Air Marshal (Retd) Cliff Spink is believed to be the only living pilot to have flown all of the airworthy Supermarine Spitfire marks – I through PR.XIX. Merlin III to Griffon 65. His first Spitfire flight was in summer 1991 and he ‘completed the set’, flying his tenth and final mark, 27 years later. For reasons many and varied, it’s unlikely anyone will achieve that feat again.
“I never went out of my way to fly the whole Spitfire lineage”, he says. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Luck is all it is.” We’ve repaired to the library at the RAF Club in London for our interview, and Cliff delights in recounting the near 30 year story of how he flew the airworthy Spitfire lineage. A master storyteller, one recollection unlocks another, each tale vividly recounted with rich detail over the course of our near five-hour interview. Through selfless generosity he has shared that association with spectators and other aviators alike. “Honestly, what’s the point if not to use our privilege to inspire others? Sharing these aeroplanes is fundamental to our stewardship, and particularly so the Spitfire, which has won its place in people’s hearts. It’s vital to remember that it isn’t about us.”
Cliff trained on the Jet Provost, Gnat and Hunter in turn before he was posted to No. 111 Squadron on the English Electric Lightning. It was the height of the Cold War, and his tales of flying QRA intercepts of Russian bombers over the North Sea are nothing short of remarkable. A detachment to the Falkland Islands on the F-4 Phantom followed, after which he was given command of RAF Coningsby and its Tornado F3 force; a tantalising prospect given the custom for the Station Commander to fly the resident Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF) Hurricanes and Spitfires. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait delayed that opportunity, with Cliff deploying to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as Tornado Detachment Commander until spring 1991.
Returning from the Gulf War, Spink resumed his post at Coningsby. “It’s funny,” he laughs, “the Falklands posting was presented to me almost apologetically, with Coningsby as the sweetener – I was itching to fly the Spitfire and couldn’t wait to get back to Coningsby to get stuck in!” Some 500 hours on the de Havilland Chipmunk – many of them logged to “maintain a sense of sanity during the desk job years” – gave him requisite tail dragger experience, and after a refresher flight on the Chipmunk and a couple of sorties on the Harvard at Boscombe Down he began his conversion to the Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc. The Flight operated two Hurricanes, LF363 and PZ865, in 1991 though the former suffered critical damage following a camshaft failure and landing accident on 11 September of that year.
“I couldn’t believe the noise as I taxied out”, he remembers of his first Hurricane flight in April 1991. “It sounded like a thousand guardsmen marching on a tin tray. I was waiting for the ground crew to stop me, but nothing was wrong, that’s just how it was! You’ve only got one fuel tank in front of you and the din is incredible; the Spitfire, by contrast, has two combined vertically stacked tanks forward of the instrument panel, which dampens the noise to an extent.” Cliff displayed the Hurricane for approximately 15 hours as a precursor to flying the Spitfires. “The Hurricane was great. As I got to know it over those 15 hours, I found it wasn’t as precise an aeroplane as I was expecting. It was quite neutrally stable in pitch and rolled very well. It had its vices, but I loved it.”
The real driving factor for building Hurricane time was, Cliff says, unique Spitfire Mk IIa P7350. “The Mk II was and is the most precious aeroplane in the BBMF,” he offers enthusiastically, “being an ex-Battle of Britain aeroplane and the sole airworthy example of that mark. I was very conscious of the value of that aeroplane before getting into it”. P7350 entered service in August 1940, serving initially with No. 266 Squadron and later seeing combat with No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron. Shot down by a Bf 109E in October 1940, the Spitfire was quickly repaired and returned to active service, where it flew until April 1942. Postwar, the aeroplane participated in the Battle of Britain filming of 1968, after which it was presented to the BBMF. “What a transformation the Spitfire Mk II was”, recalls Cliff of his first flight. “The difference with the Hurricane is marked. The aeroplane is alive, very well balanced, very swift. You’re instantly aware of a terrific improvement in performance to the Hurricane. It’s probably marginally slower in roll rate than the Hurricane but responds very quickly to control inputs. Its sensitivity in pitch was awesome – enormous pitch control, and its turning performance gave a strong impression of how effective it must have been as a fighter.
“Looking at the cockpit layout from a fighter pilot’s perspective, there were some idiosyncrasies and ergonomic issues. Engine instrumentation is huddled away in the shadows to the right of the panel, which isn’t ideal. Propeller and throttle controls are in a reasonable position, but throttle friction can be an issue. Forward visibility is predictably poor on the ground, but improves in the air and wouldn’t be a limiting factor in combat. The cockpit itself is tight, but that has its benefits – you do feel as though you strap on the Spitfire, and that gives you an immense feeling of being at one with the aeroplane. That old adage certainly rings true. It has its vices, but that’s all part of the charm, isn’t it?”
