|Product name||SpitSim – Spitfire Cockpit Simulator|
|Product type||A realistic set of Spitfire-like controls designed to work with advanced flight simulation software for the PC|
|Manufacturer||Sim Control, Devon, UK.
|Availability and pricing||The set is available in several versions, starting with the most basic setup and finishing with a total system that will include all the elements available to order. Inquiries should be sent by email to Spitfire@simcontrol.co.uk|
“Happiness is the realization of infantile desires.”
When I was ten years old, I built an airplane. The fuselage was a wooden crate, a circular galvanized washtub served for the engine cowling, wings were nailed together out of scrap lumber, and I made a propeller from short plank. This propeller was turned by a ten foot rubber band made from cut up segments of automobile inner tubes looped together that ran from the propeller, through the drain in the washtub back to the cardboard rudder, passing underneath the pilot’s peach box seat. About two hundred turns of the propeller would result in about fifteen seconds of spinning propeller. World’s biggest rubber band model airplane. World’s biggest non-flying rubber band powered airplane. But you could sit in it and dream.
That was my childhood dream — to fly. My infantile dream according to the good Dr Freud (who used the word infantile to describe any fantasy that occurred before our lives were complicated by puberty — that is the twin consternations of sex and money.) Somehow, someway, I had to fly or at least find a way to fly — or at least simulate flight. At ten years of age, I couldn’t have known, even guessed, that I would wait nearly forty years for others to bring the magic of simulated flight to the world, via that modern marvel known as the computer.
All of us who have flown flight simulators over the years, whether combat sims or non-combat sims, whether on the net or privately just for fun, have our own pet peeves about the aspects of the sim that get in the way of “immersion” — that is the degree of reality one feels flying a simulator. My pet peeve is the presence of a computer keyboard and mouse in the cockpit. The planes I like to fly — the World War II propeller babies — simply didn’t have such modern devices in their cockpits. Just seeing these devices in a vintage cockpit irritates me. Having to use them to fly is worse. The very machine that is making flight simulation possible, is also ruining the immersion.
So is there a cure? Reading on may just provide one.
I visited Devon, England, in the spring of 2008, my friend Ann and I spending a week with my pal Jon Fellows and his lovely wife Wendy. Jon is an engineer, as well as a yacht sailor, a race car driver, and a lover of old airplanes. Currently he is a manufacturing consultant who works with Bill Trezise, owner of a small company that builds flight simulators. These are big time sims — their customers are the military and civilian flying schools of most of the Commonwealth countries on the planet. Their big items are helicopter sims and the ATC sim (Air Training Cadet). They make the controls for these sims, which are identical to the controls a student would see and handle in a real airplane.
But because they are passionate lovers of old airplanes, and because they are especially passionate about one certain old airplane, the famous Supermarine Spitfire, they have designed, machined, and assembled a set of Spitfire controls that replicate in feel and placement the 1940’s British warplane that has often been called the most beautiful airplane ever built.
Few pilots will need an introduction to the legendary Spitfire. First flown in 1936, this revolutionary monoplane with its all metal construction, its enclosed cockpit, its retractable landing gear, arrived in meaningful quantities for the Royal Air Force just in time to be the winning margin in the 1940 Battle of Britain. It repeated the performance two years later at the Siege of Malta. Anywhere during the 1940s that there was a British military presence, the ubiquitous Spitfire would be found. Over 23,000 were built, of which today only a few hundred remain. Of those that remain only about fifty are in flying condition. Surprisingly, a Spitfire is still occasionally for sale. Be prepared to pay the equivalent of over two million dollars, should you have the desire to acquire one.
Jon and Bill figured that the computer age, and modern flight simulators with big screen monitors, might just be able to bring the thrill of flying a Spitfire to those that didn’t have two million dollars. In between filling orders for the other sims that were their bread and butter, they began to acquire original period drawings of Spitfire controls. Spitfire RR 232, a 1944 Mk IX was only a half hour down the road being restored in Martin Phillips shop. They carried off examples of the distinctive circular hand grips, rudder pedals, brake levers, throttle quadrants, trim wheels — returning them eventually after patterns had been made. And with the passion that only a ‘Spitfireaphile’ can understand, Bill and Jon began to assemble them into what today they call The SpitSim.
The SpitSim — short for Spitfire Simulator — puts the simulator pilot not in an office chair before a computer screen with a generic joystick and possibly a set of generic rudder pedals, such as most sim flyers rig up. Instead it puts them in the cockpit of a 1500-horsepower World War Two fighter plane.
It was this Spitfire simulator that I was, while in England, invited to fly.
I have a real life pilot license. I have air time in tail-draggers, that is aircraft like the Spitfire that at rest sit on the ground tail down like a giant prehistoric lizard. I have flown a number of modern flight sims: MS9 and MSX, plus I fly IL2 weekly with a virtual Royal Air Force wing known as The Tangmere Pilots. Our usual virtual mount being one mark or the other of the same Supermarine Spitfire.
So, even though I had never flown a real Spitfire, I had flown less powerful similar planes, plus I had a good generic knowledge of where the taps and bells and whistles were on a Spitfire.
