Jeffrey Quill called the Spitfire Mk XIV “the best of all the fighter variants of the Spitfire… a splendid and potent aeroplane” that “performed magnificently”. Flight magazine’s anonymous test pilot correspondent ‘Indicator’ described the Mk XIV as “a paradigm shift in the Spitfire lineage – arguably a new type, given the… major structural and aerodynamic changes it required”. Johnnie Johnson précised it as “a nice, fast flying machine”, but for him, the XIV was “not a Spitfire anymore”.
For Paul Bonhomme, the Mk XIV “is fundamentally a Spitfire, but it’s very obviously a racier mark”. An enthusiastic advocate of the aircraft, his impressions of the Mk XIV – and the wider Spitfire lineage – are coloured by three decades of warbird experiences. “The first thing you notice is the five-blade propeller fitted to handle the increased power of the new Griffon 65. Then you see that the rudder is broadened to offset the longer nose and more powerful engine. But all that power is bolted to the standard Spitfire airframe, and it’s still sat on the narrow track undercarriage. That classic comment about strapping on the Spitfire very much rings true with the Mk XIV as well as the earlier marks.”
“When you’re sat in it on the ground listening to the engine ticking over, the exhaust note is a lot deeper than the Merlin’s. It’s a real growl as you run up, and it gives you a tremendous feeling of harnessed power.”
Some 30 years have passed since Vickers-Armstrong Spitfire FR XIVe MV293 made its maiden post-restoration flight from Duxford. It’s changed hands since, moving from The Fighter Collection (TFC) to Anglia Aircraft Restorations, but has remained based at Duxford for the duration and is a favourite of warbird aficionados.
Built as part of a mixed batch of Mk VIIIs and XIVs, MV293 was assembled at Keevil in July 1944. It arrived at No 33 Maintenance Unit (MU) at Lyneham on 27 February 1945, passing to No 215 MU at Dumfries on 20 August. It set sail for Karachi onboard the SS Dee Bank on 6 September, arriving on 14 October and passing to Air Command South East Asia shortly thereafter. MV293 was destined for the Royal Indian Air Force, joining No 8 Squadron on a loan agreement before permanently transferring to the Indians in late December 1947.
8 Squadron had operated Spitfires since July 1944 – first Mk VIIIs then the XIVs – and the slow conversion to the Tempest II from October 1946 signalled the drawdown of the aircraft’s Indian Air Force career. The squadron’s Spitfire Mk XIVs were accordingly declared surplus to requirements, MV293 likely moving the short distance from Kolar in the southern state of Karnataka to the Indian Air Force’s Technical College in Jallahali, Bangalore. It was later sold to Doug Arnold, arriving in England on 26 May 1978, and underwent restoration by Dick Melton and Pete Rushen before TFC acquired the aircraft in late 1985. A move to TFC’s Duxford base followed, and MV293 flew again on 14 August 1992 in a late-1940s overall silver scheme representing No 2 Squadron’s West Germany-based Spitfire FR XIVs.
Paul Bonhomme was in his second year with TFC when MV293 returned to flight. He’d been invited to join the Collection’s pilot roster in 1991 when he was 26. Scouted by Stephen and Nick Grey whilst flying Richard Goode’s Yak-50 at the Cumbernauld Airshow 1991, Paul was later approached by the late Hoof Proudfoot – the Collection’s Chief Pilot at the time – and asked to join TFC as a display pilot. “Hoof turned up to our meeting at High Wycombe with a TFC brochure with photographs of all these lovely aeroplanes. He said, ‘I just wanted to know if you’d be interested in flying for us?’ I was a bit blown sideways really because I wasn’t expecting it at all. I said something to the effect of, ‘What do you think? I’d bloody love to!’ and that was that!”
Paul’s TFC initiation began with a training flight with Hoof in the Harvard, “just to prove you could land and take off without ground looping or crashing it”, and he was briefed shortly thereafter on the P-40M Kittyhawk before his first, “nerve-wracking” solo warbird flight from Duxford. Paul made his public display debut for TFC at the RAF Bentwaters airshow, flying the P-40. He quickly converted to the Hawker Hurricane Mk XII, which he displayed at a number of events including the Great Warbirds Airshow 1991 at West Malling.