Soon after the Mk II came Spitfire Mk Vb AB910, another combat veteran that had operated over the Normandy beachhead during Operation Overlord. “Instantly you know the V is a pleasant aeroplane. Lovely handling characteristics, a little more pronounced, a little sharper. My first impressions of the Mk V were not too different from the Mk II, insomuch as the II had an engine which was uprated from its wartime configuration so the two ‘baby’ Spitfires BBMF operated were very similar. I strongly suspected that in wartime, the Mk V would be a notable jump in performance from the Mk II and indeed, it was only when I came to fly the Mk I with its original Merlin III engine that I realised how pronounced a difference the Mk V would have been.
“The Merlin is a very benevolent engine – it looks after the idiot in the cockpit”, Cliff jokes. “It’ll take a lot of what you could almost describe as misuse, unlike other engines, provided you don’t overspeed to propeller above 3,000rpm and avoid over-boosting. We would get airborne in the Mk II and V at +4/6 1b./sq.in. boost and approaching 3,000rpm, cruising at -2 1b./sq.in. boost with the rpm brought back as far as we could. At those power settings you felt like they’d fly forever with a very forgiving fuel consumption. The engineers later told us it was better to have a modicum of boost, even if it was +½ 1b./sq.in., which meant we cruised a little faster with higher fuel consumption as a result.”
Air displays in the BBMF’s ‘baby’ Spitfires were typically flown at conservative power settings of +6 1b./sq.in. boost and 2,650rpm, starting the sequence at 2,000 to 3,000ft and managing the energy rather than making boost or propeller pitch adjustments. “It was a very good lesson in flying the aeroplanes at low-level, and a fantastic insight into the handling qualities and vices of the ‘baby’ Spitfires. With a single radiator and oil cooler on opposing wings, they were quite clean aeroplanes with little drag and the absence of guns gave them a reasonable power to weight ratio. Both the Mk II and Mk V are very ‘manual’ aeroplanes. They weren’t bad with overheating, but you did have to be a little careful on a warm day. They have manual radiators to control the coolant temperature, with a lever to control the radiator flap. There was a temptation amongst pilots to open the radiator fully, but that created more drag and meant the engine was working harder. The secret was to close the radiator as much as you could whilst keeping the airflow running through it, reduce the power and keep the airspeed up – it was a bit of a balancing act.
“They were quite dainty on the ground, which is universal with the earlier marks. Take-off could be a fairly straightforward affair. The pilot’s notes for the ‘baby’ Spitfires say to trim full right rudder for take-off, but most of us tend to leave the rudder neutral or trimmed slightly right as there’s more than enough rudder authority to control any torque induced swing on take-off. Landing was a little trickier, and you had to be careful – without their wartime weight they could dance around if you landed a little fast, and the aeroplane just doesn’t want to land. There’s so much lift in that wonderful wing design that it’ll float along the runway in a three-point attitude if you’re too fast, then it’ll dance around once you’re on the ground. Even once you’ve touched down, the aeroplane’s still flying, and if you were foolish enough to pull the stick fully aft, you would certainly get airborne again. The ‘babies’ are quite sensitive to crosswinds, much more so than the Bf 109, and you had to be very sensitive when landing with any sort of crosswind. The Mk II and V had small wheels and early brakes and overusing them to counter a swing in a crosswind landing could lead to them fading and leave you in a world of hurt.”
The final rung for BBMF fighter pilots was the modified photo reconnaissance Spitfire PR.XIX, powered by a 37 litre Rolls-Royce Griffon engine driving a five-blade propeller that rotated in the opposite direction to the three-blader of the Merlin Spitfires. The single radiator of the ‘baby’ Spitfires was by this point superseded by two under wing radiators, controlled by an automated temperature-sensitive system that actuated the rad flaps. Three PR.XIXs were on charge with the Flight at the time – PM631, PS915 and PS853 (now operated by Rolls-Royce). “Wow, what a fast aeroplane”, Cliff enthuses. “Damn great engine, no guns and a more aerodynamic wrap-around canopy windscreen minus the armoured shield. I didn’t find that jump too problematic, largely because you don’t need all that power in present day operations and it’s more manageable as a result”.
