The Spitfire. What more can be said about this legend that hasn't already been said a thousand times before? Regarded by many as the quintessential fighter aircraft of the Second World War, it's also widely recognised for its truly beautiful design, something that's not ordinarily associated with a weapon of war. Likewise, of course, its appeal in the aeromodelling world is without equal. I'm sure model shop owners throughout the world could tell countless stories of wannabe model flyers patronising their shop with the sole intent of buying a Spitfire and taking up model flying. With this, theyre politely informed that although a sight to behold, the Spitfire is not the ideal training aircraft and that they must cut their teeth on a conventional trainer.
Anyway, before I slip into the depths of aeromodelling folklore, I've been asked to share my own experiences of owning and flying a miniature example of this wonderful British aviation icon.
My earliest memories of the Spitfire stem from the Great Warbirds air displays held at West Malling aerodrome in Kent during the 1980s. It was the local airshow for us as a family and was widely regarded as a premier event on the airshow calendar. The Spitfire in question was the Old Flying Machine Company's Mk.IXb MH434, and the pilot was the late, great, Ray Hanna. At the time I may not have fully appreciated the significance of what I was seeing, but it certainly left a deep rooted impression that would develop into the passion I feel today. The sheer beauty of the design and the way it was guided through the sky was pure poetry, and as a boy I would dream of being a Spitfire pilot, one way or another.
To keep things fresh in this hobby I think it's essential to set personal goals, be it passing a certificate, performing a complex manoeuvre, entering competitions or working up to flying a particular aircraft. After about 10 years of flying all types of models, entering aerobatic competitions and fulfilling many of my own goals I finally found myself at the point where I felt confident and competent enough to tackle my main goal, a scale Spitfire.
For me, radio control model flying had always been a father and son pursuit. As soon as there was a hint that I could twiddle my thumbs in a co-ordinated fashion my father would encourage me to put them to good use... preferably atop the sticks of transmitter! So, it's no surprise that when it came to this project, he was very much instrumental in driving it forward.
When deciding which Spitfire kit was right for the job, we kept in mind that it had to be a Mk.IX, as in my view this had the best lines of all the variants. It also had to be of a manageable size for transportation, whilst retaining a high level of scale detail. It didn't take much searching around to find that the ideal choice would be the Mick Reeves 1/6 scale Spitfire IX. We opted for the GRP moulded fuselage in the hope that it may speed up and somewhat simplify the building process, after all this was going to be a flying model, not a 20 years in the making, labour of love hangar queen!
With many years of building expertise my father eagerly took up the challenge of building the Spitfire whilst I attended university. It was a good way for me to see the progress of the build as I would visit home every few weeks. Construction took about 10 months overall, from Christmas 2003 to autumn 2004, with the maiden flight taking place on a cool mid-November afternoon.
The model was finished as a Mk.IXc, featuring the tall rudder (a modification commonly found on Spitfires from 1943 onwards and fitted to the Mk.VIII as standard). It's modelled on Spitfire MK912 which was restored by Historic Flying Ltd. during the late 90s and was based at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford until its departure to Canada in 2003. The aircraft is painted to represent that of Belgian Lieutenant General (Air) Baron Michel Donnet, Croix de Guerre, CVO, DFC, FRAeS who was CO of No. 64 Squadron, operating from Hornchurch and Fairlop circa 1943. Legend has it that before commencing his RAF career this famous aviator escaped occupied Belgium early in the war in a Luftwaffe biplane trainer and flew across the English Channel, landing at a coastal RAF base having managed to avoid being shot down!
Every flight of my Spitfire is undertaken with a certain level of procedure. When rigging the model for flight I always check for transport damage. The curves of the design don't bode very well for easy transportation, especially on top of the folded seats in the rear of a 5-door hatchback. The wing in particular can be quite a pain to get sitting right with that elliptical shape, beautiful as it is.
Rigging the aircraft is quite a simple affair, though mating the wing to the fuselage is made a little less awkward with a second pair of hands. From then on you're just four screws away from a fully assembled 1/6 scale Spit, that is, two in the wings and two on the cowling. For ease of transport the undercarriage is left fully retracted, so the first job once the aircraft is assembled is to release them from hiding so that they can kiss the earth again. No need for any air pumps here as the retracts are mechanical, released from their wells at the flick of a switch (to prevent unnecessary strain on the gear servo and linkages this is always performed whilst the aircraft is the correct way up in the assembling stand). To finish off the scale details of the aircraft the radio mast, pitot tube and cannon are all push-fitted into place.
