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Photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Pilot

Photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Pilot

Posted Saturday, April 25, 2015   |   1485 views   |   Aviation & Transport   |   Comments (0) JAMES KIGHTLY focuses on the role of the pilots who flew solo, unarmed, at height, in radio silence for up to seven hours, and had to navigate by precise dead-reckoning

The Supermarine Spitfire, a short-range point interceptor, was modified into one of the best long-range photographic-reconnaissance (PR) aircraft of the Second World War. The aircraft's structure was basically unaltered, the main changes being the removal of armament, a hugely increased fuel tankage and the addition of the cameras required for the role. The PR.XI had a Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 engine and 66gal of fuel in each wing leading edge, as well as an enlarged undernose oil tank. Able to attain 400 m.p.h.-plus, it had a universal camera installation allowing a wide variety of cameras to be fitted, such as two F.52 cameras with 36in focal length lenses.
Alone, fast and high
The pilots of PR Spitfires flew solo, at height, in radio silence, and had to navigate by dead-reckoning precisely from base to the exact pinpoint location for their photographs. These missions could last up to seven hours. Complete surprise, altitude and speed offered their best chances for survival, vital for bringing back the photographs.

Death by sleep
The Spitfire's cockpit was cramped and uncomfortable, and early versions had no cabin heating. Later, heating and (later still) pressurisation made a huge difference. The PR Spitfires had additional oxygen tanks for the longer flights, but if a pilot's supply failed or was blocked, hypoxia would set in. First the pilot would lose awareness and then he would pass out, probably not awakening before the crash.

As well as flak, enemy interception was a constant risk, and pilots kept a close watch to the rear. As Gp Capt H.C. Daish recalled: "Our work in those early days necessitated flying at 30,000ft, and certain sorties had to be abandoned if we developed a condensation trail." The then-rare contrails, occurring (as the pilots found) over 27,000ft, were a major problem. Pioneer PR pilot Fg Off "Shorty" Longbottom noted: "From the ground, this trail appears to come to a point, sharply defined, at the exact point of the aircraft, so that although the machine itself may not be visible, every movement it makes is visible to the naked eye ..." On the other hand, a new contrail seen behind could reveal an attacking enemy fighter.

The cameras were normally mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, and had electrically driven shutters. For mass coverage the normal set-up was two F.52 cameras with 36in lenses, arranged to shoot slightly off to the left and right of the aircraft's track. Once over the target to be photographed, a precise course and altitude was set and maintained. At 30,000ft each Tin x 8'/tin negative covered a square mile, but even a small deviation from straight and level could mean that the cameras could miss the target completely.

Detailed shots of building-sized targets were undertaken at low level using an obliquely mounted camera in the radio compartment. These operations, known as "dicing", were exciting and risky. It was not glamorous work, and required a painstaking, patient temperament, but proved vital to winning the war.

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The magazine of choice for aviation and history enthusiasts worldwide. Aeroplane is filled with aviation history, news on plane preservation projects and nostalgia from the 'golden age of flying'.

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