The PR.XIXs were mated at the time with ex-Shackleton Griffon 58 engines (rather than the stock Griffon 66) fitted with a bespoke reduction gear box. That presented its own peculiarities. “We thought they had a priming booster pump in-cockpit, but it was more of a priming pump than a booster pump. It took us quite a while to wrap our heads around the PR.XIX fuel system back then”. Finding the suitable amount of primer on start-up could yield some interesting results. “You’ll see many photographs of BBMF PR.XIXs in the early 1990s where the engine didn’t start on the first turn so the pilot primed it more and caused a stack fire. It’s essential to keep the engine turning over in that situation – if you stop the engine, you’ll have a serious problem with that stack fire.”
Appraisal of the PR.XIX allowed for an interesting contrast with the ‘baby’ Spitfires Cliff had flown to date. “It certainly didn’t have the smoothness of the Merlin, and the PR.XIX had poorer forward visibility owing to that larger engine. Better brakes with bigger wheels made ground handling less dainty. The real challenge with the PR.XIX was to manage the available power. The take-off technique was to trim full left rudder, and you needed all of that trim, unlike in the ‘baby’ Merlins. Swing wasn’t excessive provided you let the aeroplane accelerate gently; too much power too early could get you into trouble as you wouldn’t have the aerodynamic control to offset the torque. I found the Griffons exhibit a tendency to tramp to the right as the tail comes up, even if it’s tracking straight ahead with suitable rudder input – I’d start on the left of the runway to avoid risking taking out a runway light! You need full left aileron at the start of the take-off roll to counteract that, not just rudder to keep it straight.
“It was just magic to display,” Cliff continues, “with no tendency to overheat on the ground or in the air – those radiators are very effective, and you’d take-off and land with them fully open then set them to Auto once airborne. We flew at +6 1b./sq.in. boost and 2,650rpm, same as the Merlins, and that was more than adequate for the type of flying we were doing. The wrap-around windscreen, retractable tail wheel and lack of armament reduced drag and counteracted the weight of the Griffon engine to an extent – it felt like a real racehorse. It had a greater fuel capacity but higher fuel consumption, so sortie lengths were no more or less than what we flew in the ‘baby’ Spitfires. There was a lot of weight up front and you needed to keep on the rudder pedals on landing to avoid any divergence”.
With the BBMF, Cliff took the Spitfires across the UK and into Europe. A deployment to Belgium in 1992 led to a particularly memorable encounter. “Al Martin and I took two BBMF’s PR.XIXs over to Florennes to support the museum opening there. We’d parked nose-on to the fence before our display slot. I was stood around by the aeroplane and noticed a senior gentleman leaning on the fence. I approached him and asked him if he knew the Spitfire, and he said, ‘Oh yes, I flew Mk XIVs in northern Europe during the war’. I got him over the barrier and invited him into the cockpit. He got into the aeroplane and I had to then leave. He was overcome by emotion, and I was welling up at his reaction. He later went round the cockpit and identified everything. He knew it all; he was there. To give someone like that a chance to sit in the cockpit means so much to them. Meeting people like that over the forthcoming years was one of the real privileges of the job”.
Towards the end of his tenure with the BBMF, Cliff displayed the PR.XIX at the RAF Mildenhall Air Fete 1992. There he was approached by Ray Hanna, boss of the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC). “Ray sat with me on the grass by our aeroplanes and asked, ‘What are you going to do after you leave the BBMF? Would you like to fly for OFMC?’ Of course, I’d always wanted to fly the Spitfire Mk IX and they operated the IXb MH434. It was almost the definitive Second War War fighter and the definitive Spitfire. It didn’t take long for me to say yes!” With its two-stage, two-speed supercharger, second radiator and more powerful Merlin 66 offering a significant increase in horsepower, the Spitfire Mk IX offered a considerable step-up from the ‘baby’ Mk V. This was the aeroplane that redressed the balance over the Channel Front in early 1943, reclaiming air superiority from the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Many consider it the quintessential Spitfire.
Not long thereafter, Cliff checked out on MH434 at Duxford. “I loved it right from the start. A beautifully handling aeroplane with all the classic Spitfire characteristics; great elevators and superb pitch control not dulled by the additional power available. To me, almost better balanced than the Mk V because of its weight – a little less dainty, and a tangible feeling of solidness, almost stockiness, that you didn’t get in the ‘baby’ Spitfires. It just felt right.” Flying with the Hannas was, Cliff says, like immersing oneself in an aviation encyclopedia. “Ray was a gentleman in every respect, and an aviator to watch and not necessarily to try to emulate, such was his skill as a pilot. There was no one else quite like Ray. Young Mark was a natural aviator, much like his father. He just wanted to fly, and he was built for that. His love for old aeroplanes was tangible. That’s where his heart was. I knew Mark from my RAF days and he was never one for book work, but when it came to the vintage aeroplanes, his knowledge was unsurpassed. Every spare moment was spent reading aviation books. He lived the vintage aviation scene like no one I’ve ever met. I look back on Ray and Mark with great fondness – remarkable gentlemen and peerless aviators”.
