Updated: Dec 1, 2021
This is not a post about the history of each aircraft and how they came in to being. That has been covered elsewhere in numerous books and website articles. Instead, this will attempt to examine what it is like to fly aircraft, the emotions that they conjure up and maybe even settle the argument of which one is ultimately the better aircraft.
My background is not that of a pilot. I spent most of my professional life as an engineer however I have always been drawn to the flying of aircraft rather than trying to fix them. I blame watching Top Gun and Memphis Belle continually throughout my formative years!
Before the CAA altered the legislation I had been fortunate enough to fly a couple of times in Tiger Moths owned by the late Paul Morgan and once when stationed at RAF Cottesmore when several flew in for a visit. At this point I suspected that my dream of flying in a Spitfire would remain just that, a dream.
Fast forward a few years and reading in Flypast Magazine that Spitfire operators could now fly fee paying passengers for flights was an amazing opportunity, then the RAF posted me to the Falklands for a very long 12 months…
Then in 2017 for my 35th Birthday my wife, unknown to me, had secured a flight in MJ627, a former Mk IXc Spitfire, converted to T9 status and operated at former RAF Biggin Hill.
The day of my flight dawned without a cloud in the sky, for those who know their history, Kent in the summer IS Spitfire country.
The team at the Heritage Hangar at Biggin Hill could not have been more friendly and helpful providing a full safety brief and having enough tea and coffee to keep a Squadron satisfied!
After watching three other passengers strap in, depart and recover, all with the biggest grins I have seen in my life, it was my turn. Don, my pilot for the sortie was a former Sea Harrier pilot with the Fleet Air Arm and our mutual connection of Joint Force Harrier quickly led to what I wanted to do with my allotted time. Much to my surprise, he said that he would pass control to me as soon as we cleared the controlled airspace around Gatwick and made the left turn toward the South Coast.
Walking out to the aircraft, I was excited, nervous and trying my best to keep both emotions under a cool and calm exterior. Strapping in, you quickly realise that the office is not a big one. The sides of the fuselage are narrow, very narrow and there is no floor, merely the rudder pedals to rest your feet on. Even in the T9 configuration, it was clear this aircraft had one purpose and one purpose alone.
Having spent some time reading up on the pilots notes for the Mk IX I was somewhat familiar with the process of starting the magnificent Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, but I wasn’t ready for the noise. The Merlin has such a distinct, recognisable sound when stood on the ground listening to it, but from inside the aircraft it sounded harder, more purposeful.
Due to the cooling system on the Spitfire and it being the fourth trip on the morning, there was no hanging around on the ground, we taxied out and briefly held waiting on ATC to clear us to the main for departure. Thoughts of the Battle of Britain and Sir Michael Caine as Squadron Leader Canfield ran through my mind, ‘either we stand down or blow up…’ but I didn’t have long to ponder this iconic scene. Before I knew it we had swung left onto Runway 21, the throttle opened up and we were rolling. The tail rises extremely quickly and before I knew it were climbing into the burning blue sky.
Passing over the M25 and by Sevenoaks, it suddenly dawned on me that I was airborne in a wartime Spitfire, over Kent, in the summer with nothing more than small clouds separating me from the heavens. This was everything I had dreamed of since I knew what a Spitfire was. Then Don uttered those words, ‘you have control’.
Reaching for the iconic spade grip I held my breath. It was as if time had slowed and sped up all at once. I was flying the aircraft, Don’s hands clearly visible in the front cockpit told me that I was now responsible for the aircraft. I could add my name to the list of Sailor Malan, Al Deere et al. even if only in my own mind!
With Don providing some coaching from the front office, I got a feel for the responsiveness of the aircraft. Every, and I mean every word I had read about the Spitfire being an extension of your physical being is true. I did not need to think about moving the control column, I just thought about where I wanted to go, and the aircraft went there. I will caveat all of this with the aircraft was trimmed perfectly and the boost/RPM was set for the cruise and I was not performing and rolls, loops etc. Just the very basic elements of aircraft handling.
Flying over the Garden of England, the English Channel raced into view. My mind full of thoughts of The Few in 1940, experiencing the same view but in far deadlier skies. Don took control as we approached the coast and he applied more throttle for the manoeuvres over the Channel. We crossed at Cuckmere Haven and headed east along the coast past the Seven Sisters to Beachy Head, the crowds below, knowing instantly the sound above their heads.
Patrolling the coast, we reached the famous Beachy Head lighthouse and went into our first wingover. Craning my neck around I was working hard checking our 6 for 109’s, or at least trying to understand how hard it was to not just fly the aircraft but to constantly be on your guard for fear of being bounced by the enemy.
After a couple of laps from Cuckmere Haven to Beachy Head we crossed back over the land and headed back north toward Biggin Hill. As Don dialled the power back, he once again passed the controls to me and directed me toward Brands Hatch. As we flew north, we talked about the Battle that had raged in the now peaceful skies above Kent and stories of The Few. It seemed hard to imagine that the farms, villages and patchwork of fields and woods had once been the front line in one of the wars most decisive battles.