After I climbed in the prototype of the SpitSim, kept in a separate back room of the workshop, Bill showed me the system, the controls, and how to select my plane. I chose a desert Mark IX in the RealAir Spitfire program. I had flown the virtual RealAir Mk. XIV before on my own rig back in the US. I wanted now to see — and feel — the difference that the SpitSim provided.
Instead of a computer monitor, the view forward was a four foot by four foot or so screen, on which a projector located behind my head, displayed the computerized images. I set down, familiarized myself with the placement of the controls. The circular grip was larger and heftier than I had imagined. But the brake lever felt was much as I anticipated. (Spitfires don’t have toe brakes on the rudder pedals like most modern planes. They have a pneumatic system activated by a bicycle like lever on the joystick.)
The throttle quadrant fell at my left hand. The throttle itself. A prop pitch lever. A mixture control is provided though nearly all Spitfires had automatic mixture controls. Behind the quadrant was the elevator trim wheel, just like the original and in the original location. On my right hand was the Landing Gear Lever, a rather large handle emerging from a circular metal box. To raise the landing gear you moved the lever forward. Reversing the direction lowered the landing gear.
“All yours,” Bill said, gave me a pat on the back, smiled, turned off the light, closed the door and I was alone with the SpitSim. Would I be able to fly it?
Flying the simulated Spitfire
Alone in the room, darkened all about me except for the windscreen and cockpit in front of me, I pressed the starter. The motor began grinding followed by an explosion as huge cloud of smoke from the exhaust of the (virtual) Merlin 66 V12. When the engine settled out, the sound was deafening. Bill and Jon had invested in a very good sound system and I could hardly think what to do next in the din — recalling an actual Spitfire pilots’ remark, “The shock of the noise the engine makes is one of the first things as new Spitfire pilot has to overcome.”
I released the brakes and taxied out towards the runway. Very little throttle was required. At the runway, I lined up, stuck my head out the open door on the cockpit’s left side, verified there was a runway up there ahead of the immense engine cowling that makes a Spitfire perhaps the blindest of the “blind” airplanes, that is airplanes in which one cannot see straight ahead on the ground but must S turn back and forth.
I lined up, took a breath, then opened the throttle ever so slowly. The plan was to get the aircraft rolling in the right direction , then increase power slowly, countering the considerable torque with bootfulls of right rudder. At about the time the needle on the ASI began registering, the tail came up by itself.
My WW2 vintage Spitfire manual gives no take-off speed. One simply intersects the visible horizon forward with a particular place on the huge cowling. Maintaining that angle — slightly tail low, the Spitfire flies itself off. Once up comes the tricky part. The pilot’s left hand has been on the throttle, the right on the control stick grip.
Now, to get the landing gear up, the pilot must shift the left hand to the control stick, and move the right to the long lever by his right thigh. This is usually clumsily done at first, and I did it clumsily, demonstrating the famous Spitfire “wobble”, a dipsy-doodle up and down movement right after take off that is the signature of a green Spitfire pilot. The gear came up with a clunk, and I kept the nose down, per manual, until the Spitfire reached 140 MPH, in just a few seconds. Then I brought the throttle back slightly to +7 boost and brought the prop RPMs to 2650, per manual, and let her climb out. Which she did rapidly.
I won’t go further into the details of the flight. I spent about an hour and a half flying the SpitSim, making myself deaf in the process as I didn’t know how to turn down the engine volume — which I found had been left up so that Jon and Bill, working next door in the shop, could hear the Merlin’s music as they worked. Landing was delightfully simple, approach at 85, with flaps and gear down in a circular approach as the runway does disappear behind the big cowling on the flare. The slight “Spitfire bounce” and it was back on the ground. (One aspect of landing that the virtual world provides that the real world does not provide is that one can “replay” the landing and critique it.)
So what was the difference between the SpitSim and my own generic rig at home? Number One: the Tangible. I could fly the plane like a real plane without looking at a keyboard or groping around for a mouse. When I wanted to raise or drop the landing gear, I didn’t look down, I just placed my hand on the lever and activated it. Same with flaps. The greatest realization for me was that suddenly I understood why the throttle and the elevator trim wheel wheel were adjacent each other. Because every change in throttle setting required a change in elevator trim as speed increased or decreased. Being located so close together makes changing trim a delight — not that a Spitfire requires much elevator trim.
Number Two: the Ineffable, the Inexplicable. Once the light was dimmed, there was no room, no walls about me. Only a big engine cowling up front seen through an armoured windscreen, a blurred propeller disc, a wing to either side seen through the internal reflections of the canopy. Below me was a sun drenched wartime Malta and ahead the blue Mediterranean Sea. Once again, it is the spring of 1943. The Spitfire MkIXs have just come to Malta to replace the aging Mk. Vs that had borne the brunt of the battle for Malta, the battle that has driven the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica back to Italy. Far to the west, Rommel’s Afrika Korps is being herded into the Bon Peninsula of Tunisia. In a month or so, the dust and smoke of the German Army in Africa will vanish into the mists of legend. After four years of struggle, the war is moving north. Attention is turning to the invasion of Sicily.
It seems a good time to take a celebratory flight in one of the airplanes that helped make it happen.
Anyway, I signed up for a SpitSim. It won’t be cheap. And it’ll take a while to get. But it’s the closest I can get to flying a Spitfire for less than two million dollars.
I think Sigmund was right.