Particularly memorable were flights with MH434 into the former Eastern Bloc shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One such occasion followed an air display at Milos, Switzerland. “I was asked to ferry the Spitfire back to Duxford, and Mark suggested a quick call home to tell my wife I wasn’t going to be home quite as soon as she thought!” The transit would take the aeroplane to Pardubice, Czech Republic, for an overnight stay. “As I crossed the Danube I caught up with a cold front that had tracked north with me,” Cliff continues, “and didn’t have the fuel to loiter so diverted into Vilshofen in Bavaria. That was an interesting approach to land – calling final between a gap in big Poplar trees, which was like flying through a goal. I wondered how I’d be received given the German crosses painted on the side of the fuselage!” The Spitfire enjoyed a tremendous reception; the local town turned out in force, and Cliff was presented an honourary pennant by the Mayor of Vilshofen. The reaction at Pardubice was similarly warming. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Having had their history suppressed by the Communist regime, the Czechs saw the Spitfire as a physical representation that things had finally changed. It was really quite remarkable. It was much the same in Poland. That aeroplane is so much more than the sum of its parts.
“At a similar time I diverted MH434 into an airfield in Germany en route to Berlin, alongside Mark in the Corsair and Louis McQuade in the Vampire. A young lad came up to me and asked if he could show his grandfather the Spitfire. I said yes, of course, and he brought this elderly gentleman over. He introduced him as a Messerschmitt Bf 109 pilot – we later found out that he had confirmed kills against Spitfires, and was shot down twice himself. With little persuasion I got him into the cockpit – the language barrier fell away at the slightest suggestion! He was quite overcome by the whole thing. He took a few moments looking around the cockpit and said something to himself. I asked his grandson to translate, and the young man looked a little confused and repeated, ‘Now I understand’. I quizzed the Messerschmitt pilot on what he meant when he got out of the cockpit. He said, the Spitfire was a formidable adversary and they always wondered how the Spitfire pilots spotted them first and managed to outperform them, but he sat in that cockpit and found it so natural and intuitive that it finally made sense to him. Quite an evocative comment.
“Not long after that in the mid-1990s, I flew the Spitfire PR.XI – PL965, operated by OFMC at the time. In more recent years I flew the second PR.XI, PL983, restored by Historic Flying Ltd. What a wonderful aeroplane – if ever there was a ‘Mk IX plus’, this was it. All the Mk IX’s best attributes but with a retractable tail wheel, clean wing profile and wrap-around windscreen to reduce drag and get the airspeed up [of the two PR.XIs, only PL983 is restored with the wrap-around windscreen – Ed.]. That made a notable difference; you no longer had to worry about energy management in the air display environment.”
For the 1996 and 1997 air display seasons, Cliff was invited to fly restored Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2 ‘Black 6’. Though a challenging aeroplane to master, the ‘Black 6’ years presented a unique opportunity to appraise one of the Spitfire’s contemporaries. “The Bf 109G was an interesting comparator to the Spitfire over the course of ’96 to ’97. It didn’t have the pleasant handling characteristics of the Spitfire – it was agile, fast and rolled well, yes, but was very heavy in pitch with a high wing loading, and I can imagine you’d be on the rudder pedals all the time in a dogfight. The wing blanketed the airflow over the fin and rudder in a three-point attitude, so the tail empennage became mere decoration on landing. You had virtually no aerodynamic control and were working with poor brakes that faded very easily. You could get yourself into a world of hurt with that if you weren’t careful. I never entirely trusted the Daimler-Benz 605 engine either, whereas the Merlin gives you that feeling of comfort. The Spitfire was carefree by comparison and would look after a tired and inexperienced pilot coming home after combat in a way the Bf 109 wouldn’t.”
In the meantime, Cliff continued to fly Second World War fighters for multiple operators. With OFMC he flew as diverse a range as the Buchón, Kittyhawk, Mustang and Fury, whilst an invitation to fly for The Fighter Collection (TFC) at the turn of the century afforded the opportunity to display the Wildcat, Corsair and Thunderbolt. Spitfires were never far away, however, and flights in TFC’s clipped wing Mk Vb EP120 and Mk IXe ML417 followed. “It was lovely to revisit the Mk V in particular. Though, and there’ll be plenty who disagree with me on this, I prefer the full-winged aeroplanes. From a purist’s perspective, the Spitfire did lose some of its character without the full elliptical wing”.
