Landing a Spitfire onto an Aircraft carrier

The Aircraft carrier HMS ARGUS dazzle painted, c.1918. She was converted from an ocean liner that was under construction when the First World War began. Kept in reserve for training for most of the Second World War she was pressed into service for flying off aircraft to Malta and the Torch landings when the Navy were short of carriers.

The Aircraft carrier HMS ARGUS dazzle painted, c.1918. She was converted from an ocean liner that was under construction when the First World War began. Kept in reserve for training for most of the Second World War she was pressed into service for flying off aircraft to Malta and the Torch landings when the Navy were short of carriers.

A Hawker Hurricane which landed too fast and caught in the safety nets by one wheel aboard HMS ARGUS off Lamlash. Working parties are using a crane to recover the aircraft.

A Hawker Hurricane which landed too fast and caught in the safety nets by one wheel aboard HMS ARGUS off Lamlash. Working parties are using a ‘block and tackle’ to recover the aircraft.

Rene Mouchotte had defied orders to escape from France and join the Free French in Britain in 1940. He was now a Squadron Leader in command of No. 65 Squadron, the first foreign national to command an RAF Squadron.

On the 24th December they had begun practice for landing on aircraft carriers – taking off and landing from a marked out runway. Then they moved to a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm station at Arbroath for training at sea, on HMS Argus.

Mouchotte was impressed with the Royal Navy. ‘What a difference after the RAF. Cleanliness, discipline, mess like a grand hotel, trained waiters, very good food, comfort etc.’.

RAF pilots had taken off from carriers before – with almost no training – when planes were being flown off for the reinforcement of Malta. The Rear Admiral reminded Mouchote that they were ‘specially favoured’ to be the first RAF squadron to be trained on an aircraft carrier for take off and landing:

4th January 1943

It was the first time I had set foot on an aircraft carrier, and the next morning, when I ventured to explore, I was dumbfounded by its vastness. An enormous hangar, which took up most of the length of the vessel and all its width, gave an impressive idea of its size.

The hangar on board HMS ARGUS, with the base of the lift in the foreground, and a line of Hawker Sea Hurricanes, with several mechanics working on them, running to the back of the hangar.

The hangar on board HMS ARGUS, with the base of the lift in the foreground, and a line of Hawker Sea Hurricanes, with several mechanics working on them, running to the back of the hangar.

Unfortunately when I reached the flight deck, I saw it with my pilot’s eyes and could not help but find it appallingly short and narrow. We should have to perform miracles to take off and land. At 10 a.m. we were already at sea. The officer in charge of flying had called us together to give us final instructions.

I was making the first flights. A Spitfire, hoisted from the hanger on an enormous platform-lift, was pushed to the end of the flight deck. Only the chocks stopped it slipping back on the slope which forms the end of the deck. As I climbed on the wing, I cast a glance beneath me, to see the wake set up by the ship’s propellers 20 metres below.

One thing comforted me, a good 35-knot wind, which made my task much less difficult. It would be saying a good deal to say I was quite free from apprehension; I noticed that I was warming up my engine with more than usual care.

Then everything happened quickly without thought. The little flags dipped, two men flat on their bellies under my wings took away the chocks, two others hung on to the wingtips. My brakes on, I opened the throttle; released the brakes; tail in the air, I taxied along the deck. No time to think, I was at the other end already then in the air.

A Supermarine Seafire takes off in bright sun from the flight deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS during trials of the aircraft from the carrier on the Clyde. The pilots were very impressed with the short runs needed to take off.

A Supermarine Seafire takes off in bright sun from the flight deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS during trials of the aircraft from the carrier on the Clyde. The pilots were very impressed with the short runs needed to take off.

Several minutes later, after setting the pitch of the propeller, retracting the undercarriage and making my first turn to port, at above 500-600 metres, I realized the horror of my situation. A minute aircraft carrier was sailing there below me, as small as half a matchstick, and on it, in a few instants, I was going to have to land myself and my Spitfire.

It was so good in the air that I hadn’t the least desire to go down, my approach, as I lost altitude, looked more and more difficult and the deck hardly seemed to have changed in size. I had to touch down with my wheels immediately behind the bulge of the deck. If I succeeded in placing myself well in the centre, the cables would do the rest, provided my speed were correct. Therein lay the difficulty.

My task was to circle twice, as if about to land, but to open the throttle at the last moment without touching the deck with my wheels. The third time, thank God, I landed without damage; the cables stopped me loyally. I made four complete landings, after which I almost regretted not being able to go on. I was very pleased, the task in the end had proved easier than I had imagined. Unfortunately all my pilots did not have my luck and we had some small (not serious) accidents to regret.

See Rene Mouchotte: The Mouchotte Diaries 1940-943. Mouchotte would never fly from an aircraft carrier operationally, he was soon selected to lead an exclusively Free French squadron, No.341.

For the latest on Rene Mouchotte see BBC News, 28th January 2013.

A Supermarine Seafire nosed over on the flight deck of HMS SMITER after a landing accident, 1944.

A Supermarine Seafire nosed over on the flight deck of HMS SMITER after a landing accident, 1944.

Spitfire Mark VII, BS142 on the ground at Eastleigh, Hampshire, after modification by Cunliffe Owen Aircraft Ltd., and shortly before joining the High Altitude Flight (renamed the Sub Stratosphere Flight) at Northolt, Middlesex. In January 1943, BS142 went to No. 124 Squadron RAF with whom it claimed the unit’s first high altitude victory, a Focke Wulf Fw 190, on 15 May. It later also served with No. 331 Squadron RAF.

Spitfire Mark VII, BS142 on the ground at Eastleigh, Hampshire, after modification by Cunliffe Owen Aircraft Ltd., and shortly before joining the High Altitude Flight (renamed the Sub Stratosphere Flight) at Northolt, Middlesex. In January 1943, BS142 went to No. 124 Squadron RAF with whom it claimed the unit’s first high altitude victory, a Focke Wulf Fw 190, on 15 May. It later also served with No. 331 Squadron RAF.

Group Captain A.G. 'Sailor' Malan on the wing of Squadron Leader Hugo 'Sinker' Armstrong's Spitfire IX at Biggin Hill, 2 January 1943

Group Captain A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan on the wing of Squadron Leader Hugo ‘Sinker’ Armstrong’s Spitfire IX at Biggin Hill, 2 January 1943

Flight Lieutenant J Pattison of No 485 Squadron, RNZAF, graphically recounts a combat to Squadron Leader 'Reg' Grant (left), and Flight Lieutenant R Baker (right), in front of a Spitfire at Westhampnett, 21 January 1943.

Flight Lieutenant J Pattison of No 485 Squadron, RNZAF, graphically recounts a combat to Squadron Leader ‘Reg’ Grant (left), and Flight Lieutenant R Baker (right), in front of a Spitfire at Westhampnett, 21 January 1943.

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: