I'm not ready for this! It was supposed to be tomorrow, but actually it was supposed to be yesterday, and now it's today? Maybe. I just came over here today to WATCH. How is a person supposed to remain calm, normal, sane in the midst of all this uncertainty? I try to do an impression of a normal person, but I think my grunts and drooling and the leaping in the air gave it away. I am hopelessly unprofessional about it all.

I walk back to my biplane and hang out there for an hour or so. Carolyn said that if she was going to fly with me today, she would have me paged over the loudspeaker system. ("Michael McCafferty, alias The World's luckiest man for today, please report to the Spitfire for your lifetime supply of orgasms")

For what seems like several eternities, I arrange and rearrange my baggage compartment as well as the front cockpit, then add some oil, update my log book, and read some of the flying novel I carry in my backpack for just such emergencies.

The wind picks up to about 15 knots, and a large dark cloud appears just to the north of the field. It is raining heavily very close by. We are definitely in for some unpleasant weather.

And then I look up and see Carolyn walking slowly across the grass, toward my biplane. The look on her face is not the look of someone about to go for a ride in a Spitfire.

She starts out the same way. The weather in York is awful, which is a pity because the organizers of the event won't have much of an event. The Red Arrows got within a few miles and had to turn back. She won't be going to York today. Soifyou'rereadywe'llgetyousuitedupforyourridenow.

I'm getting better at this decoding thing. This is it! The big moment. Gulp! I gotta pee. But there's no way I'm going to do anything that would delay this event. I know how things can change in an instant, and I wouldn't want to be telling my grandchildren the story about how I ALMOST flew a Spitfire but I had to pee so it never happened because when I was peeing a big raincloud dumped a hundred tons of water on the field, and then the rest of the day was shot with even worse weather later.

This is where I discovered McCafferty's Second Law of Aviation: If you are going to fly a Spitfire, Fly now, pee later. Other than that, pee now, fly later.

Carolyn holds the seat-type parachute for me to climb into. I have done this before, so I am eager to show her that I don't need no stinking instructions, man. I back into the 'chute, put my right arm under the shoulder strap, then the left arm, then reach down to grab one of the leg straps, pull it up and start to thread it through... the D-ring! Duh! Hel-LO! She catches me right away, of course, right about the same moment that I realize that I am doing a very stupid thing. Get hold of yourself, man. This is really embarrassing. You know very well where that strap goes. "Uh... Just kidding Carolyn, just wanted to see if you were paying attention."

Next we walk over to the Spitfire, Carolyn stands on the wing root, and I'm on a step-stool contraption, and we are both hanging over the side of the rear cockpit, where I will fly, and she is giving me a briefing on the details of all the buttons and knobs and doodads and framistans and whatnots.

Most of it is all about how I get out of the plane in an emergency. Carolyn says simply: "If we have an emergency, I'll only say it once: 'Get out of the plane', then you pull this knobby thing, then punch out the canopy with your arm, and it SHOULD fly off, then unbuckle your harness, remove your helmet, and get out of the plane, keeping your hand on the D-ring of your 'chute, and pull it on your way down". Well, that sounds simple enough...

She continues: "However, if we ONLY have an engine failure and have to make an emergency landing in a field or wherever, then you just want to pull the canopy back, NOT jettison it completely, so pull this OTHER thingamajig, and DON'T punch the canopy off, lock it open by pulling THIS door handle just PART way back, NOT all the way." She doesn't have to finish the rest of the story. I know the rest. DON'T jump out of the plane just yet, wait until it comes to a stop and then jump out and run like hell before it blows up.

Other than that, have a nice flight!

Well, there are a few more things to discuss, like how I have to move my right leg out of the way when she switches the fuel selector handle from main to wing tanks after takeoff, then back to main tanks before landing. And here's the flaps control, the flaps are either up or down, nothing in between. And here's the landing gear control lever and indicators, seat adjustment lever, throttle, propeller pitch control, rpm, altimeter, airspeed, forget about the artificial horizon because it is completely dumped, here's the boost gauge for the supercharger, the turn coordinator, rudder trim, elevator trim, fuel pump warning light, oil pressure, coolant temperature, brake differential pressure, etc, etc, etc.

I'm really trying to get this all in because I might just have to deal with it all, in the unlikely event that Carolyn becomes incapacitated ("Amazing but True: Spitfire pilot, bitten by tea weevil, goes unconscious. Biplane pilot brings craft to safe landing! Pilot Carolyn, recovering in hospital says: "My Hero".... Pilot Mikie says "Aw, shucks, it weren't nuthin'. I just seen my dooty and I done it.")

What I'm really looking at is the big old gnarly rocker switch on the control stick. Carolyn says it's for the guns. Yeah!

Back to reality, Carolyn jumps into the front cockpit and goes through her checklist, audibly, then fires up the big V-12 Merlin engine. One thousand five hundred and sixty five horses spring to life! Oh, boy! She signals for removal of the chocks, and we taxi to holding point 24 Bravo.

As we are taxiing, I am noticing an unexpected noise, for all the world like short bursts of compressed air being released. Carolyn explains it's the brakes, which operate on compressed air (just like the flaps). Steering on the ground is accomplished by differential braking.

The run up magneto check is ok, we are ready to go. Carolyn gets clearance from the tower, pushes the throttle gently forward a little at a time, and soon we are rolling down the grass at Duxford, in a Spitfire, and I'm in it! Oh, yeah!

