Spirit of the Golden Age
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“Every inch the racer”: Flying the Miles Hawk Speed Six

“Every inch the racer”: Flying the Miles Hawk Speed Six

“With its snarling, tightly cowled 200hp Gipsy Six, closely faired fixed undercarriage and modified canopy, the Hawk Speed Six is every inch the racer”, says Mark Sharp. Just three Miles M.2 Hawk Sixes were manufactured and the sole survivor, the M.2L “Speed Six” G-ADGP manufactured by Phillips and Powis Aircraft Ltd in 1935, regularly flies with the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden.  It is one of the world’s most exquisite vintage aeroplanes, truly a delight to fly, and Mark has had the privilege of doing so since summer 2018.

G-ADGP was the second Hawk Speed Six to fly, built for 21-year old Luis Fontes, a Brit of Brazilian descent who had inherited his father’s wealth and lived an appropriately lavish lifestyle. In this aeroplane he entered the 1935 King’s Cup Air Race, competing against his sister Ruth who, unbeknown to him, had entered under the pseudonym ‘Miss R. Slow’ in her own Hawk Speed Six, G-ADOD, the third and final of its type built. A forced landing near Durham curtailed Luis’ efforts but failed to dampen his ambitions, and he achieved considerable racing success in -ADGP later in the year. Coincidentally Fontes, competing in his first motor racing season, jockeyed for position against Richard Shuttleworth in the 100-lap Brooklands International Trophy Race, placing second of 38 drivers in his 2.3 litre Alfa Romeo.  Shuttleworth finished the race fifth.  Fontes went on to complete a fantastic year, concluding with a winning entry in the 24-hour Le Mans race. The death of a motorcyclist in a head-on drink driving accident saw Fontes charged with manslaughter and his driving and pilot’s licences revoked, though he regained the latter in 1938 and continued to race G-ADGP. The outbreak of war put a stop to British air racing, and Fontes joined the Air Transport Auxiliary. He was killed delivering a Wellington to RAF Llandow in late 1940.

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G-ADGP participated in a raft of air races in the late-1930s, undergoing significant modifications along the way including the shortening of the wings from 38ft to 28ft and adjustments to the canopy.  Postwar, the Hawk Speed Six enjoyed a long and reasonably successful air racing career that spanned into the 1970s.  It passed through several private owners and underwent yet more modifications to restore it to a beautiful composite of its late-’30s configurations (amalgamating the canopy conversion of 1937 and shorter wings of 1938) in fetching ‘Guinness’ gloss black and cream, before the Shuttleworth Collection purchased it from ex-Concorde captain Roger Mills. The aeroplane had spent much of its later life based at Old Warden, and its sale to the Collection to demonstrate at its airshows and preserve for future generations just felt right.

Mark Sharp was introduced to the Hawk Speed Six after its first airshow appearance under the Collection’s ownership in mid-2018. With the Royal Air Force he had flown fast-jets for 18 years, latterly taking up Qualified Flying Instructor posts on the Tornado, Harrier and Hawk, before leaving the service in 2007 to become a commercial pilot. Interest in light and vintage aeroplanes was never far away and burgeoned through involvement with the Popular Flying Association (now the Light Aircraft Association), his father’s Druine Turbulent offering him the first taste of flying an historic taildragger. His formal introduction to the Shuttleworth Collection came via a former air force colleague, after which Mark acquired a small aerobatic biplane with a view to flying air displays and gaining the requisite experience to raise his profile within the historic scene. In that aeroplane he participated at a number of Old Warden airshows, resulting in a successful voluntary application to join Shuttleworth’s pilot roster.

