Monday, 13 January 2014


I have been very much enjoying Jeffrey Quill's book "Spitfire" for the last week or so.

On the face of it, it's his autobiography, telling the story of his career as a test pilot and its intersection with the second world war. But its also the story if his relationship with the Spitfire. Without being overly sentimental or deliberately anthropomorphising the aircraft, it is a character in his story that is every bit as important as he is. The relationship has characteristics of marriage and parenthood: on the one hand, he's aware of the outstanding characteristics that the aircraft was created with, but on the other hand it was his job to bring the Spitfire on, to develop and look after it, making sure that it stayed at the cutting edge for as long as possible.

Shall we have a look at what Jeffrey's job was like?

OK then. Here you go:

That's a little bit of Leslie Howard's 1942 film, "The First of the Few", which tells the story of the Spitfire's birth and of its designer, R.J. Mitchell. And how good is the music? It's William Walton's Spitfire Prelude and Fugue. Sid Cole, supervising editor of "The First of the Few" told this lovely story about the writing of the piece: "Leslie Howard, for some reason, could not be at the running of the film for Walton so he told me very elaborately what he wanted from the music. So after we had the viewing I went up to Walton and repeated what Leslie had said as accurately as I could. Walton listened very carefully and said 'Oh I see, Leslie wants a lot of notes', and he went away and wrote The Spitfire Fugue". 

As an aside, the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue is an example of my huge weakness for Displays of Extreme Competency. I love watching scenes of tremendous activity, where everyone involved knows his or her role inside out and is working away with incredible speed and precision. On the other hand, when I'm in similar situations myself, I wear a permanent frown and my mind's eye is completely filled with images of threads unravelling, trains derailling and buildings toppling over. For example: I was out doing some Christmas shopping. Because I am a chap, the date on which the Christmas shopping was taking place was 21st December, and I had concerns about the success of the endeavour. "I'll have a bit of music." I thought, pushing random buttons on the radio in my small black Volkswagen. The Spitfire Prelude and Fugue came on. Immediately, my heart lifted, and I skillfully guided the VW towards the shops with a renewed sense of purpose. When I came home, I thought I'd done a cracking job; but a sober assessment of my haul by Mrs Langsett revealed that I had, in fact, just confused the incredibly potent impression of Extreme Competency that this brilliant piece of music conjures up, with the real thing. Anyway, back to the film clip...

That's David Niven of course, turning his "off"s into "Orrrrf"s - but he's playing a character based partly on Jeffrey Quill. And the pilot flying the Spitfire? Well, that really is Jeffrey Quill, taking a break from his day job as test pilot to help turn the Spitfire into myth.

There is a lot that I love about "Spitfire". I particularly enjoyed remembering - as I have done every so often while I've been reading it - that it was Jeffrey Quill's job to get up, go out and do this stuff; that a large and well organised company was prepared to pay him a decent wage to go howling around in aeroplanes. I'm writing this on Monday evening, and I think I'll finish be including an account of one of Mr Quill's Mondays in 1937. It's quite long, but stick with it, because there is probably no better description of how to handle difficult situations at work:

" I had established a routine with the Wellesley flight test schedule. When I had completed the level speed run at 12,000 ft I closed the throttle and pulled the nose up and wound the trimmer back, allowing the aircraft to climb upwards, decelerating towards the stall. I took my hands off the controls and wrote the figures from the level speed run on my knee pad. I then waited until the aircraft stalled completely, still hands off, and wrote down the indicated stalling speed... All the massive amount of testing I had done on the prototype's handling at the stall and in stalled manoeuvres had given me the utmost confidence in the Wellesley's ladylike behaviour. Perhaps I was overconfident, for while the aircraft was wallowing about at 12,000 ft and I was scribbling on my knee pad, waiting for the nose to drop and pick up speed, she suddenly lurched into a right hand spin. I was taken completely by surprise for the Wellesley had never shown the slightest tendency to do this before. I immediately took recovery action but it was to no avail. In the course of the first turn and a half the nose was well down and then suddenly it reared up and the spin became very flat, slow and stately. There was no response to normal recovery action and I tried to think of all the other things I should try. I started by trying full power and all that did was to flatten the spin still further, and speed it up, so I took the power off again. Then I tried lowering the wheel hoping that would affect the centre of gravity in some magical way, and then tried rocking the elevator throughout its full range, and finally lowering the flaps. I then remembered that in such circumstances it was quite common for pilots to try all sorts of recovery actions but never give any of them enough time to work before trying something else so I looked over the side to see how much height I still had and started trying things all over again in an agonisingly slow and deliberate manner, ordering myself to keep calm and not to panic.

The Wellesley treated everything I did with a scornful disdain and continued solemnly spinning, down and down. Somewhere around 3,000 ft I decided I would have to go... I opened the canopy and crouched on the seat, grasping the windscreen. The cockpit of the Wellesley was forward of the wing and I looked at the big metal bladed propeller windmilling round very close in front of me. In theory when I let go I should go out backwards ad sideways but I was forward of the centre of gravity and had a nasty feeling that I was going to go forwards through that slicing propeller. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I cut the ignition switches and hoped for the best. I went over the port side, hit my head on some object unknown - perhaps the tail wheel assembly - delayed a little bit and pulled the rip cord...I immediately heard a strange swooshing noise as the Wellesley spun down past me, much too close for comfort...

I was then able to watch the Wellesley from above as it descended to the ground. We were in an area of New Malden and there were built up areas interspersed with areas of open country. It was about 7pm on a fine summer's evening. I became very anxious about the Wellesley crashing in a built-up area and causing loss of life, but I could not tell when it was going to hit. Then it stopped abruptly and disintegrated. It had hit a house but, thank God, there was no explosion or fire. Then, apparently several seconds later, I heard the dull 'crump' of the impact. I could hear every sound coming from the ground as I floated silently downwards on that balmy summer's evening - dogs barking, the traffic moving along the Kingston bypass an then gradually the build-up of the municipal 'flap' caused by this large aircraft crashing in a suburban street. A maroon went off in the fire station quickly followed by the clanging of the fire engine's bell. I looked down and spotted the fire engine trying to get to the scene of the crash and taking a number of wrong turnings on the way and I considered shouting some directions to it from on high.. Then suddenly I was getting close and I could see roughly where I was likely to land; there were houses and gardens and trees and every garden seemed to have a large and uninviting glass greenhouse. I descended into the base of a small fir tree which broke my fall and so it was a comfortable landing...A small knot of people came running up, having invaded the large and pleasant garden in which I had landed, It was the property of a Major Petrie who turned out to be a member of the Brooklands Flying Club. He, his wife and some friends were drinking an evening cocktail when through the window they saw a strange band of people running up the drive, heads directed skywards. They came out int time to see me being helped out of the bottom of the fir tree and disentangled from the parachute. Within a surprisingly short time I had a large whiskey in my hand and was on the telephone to the police and received the blessed news that no one had been injured in the crash."

Happy Monday!

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