He soon found himself flying TFC’s clipped wing low back Mk XIV MV293. “I found that more of a handful than the PR.XIX, as though it was essentially the same aeroplane but with a Griffon 65, it didn’t quite have the balance of the XIX. It was more sensitive on the ground too, more likely to dodge around and get you into trouble.” Whilst the clipped wings offered improved roll rate, the trade-off came in aerobatic performance. “I did find that flying vertical aerobatics in any clipped wing Spitfire can lead to aileron snatching at slow airspeed and more wobble than with the elliptical wings, and that was particularly so with the Mk XIV. The big consideration with all the Griffons and especially the XIV is the power management. In the initial pull into the vertical, you experience gyroscopic precession which yaws the aeroplane to the left and you must be ready to counter the yaw with right rudder. At the top of the manoeuvre the aeroplane is slowing down so your power-to-speed ratio is similar to take-off, and you need left rudder. That’s the case with all propeller aeroplanes but you’re much more conscious of that in the Griffons and it’s much more pronounced due to the huge five-blade propeller and the copious amounts of power involved. If you aren’t keeping the aircraft in balance, you could recover from the manoeuvre at right angles to the direction you entered at. I have the t-shirt for that one!”
Cliff flew MV293 to airshows all over Europe. One memorable flight followed an air display at Locarno in southern Switzerland. The transit flight to Habsheim in north-eastern France took him past the airfield at Ambri and into the Gotthard Pass, flying amongst towering Alpine mountains. “My word, it was the most beautiful scenery. Flying a Spitfire through the Alps – you can’t help but be swept away by the whole experience. As the pass narrowed and the turns became sharper, the cloud began to descend and soon I was flying in a tunnel between two mountain ranges and a thick layer of cloud. It quickly dawned on me that I could get into a position where I’d reach the end of the pass and be unable to turn around, so narrow it had become, nor would I be able to climb out due to the clag. As I was thinking through my options I spotted a flash of blue sky above me and immediately opened the throttle to climb into the clear weather above the clouds. It was as I came through 12,000ft that the second stage supercharger kicked in – my goodness, it’s like a punch in the back. It gives you the most wonderful kick. Instant performance increase. I could absolutely see how the two-stage superchargers in the Mk IXs and Mk XIVs in particular would have given the Bf 109Gs and Fw 190s a real fright in combat from 1942.”
In the early to mid-2000s Spink spent increasing amounts of time flying the large fleet of aeroplanes operated by the Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo). Under their banner he flew another Mk IX, Tom Blair’s PL344, and a second Mk XIV with the exquisite No. 41 Squadron-schemed silver and red RN201. “That Mk XIV was an extraordinary aeroplane. It felt better balanced and less skittish than MV293, albeit with the classic Mk XIV traits, and was a delight to fly. I flew it both clipped and elliptical and found it to be a lovely machine. A real rocket ship”.
With ARCo he added a new mark to his logbook – the XVI, this being the low-back bubble canopy TD248 owned by Tom Blair and latterly Richard Lake. “That aeroplane is a Mk IX in all respects, save for having a Packard Merlin up front. It’s another of that ‘Mk IX plus’ series – so light to handle, perfectly trimmed out and ‘hands off’, and beautifully balanced, almost like a Mk V. At that time, the Mk XVI became my favourite of the Spitfires to fly. In that aeroplane I had the privilege of being led by Ray in his last display at Duxford in 2005”.
It was October’s Autumn Air Show, and the two veterans of the historic scene were paired up in Spitfires to round off the climactic sequence. “It was always a delight to fly with Ray Hanna. He was the most intuitive leader. It became instinct to look at his head when in formation, and that told you everything you needed to know about power, directional changes, pitches and so on. No radio transmissions. It was almost imperceptible. Just incredible. He was going well that day. It was a beautiful autumn day, clear blue sky, being led in vertical formation aerobatics by the master. He in his favourite MH434, me in my favourite TD248, under a setting sun. Apt, in some ways, as he died just a couple of months later. It was always a special day when Ray was leading you, but that does stand out. He invited me into the civilian warbird scene, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be led by him during his last display.
“I also started to fly the T.IX and had the joy of flying numerous two-seaters during the more recent pleasure flying years. I’d wondered whether it would be vastly different to the Mk IX. It did feel a little bit different due to the cockpit being a little further forward. The earlier T.IX conversions were more sensitive in pitch, particularly on landing. PV202 and NH341, the T.IXs restored by Historic Flying Ltd, ironed that out and effectively performed as the IX did. I flew one gentleman who’d last flown a Spitfire in 1945. It was his 90th birthday. I swear, he could’ve landed it – he was so on it. Knew all the pressures and temperatures. I handed him control and he was immediately in balance, flying it beautifully. That was one of the pleasures of the two-seater flights – totally different environment to display flying, but supremely rewarding in its own way. To see people, most of whom had never flown in anything smaller than an airliner, overcome with emotion after each flight was a novelty that never wore thin. They were walking on air each and every time!”
