When we last caught up with Justin Helliwell, (former) RAF Wing Commander, we spoke about his career and experiences flying with the BBMF (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight). He's back again by popular demand, and this time we're chatting about what it's like to actually fly one of these iconic planes...
R/E: Hi Justin, thanks for having us back!
R/E: What is it that makes the Spitfire so special?
There’s a couple of things that make the Spitfire special. The first one is the physical design of the aircraft, which for its time was well ahead of technology. And it’s a fighter pilot’s dream to fly, so from a design point of view it’s a very special machine.
But then you’ve got the iconic link back to history, and to British history in particular, so whenever you fly one there’s a piece of that that’s with you in the cockpit. That makes every flight a special flight. So you add those two together and overall it’s a bit of a dream machine really.
R/E: How does it hold up today compared to modern aircraft?
There are definite characteristics of the Spitfire that are in modern day Typhoon aircraft and modern day fighter aircraft. In general if you think about what made the Spitfire famous, it was the sound of it, its performance, how high it could climb, and how quickly it could turn in comparison to German machines. You compare that now to modern day Typhoon aircraft in the Royal Air Forces and the performance is equally impressive.
R/E: Was it a real step change in performance between the Hurricane and Spitfire?
The Hurricane was a few years behind in its design, but yet it was a step change. The Spitfire is much lighter, therefore its performance was much greater, and the way that the centre of gravity was designed in the aircraft meant that its handling was just so much lighter and more controllable, which is what you need. If you want to gun somebody then you need a stable platform from which to gun from, and that’s exactly what the Spitfire gives you.
R/E: What kind of feedback do you get through the stick on the Spitfire?
You feel just about everything in terms of feedback, from crosswinds on take-off to G-forces. If you don’t quite have the aircraft balanced out in the trim you’ll feel that immediately. It’s very, very light and everything gets fed back through your stick – and even the engine; you’ll feel that through the throttle, and you’ll certainly feel the vibration through the cockpit. So she really talks to you, both from an aerodynamic point of view but also from a mechanical point of view. You almost don’t need to look at the gauges to be honest, you just feel what’s going on with her. More so than any other aircraft I’ve flown, actually.
R/E: What sort of G-force do you experience?
We restrict ourselves to a maximum amount of about 4G, but really if you’re pulling up towards 4G then it’s too much. The guys and girls in the war would obviously pull a lot more, but we’re trying to preserve the aircraft. Now you don’t have any kind of anti-G protection in the Spitfire like you do in the modern day Typhoon, and 4Gs is enough to keep you on your toes if you’re not careful enough.
R/E: Of course you would have done G-force training as well, which for a lot of people back in the war –
They didn’t know about it. They might have talked about it in the bar potentially, at the beginning. Towards the end of the war the Air Force was starting to develop its knowledge of aviation medicine, why you black out, what the physiological effect of G-force is. Certainly we lost pilots because they blacked out, we know we did. Across the modern western Air Forces we still lose pilots all the time to what we call G-lock, which is where you black out. It’s something we are trained against but can still bite you if you’re not careful.
R/E: What does the sound of the Spitfire mean to you?
It just scythes through you and takes you back to an era where our grandfathers and grandmothers were fighting for our freedoms, that’s what it means to me. Everything that we have today was laid on the foundations of their sacrifice, and the sound reminds me of that. And it doesn’t matter if you’re in the cockpit or if you’re sat down here, it links back. The Merlin is special though, the Merlin’s got a special sound, and it does reduce people to tears. Including me on the odd occasion.
R/E: We completely understand why. Thank you once again for your time!