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The Spitfire Society Interview

Flying The Spitfire


Sqn Ldr Ken Jackson MBE, AFC

This manuscript article was given to our Committee Member Peter Wesson by Sqdn. Ldr. Jackson. Tucked away on the last page were the following few lines which provide an appropriate context for the main article.

'One or two details of 'Jacko' Jackson's flying career: After 44 years in the RAF during which he flew continuously for just over the last 40, without a ground tour, on 34 Types and always as first pilot having been a direct-entry Captain on both the Hastings and the Belfast Transports, his total flying hours were just over 12,000 hours without scratching the paint. When he left the RAF he became a civilian Flying Instructor at Sherburn-in-Elmet in Yorkshire for 12 years amassing another 7,000 hours on 38 new Types and again without scratching the paintwork. Although 'Jacko' is proud of his Spitfire days the highlight of his flying career was undoubtedly becoming O/C BBMF and flying the Lancaster "City of Lincoln" for seven years after the demise of the Hastings which he had flown for over 5,000 hours.'

"About the only way of becoming an RAF Pilot pre-WWII without being selected for a Cranwell Cadetship or a short-service Commission, which both called for a very high level of education, was to join the RAF in a ground trade and hope that one might became an NCO Pilot for a fixed four-year period. With that in mind I joined the RAF as a "Trenchard Brat" (Halton Apprentice) signing on the dotted line on my 16th birthday in 1939, little realising that it would be 44 years later before I finally left on my 60th.

Having been trained as a Fitter II Airframes, the technical world was very reluctant to let one re-muster to aircrew despite the demands of WWII. I finally managed to escape in 1943 and, after gaining my Wings in Southern Rhodesia, proceeded to Egypt to join No. 73 OTU, RAF Fayied.

The first question asked there was which type did one wish to convert to: Spitfire, P47 or Tomahawk? I thought everybody would want the Spitfire but, thankfully, quite a few who had, perhaps, been unhappy with their landing skills during training opted for the P47 with its wide undercarriage - shades of Mel09/Fwl90 and the Hurricane/Spitfire! Another factor might have been that Tomahawk pilots would definitely proceed to Italy and fly Mustangs, and those on P47s to India then Burma..

Came the day, after more Harvard flying, when I achieved my ultimate ambition - to fly a Spitfire. After a thorough briefing and supervised start-up, my Instructor sat on the port wing tip as I taxied out and, just before take-off, came and had a final look around the cockpit, probably to make sure that the glycol temperature was not approaching its max. limits. After a successful take-off I had a sense of feeling never known to me before: "I'm flying a Spitfire" I kept saying to myself, "And all I have to do now is to make a safe landing" which I duly did. Oh, what a day!

On one occasion when carrying out exercises over the uninhabited land East of the Suez Canal, my Spitfire-flying nearly came to a dead end (if you will pardon the pun). It was my turn to carry out a Height Climb which, in effect, meant climbing until the rate of climb was down to about 200' / min. which, on a Mk.V Spitfire, took place at about 35,000 ft. After reaching that height I circled around and, after spotting an aircraft-carrier transiting the Suez Canal I decided to put my Spit' into a steep dive to get a better view of it. Needless to say the speed built up rapidly and when I tried to pull out at about 20,000 ft. nothing happened. After repeated efforts with the aircraft shuddering like mad, with still no sign of recovery, I thought the only option left was to try and bale out. First of all I pulled the canopy release toggle but, luckily for me in retrospect, it did not work. Next I decided to use the crowbar, normally fitted to the port entrance door flap, but it had been removed for some reason or other. When down to about 10,000 ft. signs of recovery started and the airspeed indicator began to drop rather rapidly which did not worry me at first because the throttle had obviously been closed at that point. However, when the speed was getting rather low, or so I thought, I opened up but still the asi was dropping and I concluded that the engine had blown in the dive and I would have to make a forced landing on the desert floor. It was when I lifted the nose to reduce to landing speed for a belly landing that the aircraft suddenly shot back up to about the 10,000 ft. mark. Obviously the asi needle had been once around the clock. In those far off days the word "compressibility" was not in use in the aviation world, nor the term "the Sound Barrier".

When I tried to explain my experience to my Flight Commander he would have none of it and dismissed my version out of hand, insisting that I had obviously failed to turn on the oxygen supply although I was absolutely certain that was not the case.