Late summer 2011 heralded the arrival of a new mark of Spitfire, as Historic Flying Ltd’s monumental restoration of a Dunkirk-era Spitfire culminated in the first flight of Mk Ia P9374 on 9 September 2011. It was a stunning recreation of an aeroplane that had bellied on the sands of Sangatte during the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940, and arguably the purest form of Spitfire flying. “That really brought my experience of the lineage full circle”, Cliff nods. Flying the Mk I was a fascinating insight into the Spitfire’s roots and the limitations RAF pilots dealt with during the type’s earlier days. With its two-stage propeller control, manual hand-pumped undercarriage, canvas-covered ailerons and a full set of eight .303 in. machine guns mounted in the wings, P9374 was quite unlike any other airworthy Spitfire. The second Mk Ia, N3200, took flight on 26 March 2014. Cliff flew both regularly at air displays.
“Initial impressions were that it’s very mechanical, and the cockpit environment is more cluttered and the pilot’s workload higher as a result. It doesn’t have the systems automation of the later marks, down to manually pumping the undercarriage up – swapping hands once you’re airborne, putting the brakes on, lifting the undercarriage lever and then pumping the handle. There’s a noticeable increase in the take-off ground roll owing to its war weight, but it’s light on the controls once airborne. You then have to change the propeller pitch from fine to coarse, and the rpm drops alarmingly quickly.
“The change in variation in propeller revolutions during any manoeuvring is marked, as you’re effectively flying a fixed pitch propeller once it’s set to coarse. At the top of a vertical manoeuvre the rpm drops right off and slowly winds back up on the recovery. You have to adjust your display profile to take account of that, particularly during formation sequences, as you can’t open the throttle and see an instant rpm increase as you can when the propeller is in fine pitch. You need to anticipate that and make sure you handle the energy management; firewall the throttle and you could do serious damage to that beautiful old Merlin III. You could quite comfortably fly a graceful profile with suitable inertia and +2 1b./sq.in. boost or less.
“It has canvas-covered ailerons,” he continues, “and I’ve read many stories about those being heavier, but I never found that. It sits down reasonably well on landing but has that classic ‘baby’ Spitfire daintiness. The single radiator can also be tricky on a hot day. I led a formation flight of Spitfires down to Goodwood in September 2015 in N3200. The Spitfire was getting hot as we lined up, but thought I’d be able to get airborne before boiling off. I had seconds to go and on the take-off roll, the temperature just tipped over and within a second I’d lost all visibility in a cloud of steam. I brought the throttle back and rolled out back to ARCo. As I came to a halt in this steaming aeroplane, out of the ether an unknown transmission came: ‘Anybody got a teabag?’ That aside, you can see how the aeroplane grew out of those early days – it had the makings of the exceptional handling attributes even then, but its early systems in particular gave it some significant limitations.”
Historic Flying Ltd’s restoration of Spitfire Mk XVIIIe SM845 concluded in 2013 and the aeroplane, now under Richard Lake’s ownership, returned to the airshow circuit under ARCo’s care and maintenance. “The Mk XVIII is without doubt the best Griffon-powered Spitfire I’ve ever flown. Incredible speed afforded by the Griffon 65, wonderful handling and stunning looks. It has a slightly modified empennage that nullifies the twitchiness of the Mk XIV and the PR.XIX – the weight and balance are in harmony. Some of those handling challenges had gone by the Mk XVIII, and the whole airframe feels like it fits around the Griffon. Lee Proudfoot describes it as a big Mk V, and that’s a pretty good accolade.
“A lot of people say the Griffon Spitfires, particularly the later marks, weren’t proper Spitfires”, Cliff muses. “I couldn’t say how wrong that is. If you fly a Mk I then jump in a Mk XVIII, yes, the size, shape, weight and engine are different. The variations are marked, certainly. But they’re all Spitfires. The wing offered a baseline of handling inherent in all Spitfires until the design changes in the Mk XXI. All the marks I’ve flown universally had the same beautiful handling characteristics, just becoming heavier as the series progressed. That was all down to the ellipsoidal wing designed by Beverley Shenstone. It was so good that even with different weights, internal configurations and armaments, it maintained its performance at low and high altitude. The wing makes that aeroplane.”
