Flying a Legend

Avatar for Robert ErdosBy Robert Erdos | April 17, 2012

Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 55 seconds.

It was our grandfathers’ war, an episode in our history that recedes further into the mists of time with the passing of every veteran. Seventy-two years ago, the skies over southern England witnessed the greatest air battle in the then-brief history of flight: the Battle of Britain. Over 100 Canadians flew with Fighter Command during those perilous days. The events of August and September 1940 made heroes of the Few and icons of the aeroplanes they flew: Spitfire, Hurricane, and Messerschmitt Me-109. Canadian Skies’ own test pilot, Rob Erdos, is privileged to have flown all three of these famous aircraft as a member of Vintage Wings of Canada. In this report he takes us for a ride in the illustrious Hawker Hurricane fighter, and shares the unique sights and sounds from those pivotal days in our aeronautical history. 
Parked on the ramp, the Hurricane evokes a mixed sense of frailty and terrific solidity. Beneath a fabric-covered exterior is a tubular truss structure as strong as a bridge. The wings are not just thick, but seemingly fat, as if it had just eaten something. The RAF roundels and WWII markings never fail to induce a flutter of excitement. Flying the Hurricane is a privilege. 
It a big aeroplane. The trailing edge of the wing meets you at waist level. The long climb to the cockpit starts by pulling a stirrup-shaped step from the lower fuselage. This in turn pops open a hand-hold, as if the aeroplane were extending me an invitation. Climbing over the tall canopy sill, my first impression was an immediate sense of sympathy for anyone who faced combat from that cramped cockpit. The tight canopy frame gives the impression of peering from inside a bird cage. There are blind spots big enough to hide¦well, a Messerschmitt. 
Upon first impression, the cockpit is very sparse and functional, betraying its 1930s vintage. The control stick is interesting. Owing to the tight dimensions of the cockpit, the stick pivots fore-aft at the floor, but is hinged laterally at knee height. The stick grip is a circular hoop like the handle of a shovel, hence the British term spade grip.
Excluding engine gauges, there are effectively only six flight instruments variations upon the basic six pack. The scant Air Force Pilot Notes refer to them as the blind flying panel; a sight which can evoke giggles in modern pilots habituated to electronic cockpits. Both sides of the cockpit seem a maze of levers and handles: fuel selector, hydraulic pump, seat adjust, canopy jettison. Almost nothing is labelled. The hydraulic system is controlled by a unique H-shaped lever mounted deep on the lower right cockpit sidewall. The lever controls both flaps and to use the British term the undercarriage. There is no padding or creature comforts, save the parachute upon which you are seated. The cockpit even lacks a floor. Anything that slips from your grip (pen, checklist, screwdriver, flashlight¦I recall, to my embarrassment) will rattle down into the Hurricane belly amidst the control cables, pipes and wires. Now you know why flight suits have so many pockets. 
Starting a 27-litre, supercharged V-12 engine is one of life little pleasures. The starting procedures for the Merlin engine are reminiscent of prodding awake a dragon: Preset the levers and knobs. Select the magnetos on. Press both the booster coil and starter buttons, and the big propeller slowly begins to turn. There will be rumbling and smoke. The engine is often indecisive at first, and you may need to turn on the boost pump to keep it running. With perseverance, you are rewarded with the smooth seismic rumble of an idling Merlin. 
Taxiing the Hurricane is painless once you become accustomed to the pneumatic lever-differential braking system. There are no toe brakes. A bicycle brake lever in front of the spade grip routes compressed air to the brakes, and pedal movement determines the amount of differential braking. Very British. The Hurricane sits placidly upon its wide landing gear; the tail firmly planted behind you. Ground handling is easy, with none of the nose-over anxiety that attends taxi and run-up in the Spitfire. The engine temperatures quickly stabilize, allowing an unhurried run through the takeoff checklist. Word of warning: set the throttle friction to maximum. Now, do it again using both hands. We’re ready to go flying. 
The view ahead down the runway is effectively non-existent, yet quite good by the standards of WWII fighters. When positioned at the end of the runway, I swing the big engine aside for one last check that the pavement ahead is clear, then roll forward a few feet to straighten the tailwheel, and stop. Peripheral vision will be required to keep you centred on the runway, at least at first. Recall, however, that a WWII airfield was literally that: a field. Steering straight on takeoff only became critical once we hemmed ourselves in with pavement. Right turning propellers (as seen from the cockpit) create left-turning tendencies. One wisely opens the throttle slowly in an old fighter to ensure that your feet are ready to counter the propeller directional wanderlust. The rudder is generous in size and awash in Merlin-motivated airflow, so tracking the centreline during takeoff would be easy if you could see it. We perform reduced-power takeoffs for engine longevity; however, a hint of right aileron is still good medicine against propeller torque. There is sufficient propeller ground clearance that normal takeoffs may be done from the two-point attitude, and it tempting to rush raising the tail off the runway. It nice to see where you are going. (Try that in the Spitfire and you will likely leave the propeller tips in the runway.) Upon opening the throttle, the first of the Hurricane personality traits asserts itself. It is loud! Perhaps it the fabric skin or that the pilot sits quite far forward, but it loud even by Merlin standards. 
I must pause to share a war story. Whenever possible, takeoffs in this type of aircraft are done with the canopy open for the sobering reason that if you inadvertently flip it over, you would be unable to slide the canopy aft to effect your escape. In my first takeoff in the Hurricane, I had prepared meticulously, and took along a test card, checklist and local map, all secured on my trusty kneeboard. Upon opening the throttle I discovered why it called a Hurricane, as the blunt windscreen ripped the propeller airflow to shreds and created incredible turbulence in the cockpit. I recall seeing my paperwork swirling around as the loose ends of my parachute straps beat against my face. Suffice to say that takeoff should not be attempted unless the cockpit is tidy and secure.