“Within the Collection you start off flying fairly simple aircraft like the Tiger Moth and Chipmunk”, he says.  “Then you’ll move on to something a little more challenging and/or unique, such as Richard Shuttleworth’s de Havilland DH.60X.  The pressure when you’re flying an aeroplane like that, particularly initially, is massive.  It’s effectively an apprenticeship, and you move up through different ‘classes’ of aeroplanes, sometimes flying a couple of new types per year.  It’s all about being part of a team, and the pilots are treated on equal ground to the engineers and ground crew.”  Mark has been an active member of the Collection for five years, and flies a broad selection of inline and radial-engine aeroplanes ranging from the Hawker Cygnet to the Percival Provost.  Conversion to the Hawk Speed Six followed late in the evening of August 2018’s Family Airshow, whereby he became the second Collection pilot to fly the aeroplane following its return to Old Warden (the first being then-Chief Pilot Dodge Bailey).

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“I read the Collection’s notes and spent a lot of time sitting in the cockpit to familiarise myself with the layout before that first flight”, says Mark. “Initially I spoke with the engineers, one of whom had surveyed the aeroplane and gave me a comprehensive walk around.  Dodge Bailey then gave me a full walk around before my first flight on type, pointing out the key operating and handling considerations.  The idea is to be as comfortable with the aeroplane as you can be before it even leaves the hangar, and from that you form your own expectations of how you anticipate it will handle and what the challenges could be.”

He remembers: “My perceptions and questions were broadly that the Speed Six sits very low to the ground – is there a fire risk on start-up, and a risk to damaging the flaps or propeller during taxying?  It has large wheels, a wide track undercarriage and similar brakes to a Magister – that poses a question around the effectiveness of ground handling, and whether wing-walkers are needed.  The engine is a very closely cowled inline – how long do I have to run it on the ground before I’m at risk of cooking the engine?  It has a thick wing and a large wing chord, similar to a Magister – will it handle similarly in-flight, and how does the excess of power influence that?  All those things formulate in your mind and influence how you approach the aircraft before your first flight in it.”

The Speed Six’s cockpit is fairly typical of British types of the day – reasonably spartan, with a sparse instrument panel and the six core flying instruments grouped centrally.  Modern radio controls and tachometer sit to the left, with the oil temperature and pressure gauges at the very top of the panel.  To the right of the panel are the battery and generator switches, covered starter switch, magnetos and clock, with two adjacent priming levers (marked ‘P’ for primer and ‘T’ for tickler) tucked just beneath.  The throttle, mixture and brake levers sit on a small quadrant to the pilot’s left, with the pitch trim lever beneath them.  To the right of the cockpit are the flaps lever and compass.

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“It’s interesting that cockpits often reflect the aeroplane’s in-flight performance, to an extent”, Mark muses.  “The Speed Six is designed for speed – Miles were interested in achieving the highest possible performance, and ergonomics suffered for that.  The expectation is therefore that the aeroplane will perform best at high speed but at the expense of manoeuvrability, and that’s broadly accurate.  The initial test is to identify those in-cockpit ergonomic challenges and implement workarounds.”

First consideration before entering the aeroplane is activating the Ground/Flight switch, controlling the electrical systems for engine starting, mounted behind the pilot’s seat; whilst possible to reach from the pilot’s seat, this can only be done through feel and best practice is to actuate the system before strapping in.  The aperture of the 1937 canopy, designed with minimal drag in mind, is such that to access the cockpit the pilot must slot their hips in diagonally and then twist onto the seat as they lower themselves into the cockpit.  The diminutive canopy hood and tapering fuselage impair in-cockpit visibility, and a number of controls and systems are tucked in the darker recesses of the cockpit – familiarisation with their position and operation is essential, as much of this is done through feel in-flight without visual reference.  The oil temperature and pressure gauges are largely obscured by the leather crash pad at the top of the instrument panel; there’s a technique to reading these, and this must be practiced on the ground.  “You really need to rehearse reaching for the various levers and switches,” says Mark, “and reading some of those more ‘out of the way’ instruments, as you won’t see them sufficiently in-fight.  A lot of the manual aspect of flying the Speed Six is done through feel more than anything else, and that’s why ground training and cockpit familiarisation are so important.”

