What is it like to fly Historical Warbird Aircraft?

Back in the March and May issues, we looked at Andy Durston’s flying career, a pilot who could hover a fighter jet, fly like a missile toward a Navy ship, and who picked up some gas from a flying fuel station en route to Cyprus. In this third and final chapter, he introduces us to a choice of his favourite warbirds.

Jamie Chalkley  |  21st June 2023
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    Jamie Chalkley
    Jamie Chalkley

    Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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    What is it like to fly Historical Warbird Aircraft?

    Besides the beautiful Spitfire Mk. IX, Andy flies different types of warbirds and shares his thoughts about these historic aircraft types. 

    Buchon / Messerschmitt Bf 109 

    “Basically, a licensed built Messerschmitt 109G built by Hispano in the late 50s, but with the more accessible (for parts) Merlin engine. This aircraft has a huge personality in terms of understanding it’s handling which, as I understand it, are very similar to the Messerschmitt 109! In comparison to the Spitfire the visibility outside isn’t as good, both on the ground during the take off and particularly when landing. In the air during formation aerobatics or tail chasing you are really aware of the reduced view compared to the Spitfire! This is mostly just down to the size and design of the canopy. The aircraft also suffers from low stability in yaw, and is surprisingly heavy in pitch, particularly at high speed. Ground handling wise; the landing gear configuration, high engine power and limited visibility can present the pilot with some quite challenging handling characteristics! What do I love about it? Well, the 109 has one menacing look and feel about it! It’s great fun to tussle with a Spitfire in a simulated dog fight (tail chase), although knowing the other guy is actually a great mate, certainly takes the pressure off if he gets on your tail!” 

    North American P-51 Mustang 

    “Really this was the next generation of aircraft from the earlier Mk.s of the Spitfire. Ergonomically it's a masterpiece! Just put your hand out to where you expect to find the gear or flap lever, and it’s there – just in the right spot. Handling wise it’s very stable at cruise and display speeds thanks to the revolutionary laminar flow wing, which not only cuts through air like a hot knife through butter, but it also really holds on to its wing energy. Simply amazing! The Packard Merlin compared to the Rolls Royce engine is very nice indeed and puts out similar power to the Spitfire. The inertia of that large all metal prop is also really something to behold!” 

    “The Mustang flows beautifully from one manoeuvrer to the next, but the weight of the controls can tire you out! And whilst that laminar flow wing is a thing of beauty when you throw some knots over it, it is a little unforgiving as you get closer to the stall angle, so you need to be particularly careful on a go around with all that power when the speed is low or if you pull too hard in an aerobatic manoeuvre. All in all, an amazing aircraft and a phenomenal design. If you ever wanted to go touring in a Warbird, the Mustang is the ride to take! Fast, amazing range, and just so comfortable!” 

    Sea Fury 

    “Perhaps the pinnacle of the piston generation! If set up right, that 2,500 hp, 18 cylinder radial engine runs as smoothly as a turbine and the aircraft feels light and agile. In fact, it feels more like a jet fighter than a 5 ton piston! It’s run in speed for a display is almost 450 mph, compared to the Spitfire it’s almost 100 mph faster! And with its high energy, it can actually be a challenge to keep the aircraft inside the display area. It’s quite an incredible aircraft!” 

    “I’d have to say performance wise it's kind of a step up from the Spitfire. If hopping between the two, you have to keep focused though as the prop on the Sea Fury spins the other way round! So it's left foot on take-off, and by that I mean; it’s as far left as your left foot will go… you WILL need all of it! In fact adding power is limited by how far you can press the pedal to keep the thing straight. Once it’s pressed all the way, don’t add any more power as you simply won’t travel in a straight line!” 

    Top Fun Instructor! 

    All this quick of hand and nimble footed operation has me wondering how the instructor feels about life when entrusting those actions to a transitioning pilot, especially when for many it is probably the first step into a big engine piston. 