“Hoof asked me on the Sunday morning at West Malling whether I had read the book on the Mk IX Spitfire, which I had, and he said, ‘Well come and sit in it and I’ll show you what everything does.’ I wondered where this conversation was going… Then after the show, it was a beautiful evening with the sun setting and he said, ‘Right, you might as well take the Spitfire home’. My first flight in a Spitfire was from West Malling back to Duxford on a summer’s evening in August. Perfect! I remember that I scurried back to White Waltham as quickly as I could and I bought myself a pint and was standing there in the bar just itching for somebody to ask me what I’d done that day, and nobody did! Eventually I had to say, ‘Look, you miserable bastards, why don’t you ask me what I’ve done today?’ They said, ‘Go on, what?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve flown a Hurricane and a Spitfire today!’ They said, ‘…Yeah, right!’ and that was the end of that!”
A wealth of historic aeroplanes followed – Mustang, Kingcobra, Wildcat, Hellcat, Thunderbolt, Corsair, Skyraider and Bearcat amongst them – and in 1995, the opportunity arose to fly the Spitfire FR XIV. It was the Monday after the La Ferté-Alais Meeting Aérien, and TFC’s pilots were sat around the breakfast table at their hotel. “As we were eating breakfast, Stephen [Grey] offered that I could ferry it back to Duxford”, Paul remembers. “It was full to the gunnels with fuel, which made it quite twitchy, but I thoroughly enjoyed cruising back to Duxford at 230kts. Hell of a machine.”
Two years passed before Paul flew MV293 at an airshow. The aircraft became a semi-regular mount under TFC’s ownership and remains so with Anglia Aircraft Restorations. Of all the flights, the coveted ‘Joker’ displays at Flying Legends 2000 “remain a firm favourite” of Bonhomme’s. “Stephen asked me if I wanted to do it and it took me a millionth of a nanosecond to say yes!” he recalls. MV293 was repainted for the occasion, taking on grey-green camouflage and JE-J codes as an homage to Group Captain J. E. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson’s F XIV MV268 to honour the RAF ace’s visit to Flying Legends. Johnson had flown two F XIVs with elliptical wings – MV268 and MV257, respectively – with No 125 Wing at the end of the war and immediately post-war, discretely marked with JE-J codes and with a Group Captain’s pennant painted ahead of the cockpit.
“The Bearcat was the usual Joker, but that was very much Stephen’s aircraft and he was unwell and unable to fly that year. With Johnnie Johnson visiting and the Mk XIV going into his JE-J scheme, it was the logical alternative. That one does stand out. The Joker slot at ‘Legends is possibly the best airshow slot you could ever be asked to do. It’s solo hooliganism – you can do exactly what you like, whereas most other ‘Legends slots are scenarios where you’re flying with other aeroplanes and have to stick very closely to the script. The only criteria is to miss a formation of 30 warbirds going around every five minutes, and believe me, it’s not difficult to miss 30 warbirds coming over the hill!
“I’ve said to Stephen since, if ever you need me to do it, I’m there. It’s just such fun; you’re adlibbing waiting for this formation of 30 aeroplanes to turn up. You have the time to really get some energy up whereas with a lot of the other shows, because it’s beautifully choreographed, you tend not to have that luxury. With the Joker slot, everybody takes off and meanwhile you’ve been climbing so you’re really high and can come snorting in really fast, and you’re there for a few minutes until the guys come round again so then you go off and get some more energy up. Whatever you do is very high energy and high speed. Maybe it’s an anticipation thing. For the crowd, the analogy could be like having a starter of salad, but you know that just around the corner is a filet minion with a Béarnaise sauce, so you’re really going to enjoy that starter!