When the Hurricane is ready to fly, it wise to be decisive about it. The maximum undercarriage speed is a ridiculously low 104 knots, requiring quite a zoomy pull-up to get the wheels in motion before exceeding the limit. This is a busy period. Upon lift-off, you give the brake lever a squeeze with your right hand to stop the main wheels turning, then change hands to fly with your left hand on the spade grip. Recall that hydraulic control lever deep down on the right side of the cockpit? Okay, grab the lever and move it upwards on the inboard side to raise the undercarriage. At this point something will begin to attract your attention¦as the roar of the Merlin begins to subside. Throttle friction! It creeps aft. You were warned. Quickly change hands again on the spade grip to jab the throttle back to climb power (+4 lbs of boost), then reduce the propeller speed to 2650 RPM for the climb. Once things are secure, reach back over your shoulder, grab the canopy and slide it shut. Easy, no? 
My first airborne impressions of the Hurricane were surprising. It¦well, wobbly. Wobbly?! At first, maneuvers all seemed a bit less precise and more difficult than I had expected. 
In order to understand the Hurricane better, let compare it to our expectations of modern aircraft. Normally, if one trims an airplane at a selected speed it will take forward stick pressure to stabilize at a faster speed and aft stick pressure to fly slower. Not so the Hurricane. There are almost no stick force cues to changes in airspeed, necessitating diligent attention to the airspeed indicator whenever precision counts, such as on approach to landing. Likewise, when maneuvering a modern airplane, the tighter the turn, the more back pressure will be required on the stick. Test pilots refer to this as maneuver stability, but the Hurricane doesn’t know anything about it. Stick forces during maneuvers are light, mainly control system friction, and don’t increase as the maneuver tightens. In fact, the reverse is often true. I was bemused to find that I had to push on the stick at the top of a loop. 
Don’t forget, too, that while maneuvering, the propeller is inducing heading changes, requiring a good bit of fancy footwork. I’m reminded of a quip years ago from a flight instructor: Nice loop. Now do one to the left. Rudder coordination isn’t optional in the Hurricane, but is not uncharacteristic of aeroplanes of its vintage. Every maneuver takes all of the flight controls. 
The Hurricane stall characteristics are certainly a surprise to any pilot coddled by modern aircraft. There is typically no stall warning, neither in the form of lights nor horns nor aerodynamic cues such as buffeting. The aeroplane simply stops flying at about 65 knots indicated airspeed, typically with a sharp right wing drop. Don’t try to raise that wing with aileron, or the Hurricane will reward you with a lesson in aerodynamics and a departure into incipient spin. While decidedly unforgiving, the Hurricane stall characteristics wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone trained in a Harvard, as was nearly everyone who flew fighters during the war. 
Flying the Hurricane is certainly work, but the work is not that hard. So why, after 30 minutes in the cockpit, am I dripping with sweat? Gosh, it hot in there! The engine oil and coolant radiators are mounted in the bathtub structure beneath the fuselage, with all of the hot fluid lines running down both sides of the cockpit interior. Consequently, the cockpit feels a bit like sitting on a barbeque. Of course, you could open the canopy. It a choice between being swirled or poached. My preferred compromise is to crack the canopy open about six inches. Be careful, though. Those six inches create a mighty suction and will suck a map right out of your hands. Ask me how I know. 
A normal approach starts with a combat-style overhead break; a tight 180-degree decelerating turn commenced over the middle of the airport. We avoid flying square circuits in the fighters, and even brief straight-in approach segments are avoided due to the limited forward field of view over the engine. The approach is performed as a continuous decelerating turn right to the flare. 
The landing effectively begins abeam the runway threshold on downwind, and things happen fast from there. Undercarriage and flap extension are both just slow enough to always raise a pucker of concern. Expect a BIG nose-down pitch trim change with flap extension. After all, the split flaps extend 85 degrees for landing! Oh, and it normal to run out of aft elevator trim on approach. Elevator effectiveness is poor in the three-point attitude. Leave a trickle of power through the flare or the elevators will become very mushy indeed. 
The landing is almost pardon the pun a bit of a let-down. It easy. The Hurricane undercarriage is wide and soft, and the directional stability and response allow adequate tracking through the roll-out. Compared to the Spitfire, there even enough download on the tail to allow some use of brakes.
The Hurricane is now a 75-year-old design, and represents an era when the monoplane fighter was still being invented. It neither comfortable nor carefree in the manner of modern fighters; but if you could compensate for a few idiosyncrasies, it did its job very well. Even today, the Hurricane has a lot to teach us. 
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Rob Erdos is an experimental test pilot licenced for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. In addition to being an engineering graduate from the Royal Military College, and holding a masters degree in aviation systems research, Rob is a former Canadian Air Force SAR pilot. An avid airplane builder, and a passionate flyer of historical aircraft for Vintage Wings of Canada, Rob flies such iconic planes as the Spitfire and Hurricane.

If you are interested in learning how to fly these rare and beautiful machines, Vintage Wings of Canada is holding a special groundschool program at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa this winter. The Warbird U program is in its second year, having started as the scheduled recurrent training for the Vintage Wings pilots. There was so much interest in these classes that they were opened to the public last year. From instructor-pilots qualified on type, attendees learn the nuts and bolts of each Vintage Wings fighter, coming to understand their unique procedures, techniques and flying characteristics. For further information, visit the Vintage Wings website at and follow the links to Warbird U.

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