By summer 2018, Cliff had flown all bar one of the airworthy Spitfire marks. Only the Mk VIII had eluded him to date; MV154 (painted as MT928) had been owned and operated by Robs Lamplough for many years before Maxi Gainza acquired the aeroplane and moved it to Bremgarten, Germany. Luck should have it that Maxi brought the Spitfire to Duxford for the Battle of Britain Air Show 2018, basing out of ARCo for the weekend. “Col Pope [at ARCo] had said to me, ‘Do you realise you’ve only got one mark to go before the full house?’ Col had mentioned it to Maxi when the aeroplane was being looked after by ARCo for the weekend. I would never have asked bare faced! As a mark of the man, Maxi sought me out and invited me to fly it on the Monday after the airshow. It’s a lovely aeroplane – almost identical to the Mk IX, albeit with a retractable tail wheel and short span ailerons that make it firmer, not heavier, in the roll.
“I hadn’t given much thought to ‘completing the set’ until Col mentioned it. That did get me thinking. It felt like things had almost come full circle, in an odd way, and at that stage in my career, retirement didn’t feel like it was too far off. Flying the Mk VIII certainly put that notion into my head and got me thinking about the innumerable trips I’ve had in Spitfires. I remembered something Ray Hanna had asked me as we walked away from the aeroplanes after our last display together at Duxford in 2005: ‘Do you think you’ll still be flying when you’re my age?’ He was 77 at the time.
“Much like the Spitfires themselves, all those air displays are a variation on a wonderful theme”, he says. “You can’t help but reminisce about how far you’ve come.” The stories come thick and fast, far too many to recount in detail. Bringing Mk V EP120 back from Montélimar, running into bad weather and navigating through the gloom only by the headlights of the cars on the motorway below. Displaying Mk XVI TD248 on graduation day at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, then landing, changing into uniform and presenting the graduate pilots with their wings. Taking a Mk I over the Kent countryside and over to Dunkirk, overflying the sands the original aeroplane crash landed on decades ago. “I’m a man of Kent. Pure Battle of Britain country. Flying over Kent and the English Channel at 3,000ft on a sunny day, you’ve got to be a man without soul if you don’t ally that with what the aeroplane did during the war”.
Over the course of 2019, the idea of retirement began to crystallise in Cliff’s mind. “I think the old guard and I were enjoying it so much, the thought of shoring up the scene to continue after we’re gone never really crossed our minds! That’s very much at the forefront now, and certainly in the last few years I’ve found myself naturally moving into the role of adviser and mentor. I can’t ignore the fact age has crept up on me. Much as I look in the mirror hoping to see a 25-year old looking back at me, I’m not. It was 52 years ago that I got my wings, and there is a reality check in that. Age does carry with it certain penalties. Over the summer of 2019 I’d made my mind up that it was probably a good time to go. As the September airshow approached, Rod Dean asked if I’d like to lead the Spitfire formation in SM845 and then wheel a nine-ship around the circuit a couple of times. In all honesty, I could think of no finer way to bring the curtain down on my airshow career.”
Thus, the stage was set for Cliff to retire from airshow flying at the Battle of Britain Air Show 2019, nearly three decades after his historic aircraft career started with the BBMF. Coincidentally his protégé, Sam Worthington-Leese, was scheduled to make his Duxford airshow debut at the event, flying the ex-Boscombe Down Harvard operated by ARCo – the very aeroplane, it’s worth noting, that Cliff flew when preparing to go solo in the BBMF’s fighters nearly 30 years prior.
“There are a huge number of people with tail dragger experience who could fly a Spitfire perfectly adequately. But the reality is that they will almost all end up display flying, and there is a quotient to put on top of that. We look for character, personality and ability that suits that sort of environment – it isn’t for everybody. You’re displaying the aeroplane, not your ego. We need that balance. Credit to Sam for getting involved with the Goodwood Flying Club and demonstrating not only excellent capability, but an enthusiasm and affinity for vintage aeroplanes. I did his first display authorisation in the Harvard and it was immediately clear that he had a good feel for the aeroplane.”
“I owe Cliff a tremendous amount”, says Sam. “For no personal gain or accolade, he has been the architect of my path. I first met Cliff as a relatively naïve twenty-something, embarking on my Pilot’s Licence, having just been made redundant from RAF flying training, and then suffering the commercial flying school I put my faith in going bust. I made no secret, as a fledgling student pilot just flown solo with possibly ten hours to my name, that I had a real interest in warbirds and that one day I wanted to fly them. That was 2012.