“I’ve got a photograph from the Legends 2000 press day of myself, Stephen Grey and Johnnie Johnson stood next to the Mk XIV in his JE-J codes. That was the icing on the cake, really. We sat down on the top floor of the tower watching the flying. I remember someone asked him if he wanted a beer and he said, ‘Well, of course I do!’ It was this great inference that he didn’t go through the Second World War to not sit having a British beer on a sunny summer afternoon. The look on his face was quite poignant.”
Johnson sadly died six months later, aged 85. At the time of writing, Spitfire MV293 still wears its JE-J codes and MV268 serial.
A précis of the airframe identifies the fundamental differences between the Mk XIV and its predecessors. Spitfire FR XIVe MV293, registered G-SPIT, is powered by a Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine driving a five-blade Dowty Rotol propeller, with a low-back aft fuselage incorporating a “tear drop” sliding hood for superior visibility. The standard vertically stacked main fuel tanks of 36 (top) and 49 (bottom) gallons’ capacity in the fuselage forward of the cockpit are supplemented by two wing tanks of 13 gallons apiece and a rear tank aft of the cockpit carrying a further 31 gallons. Fuel from the top main tank gravity feeds into the bottom main tank, while fuel in the wing tanks is transferred under pressure to the top main tank. The rear tank feeds the engine directly via the main pipeline and is controlled through an on-off fuel cock mounted on the left-hand side of the cockpit.
Oil is supplied to the engine from a 9-gallon tank positioned between the top main fuel tank and the fireproof bulkhead, while the oil cooler is fitted inside the fairing of the port wing radiator and the engine coolant tank is mounted above the reduction gear casing. The radiator flaps are fully automatic and open at a coolant temperature of 115°C. The undercarriage and tailwheel are hydraulically operated, while an engine-driven air compressor feeds two storage cylinders for the operation of the brakes, flaps, radiator flaps and supercharger gear change ram.
Turning to the cockpit layout, the fuel cock control for main tanks is mounted below the engine starter pushbutton. The transfer valve selector cock for admitting air pressure to either wing tank is below and slightly forward of the throttle quadrant. The pressurising cock is mounted on the right-hand cockpit wall, just below seat level. Control for the rear tank cock is a small hand wheel mounted on the left-hand side of the cockpit, below the throttle quadrant. Electric fuel booster pumps in lower main tank and rear tank are controlled by a three-position switch mounted on the electrical panel. A Ki-gass primer pump is mounted immediately forward of the undercarriage selector lever, while the ignition switch sits to the left of the instrument panel. “Plenty to focus the mind there”, Paul wryly notes. “A far cry from the basic fuel management of the earlier marks that carried only the two forward tanks – more on that later.”
The control column is of a standard Spitfire spade-grip pattern and incorporates the brake lever. The elevator trimming tabs are controlled by a handwheel on the left-hand side of the cockpit, with the smaller rudder trimming tab handwheel positioned aft of this. The undercarriage selector lever sits in a gated quadrant on the right-hand side of the cockpit. The throttle and propeller pitch control levers sit in a standard quadrant to the pilot’s left. Two-position split flaps are controlled by a finger lever on the top left-hand side of the instrument panel.
“Once you’ve run out of excuses, you need to start the engine! Brakes on, battery on, mixture to cut-off, electric fuel pump on then off, then prime using that massive primer T-handle. You’re looking for one to two shots of primer depending on the engine and ambient temperature. Crack the throttle to about 1 ½ inches to aim for a low idle rpm on start-up. You then need lots of fingers – you need one finger on the starter button, one for the boost coil and two for the magnetos. Hit the starter, engage the boost coil and as the engine fires, turn on the magnetos in sequence and move the mixture lever to rich. It sounds awesome when the engine fires and burbles at idle power.
“Once the starter light is out and you’re seeing good oil pressure, open the throttle to 1,100 rpm and then 1,200 rpm and wait for the coolant and oil temperatures to increase. In the Merlins, you’re governed by the coolant temperature and will reach the critical coolant temperature first, meaning you’ll need to set off with whatever oil temperature you’ve got to avoid the coolant tipping over 100°C. Not so with the Mk XIV, as you have two big radiators that regulate the temperature and allow you more time on the ground as it warms up slower. The book says 15°C on the oil and 60°C on the coolant, but it’s much better practice to allow the temperatures to rise to 40 oil and 80 coolant to avoid shock heating the engine on take-off. That’s a concern across all aspects of a flight – warm it up and cool it down slowly through careful power inputs.
