The man inside K5054

‘Don’t change anything’

You’ll hear this story a lot at the start of every March – on the 5th of the month, 1936, Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot ‘Mutt’ Summers took the prototype Supermarine Spitfire, K5054, for its first flight.

K5054 Spitfire prototype
K5054 in the air.. Summers only took the prototype on its first four flights, then handed testing over to Jeffrey Quill and George Pickering. (IWM HU 1659)

On landing, he’s widely reported to have said ‘Don’t change anything’ – or words to that effect.

There’s been a lot of speculation about this brusque remark. While some would have you think it indicates the Spitfire’s nascent perfection (which is obviously wishful thinking, if not outright revisionism) it’s now generally accepted that Summers really just didn’t want them to change anything. Yet.

After only eight minutes in the new plane, I suspect he hadn’t finished feeling out the disappointing performance and over-sensitive rudder that would trouble K5054 through its early testing…

Still, for all the coverage of the notable first flight and speculation around the first remark, I’ve never heard anyone ask the more obvious question – who was Mutt Summers?

Capt. Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, CBE

Most of the information on Mutt Summers seems to come from a profile published in Flight magazine on May 16th, 1946, a few months after he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire).

Mutt Summers
Capt. Joseph “Mutt” Summers, CBE (1904 – 1954); first pilot of the Spitfire along with a record 53 other first-of-type aircraft.

The article begins by describing his nickname as ‘quite unjustified’ – but other sources are less discrete… It seems that as a young RAF pilot in the early 1920s, Summers developed the habit of urinating on the tail skid or wheel of his aircraft before each flight. His fellow pilots laughingly thought he was like a dog marking its territory – and dubbed him ‘Mutt’. It stuck.

Along with his unflattering soubriquet, Summers hardly measured up to the modern image of a test pilot – athletic, eagle-eyed, full of engineering and attitude…  However he did possess the two most important attributes for a test pilot of his time –  an almost supernatural feel for the flight forces on whatever he was piloting and quick reflexes.

Plus he was lucky, which also has its uses.

Summers became Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot in June of 1929 after the previous incumbent, ‘Tiny’  Scholefield, was killed test-flying the Vickers Type 170 ‘Vanguard’ (a twin-engined airliner). Promotion often came the hard way in 1920s test flying.

His first project was to test the tiny Vireo submarine-launched fighter, which duly lost its windscreen assembly in a terminal dive test. If Summers hadn’t been looking into the cockpit at that precise moment the metal and glass would have smashed across his face – instead of merely striking the back of his head the glancing blow that it did.

Like I said: Lucky.

Trying to kill him

Joseph Summers was born on March 10th, 1904. He was too young to serve in World War One, but was granted an RAF short-service commission in 1925. He learned to fly on the venerable Avro 504 and the potent Sopwith Snipe, before joining No.29 Squadron on Snipes and Gloster Grebes.

After a remarkably short six months with the squadron, however, he was transferred to the single-seater flight of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Martlesham Heath to become a test pilot.

Beginning a line that would lead to the Hurricane, the Hawker Hawfinch was the first Sydney Camm design to use metal tube-and-plate construction with fabric covering. Only one was built. (wikipedia)
Beginning a line that would lead to the Hurricane, the Hawker Hawfinch was the first Sydney Camm design to use metal tube-and-plate construction with fabric covering. Only one was built. (wikipedia)

He flew with the RAE for the next five years, testing the Gloster Gamecock, Hawker Hornbill, Hawker Hawfinch, Avro Avenger, Bristol Bulldog and others.

The Hawfinch was one of several aircraft that nearly killed him. During a terminal velocity dive, the rear decking of the fuselage collapsed, pressing hard down on the anchor straps of Summers’ Sutton Harness. The sudden tension pulled him hard against the seat back, nearly breaking his neck. Fortunately, he got the damaged aircraft down, but he never wore shoulder straps again.

The Bristol Bulldog also tried to kill him, but with considerably less vindictiveness. During a spin test that started at 10,000 feet, the brusque new fighter refused to stop spiralling despite everything Summers tried.