Start-up sees the second battery (which powers the radio) switched on and the primer engaged for five shots, with the tickler held out to depress the twin carburettor floats whilst priming continues until the carburettor has flooded and the ground crew indicate that fuel is dripping from the aeroplane.  To avoid a ground fire on start-up – the Speed Six sitting very low to the ground and exhaust stacks being in close proximity to the fuel run-off – the aeroplane is rolled forward a few feet to mitigate the risk.  With brakes set, rudder centralised and stick brought full aft, the magnetos are flicked on and the starter switch engaged, the engine usually firing on the second blade of the propeller.  The throttle is then adjusted incrementally to find a smooth spot with the engine firing nicely at around 800 rpm.

“The whole thing comes alive and you really get an amazing sense of its racing pedigree.”
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The Speed Six is heavily planted in its tail, with differential braking and small amounts of power used to manoeuvre on the ground.  “It’s a difficult aeroplane to turn in a tight area,” says Mark, “and I wouldn’t even try.  We have no shortage of wingtip handlers at Old Warden, and we tend to use them in combination with light braking and gentle turns.  You could use more power and forward stick to take the weight off the tail to turn the aircraft, but it’s an historic, unique aeroplane and I just wouldn’t take that chance – the husbandry of these old aeroplanes to avoid stressing the airframes and engines for longevity is really a hallmark of the Shuttleworth Collection.  Why use handfuls of power and risk overheating the engine and putting it into a tight fix when we could use a wingtip handler to assist with turning in tighter spaces?”

To avoid cylinder head temperatures reaching critical levels on the ground, the Speed Six is taxied to the runway threshold whilst the engine is warming up, the objective broadly being to position the aeroplane for its take-off checks within around four minutes.  There are two 20 Imp. gallon fuel tanks in its wings, with the gauges sat outside the cockpit on the inner root of each wing.  Fuel from both tanks is fed to the engine in sequence during the taxi and run-up to ensure fuel is being drawn from each.  Fuel consumption isn’t an issue for a typical local flight, and so one tank is usually selected for the duration of a flight.  “It would have to be an extraordinary situation, a really bad day, or a transit before you’d have to worry about fuel consumption in this aeroplane”, Mark adds.

The run-up itself is a standard affair, with the throttle opened to 1,600 rpm for a magneto check and a scan of the engine instruments.  “It’s a small aeroplane with a big engine, so it’s quite an environment to be in when you open the throttle!”, Mark enthuses.  “Small throttle movements get the rpm up immediately and the noise comes from nowhere.  As soon as you’ve done your power checks, you want to get airborne while the engine is running hot, as the best way to cool it is with airflow.

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“That initial 20 to 30 yards of the take-off is where the interesting stuff happens and your senses come alive”, Mark continues.  Though the coarse propeller keeps the rpm low in the initial take-off run, the 200hp Gipsy Six offers an abundance of power to counterbalance the poor efficiency of the airscrew.  “As you open the throttle to full power there’s an absolute cacophony from the Gipsy Six.  It’s very manageable as everything is done sedately with the throttle opened carefully, and you’re controlling the aeroplane’s track down the runway by feeding in a lot of left rudder to counteract the torque.  As the aeroplane accelerates it starts to feel alive, and you move the stick from neutral to half way forward to lift the weight off the tail.  If you hold that stable attitude, it’ll fly itself off the ground at around 55kts.”

As the airspeed increases, the din from the propeller and engine diminishes as the slipstream effect calms the noise in-cockpit and the aeroplane stabilises in the climb.  Engine temperatures are usually still running fairly high at this point, and it’s essential to avoid a steep, high-power climb.  A gentle ascent at 2,000 rpm will produce an airspeed in the region of 80kts and afford a rate of climb of 1,500ft/min.

