Too late to the party – the Spitfire Trainer


There was a time when the world simply could not get enough Spitfires. In the summer of 1940, the fate of the free world depended on how many Hurricanes and Spitfires could be mustered in a serviceable condition at the start of each day by Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force, and whether or not there were enough pilots fit to fly them! The Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain in the end (had they won, this writing would not exist), but there is one singular fact. Shockingly, at the time of the Battle not one example of a two-seat Hurricane or two-seat Spitfire trainer existed. The first solo flight in a Spitfire – by any pilot – was their first flight on the type. It is safe to say the transition from either a Harvard or Miles Master (or even a Miles Magister, in some cases) would have been made far easier with an instructor available. Also, much more realistic combat training could have been given, and the high casualty rates amongst new pilots posted to front-line squadrons (often with as little as 10 hours flight experience on Hurricanes or Spitfires) would have been much reduced. Sadly, there was not the time develop a training version of the Hurricane (although two were built for the then-Persian Air Force after the war) or the Spitfire.

When the end of WW2 arrived, the RAF found itself a force in transition. It had already fielded jets such as the Gloster Meteor I & III with No 616 Squadron during the closing stages of the war, and the de Havilland Vampire I, which had been pioneered by No. 247 Squadron in March, 1946. It was obvious that the future of Fighter Command lay with jet fighters, although the Spitfire still equipped several squadrons of the newly reconstituted Royal Auxiliary Air Force, such as the Spitfire XIVs used by No. 613 (City of Manchester) Squadron, RAuxAF, (motto, ‘Semper parati’ – ‘Always ready’), as I wrote in my previous article. These units and a few regular RAF squadrons (mostly overseas) were using later generation Spitfires such as the XIVe, F.21, F.22 and F.24. As well as this, there were numbers of Spitfires – mostly L.F.IX and L.F.XVI – serving with the air forces of Egypt, Denmark, Norway, Burma and Israel. Consequently, Vickers thought that there was still a case to be made for a two-seat conversion trainer; they had tried to gain official approval for such an aircraft in 1941, but official approval was not forthcoming despite the fact that several in-the-field conversions had been made.

In 1944, Vickers bought back a Mark VIII, ‘MT818′, from the Ministry of Aircraft Production and converted it a two-seat trainer, the T. Mark VIII. The main changes included moving the front cockpit forward 13 1/2 inches, and putting in a second, instructor’s cockpit, complete with a heavily bulged canopy, behind that. The 20mm cannon were removed, and extra fuel tanks fitted in their place, but the 4 x .303″ Browning machineguns were retained, so that weapons training could take place. This conversion was called the Type 502 by Vickers, and given the ‘second class registration mark’ of ‘N52′ (later the civil registration, G-AIDN) and first flew in August, 1946. Given the fact that, technically, the Spitfire VIII and IX were quite similar, Vickers decided to use the two-seat T. Mark VIII as the generic demonstrator for its post-war overseas customers.

Jeffrey Quill, the doyen of Spitfire test pilots, was sent, in 1949, around various Royal Air Force Maintenance Units, such as No. 33 MU at RAF Brize Norton, which held stocks of Spitfires in storage and was able to identify a large number of low-time Spitfire Mk IX and Mark XVI aircraft which were just waiting to be broken up for spares. Some thought was given to producing a two-seat trainer from surplus R/R Griffon-engined aircraft (and a few preliminary studies were done by Vickers) but it was decided that Merlin-engined versions of the Spitfire were far more numerous, and it made more sense to concentrate on those. Arrangements were made to buy an initial batch of 20 Mark IX aircraft from stocks held by RAF Reserve Command, the type having been declared surplus by the RAF. All of the chosen aircraft had to be WITHOUT ‘Mod 963′, that is, the low-back rear fuselage and tear-drop canopy, as this would substantially increase the cost of the conversion.