    “I feel very fortunate, in fact privileged, to have looked after a few fellow pilots taking their first outing in a Spitfire or Mustang. I remember how special my first experience was and I’m keen to facilitate that moment for others and embrace how special the step is. I love putting someone in the front seat of the Spit for the first time, although you do have fairly limited ability to sort any issues out from the back seat”. By issues, he means ground handling. “On approach to land for example, between long finals and putting it on the ground, from the rear seat you can’t actually see the runway until you’re about 30ft off the surface. So you have to be pretty confident that the guy in front is ready for this step. In fact, at the point someone is easing themselves down into that front seat, the expectation is more on guidance than providing any basic instruction. The Spitfire is also quite light in pitch, so on the first outing with a new pilot to type, it’s quite common to see some light PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation), so from a briefing point of view this is something I always point out. And if transitioning from the Harvard the pilot needs to be ready with his feet as there is a greater attention needed on the rudder inputs with the step up in power”. 

    Andy went on to say that joining each pilot on their own Spitfire ‘journey’ is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects in his warbird flying, “it’s actually quite a profound experience, often quite moving in fact, seeing someone get to grips with the Spitfire. It just means so much to so many people”. 

    “Transitioning from Harvard to Mustang is actually a little easier I find. Both aircraft are built by the same people [North American] so there’s naturally a lot of synergy between cockpits and systems. The principal handling characteristics are also similar. And I have to say; from the instructor‘s seat, that view from the rear…. is a whole lot better!”

    Fancy a go yourself? 

    So with thoughts of training firmly in mind, the question that naturally comes next is “How” or perhaps “When” does the next pilot get their go? It’s obvious tail wheel hours are essential, perhaps going from Cub to Chipmunk and progressing up toward a Harvard, but HOW do you get from there into a Spitfire? When is the time right? And who might hand you the keys?

     “Generally, there are two ways to get yourself into a warbird beyond the Harvard step (or similar). The first and most common route is for the owner or operator to give an invitation. The second is if you own the aircraft – in which case, you can invite yourself!” 

    I consider this for a moment and conclude that either way, the qualities needed are the same, so I dig a little deeper in the area of the more common route, and ask what makes you attractive for the elusive invite? “Well, you need a good spread of experience. Not just on tail wheel aircraft but in general. Operators like to see you’ve been around a bit and gained a balance of skills and knowledge from more than one part of the industry. Having a Commercial License will also help. The cost to train clearly isn’t as cheap as a Cessna 152, so in return they’re looking for pilots who can help with passenger experience flights in the two seaters”. 

    “Ideally, operators (as well as owners and instructors) will prefer to see some formation experience too, ideally with some display experience and exposure to formation aerobatics is a bonus. These attributes all make the transitioning process easier and more efficient, as well as offering some benefits to the operator post training in having another display pilot available”. 

    “From the perspective of an instructor, I’m also looking for a good well rounded character. Someone who has the right balance of confidence and very importantly, the right attitude to flying these historically important aircraft. They need to have some empathy for the aircraft and its engine” 

    “Different operators have different fleets, so an invitation might include further flying in other types. Up at Sywell with Air Leasing / Ultimate Warbirds we're very lucky to have three of the big two seaters; The Mk. IX Spitfire, the Mustang and very uniquely a two seat Buchon. As well as a varied number of single seat fighters on the fleet”. 

    As for Andy, looking back over the last few years – he said he never imagined in his wildest dreams he would have the opportunity to fly a Spitfire! Let alone the ‘Grace Spitfire’, which is not only owned and operated by a wonderful family, but it’s a genuine WWII combat veteran. This is the very Spitfire credited with the first enemy victory over the Normandy beach head on 6th June 1944 (D-Day no less!). So historically it’s a significant example. But its more recent history is a special story in its own right. Having been restored by Nick Grace of course and then flown by the late Carolyn Grace who was an outstanding Spitfire pilot and a true aviation ambassador. The real McCoy you could say. And their son; warbird legend – Richard Grace also has many an hour in this aircraft having flown it since his early twenties. So yes, it’s a very special aircraft indeed! 

    Andy concludes he feels enormous gratitude and considers it an overwhelming privilege to have the spectrum of experience he has across an incredible array of warbird aircraft. Indeed, some of the most iconic aircraft in the world today. And his advice on signing off: “Enjoy the journey! Don’t overfocus on each step otherwise you risk losing sight of the pleasure and privilege along the journey. Most importantly though, keep safe and grin like mad!!!”

    For more information:

    Buying / Selling / Advice on Vintage and Warbird aircraft: www.TASCvintage.com

    Vintage and Warbird aircraft maintenance: www.AirLeasing.co.uk

    Flying in a Warbird: www.warbirdflights.co.uk


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