Above 100kts the rpm increases substantially and becomes more reactive to power increases.  “The whole thing comes alive,” Mark recounts enthusiastically, “and you really get an amazing sense of its racing pedigree”.  That becomes particularly clear at the higher end of the airspeed range, he says.  “The Speed Six cruises comfortably at 140kts and 2,100pm, and you can achieve 160kts in level flight.  Between 140kts and approaching VNE of 195kts it feels rock solid, which is what you’d expect from a racer.  At cruise airspeeds you feel comfortable that it’ll weather any turbulence and bumps along the way.”  Lateral handling deteriorates at higher airspeed, the ailerons becoming heavier  and less responsive.  “It’s a bit of an unfair criticism,” he says, “as the Speed Six wasn’t made for that; the ailerons feel heavier than a Magister’s, but are more effective across the airspeed range.  It’s a bit of a trade-off in some respects, and is broadly what you would expect.”

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Well-harmonised controls make the Speed Six a particularly pleasant mount in the low-level, dynamic air display environment, with few notable handling vices to speak of.  As is typical for aeroplanes of the era, pitch trimming is possible but fairly ineffective, though trimming the aeroplane level at 140kts offers reasonable results in the display environment where airspeeds will usually fall in that region as the aeroplane traverses the crowdline.  The fixed-pitch propeller can, however, be easily over-sped beyond its maximum continuous threshold of 2,100 rpm, particularly during climbing and diving figures and during formation flights where the rpm increases exponentially with airspeed. To mitigate against this, Mark typically acquaints himself with a throttle position that will put him at 140kts and a margin of 100 rpm or so below the max continuous limit, well away from the redline of 2,350 rpm.

Setting the throttle in that position through feel allows him to arrive in front of the crowd at an air display at the desired airspeed and rpm, with enough margin to open the throttle during wing-overs and climbing figures without the rpm breaching the max. continuous limit.  “I know where that throttle position is, and know it will get me back to 140kts and the engine rpm will more or less look after itself because of the margin I’ve built in”, Mark adds.  “The rpm varies with airspeed of course, but it’s a good point of reference.  The airspeed range is large within the display environment,” explains Mark, “and you need to consider where you’ll be opening and closing the throttle to avoid over-speeding the propeller – you obviously don’t want to be opening the throttle and piling on the airspeed and rpm in a steep dive, for example.

“With that comes the anticipation of where you’ll need rudder input to counteract torque-inducted yaw as the rpm increases at lower airspeeds”, he continues.  In an airshow display, the Speed Six will vary its airspeed from around 60 to 160kts with each pass and the larger the airspeed range on each pass, the greater the need for rudder input.  “These vintage aeroplanes all require you to dance on the pedals to keep them in balance, but that feels exaggerated during an air display as you’re going through constant altitude, airspeed and rpm changes, and with its small size and 200hp up front, the Speed Six is perhaps more susceptible to that.  In turn, that means the aeroplane is in a constant state of yaw – the nose hunting left and right as the power comes on and off – and you’re working your feet to keep in balance throughout.  It’s nothing you aren’t used to as an experienced vintage aeroplane pilot, and it becomes second nature to keep the turn and slip indicator centred. It’s a bit of a roller coaster in something like the Speed Six, and is perhaps where the most fun is had!”

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The Speed Six is one of three high-performance 1930s air racers operated by the Shuttleworth Collection.  Its stablemates – the Percival Mew Gull and de Havilland Comet – offer considerably more horsepower and airspeed than the Hawk, and flying the trio in formation at airshows has presented its own raft of challenges.  Mark picks up the story: “The aeroplanes all have different inertia and different power plants.  You can generally match them fairly well for a level pass, where the Speed Six will be more or less flat out at at around 160kts and the Comet will be flying as slowly as it possibly can to account for that.  The challenge comes in the repositioning wing overs, because the three aeroplanes all slow down and speed up at different rates.  For that reason we position the slowest type, in this case the Speed Six, on the inside of the formation turns to avoid having to thrash the engine to hold position.  The Speed Six also has the most benign low-speed handling of the three and is well suited to that position.

