Origins of the two-seat Spitfire

The standard method of learning to fly in the RAF follows a pattern that has been in force since the First World War. Once the appraisal and acceptance has been agreed it is back to school for a period of ground training (drill), aviation law, navigation etc before you even see an aeroplane. Today, for those lucky enough to get to RAF Cranwell, the rank of Pilot Officer is taken up before flying training begins with the ultimate aim of flying a modern RAF aircraft. It was no different in wartime when every trainee pilot wanted to fly just one type, the Supermarine Spitfire. Before this however training on at least two other types was essential.

The usual wartime system was to do initial training on something like an Avro 504, Tiger Moth, Avro Tutor or Miles Magister. However as far back as 1941 Supermarine had thought, and indeed planned, to make a two seat Spitfire. The main reason behind this decision was to fast-track pilot training, cut out the first two training aircraft and move directly into flying a Spitfire. It was initially thought that the Air Ministry would jump at the opportunity to improve efficiency and increase pilot output. Thus it came as a bit of a shock when the Ministry rejected the idea outright, the reason given was that they wanted to concentrate on producing single seat Spitfires due to the shortage being experienced by the RAF. As a result of this decision Supermarine shelved the plans until 1944 when eventually Supermarine modified a Mark V, ES127 to become a two seat Spitfire. This was then issued to an RAF Squadron then operating in the middle east theatre. At this time the aircraft did not have dual control and so was only used as a squadron ‘hack’. It did however provoke thought once again that perhaps it might not be a bad idea to train future pilots on a two seat Spitfire.

While this was being considered, it fell to the Russians to become the first to produce a two seat aircraft for training purposes. They had already converted some of their own front-line fighters to accommodate another seat and with the acquisition of some Spitfires under the Russian lend/lease act did the same to several Mk IX aircraft. Very little is known regarding this conversion but what is known is it differed from the British plans by having a ‘greenhouse’ double canopy instead of the proposed ‘bubble’ type. That Russia should do it first prompted Supermarine to embark on a private version in 1946 and it was at this time that we saw the first true two seat Spitfire in the UK. They chose a Mark VIII bearing the serial number MT818, a ‘Class B Marking of N-32 and a civil registration G-AIDN. Early in 1947 this aircraft went to Boscombe Down for handling trials which proved very favourable. However, once again there were no orders coming from the ministry due to the fact that the RAF were now turning to jet powered aircraft virtually making the piston engine ones redundant. In view of this the aircraft was stored at the former RAF airfield of Chilbolton from 1952 till 1956 after which it was owned by Vivian Bellamy and moved to Eastleigh.

With Supermarine now incorporated within the Vickers-Armstrong company, the Spitfire was mainly used for demonstration and promotion purposes. Owned by John Fairey, an instructor of the Hampshire Flying Club, it was later to compete in several air races including the 1950 ‘King’s Cup’ after which it was sold privately and transported to the USA and a new owner in 1985. Some years later it returned to the UK and into the caring hands of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar offering Spitfire experience flights which years ago would have been unthinkable. So just how did this revolution come about?

It began during the 1950’s and 1960’s when the Irish Air Corps did not want to go down the usual RAF route of training. Instead they received several Spitfires for pilot training that had been converted to a two seat by Vickers-Armstrong at Eastleigh airfield near Southampton. This enabled them to put a trainee directly into the rear seat of a Spitfire thus cutting down on the time needed to train a pilot. Although the addition of a second cockpit made it less comfortable for pilot and trainee, the aircraft served their purpose in training pilots. When the Corps finally relinquished these aircraft, many came into private hands which is exactly what happened to MT818.

The first two seat Spitfire to offer flights was ML407 – better known as ‘the Grace Spitfire’. Restored to flying condition over 5 years by Nick Grace, it was all too tragic when he was killed in an automobile accident. Endeavouring to keep the aircraft flying in his honour, his wife Carolyn became the first female pilot to own and operate a Spitfire and the first to carry a passenger.

Major changes to CAA regulations, finally saw the long-awaited opportunity for publicly-available flights in Spitfires become a reality. MJ627 and MJ772 at the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar offer the chance to fly in Spitfires with wartime combat history. While serving with No. 441 (Silver Fox) Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron, MJ627 shot down a Me109 over Arnhem in September 1944. Sold back to Vickers in 1950 she was converted to a two seater for the Irish Air Corps before being retired in 1960. After passing through various owners, MJ627 arrived at the Heritage Hangar.

MJ772 operated with 340 and 341 (Free French) Squadrons and is a genuine D-Day veteran. She flew on patrols over the Normandy beaches on 6th June 1944, chasing a Fw190 away from the landing zone. With 2019 being the D-Day 75th anniversary year, the chance to fly in a D-Day veteran Spitfire is an almost unique opportunity.

As Dan Griffith, one of the pilots privileged flying the public once eloquently put it:- ‘I consider it an honour to fly such aircraft and to allow the public to experience what I feel every time I fly a Spitfire’.

Click here to find out what Dan means!