After completing our OTU Course, six of us spent 2 most memorable days on a Short 'C' Class Flying Boat bound for Karachi, which were followed by 6 days by train down to Poona to convert to Spitfire Mk. XIIIs, during which we carried out live dive bombing. After a week's Jungle Survival Course at Bhopal we thought that, at long last, we would be joining a Burma Spitfire Squadron but it was not to be. Instead, a number of Griffon-powered Mk. XIVs arrived at Poona which, after a few familiarisation flights, we were tasked with carrying out practice aircraft-carrier take-offs. This called for a 15 flap setting. With the Spit, having only two settings, 'up' or 'down', we had to select 'down' when one block of wood was placed under each flap and then select 'up' to jam them in place. After take-off we would select 'down' to release the blocks into space. When we asked our bosses where to drop them with Poona well inland from the Indian Ocean, they replied "Anywhere you think is safe." The open-air latrines 100 ft. behind our Crew room proved to be the most popular choice.

Still being wartime and the left hand not always knowing what the right hand was doing all the time, it was not a complete surprise to find after a two-day rail journey to Nagpur to collect some more Mk. XIVs and take them to the Naval Base of Trincomalee in Ceylon, we discovered that they had already been collected by ferry pilots. It was then off by train again to catch up with them. After arrival it turned out that we would be part of a second wave of aircraft of Operation "Zipper": The Invasion of Malaya / Singapore, to replace the expected 50% loss-rate to Nos. 11, 17 and 132 Squadrons during the planned landings. In the event, it was during our train journey that news of the Atomic attack on Hiroshima broke. However it had been decided to continue with the operation and so it came about that Nos. 11 and 17 Squadrons would land in Malaya via the escort carrier "Trumpeter", and No. 132 would proceed to Hong Kong via another carrier. What could not have been foreseen was that with no loss of pilots or aircraft, the Poona element was surplus to requirements - for the time being anyway. That was resolved by posting our group of six pilots to No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron, which had already arrived in Malaya direct from Burma by using 170 gallon drop-tanks (why was it so late in the war before they came into use?).

Going back to Mk. VIIIs was no bad thing being a lovely aircraft to fly, although I was involved in three incidents in a small time scale, only one of which was of my own making. The first when flying as No. 2 to my Flight Commander when he spotted another formation of four from our Squadron and decided to take us down on a mock attack. With only a few hundred yards to go the was a mighty roar of one of those aircraft when it passed about 20 ft. above my cockpit and then straight into the tail of our Leader. I will always remember being transfixed by the sight of the offender's propeller soaring high into the sky in a big arc to the right. Both aircraft belly-landed on the Naval Air Base of Sambawanga - I would love to have heard their conversation!

The next incident was during a formation take-off flying No. 2 to another NCO Pilot who, with three tours of operation under his belt, was one of the most experienced Spitfire Pilots in the RAF. Just after he had lifted off and I was still on the ground, he suffered a complete engine failure and sank back onto the runway with our wings overlapping. I had to give a sharp pull back on the stick to leapfrog his starboard wing. Although in this case it was not fuel starvation that caused the problem it is worth recording that, in the early days of the Spitfire, many accidents occurred because the fuel system was such that a start-up, taxi-out, engine test and the start of a take-off could all be carried out with the fuel  master cock in the 'off' position before a failure occurred. The answer had been to wire-lock the cock in the 'on' position. During second-line servicing it often needed to be unlocked and, occasionally, returned to first line in that state.

The last incident occurred when I was carrying out aerobatics over the island and the engine failed. With the Western coastline the nearest, I started to glide towards it but soon realised that I was not going to make it. Panic stations! Looking for any area without trees in the Western part of the island proved fruitless so was it to be another attempt at a bailout? The day was saved when the engine suddenly burst into life again. During de-briefing, my Flight Commander asked if I had pressed the de-aerator button and I had to admit that I did not even know one was fitted to the Mk. VIII. Shortly after, the Squadron started to re-equip with Mk. XIVs and we new boys found ourselves pointing out one or two things to the old hands! Like ourselves at Poona, they found the Coffman cartridge starter a bit of a problem at times. It was only a few weeks later that the news broke that the Tengah airfield was to be closed for some time for the building of a brand-new runway. Our sister Squadron No 155 was sent to Sumatra and No 152 temporarily disbanded with members posted far and wide except for our little group who had flown off a Carrier. We were all posted to the two Squadrons due to occupy Japan: Nos. 11 and 17, and would be transported by a much larger Carrier this time, HMS Vengeance, for the voyage.