“The Comet is heaviest and will pick up airspeed very quickly downhill, but will slow rapidly in the climb.  The Speed Six pilot will need to make the necessary throttle adjustments, feeding in rudder as appropriate, to react to that.  As soon as we’re turning downhill I will start to feed in power before I see an apparent change in the Comet – you have to lead those changes, otherwise you’ll end up 20ft behind the leader and unable to catch up.  You’re at your slowest there and rpm changes produce a lot of yaw.  If you get it wrong and you don’t keep the aeroplane in balance, you’re just creating more drag and it won’t matter that you’ve increased the rpm.”

At lower airspeeds, Mark describes the Speed Six as feeling very similar to a Magister, with plenty of feedback as the angle-of-attack increases, the control column comes aft and the controls feel lighter and less effective.  “If you see any of those signs before you expect them, that’s a clue that you’re approaching the stall,” says Mark, “which is important as the natural buffet can be masked by the cacophony from the engine”.  At very slow airspeeds the nose will hunt and the pilot’s feet will work hard on the pedals to keep the aeroplane in balance.  A light buffet at around 42-44kts forewarns a benign stall at 40kts (with the flaps down), with a gentle nose drop as the aeroplane departs.  Recovery is standard, and neutralising the stick and allowing the airspeed to build will see the Speed Six comfortably fly away from the stall.

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Circuits are normally flown at around 60 to 65kts, with the power reduced in the downwind. “When you close the throttle it’ll often bark from the exhausts, which you can hear in the cockpit and gives you a terrific visceral sense of power”, Mark says.  Flap is introduced as airspeed bleeds off – the flaps have three stages, actuated by the lever on the left side of the cockpit with a twist grip to lock each stage.  “The full-flap limiting speed is 65kts.  In theory, you could drop one stage of flap, slow down, then drop another stage and so on.  Ergonomically it’s quite difficult to find those notches in-flight, and you don’t want to be searching them out in the downwind.  For that reason I tend to bring the airspeed below the full-flap limit, which puts you at quite a nose-high attitude.  At around 65kts I’ll lower all of the flap in one go – that causes a big pitch, but I can mask that by pushing the stick forward and initiating the turn in to final to land.”  Arriving over the threshold below 60kts and with the throttle closed and stick brought aft to settle the aeroplane in the three-point attitude, landings should be a pedestrian affair.

The Speed Six’s low-slung profile means pilots will avoid taking the aeroplane through the coarse grass on exiting the runway, opting instead for the mowed taxiways so as to avoid risking damage to the exhaust stacks and flaps.  At taxying speed, the flaps are fully retracted – the trailing edge of the flaps lining up with the trailing edge of the wing to offer the pilot a visual indication of their retraction as there is no other means of confirming this in-cockpit – and upon return to the aeroplane’s parking space, the engine is allowed to stabilise before the magnetos are switched off and the throttle opened as the engine dies.

“It’s a huge privilege to fly these aeroplanes”, reflects Mark.  “Often the satisfaction comes after the event, and the smile cracks on your face as you’re walking away after a successful flight.  Immeasurable effort is invested into these aeroplanes behind the scenes, then you’re gifted them to display to the public.  It’s vital to do that.  If they’re museum pieces, the public just don’t get a sense of what they were made for and what they’re capable of.   You do feel that weight of responsibility. We don’t fly these aeroplanes anywhere near their limitations – it’s about flying them in the most protective manner that doesn’t place any undue stress on the airframe and engine”, he continues.  “We’re just custodians whose job it is to demonstrate these aeroplanes, and to ensure their preservation for future generations.

“It’s a truly stunning reflection of the pioneering spirit of the golden age of aviation.”
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“The Hawk Speed Six is a tremendously historic airframe with a great racing pedigree that spans 84 years. Alongside the Mew Gull and Comet, it’s a lovely portal into the rapid development and excitement of aviation in the 1930s, and a truly stunning reflection of the pioneering spirit of the golden age of aviation.”