Once she's fuelled up and the airframe is fit for flight, an eager look at the windsock confirms the green light. This Spitfire can handle a reasonably strong wind, as long as it's straight down the runway. As is the case with the full-size, crosswinds aren't advised due to the narrow track undercarriage. It won't take much to ground loop the aircraft if it's allowed to weathercock at low speeds. To achieve the best scale-looking flight I like to wait until there's little or no wind because even a breeze will seem to knock at the tail, making the flight look untidy.
Now's the time to wake up the Laser 150 that hides behind the scale aluminium spinner. After holding the starter motor on for a score of revolutions with the throttle fully open, the engine should be adequately primed. Throttle back to idle. Turn the propeller clockwise onto compression... glow on... engage starter motor... pop, pop, purr, and away she goes! Allow a minute or two to get up to temperature, and then disengage the glow stick. Cycle the throttle to check the response and mixture setting (I like to keep it running very slightly rich, just in case). Okay, ready to go!
After performing final checks the Spitfire's ready to commence her take-off roll-out, slowly opening the throttle. The engine's mounted with no side-thrust so the torque has to be counteracted from the word go using right rudder. There's a secondary battle going on at this stage in stopping the aircraft from nosing over, requiring a significant amount of back stick until she's settled enough to allow the tail to rise. Once in this attitude you can comfortably open to just over half throttle and she'll quite happily begin to rotate. My index finger is already poised over the switch at this point as I like to retract the undercarriage as soon as possible. It spoils the look of the aircraft, you see! Once fully airborne I hold the altitude for a low run out, accelerating to full throttle and pulling up and out, wing down into a climbing circuit. It takes a short while for the Spitfire to gain momentum, but once it has, the term 'flying on rails' is an understatement.
Guiding R.J. Mitchell's famous design to the far end of the field, it's time to start the display. She enters stage right, with about 70º of bank angle for a top-down pass along the runway at about 15. Levelling out towards the opposite end of the field she then zoom-climbs into a right wing-over. Now I fly her from left to right, banking left for an underside pass along the runway and turning out to the 45º axis for another wing-over to the right and back in along the runway for a barrel roll. Using end manoeuvres such as half Cuban eights and wing-overs enable the display to be as high energy as possible. As many full-size warbird pilots have stated, it's ok to be low in a Spitfire as long as you have enough energy, but never low and slow. The same applies to a model Spitfire of this size. If and when the propeller stops turning unexpectedly it's going to glide about as well as a Spitfire-shaped pallet of bricks, unless you have either speed or height (preferably both).
The Spitfire is very comfortable in performing most basic aerobatic manoeuvres usually seen in a full-size display; loops, barrel rolls and hesitation rolls to name but a few. Clearly. it's best to avoid manoeuvres such as flick rolls, stall turns, spins and prolonged inverted flight as they put undue stress on the airframe. Of course, there has to be the obligatory 'beat-up' of the field, and on a calm day nothing's more exhilarating than flying a Spitfire low and fast down the strip and climbing up into a victory roll.
In true warbird display style I like to end the flight with a 'run and break' to set up for the landing. The undercarriage is lowered on the downwind leg when turning onto short finals, and the flaps are selected fully down (at around 80º angle in the same manner as the full size). With this the aircraft seems to balloon a little and the tail comes up into a slightly arched fashion. This sounds a lot more off-putting than it actually is; there is in fact little or no trim change with the flaps down, it's just a case of being ready on the sticks and allowing the aircraft to settle with the extra drag. Although feeling somewhat unnatural at first, it's necessary to be at around 1/3 throttle at final approach as you're flying against the resistance of the flaps, which tend to act more like airbrakes. Nearing the threshold it's time to start throttling back, working the elevator all the time to bring the model into a nose up, three-point attitude.
Once the wheels touch terra firma there's no time to gloat about your perfect three-pointer, because there's still time for it to all end in tears. The Spitfire still requires a lot of attention as it's travelling at some speed and does have a tendency to want to get back in the air if you're not careful! Putting the flaps back into the fully 'up' position not only eliminates the cushion of air under the wings but also prevents them receiving unwanted damage. With the throttle right back to idle it's necessary to hold full up elevator in order to prevent the aircraft from nosing over, whilst also constantly checking direction with the rudder to avoid an unwanted ground loop.
Eventually she comes to a stop - sortie over! There is one final check still to do. If you don't have a grin from ear to ear by the time you've walked back to the pits, you should perhaps consider taking up model trains!
The Mick Reeves Spitfire is probably the most accurate flying scale model of the type on the market and it seems to share many of the characteristics documented about the real thing. It really is a joy to fly and a true pilot's aeroplane.
As with all scale models it must be flown respectfully, but once you become comfortable with it, in my opinion it'll be the finest aircraft you'll ever have the privilege of flying.
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