“You’ll run it up to 1,800 rpm and check the boost gauge against the rpm gauge. Check the temperatures and pressures, check the magnetos and look for no more than a 50-100 rpm drop, then cycle the propeller. That makes sure the constant speed unit is working and cycles warm oil into the governor and prop hub to allow it to govern exactly as it should on take-off without over-revving. If you’re touching 100°C on the coolant temperature, you really need to get into the air. Maximum coolant temperature allowed is 135°C, with a one hour climbing limit of 125°C and 105°C for maximum continuous. Maximum oil temperature is 90°C, with a 105°C limit for five minutes. Most Spitfires will sit happily around 70°C in the cruise.”
The abundance of power demands attention, particularly on take-off. “The Spitfire Mk XIV is just another aeroplane. But – and this needs to be underlined in bold red font – you’re not necessarily going in the direction you’re pointing in on take-off. That is absolutely critical to understanding why the Mk XIV does what it does on take-off and how to mitigate against that. In something like a Mk V, you’ll basically be going where the nose is pointing, within a couple of degrees. If you line up the Mk XIV on a wet grass runway and keep the nose pointing down the runway and open the throttle, you’ll crab across the runway towards the right-hand edge.”
The procedure is more involved than in other marks of Spitfire and, Bonhomme says, “You have to put thought into the conditions and the surface you’re taking off on. At +5 lb./sq.in. boost on dry concrete, you’ll probably head off in the direction you’re pointing. On wet grass at +7, you’re going to crab to the right. To offset that, at some stage you need to point the nose off to the left so that by the time the aircraft is crabbing right, you’re “heading” to the left and will follow the centre line perfectly.
“The book says to use full left rudder trim and I tend to use that. If you have neutral trim, you can get airborne in the Griffon with a big boot of left rudder pressure to track straight. The advantage of setting off with full left rudder trim is that it means less foot pressure to counteract the yaw. A touch of left aileron will also help to counteract the torque but that would only be for the first part of the take-off run and you’ll need to neutralise the ailerons as the airspeed increased. It does rather focus the mind – I took off from the Goodwood Revival on the short south-westerly runway in a strong wind and on wet grass, with Stephen Grey waiting in another aeroplane 25ft behind me. I thought, if there’s one occasion in my life that I need to be on the centreline, this is it!
“You’d typically want +7 on the take-off, which is a sensible power setting to get airborne quickly without wearing the tyres as it crabs sideways. The book says, ‘If much power is used, tyre wear is severe’. They’d worked out back then that there was an awful lot of torque and crabbing, particularly at higher power. The propeller is governed to 2,750 rpm so you’d be looking for that on take-off.
“At one point, TFC’s pilots had reported it going up to 3,000 rpm on take-off. The engineers had a theory it was over-revving when the oil was hot. To test the concept, Pete Rushen asked me to take off with the engine warm from a previous flight, using +12 lb./sq.in. I managed to get to +8 on the runway before we were airborne and reached +12 once I was airborne. Bloody hell, it didn’t half go! It has so much power and you rarely have cause to use anywhere near that maximum boost.”
“If the throttle friction hasn’t been tightened before take-off, the throttle will close of its own accord when you swap hands for the gear and you’ll see the boost come right back – that’s the first ‘gotcha’, which makes throttle friction an essential check. Give the brakes a quick dab, then you’re swapping hands and reaching for the gear lever with your right hand.
