Out-of-fuel Spitfire and a Carrier: No options
As the Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vc approached the stern of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), Pilot Officer Jerry Smith, RCAF, knew he was quickly running out of options. His first approach had been high and much too fast, and the 21-year-old fighter pilot knew that unless he was able to land safely on this approach, he would either have to bail or ditch his fighter into the Mediterranean Sea. He was low on options and time was running out. Eleven Grumman Wildcats of Fighting Squadron 71 were overhead and would need to land back on board their carrier soon.
Smith had taken off from the Wasp just an hour prior with 46 other Spitfires of No. 601 Squadron en route to the island of Malta, but one had crashed due to engine failure. Safely airborne, Smith immediately switched to feed fuel from his 90-gallon “slipper” auxiliary fuel tank attached to the Spitfire’s belly. Suddenly, the Spitfire’s Merlin engine began to sputter from lack of fuel, and he switched back to his internal tank. Smith returned to the Wasp while watching the 45 remaining Spitfires continue toward Malta. Being an RAF-trained pilot, Smith had never attempted a carrier landing. More importantly, his Spitfire had no arresting hook. He would have to land on a moving runway and stop before running off the end into the sea. To his knowledge, no Spitfire had ever done what Seafires did regularly — landing on board a carrier.
P/O Smith and his Spitfire were part of Operation Bowery, which was a follow-up to Operation Calendar. The purpose of the two missions was to reinforce the beleaguered island of Malta, under daily bombing raids from German and Italian aircraft from Sicily and Libya. From 1940 through 1942, Malta’s defenders endured at least 3,000 bombing raids. The previous Operation Calendar was both a great success and a dismal failure. Forty-seven Spitfires were successfully delivered but the Germans had prior knowledge of their arrival, and within days most all had been destroyed in aerial attacks.
To read the article from the October 2014 issue of Flight Journal, click here.
by Jack Cook