With the kind permission of Air Commodore Chris Lorraine.

Director Netherlands Military Aviation Authority, Royal Netherlands Air Force.

(Display pilot for the Netherlands Air Force Spitfire Mk IX MK 732.)

Photo by Steven Gray

It is Thursday 7 July 2011 and the second day of the Belgian Air Force Open Days at Koksijde Airbase. I am participating in the 2-day show as part of the flying display. On the arrival day - Tuesday - I flew an acceptance demo for the organization, on Wednesday the weather is fine and the Spitfire display goes ahead without a hitch.

Today, the second and last day, I aim to fly my display at Koksijde (situated on the Belgian coast) and depart direct back to home-base: Gilze Rijen Airbase in The Netherlands. The weather is perfect, the sun is shining, there are a few fair weather cumulus and - important for the Spitfire - the wind is within limits at about 10 knots from the south (the direction is relevant later in the story). The Spitfire has been granted a prime slot around 15:00; start-up and taxy are without hold-ups. ATC understands better today that the 27 litre, 12 cylinder Rolls Royce will not hold for many minutes without overheating.

"Spitfire cleared for take-off and display" sounds over the single VHF radio (another significant fact: the Spitfire has a single and no UHF capability). The display is uneventful, the last aileron roll at crowd centre is completed and the journey home begins.

I fly the route at 1500 feet and 180 knots, under visual conditions (the Spitfire is not cleared for operations in cloud). Oostende and Terneuzen pass the left wing. The airspace is quiet and this gives the chance to use the airborne time to consider emergency procedures. "Imagine that the engine were to stop NOW, what are your actions and where would we land, where is the wind and can I see a field in range and without obstacles?" I have time to repeat this perhaps ten times before approaching the first controlled airspace: Woensdrecht Airbase CTR.

Woensdrecht Tower gives permission to cross at present height, passing directly over the field and advises that Runway 25 is in use with one Pilatus PC-7 in the visual circuit.

Somewhere around 3 miles from the field the engine note changes slightly - not alarmingly so; engine indications remain normal. A slight adjustment of propeller pitch and engine power is the normal reaction and that works once again. A few seconds later however the engine begins to make a more unsettling noise and the generator warning light begins to flicker. I decide to perform a precautionary landing at Woensdrecht and start arranging that in the cockpit and with ATC. I am approaching the field from the west and can proceed from present position direct to low-key for 25, fitting in nicely behind the PC-7 on base leg. Suddenly the engine makes a most unhappy sound, looses power and produces lots of dark grey smoke from both rows of exhausts. Oil pressure is already down to 30 psi (below 35 psi the propeller can no longer be feathered).

It is clear that there is not enough energy to reach low-key for 25; there is little or no power coming from the engine and airspeed is now 150 knots. The assessment is simple and quickly made: a landing straight ahead on 07 offers the only possibility of concrete - all other options will lead to a landing on an unprepared surface. The wind is southerly and only lightly favours 25, so no problem there. I communicate this with ATC (but only a few seconds later make a Pan call). Of note is that the young and relatively inexperienced ATC controller remains calm throughout and continues to provide useful information. Of course, there is still the PC-7 now on short finals for 25 - the opposite runway. I am fortunate to also fly the PC-7 at Woensdrecht so I know that his slow-lane is to the north and that both aircraft will fit comfortably on the runway if necessary. Should there be a problem, I can steer into the grass to the south. The PC-7 communicates with Tower over his UHF radio - he does not hear my calls, only the Tower controllers reactions. The result is that I have a complete picture of the situation but that the PC-7 instructor and his student are 'slightly surprised' to see a Spitfire diving steeply towards the opposite threshold!

I clearly have more than enough energy to reach the threshold and I make a conscious decision to concentrate fully only on achieving that goal. That means that I do not shut down the engine, close the fuel cock or switch off the magnetos. I simply move the throttle to idle and (despite the oil pressure) move the propeller pitch to feather. The gear lowers and I select flaps, lower the nose to a couple of hundred meters short of the threshold to lose the excess energy. Levelling off, I cross the threshold at 100 knots and stay level as the speed bleeds off, allowing me to keep the PC-7 in sight. He is on the runway and has performed his SOP move to the slow-lane as expected. Around now the propeller stops rotating and I touch down in the 2-point attitude and lower the tail. I pass the PC-7, both at low speed and can roll free of the runway at 'C' intersection with the last couple of knots of energy. The whole incident has taken perhaps 120 to 180 seconds. I turn off all switches and exit the aircraft to meet the fire services who are just pulling up.

These are the bare facts - the outcome was good and, although this engine is a write-off, both pilot and machine are further unharmed and the Spitfire will fly again in 2012. There are however a couple of things to think about in retrospect. First the negatives: my decision not to shut down the engine in the air could have led to a fire as the fuel, magnetos and electrical power were not turned off prior to landing. This was a conscious decision, but the observation on fire risk is nonetheless relevant. Secondly, although I was wearing a parachute, I had not considered wearing a life preserver. If the engine had failed just a few minutes earlier I would have ended up in the water, without any flotation or dinghy. I will not make that mistake again. Now the positives: the outcome was good; partly through luck but partly also through good preparation. I think the American golfer Jack Nicklaus said, when confronted with the opinion that he was very lucky: "Yes I am, and you know it's funny, the more I practice, the luckier I get". The pre-conditions for a positive end to the incident. It is important to realize that the Dutch Spitfire flies only about 20 hours per year and that when I commenced training there were no other pilots in The Netherlands current on type; there was only a limited amount of corporate knowledge available locally. When the Commander of the Netherlands' Air Force offered me the chance to fly the Spitfire (although the aircraft is civil registered, she is Air Force property and operated by the (civil) NL Air Force Historical Flight Foundation (SKHV)), his first instruction was to evaluate the Spitfire part of the SKHV operation. I made 11 recommendations for improvements which were all supported and implemented. In this way initial training, currency and experience-building on this unique aircraft have been improved and 'future proofed'. Training included a tailwheel re-familiarization on the Piper Super Cub, a step up in class to the Harvard and (courtesy of the BBMF) some Chipmunk flying. Additionally the Air Force allowed me to fly its Pilatus PC-7 two-seat turboprop trainer, with as justification that this was the closest aircraft to the Spitfire the Air Force had to offer. By flying around 100 hours in the PC-7 and in many simulator trips I was fully current in forced landing practice, both at Woensdrecht and away from an airfield.

Finally we were able to set up cooperation with the benchmark organization for Spitfire and Merlin operations; The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF). Consequently I was able to complete a part of my training at the BBMF and to conduct regular liaison visits to gain knowledge and exchange information. Just 4 months before the engine failure I attended a 'Warbird Symposium', organized by the BBMF. This consisted of both civil and military operators and engineers and enabled extensive exchange of opinions, experiences and best practices.


Are these .lessons learned. surprising? No, of course not. They do however illustrate that the basis of flight safety in a historic aircraft setting is identical to a that in a larger, professional organization such as the Air Force. Think - in advance - about risks, decide how the identified risks can be reduced to a minimum. Next, execute those decisions, even when that proves to be difficult. Be prepared for emergencies, think - preferably on the ground - practice (both standard and non-standard) forced landings and procedures in the air and if possible in a simulator. Oh, and yes, have some luck at the appropriate moment. My successful forced landing was made possible partly by the timing of the engine failure. A minute earlier and I would have had to land in open countryside. After all, I have never claimed that Jack Nicklaus didn't ever have any luck!