The speed builds, and the lift lightens the plane to the point where we are an inch or less off the ground, then we touch down again into a rise in the uneven runway, and then we are fully up in the air again, this time for sure. The wheels come up, but the plane stays down low, building up speed until we are past the other end of the runway, then we pull up into a gentle climbing left turn into the downwind leg of the pattern. We level out at about 1500 feet and Carolyn guides this sweetly singing bird out over the farmland beyond Duxford. "There's Cambridge, there's Duxford, and over there is...." (Yeah, right, Carolyn, but I'm not up here for a sight seeing tour, let's see what this baby will DO! I don't say this of course, I'm much too polite, but I sure do think it!)

The sky is alive with clouds at every level. Just above us at about 1800 feet there is a scattered layer of light cumulus. Above that is another broken layer at around 2500 feet, billowing to around 4500 feet. Lots more scattered and broken layers are visible through the holes all the way to 15,000 feet and beyond. In several places, all around us, there are dark cells of rain showers. Carolyn finds a likely place to play, but keeps it below the lowest broken layer.

She does a few easy turns to loosen up. Then a couple of steep turns, pulling a couple of G's in the process. The Spitfire is wheeling around in a tight circle, one wing pointed straight down at the ground. It's beautiful beyond words to see that perfectly lovely wing, so strong and true, but there is an even more beautiful sight, the other wing pointing straight up to heaven with a background of God's finest clouds.

Straight and level, boost up, then diving slightly to build up speed to 240mph. Stick back into 30 degree climb, then left stick left for aileron roll. Oh yes, we are rolling in a Spitfire, and it is doing it like it's a natural bodily function, no problem at all. Again into a dive to regain our speed and another roll, another dive and this time it's not a roll, but straight up, up, up, and up-side-down, we are doing the loop thing. I tilt my head up and see the horizon, blue side down! Coming out of the loop on the down side, we roll out for a Half-Cuban-Eight. And then another. Then a full loop, pulling about 3.5 G's coming out the bottom.

"You have the airplane!", says Carolyn. This is the moment of truth. I take the stick, the airplane is under my control. "I have the airplane" I confirm. Now what am I going to do?

The control stick is very different than anything I have used before. While the stick is mounted to the floor of the aircraft, and hinged at the bottom to control pitch, the entire stick does not move side to side, just the top third! This is done as a compromise due to the cramped cockpit. There just isn't enough room to move the entire stick. So there are two different pivot points to deal with in a climbing or diving turn. In addition, there is no classical pistol grip at the top of the stick, it is a loop-shaped grip, which could actually be gripped with both hands, if you needed to. I find the entire arrangement very awkward, but obviously it's just a matter of what you get used to. Spitfires with this stick sure outclassed a lot of enemy aircraft during the war.

The pitch (up/down) control is very sensitive, a lot more sensitive than the aileron control. As far as rudder controls go, I had a bit of a problem figuring out the right touch, probably because the prop spins the wrong way therefore reversing the torque characteristics from what I am used to. Eventually I could make a decent turn without slipping or skidding too much. I did a few easy turns and then some tight turns and tried my best to keep from climbing into the clouds, but the pitch is very, very sensitive. It took a few minutes for me to get the hang of it.

We were cruising aroud the neighborhood at about 2000 feet, and I mentioned to Carolyn that I wanted to find a little more altitude for some aerobatics. I'm used to having about 3500 feet under me when I go looping and rolling around the sky. It's comfortable insurance to have some extra time to recover if things get weird, like a wing coming off, or whatever. Carolyn's reply was that it was not going to happen today. The loops and rolls, that is. She no longer lets passengers do that stuff, ever since the ride with the guy who froze at the controls when the engine quit while upside down. (That's a particular personality quirk of this plane during any maneuvers less than 1G.)

"However, if you want, you can come back in two weeks and Peter (the guy who taught her to fly the Spitfire) will take you up and you can do anything you want! Shall I book you with him?"

Yes! Now we are talking! So it looks like this is just my introductory flight. A chance for Carolyn to get to know if I'm capable and trustworthy behind the stick, and if I pass, then I get invited back to play for real. This is cool. Very, very cool. I'll be back!

We play a little bit more, then Carolyn takes us back to the airfield and we are blasting down the runway for a low pass, about 20 feet off the deck, and I am looking at Duxford airfield in a whole new way.... hey, there's my biplane on the grass parking area... nice plane..... and up, up, up we go again for a victory roll. Oh, yes, this is just so much fun I don't want to stop, but I know this is the end of it because we are headed downwind, the boost comes back, the plane slows, the wheels come down, we turn base, then final, and we are set up real nice for a landing.

I can't see anything forward because my field of vision is blocked by the back of Carolyn's headrest. However, the canopy is bulged out on the sides so I can press my head up tight against the plexiglass and get just the slightest bit of forward visibility, but not much. It would be a real mess to try to land this plane from the rear seat. Probably have to slip it down, then straighten it out at the last second.

I'm surprised that the plane lands so slowly. Carolyn holds it to 90 knots on final. It stalls at less than 50 knots (my Waco stalls at 59 mph!). However, the true Achilles heel of this plane is the ground handling. The main gear is surprisingly close together, and there is a lot of weight in the wings, so ground loop accidents were not uncommon. By comparison, the Mustang main gear is probably twice as wide as the Spitfire.

Carolyn is very well set up for landing, and I'm expecting it to be perfect. She probably was too. But then the unexpected happens and it bounces. Not real bad, but not the flawless work that has become her standard. I can certainly empathize. Some of my landings have been hilarious to onlookers (but not to me at the moment!). I would term the landing "effective, but inelegant". So what! We are flying a Spitfire! Let's focus on what matters!

And now what matters is: where's the loo? I really gotta pee!

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