“In practice – gear lever down, pause, move inwards to the up position and hover your hand there to feel when the gear lever clunks back into the gate. A lot’s going on in that one simple movement. When you push the gear lever down, it pressurises the hydraulics to move the gear away from the gear locks. You move the handle up in one smooth movement to twist the gear locks so that the gear can now be moved past the locks. As the handle travels, it will activate the hydraulics which raise the now unlocked gear. You squeeze the handle into the forward stop as the gear travels up. The up lock brackets go into the same pins that were holding the gear down, but they’re now twisted around to allow the gear up lock brackets to spring over the end of the pins. Once the gear’s up, the hydraulic pressure to the gear will stop and the lever will spring back into the gate at the top. In practice for the pilot, you smoothly move the lever in a squared off C shape but it’s really important to know what’s happening in the background.
“One of the disadvantages of applying full left rudder trim on take-off is that your right foot will be heavy on the rudder bar once airborne trying to keep the aeroplane in balance. Quick scan inside on the climb out to make sure your temperatures and pressures are stable, and your ancillaries are working. Don’t be in a hurry to bring the power back – you’ve taken off at +7 and 2,750 rpm and you can bring the boost back to +5 and then slowly pull the prop back to 2,400 rpm. The Griffon prefers high boost – nicely loaded pistons that aren’t ‘slopping around’ – and you don’t want to risk damage to the engine by bringing the power back too quickly. It’s all about being kind to that engine.”
With 142 gallons of fuel distributed across several tanks positioned forward and aft of the cockpit and in the wings, Paul explains the importance of changing tanks to keep the aircraft in balance. The main 85-gallon tank is used for start-up and take-off, and to avoid shifting the centre of gravity aft, it’s then a case of switching to the rear 31-gallon tank (if being used) by turning on the fuel pump to transfer fuel from the rear tank directly to the engine.
“The ‘gotcha’ is that the rear tank can run dry in just over half an hour at cruise power”, says Bonhomme. “You’ll soon know, as it’ll go very quiet very quickly! Nevertheless, that’s really a ferry tank and at full capacity, it’s like having a 220 pound passenger between you and the tail. You’ll get a much greater pitch for a small amount of aft stick pressure. It almost feels unstable, so you want to burn that fuel off as soon as you can and then run off the other tanks. You’d never burn off your main and wing tanks then fly with only the rear tank full – that would be quite an exciting aeroplane to fly!”
Regarding the clipped wings: “They improve the roll rate but negatively affect the aircraft’s ability in pitch. If a similar clipped wing Spitfire is leading an elliptical wing Spitfire and they pitch up into a loop, the clipped wing aeroplane having a higher wing loading will slow down faster in the vertical than the elliptical aeroplane. That is the case with the clipped Mk XIV. Though it has higher power, it has a much higher wing loading than, say, an elliptical wing Mk IX, and the energy has to be managed very carefully. Even a moderate amount of G will bleed that energy, and it helps to fly a few straight lines and parabolic wingovers to build the energy back up wherever you can.”
Of the comparison between the ‘baby’ Spitfire Mk Is and Vs, the classic Mk IX and the Mk XIV, he says, “The XIV is not as nice to aerobat as a V or IX. The V is possibly the most fun to fly due to the sweet handling, the IX a delight with the greater power and penetration through the air. In the Mk XIV, if you’ve trimmed it to a mid-speed, in the climb when you’re slow at the top of a loop, to stay in balance you’ll have a load of left rudder pressure, then as you’re pulling out and the airspeed is building up above your trimmed airspeed you’ll be feeding in right rudder pressure. You’re looking for +7 and 2,400 rpm for aerobatics. Less than that and you’d run out of puff after a couple of vertical manoeuvres.
“The changing amounts of propwash over the tail as you speed up and slow down requires constant foot pressure on the rudder pedals to keep the aeroplane in balance. When you land after an aerobatic display, you can feel it in your legs. It makes the XIV harder work to fly than the smaller Spitfires.
“For rolling figures, you need to be sympathetic to the engine and limit rapid changes from positive to negative G. It’s no different to any other warbird and there is a specific technique to it. You pitch up and fly a parabolic curve starting with the nose well above the horizon and ideally finish with the nose on or slightly below the horizon. You’re flying a slight curve the whole way which might not be noticeable from the ground. To initiate the roll, you squeeze the aileron with a small amount of rudder in the same direction, avoiding the adverse yaw. That’s counterintuitive as you’d normally do the opposite with the rudder in an aerobatic aeroplane for a level slow roll. As you reach the first quarter of the roll, you neutralise the rudder and may need to feed in a little top rudder again in the final quarter of the roll. Again, it’s all about treating the aeroplane gently, they are after all around 70 to 80 years old and the less wear and tear we subject them to, the more likely they’ll be flying for years to come.”
