Share this article
By Paul Jansen at the world’s only school for Spitfire pilots
It had many names. In the United States, the Texan AT-6 and SNJ. Commonwealth countries called it the Harvard, after the famous American university. In Australia, it was the Wirraway.
But the one name that all military instructors and students in the late 30s and early 40s had for it in common was: “Pilot Maker.”
To get your “wings”, you had to master this beast. Many could not, and many died in the process.
Today, the Harvard advanced trainer aircraft is an integral part of the Boultbee Flight Academy introductory course because of its place in Spitfire history. More than 20,000 were built and rushed out to the military flight schools from 1938.
I am slated to fly it under the watchful eye of instructor Sam Whatmough, whose full-time job is British Airways flight training manager for Boeing 777s and 787s.
He starts the radial engine, which has to be done from the front. The propeller rotates.
A raspy growl like the sounds of Taz the Tasmanian Devil assails my ears. The Harvard begins gulping 30 gallons of fuel per hour. Thick smoke belches from the exhausts.
For a moment, it seems that the prop is going to stop. But then it rotates faster and the airframe vibrates in unison. The smoke is clawed away by the propeller slipstream. The roar, caused by the 9 foot propeller tips going supersonic, refuses to settle into background noise.
Whatmough goes through the after-start checklist. I look at the 14 instruments on my cockpit panel.
There is the standard six pack. Artificial horizon, altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicate, turn and slip indicator, and directional indicator.
Other instruments include the all-important red wheels-up, green wheels-down, indicator for the retractable undercarriage, and engine RPM and manifold pressure gauges. The stick is standard, between my legs, and I move it around.
Whatmough gets the go-ahead to taxi to the grass runway. He says: “You have control. Take us to the holding point.”
He’s made me a happy man. I open the throttle and G-AZSC moves, a leviathan making its way past the minnows of Cessnas and Pipers.
The Tiger Moth introduced me to the difficulties in taxiing tailwheel planes because of the reduced forward visibility. But the size of the Wasp engine and my position in the Harvard’s rear seat makes it even more difficult to see what’s in front of me.
I weave like a drunken boxer.
Unknowingly, I head directly for a bollard. Whatmough grabs control to steer us away from it and then returns control to me. How could I miss something that now looks so obvious?
Whatmough does the pre-take-off checks at the holding point, gets permission from Tower for the take off and hands back control to me. I line up as straight as I can on the runway.
It is past 5pm. Many residents in this old Roman town, with its 900-year-old cathedral, must be having tea. A tradition. As G-AZSC leaps forward, I feel as though I am continuing another tradition: mounting a warhorse and riding into battle. The Tiger Moth was all lightness and grace. This Harvard is all punch and power.
Up we go. Fast. Whatmough retracts the wheels. The climb rate is 1,300 feet per minute. The book says the Harvard will cruise at 140 mph, or 225 km/h. I am not interested in flying straight and level. The clock is running and I will get only 30 minutes of flight time.
After a few minutes spent getting a better feel of the plane, I begin with my favourite, the barrel roll. I push the nose down to build up speed. At 290 km/h, I pull the nose up and move the ailerons 45 degrees to the right. As the Harvard turns, it makes a rotation in the sky that looks like I am corkscrewing on the inside of a barrel. We “emerge” and I go into another favorite, a loop.
Nose down again. Heading constant. The manual says the Harvard can achieve a maximum speed of 212 mph or 341 km/h. The altimeter needles are spinning so fast, I feel like I am going to hit that speed. Of course I am not. At the bottom of the loop, I ease the Harvard’s great big nose up. The needles slow down as I reach the top of the loop. Inverted.
The Sussex Downs are up.
The rolling green countryside stretches out over my head as I look at it from my upside down position. A bit of rudder to keep my heading constant.
I pull back the stick and continue the circle. My stomach takes a while to catch up. I remember to tighten my abdominal muscles and grunt to keep my lunch down.
This plane is heavy. My loop is more an oval than a neat circle by my reckoning. Still, not bad for a first flight. I would like to pat myself on the back but the increase in the G force as I climb makes lifting a hand an effort. Anyway, it is not a solo effort: I know that Whatmough must have had his hands and feet on the controls throughout, in case they prove too much for this first-timer.
A couple more manoeuvres and the bulk of this aircraft fades into my subconscious. The high-sitting position provides quite a good view all round. The contrast between this mastiff and the Old Lady of a Tiger Moth I flew earlier is enormous. With the Harvard, RAF students were given a decent approximation of the feel of a monoplane fighter, down to the landing on a narrow undercarriage. This was supposed to shorten the time pilots needed to settle down in the Spitfire. However, the transition from the Tiger Moth to the Harvard proved too much for some and they died in crashes.
Too soon, we have to head back.
Whatmough has been full of surprises in the past, and he does not disappoint again.
As we approach Goodwood Aerodrome, home to Boultbee, he tells me to do a high speed break. I come in 1,000 feet over the runway and pull into a steep turn. Suddenly there is thick smoke belching out the rear of the G-AZSC, catching everyone on the ground off-guard.
The Harvard is configured for airshow displays and has a smoke generator. Whatmough decided to add a little impact to my return and switched it on. I am focused on the front and do not realise this.
A curving turn and he takes control for the finals at 140 km/h or 90 mph and the landing. I follow his control inputs by putting my hands on the stick and feet on the rudder pedals lightly.
The Harvard crushes the grass and we taxi to Hangar 8. Only after leaving the plane and walking to Marjorie, my wife, do I learn about Whatmough’s smoke trick.
It has been a more aggressive ride than my flights in the Tiger Moth. I suspect that the unrefined shape of the Harvard affected my handling, emboldening me to act without hesitation, and it returned a responsive, stolid performance, despite my lack of experience in it.
Royal Air Force recruit Geoffrey Wellum, who successfully completed his Harvard phase and went on to become an ace Spitfire fighter pilot at the age of 17, wrote in his autobiography “First light” that his first impression of the advanced trainer was a “purposeful stubby aircraft with a pugnacious appearance not without its attraction”.
I agree but cannot quite explain why.
I have graduated from the Harvard but feel a little sad to walk away. There is beauty in the beast.