“Fast forward seven years, to 2019, and I have joined the ARCo pilot team, flown my first Duxford air display, and soloed the Spitfire. A large proportion of that achievement is down to Cliff. He has been my mentor, he has helped me to develop as a pilot, guiding me through the initial display authorisation process and overseeing renewals, always on hand to offer advice and guidance. In the background, since that first meeting, Cliff has been working away, unlocking doors and talking to the right people.
“For a man of such huge experience and prowess, if you were in a room with Cliff you might not know it, such is his understated manner. He is one of the kindest people I have met, who is always only too happy to help. That he is so willing to help others is testament to his character and is the reason that he is so liked by all those that have the pleasure to meet him. There are a handful of people in my life without whom I would not be where I am today. One of those people is Cliff.”
On the weekend of the Battle of Britain Air Show, the persistent rain that had dogged much of Sunday’s flying programme abated in time for Cliff to lead the massed Spitfire formation. Holding northside to allow Brian Smith to fly a beautiful tribute display to the late Mark Hanna in OFMC’s Spitfire Mk IX MH434, Cliff then returned for one final solo. After a perfect display in his beloved Spitfire SM845, he peeled into the circuit to join Brian for one final fly-by. The pair had flown together since the early 1990s – they were both introduced to the civilian warbird scene by the Hannas and followed a similar career trajectory over the subsequent decades. They are, as Cliff describes, the old guard of the British warbird scene. As they crossed the runway threshold, low-level and in close formation, Brian called over the radio, “Low as you like, Cliff. Let’s do this the right way”.
The circularity of that moment wasn’t lost on the aviation aficionados who’d followed both men’s careers over the years. “Cliff is one of the few pilots to have successfully translated his military trained flying skills – generally quite aggressive in order to do the job of a modern-day fighter pilot – into those required by the aircraft of yesteryear that require a more sympathetic skill set”, adds Brian Smith. “I spent many hours alongside him in the formative days of the OFMC, and we shared many adventures, both at home and abroad, on the airshow circuit. Happy days indeed, but also some very personal moments together; standing over Ray Hanna’s open grave once the mourners had departed, both of us in tearful silence remembering the man who had provided such direction to both our lives.
“To fly with him at the end of his final display in September 2019 was entirely spontaneous rather than planned. I’ll never forget the grin on his face as he looked over to me as we ran in; ‘Low as you like,’ I recall saying, not that he needed any encouragement! And then into the final break into the sunset, beautifully captured by a skilled photographer, and a perfect ending to a distinguished display career.”
Cliff continues: “I went out leading a 15-ship of Spitfires. To then be able to close it out with a solo in the Mk XVIII was the cherry on the top. For the very first time, I felt the emotion during that solo. It really hit me when I landed and taxied in. I had my wife, son and daughter-in-law, daughter and three grandsons there. Watching their video footage afterwards and hearing my son saying, ‘Look at granddad looping!’ certainly made me think, there’s no better indication that it’s time to hang it up!
“We live and breathe historic aviation”, he adds reflectively. “Other people don’t. But the Spitfire has pulled a lot of Second World War history and by extension the wider preservation scene with it, in a way. Ask the layman to name one old aeroplane and it will almost certainly be the Spitfire. On Battle of Britain Day 2015, more than 30,000 people turned out to Goodwood on a windy, initially wet working day to watch more than 20 of them take-off – that’s testament to the Spitfire’s status. A lot of things are called iconic, but the Spitfire has truly earned that accolade and then some.
“With that in mind, one of the most important lessons I would impress upon anyone who flies historic aeroplanes now or in future is that you must have the humility to share your privilege with the public. If you have an arrogance about you, you aren’t doing justice to these aeroplanes and the history. We’re merely caretakers. It’s our duty to share it with the public whenever we can – whether it’s letting a young lad sit in the cockpit or rallying a few interested onlookers to push an aeroplane back into a hangar. Every one of them, no matter their age, could be a future pilot whose aviation fuse has been lit by the experience. I feel I’ve got more out of aviation through having shared the experience than if I’d lived in my own little world.
“You can’t help but live the history when you fly any vintage aircraft. If you don’t have a sense of the history and the people who flew them, you shouldn’t be flying them. It’s been a great privilege over the years to meet so many veterans who flew Spitfires during the war – ordinary people doing extraordinary things – and to hear their stories. Almost without exception, the pilots that I met were in awe that they ever flew the Spitfire and had, in their words, lots to thank the Spitfire for insomuch as it looked after them in combat.
“Most of them are gone now. I’ve had the honour of a lifetime carrying that torch for them for nearly 30 years. As my career winds down, it gives me the utmost comfort to see the next generation of Spitfire pilots graciously picking up that torch. The stories live on through their hands now.”