Flight complete, a break to land at about 220kts at 200ft and a peel into the circuit with a low cruise power of 0 boost and 1,800 rpm should position the Spitfire Mk XIV at around 1,000ft downwind, bleeding off the power and then the airspeed below the 140kt gear limiting speed. “Assuming the circuit pattern is empty, the Spitfire loves being flown fluidly to final; in other words, everything is reduced slowly until your minimum airspeed at touchdown. It does not lend itself to be flown digitally by numbers. When teaching on the Spitfire, new pilots need to know some ‘numbers and figures’ but it’s lovely to see a new pilot flying the aeroplane with feeling rather than flying it digitally. The speed will be around 120 knots when the gear is locked down and then a linear reduction of speed around a curved approach onto a short final is the aim.
“You’ll put down the flaps late downwind. It’s all or nothing with the flaps, as with all Spitfires. Dropping 85 degrees of flap into the airflow causes a small upward nod in pitch and you’ll feel the deceleration. Then it’s a trade-off between airspeed and altitude.” As the airspeed diminishes, sequential checks of gear, flaps, brake pressure, throttle position, propeller pitch, temperatures and pressures are conducted prior to the final turn, with power adjustments made to maintain a suitable sink rate to arrive on short final at around 95kts. Flaring into the three-point position, the Spitfire touches down at around 80 knots– a shade faster if a ‘wheeler’ landing is favoured. “It is a lovely aeroplane to land… Once you’re within a couple of hundred feet of the runway, looking outside at the aeroplanes attitude and sink rate gives you all the information you need to judge the power and flare required. As already mentioned, it lends itself to be landed with feeling rather than digitally.”
Another ‘gotcha’, Paul says, is handling the immediate onset of high power at low airspeed and low altitude in the event of a go-around. Notwithstanding its uneventful stall characteristics, throwing on 1,800hp of torque and propwash at low speed requires great care and attention. “If you’re low and slow too, that’s going to be particularly hard work. In a Merlin Spitfire you can put the power on at low speed and it will happily fly away. As the yaw control requires more work than a ‘traditional’ Spitfire, it is vital to avoid high sink rates with high power… Worse case, a stall with high power will almost certainly be fatal.
“On the rollout, it will give you a nice warm cosy feeling to start with but you have to keep your concentration and don’t relax until you’ve parked. It may want to ground loop as it slows and if it senses you’re not paying attention – the centre of gravity is behind the main wheels so it naturally wants to point the other way. You need to be ahead of the aeroplane and anticipate what the aeroplane is doing at all times”. Shut down is straightforward; run the engine at idle power (around 800 rpm), move the fuel control to cut-off and then switch off the magnetos and other systems.
“People often ask me to name my favourite warbird”, Bonhomme says. “My stock answer is ‘the aeroplane I am in at the time!’ But if you pushed me, I’d say Spitfires – any Spitfire, because I think they’re all fabulous flying machines. The Mk V is like a big, powerful Chipmunk. Delightful to fly and very light, just stunning. It handles more like a little light aeroplane and it flies beautifully. The Mk IX is gorgeous, just with a bit more power and penetration through the sky. But for sheer brutality and ‘rarr’, the old Mk XIV, which is great fun. If you haven’t flown the Mk XIV for a while, it takes you a couple of flights to calm down from the take-off!
“The Mk XIV has its foibles that you absolutely need to familiarise yourself with but once you get your head around its behaviour and limitations – those ‘gotchas’ in particular – and why it does what it does, it’s delightful.
“And, let’s be honest”, he says with a grin befitting a man with nearly 30 years’ Spitfire Mk XIV experience: “It’s an absolute animal.”