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The tale of a tail

The story which follows is apparently an RAF legend. I'm retelling it in the form in which it was told to me, and Shorty's capacity for getting himself into hot water was so spectacular that it might even be true!

The Supermarine Spitfire, the aircraft which won the Battle for Britain, has a single Rolls Royce Merlin engine (with a huge propeller) in the nose, a wheel on each wing, and a small tail wheel.  On the ground it is ungainly and front-heavy; in the air it is the epitome of grace.

In Italy, where the SAAF were fighting in 1944, the Germans were being pushed back relentlessly.  There were no proper airfields or hangars for the allies, just fields, dirt roads and pressed steel plate runways which were rolled up and moved along every time the Front moved.

The aircraft in a wartime military squadron did not take off with the care and multiple halts for additional checks seen on a civilian airfield today.  They taxied fast, took off one after the other, and moved into formation almost as soon as they were airborne.

The Spitfire being constructed the way it was, taxiing fast over rough ground caused an unanticipated problem; if the aircraft hit a bump or tussock, the heavy engine would pull the nose down and the prop would dig in, frequently damaging both the prop and the engine.

But there was no time to pussyfoot either.  With tens or even hundreds of planes taking off for a raid, a slow and cautious taxi from whatever field the Spitfire squadrons found themselves on was out of the question.  So it became common practice for a mechanic from the ground crew to leap onto the tail of the aircraft, just in front of the tailplane, and sit on it to keep the tail down while the Spit taxied.  The pilot would stop for an instant at the beginning of the runway, the mechanic would leap off, and off the Spit would go.

tailspincarter vsmTailspin Carter (L) and Shorty Iles (R). Photograph from The SAAF At War 1940 - 1984. Used by kind permission of the authors.One fine day, in the heat of the moment, Shorty forgot to stop.

The second the wheels left the ground, he realised that something was terribly wrong. He looked in the rearview mirror (yes, Spitfires have rearview mirrors), and there, grimly leaning forward against the slipstream, was the mechanic (who later turned out to have had most of the hair on the front of his head ripped out by the wind!).

Shorty radioed in to say that he was aborting and to get the runway cleared, and then flew the most careful and accurate circuit of his life - and fortunately for the mechanic, he was an exceptional pilot.

He came in to land as though landing on eggs, and did a perfect three-point landing. With the mechanic still intact, Shorty taxied to a slow and careful stop, and then collapsed over the control column from sheer relief.

The mechanic, a little balder but otherwise unharmed, leaped off the tail, raced around to the front of the Spit, stuck his head in through the window and cried, "Are you all right, Sir?"


I'm delighted to be able to tell you that this really happened.  Shorty's son John, a dentist with the Royal Navy, contacted me to confirm the story and said he had a South African newspaper clipping about the story.  Coincidentally, I had just been lent a book on the history of the South African Air Force by Jerry Nairn, who is giving me an enormous amount of help with the charity project planning.  The book contained an account of the incident and a photo of Shorty and the mechanic, who was forever after known as 'Tailspin' Carter. He seemed to have quite a lot of hair in the photo though!

And in another wrinkle, one of Tailspoin Carter's sons, John, now living in New Zealand, contacted me as well.  He hopes to organise a rerun, but for some odd reason is battling to get someone to lend him a Spitfire....