We had to take the few Mk. XIVs on No 152 to Kuala Lumpa to join No 11 Squadron and it could not have happened to many RAF Pilots to take their own aircraft with them on a posting to a new Squadron with all their worldly belongings tucked into the aircraft ammo bays!

After boarding HMS Vengeance by tender off RAF Saletar, we found No 4 RIAF Squadron with their Spitfires already on board. After arriving off Iwakuni in the Inland Sea, it was decided not to fly our aircraft off the carrier because Japanese tenders could off-load them with ease. Our base was to be Miho on the North Coast, but it was to be seven days before that took place. After inspections by our ground crews, we air-tested our aircraft and, with Hiroshima only a few miles away, we all headed towards it for a good look at the damage caused by the first atom bomb.

Just who was the first Spitfire pilot to take-off from Japan? It was the one and only "Ginger" Lacey on the first day of Air Tests. The air was calm and, after our Squadron Commander had started his engine to taxi out to the end of the only runway, Ginger jumped into his aircraft and taxied rapidly to the other end. They both lined up for the take-off and all onlookers assumed that one or the other would give way, but it was not to be. Just when a head-on collision seemed unavoidable, Ginger leapt over the COs aircraft and got away with it. Having experienced the roar of a Merlin just above my cockpit in Singapore, I knew what our Boss must have felt like.

Life in Miho was rather quiet except for one or two special occasions such as one mass formation of all British Commonwealth Squadrons. It was led by one New Zealand Corsair Squadron, then three Australian Mustang Squadrons and our Wing. The lead Corsair flew at such a low speed that we had to open our radiator shutters to induce extra drag and use more power for a better throttle for formation flying.  For unknown reasons it was decided to mount sea patrols between our coastline and that of Korea and report details of any junks sighted - position, heading etc. It was also at that time that our aircraft would carry ammunition and that all guns/canons be tested for accuracy on a ground target. It was decided that a small rock island in a bay just about two miles off our main runway would be ideal.. Some of us made our first attack just after take-off and one day I was too late for my first dive and on the second one, with my finger on the firing-button, I noticed a Japanese fisherman in a small boat rowing like mad away from the rock with his rod dangling over the rear - it was his lucky day!

On returning to the U.K. I assumed that my Spitfire-flying days would be all over and that I would find myself on a jet-fighter Squadron. However it was not to be. The C in C of Fighter Command had decided that, in future, his Pilots should all be Officers, although he would have to make do with the NCO Pilots already on Squadrons, so I found myself on Support Units for a few years. This involved towing targets for air-to-air and 'ack-ack' firing (Martinets); night flying for searchlights (Oxfords) and, luckily, making the odd trip in Spitfire Mk. XVIs fitted with Packard Merlin engines which I found to be an ideal combination (although in Lancaster Mk. IIIs each engine was fitted with one extra fuel cut-off switch, all four very close together on the right-hand side of the cockpit and, therefore, not very popular with bomber crews wearing heavy-duty flying gloves at 20,000 ft on dark nights!).

The Spitfire flying was mainly going up and down a straight line at about 12,000 ft in the South Eastern area of the UK. The most popular run was from Regent's Park - the first station for most WWII aircrew - up to a point on the A1 about 50 miles to the North. Regent's Park often became Buckingham Palace!

I thought that after being selected for a Flying Instructor course at RAF Little Rissington in 1949, that would be the end of my Spitfire-flying days. However, we soon found out that part of the course was "Type Flying" and the Spitfire was one of the eight types that we would get our hands on.

After Commissioning in 1951 I was posted to instruct on No 22 FTS at RAF Syerston, which was mainly concerned with the training of Royal Navy Pilots and, low and behold, they had a lone Seafire for the use of RN Instructors to keep their hands in. However, they did not mind RAF Pilots flying it too. After I had moved on from Syerston they replaced the Seafire with a Sea Fury, a type I would love to have flown.

Pictures courtesy of Tucann Books www.tucann.co.uk


Previous Spitfire Society interviews can be found in the Archives section:


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