Upon reaching Brands Hatch circuit, my time flying the Spitfire had come to an end, Don resumed control and we dove toward the circuit before pulling up into a victory roll and recovering to Biggin Hill for short finals.
Taxing up to our parking slot, the sudden absence of the engine note, snapped me back to reality. The constant hum of the Merlin was now gone and the canopy slid back by the ground crew. For once I was lost for words, a wave of emotion ran over me that I had not expected. I had achieved my lifelong ambition of flying in arguably the world’s most famous aircraft of all time and it had not disappointed in the slightest. Every single aspect was as I had read about in books by those men of the Royal Air Force who had flown them in combat during the war.
Four years later and as a result of a chance scroll through Facebook, I found myself travelling to Germany to see a man about a Mustang.
Wilhelm, owns P-51D-5-NA ‘Louisiana Kid’ and I was lucky enough to be going for a flight with him.
Much like my passion for the history of the RAF and Fighter Commands battles over South East England in 1940, I am also fascinated by the air war that was prosecuted by the 8th Army Air Forces from late 1942 to 1945. This daylight offensive against targets in Europe was decisive in paving the way for the victories seen in 1944 until the end of the European War in May 1945.
The P-51 has always been a firm favourite of mine and while comparable to the Spitfire, the legendary Bud Anderson once said, ‘the Mustang could do everything the Spitfire could, except it could do it all day long’. If anyone can speak with authority on the subject, it is Bud Anderson.
The first thing that strikes you about the Mustang, is the size. It is a big aircraft with its wide tracked undercarriage it somehow seems tougher and more purposeful than the Spitfire.
The years between the two designs is also apparent when entering the cockpit. The Spitfire is typical of British fighter design from the mid 1930’s, the Mustang however is a huge leap, with its wooden covered floor, wide cockpit and for its time, ergonomic layout of instruments and controls.
The Louisiana Kid unlike the TF-51’s that operate in the UK is not a twin stick. It retains a vast proportion of its wartime configuration, something Wilhelm is keen to preserve. The only difference is the removal of the fuselage tank and radios and the addition of a jump seat.
Clambering into the cockpit is not arduous and at 6ft tall, there is still plenty of room to sit comfortably. With the canopy rolled back, Wilhelm fired up the Packard Merlin and went through the range of checks needed when operating the engine from a cold start. As with the Spitfire, the noise of the Merlin is far more guttural, losing that refined note you hear when watching these aircraft from the ground.
Taxing out, the undercarriage coping easily with the grass strip, the final checks were performed before opening the throttle. As with the Spitfire, before I knew it we were airborne and tucking up the flaps and gear. The biggest difference between the two initially was the visibility. The bubble canopy of the Mustang, specifically the P-51D was immediately apparent. I could see everything clearly, unlike the Spitfire where a lot more work was required to look rearward.
Cruising at low level, around 300 mph the sense of speed and power of the aircraft, even from the jump seat was obvious. The Mustang had more to give but for longevity Wilhelm keeps the power setting at a reasonable level, after all the threat of 109’s and 190’s is substantially less than it was!
Gaining altitude to perform manoeuvres, the handling characteristics such as rate of climb and roll rate were incredible. As with the Spitfire, I was immediately reminded of the men of the 8th AAF who did this for real in 1944/45 in aircraft like these.
With the duration of the flight being 20 minutes, the return to the airfield happened all too quickly, but before joining the circuit, we got low and fast for a flypast which felt low enough to cut the grass followed by pulling into the vertical for another pass. It was at this point the true power of the Mustang became apparent as we hit 400mph and pulled G’s. This aircraft was designed to be the best and it did not disappoint.
With the gear and flaps down to land, the approach was a quick one and we came to a rest on the grass strip with ease.
After parking up and shutting down, I realised I had been extremely lucky to tick off another lifelong ambition.
It was at this point my mind began to compare the two experiences and naturally, I wanted to try to understand which aircraft was the best.
The Spitfire will always be close to my heart, it is iconic, beautiful and the saviour of the free world (and yes we all know the Hurricane played an important role as well but my preference will always be for the Spitfire!) It feels like an extension of your soul when at the controls and has the finest V12 ever created up front.
The P-51 is years ahead in terms of design and that is apparent in almost all respects. It encapsulates the best of American innovation and aeronautical expertise that was around in the 1940’s (admittedly with some power plant help from us Brits!). The Mustang also feels faster, ok this is somewhat subjective, and has numerous variables.
Overall, if I had to choose one over the other I do not think I could. All I will say is, the Spitfire will always rule my heart, while the Mustang my head. Most importantly, without either aircraft, nor the men who flew them, the path to victory would have been that much harder.