At this time, Vickers thought that there was still a chance that some two-seat trainers could be sold to the RAF, so Jeffrey Quill took the T.Mk 8 (as it had become known) to RAF Bovingdon, the HQ of RAF Training Command, where he had demonstrated it; G-AIDN was then flown by two RAF pilots, Wing Commander McGuire and Squadron Leader Hughes. Despite some support for issuing two-seaters to those RAuxAF squadrons still flying Spitfires, once again, Vickers met strong opposition from the Air Ministry. This may have had something to do with a test report from Boscombe Down (the home of the RAF’s Aircraft & Armament Experimental Establishment) which was not particularly positive. In so many words, it condemned the instructor’s view for both take off and landing, and the narrowness of the cockpits – especially the rear one – as well as stating that both the instructor’s trim wheel and undercarriage level were almost out of reach. The RAF told Vickers that they had decided go in a different direction from the Spitfire trainer, as they had issued a specification for a side-by-side trainer, (which would eventually turn out to be the Boulton-Paul Balliol, powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin), to be followed by a short conversion course on the Meteor T.7 jet trainer, as required. By now, a T.9 had been produced as a ‘demonstrator’ by Vickers and registered G-ALJM; this aircraft was finally sold to the Egyptian Air Force when its sales tour came to an end.

So, the T.9 never made it into RAF service, but Vickers sold it successfully, as their Type 509, to the Royal Dutch Air Force (3), and the Indian Air Force (10). The Royal Norwegian Air Force were quoted a figure of £ 5,700 ($ 9,125) to convert any of their L.F. Mk IX aircraft; sadly, the deal fell through. However, in 1946 the Irish Air Corps had purchased 12 Seafire III aircraft, powered by the Merlin 55M, from which all naval equipment had been stripped. The T.9 was compatible, as it was powered by a Merlin 63, producing 1,710 hp, which gave it a top speed of 393 mph at 20,000 ft. The Irish were persuaded to place an order for three T.9 trainers, the last of which was delivered on 30th July, 1951. Sadly, orders from Argentina (10) and Iraq (6) were cancelled, so total production of the T.9 ended with the 20th conversion.

The aircraft you can see here is the second of the Irish aircraft (’161′, in the IAC). It had been built in 1944 as a Mk. IX, ‘PV202′, and was acquired by Vickers from storage on 19th July, 1950. The conversion took longer than expected, and it was not delivered to the Irish Air Corps until 29th June, 1951. After a fairly busy life, ’161′ was eventually ‘struck off charge’ in December, 1960.

A series of British owners followed, before it eventually arrived at Historic Flying Ltd, based at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield. Here you can see it in the colours of a Royal Dutch Air Force aircraft, ‘H-98′, pushed outside its hangar during an air show at Duxford. This colourful scheme contrasts with the all-over Medium Sea Green it would have worn in Irish service. The aircraft has appeared at many European venues, including Shoreham, Antwerp, Groningen and the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. Since this photograph was taken, ’161′ has been repainted, again. It now wears the markings of ‘QV-I’, ‘X4474′, a Mark I aircraft of the very first Spitfire unit, No. 19 Squadron, which was based at RAF Duxford, despite the fact that the T.9 is very different to the Spitfire I, physically.

Strangely, my copy of ‘The World’s Fighting Planes’ by William Green and Gerald Pollinger (Macdonald, 1956), still has a short entry for the Spitfire, which it listed as being in service with Burma, Israel and Egypt. The photograph that accompanied this text is of ’161′, the aircraft you can see above!

If you crave a ride in a Spitfire, then the T.9 is the logical choice for you (either that, or one of the ‘private’ conversions, of which there are a few spread around the world). All Spitfires are desirable, even if they come with an extra bulged canopy!

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3 comments on “Too late to the party – the Spitfire Trainer”

  1. A great spot there Ross, regarding the photo of 161 in “The World’s Fighting Planes” book! What a tale by Vickers but it appears that it came when the tide was shifting to jets — kudos to them for recognizing a niche market and devising this wonderful Spitfire variant. Yes, indeed, all Spitfires are desirable — well said by you 🙂

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  2. All Spitfires are desirable, even if they come with an extra bulged canopy!
    I much prefer the look of MH367, without the bulged canopy. Not as good a view, out, however!

    Alan's Landing

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    • Indeed! I am told that the first of these two-seaters (with the ‘slim’ second canopy) was undertaken by V-VS engineers in Russia using spare canopies sent to that country. The conversions were performed on Mk IX aircraft. This is why the ‘slim line’ two-seaters are sometimes known as ‘Russian’ conversions!

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