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Spitfire Test Pilot Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers

The test pilot whose “don’t change a thing” remark is etched in aviation folklore

FOR those who know their military history, the name of Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers is synonymous with one of the most famous aircraft in history.

It was 87 years ago, March 5, 1936, at around 4.35pm that Captain Summers climbed into the cockpit of K5054, a Supermarine Type 300, the prototype of the Spitfire, the name by which the fighter plane became known the world over. The flight lasted just eight minutes and on landing, Summers was reported to have stated: “Don’t change a thing.”

Prototype Spitfire K5054
(Prototype Spitfire K5054)

The inference was that the test pilot believed the aircraft was near perfection, a plane like no other had been created and the he was demanding that everything was kept as it was. Exactly what the 31-year-old meant by his utterance is questionable – the plane underwent many changes ahead of entering service more than two years later – but the quote has stuck, no matter what “thing” Summers didn’t want changing.

Despite Summers ‘request’, the propellor was improved and reshaped allowing the speed to increase up to around 350mph, with an over-sensitive rudder also altered.

Ahead of the improvements, Summers was no doubt impressed by the speed and versatility of the fighter powered by an experimental Rolls-Royce Merlin C ‘ramp head’ engine, with the Type 300 already reaching speeds in excess of 300mph. In 1936, flying at that sort of speed was none too common, even for a man who had been Vickers’ No. 1 pilot for six years.

The role of chief test pilot was not for the faint-hearted, especially in the 1930s, with the position more often than not becoming available for the obvious reasons – death or serious injury – with Summers’ predecessor, ‘Tiny’ Scholefield, killed test flying the Vickers Type 170 ‘Vanguard’

Captain Joseph "Mutt" Summers

(Captain Joseph "Mutt" Summers)

Before taking on the role, ‘Mutt’ Summers had already earned his nickname, and it wasn’t for his dogged determination: as a young RAF pilot in the 1920s, the Hull-born airman had an unusual habit of urinating on the rear of his aircraft before each flight, like a dog marking his territory according to his fellow pilots, so the nickname stuck.

It seems the month of March became very much associated with Summers: born on March 10, 1904, his most historic flight took place on March 5, 1934, and, most poignantly, he died on March 16, 1954.

East Yorkshire was where the young Summers was raised, attending Hull Grammar, his father the steward of the Central Hull Conservative Club. Aircraft had a big role to play in the Summers family with his brother, Maurice, also a test pilot and a wing commander in the RAF, famously setting the Trans-Atlantic speed record of 7.5 hours in a B-24 Liberator in March 1941.

But ‘Mutt’ was the better-known Summers, and in 1924 he was commissioned into the RAF, training at Duxford before passing out from RAF Digby, being assigned to No. 29 Fighter Squadron. Even during training it was clear he was an exceptional airman, and soon he was handed the role of test pilot at the Aircraft and Armaments Engineering Establishment at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk.

While working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, RAE, the perception grew that as well as being a skilled pilot he was also a lucky one, with several incidents occurring where good fortune definitely appeared to be on his side.

One was when performing a terminal velocity dive in a Hawker Hawfinch, the rear decking of the fuselage collapsed forcing Summers against the seat back with so much force he nearly broke his neck; somehow, he was able to bring the aircraft safely down, but he never wore shoulder straps again, a factor that may well have saved his life during another major incident. Another terminal velocity dive in a Type 207 naval torpedo bomber saw the tail spar fail causing the aircraft to start breaking up mid-flight, but with his upper torso being unhindered by shoulder straps, Summers was flung clear: he had no recollection of the incident or how he opened his parachute but he ended up near Brooklands Racetrack with a broken ankle and cuts to his head.

Bristol Bulldog

(Bristol Bulldog)

Another incident occurred when flying the Bristol Bulldog, a spin test starting at 10,000 feet soon became uncontrollable, with the new fighter refusing to stop spiralling and Summers eventually forced to give up his fight to regain control of the aircraft. At 4,000 feet, he undid his lap belt and stood up to bail out, a move which altered the air flow enough to stop the spiralling; Summers was then able to arrest the descent by pushing against the stick with his foot, eventually getting himself back in a position to land the plane.

There were several other close escapes before, during and after WWII, and such was the demand for his services pre-war, he was loaned to both Blackburn Aircraft and Avro, eventually leaving the military to take on the role of test pilot for Vickers Ltd. He competed in the famous Kings Cup air race in 1928 before assuming the position of the company’s chief test pilot, around the same time that Vickers-Armstrongs had taken over Supermarine Aviation Works.

Along with the Spitfire prototype, he flew numerous protype fighters and bombers that were crucial in the Allies victory over Nazi forces, including the Vickers Wellesley and the Wellington.

At the outbreak of WWII, like all test pilots of the main aircraft manufacturers, Summers was on standby for duties instructed by RAF Command, becoming a supervising RAF fighter tester for No. 11 Group RAF.

During the Battle of Britain, Summers flew between all of No. 11 Group’s airfields in south east England to test fighter aircraft and ensure they were safe to be used by No. 11 Group pilots. Later in the war, Summers was test pilot for the experimental bouncing bomb that was used during the Dambusters raid, his close friend Barnes Wallis the device’s inventor; his role was such that he was depicted by Patrick Barr in the 1955 film, The Dam Busters.

Post war, he continued test flying, taking control of, amongst other aircraft, the Vickers VC.1 Viking airliner, with the last prototype to have Summers at the controls, the Vickers Valiant, part of the UK’s V-bomber strategic deterrent force.

Six days after his 50th birthday, Summers succumbed to complications suffered during colon surgery, his funeral ceremony taking place at Westminster Abbey.

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1 comment

  • Thank you for your comprehensive and interesting description of my grandfather on my mother’s side – Summers 😊

    Sue Rose

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