With 18" added to the fuselage to correct its spinning vices, the Bulldog went on to serve with the RAF, FInland (wearing swastikas!), Australia the US Navy, and others. (wikipedia)
With 18″ added to the fuselage to correct its spinning vices, the Bulldog went on to serve with the RAF, FInland (wearing swastikas!), Australia the US Navy, and others. (wikipedia)

In the end, he gave up. At 4,000 feet he undid his lap belt, grabbed the hand holds in the back of the top centre-section and stood up to bail out.

That move changed the airflow enough to stop the autorotation. The Bulldog dropped into a dive, which Mutt arrested by pushing against the stick with his foot. He then dropped back into the cockpit and, now down to just 2,000 feet, proceeded to land the plane.

I wonder if any Bristol engineers were on hand to receive his impressions of that prototype?

Fighters, flying boats and bombers

Shortly before Summers moved to Vickers, the company had taken a controlling interest in Supermarine and Summers became responsible for test-flying their new types as well. Still, there was no sign of his date with destiny. Having missed out on the Southampton company’s Schneider racers, the fighter-man now found himself flying lumbering flying boats like the Scapa and the Southampton ‘Mark X’.

Fatally flawed, if not quite for Summers, the Vickers Type 207 naval torpedo bomber of 1933 – shortly before its in-flight break-up. (wikipedia)
Fatally flawed, if not quite for Summers, the Vickers Type 207 naval torpedo bomber of 1933 – shortly before its in-flight break-up. (wikipedia)

Meanwhile aviation was going through one of its technical flowerings and he also found himself testing more advanced metal designs for Vickers, like the geodetic Wellesley and the pretty silver Type 207 naval torpedo bomber – featuring an advanced duralumin frame designed by Vickers’ new engineer, Barnes Wallace.

The 207 would also make an attempt on Summers’ life and, again, it was in the terminal velocity dive. This time, the tail spar failed with a loud bang, after which the tail twisted about it’s rear spar before tearing the entire empennage off. With the tail gone the aircraft bunted over (still at near t.v., remember) and broke up.

Summers was flung clear, thanks to his habit of not wearing shoulder straps, but had no recollection of the break-up, opening his parachute , or thumping into the Members’ Hill by Brooklands Racetrack. His first conscious memory was of being picked up with a broken ankle and cut head by George Bulman, Chief Test Pilot at Hawkers.

The Type 207 project was abandoned.

Technical warrior

1936 was, of course, a signature year for Mutt Summers. He flew the first Spitfire, K5054 in March and, in June, the first Vickers Wellington – two aircraft which would feature highly in the coming fight against Nazism.

Spitfire prototype K5054
K5054 sniffs the air… The undercarriage was fixed and without doors, and the plane wasn’t painted, until after that first flight on March 5th, 1936.

Then, just before war broke out, Summers found himself touring Germany with another famous test pilot – Jimmy Doolittle. Together, they were invited by Luftwaffe General Ernest Udet to fly both the Bf.109 and the Dornier 17, giving Mutt valuable first-hand experience on the aircraft that would perform the enemy’s role to his own recent test subjects.

When war did come, Summers was directed to perform flight test duties in support of Fighter Command. He spent the summer of 1940 flying between embattled 11 Group stations, testing aircraft that had been in combat to make sure they were still safe.

On one flight, the propeller of a Hurricane sheared off while he was flying at just 1,500 feet. With no parachute anyway, Summers had little choice but to glide the fighter back to its airfield – which he calmly did.

After returning to Vickers, he paired up with his good friend Barnes Wallace to test-drop the innovative ‘Upkeep’ bouncing bombs off the Dorset coast.

And while flight testing the Vickers Warwick, a heavy bomber based on the Wellington, in 1945 his skill and luck saved him yet again. Structural failure in the tail caused a rudder hardover, so Summers held the aircraft in 2,000 foot/minute sideslip and crash landed into a ploughed field. Farm labourers just managed to extract Summers and his flight engineer Mr. Greene (who had broken his arm) before the wreckage burst into flames.

Firsts and mosts

After the war, Summers continued test-flying for Vickers, using his unique ability to feel out and explain an aircraft’s quirks in numerous first flights, before the company’s other test pilots proceeded with the full flight test programs.

Vickers Valiant prototype
Just five years on from aircraft like the Avro Lincoln, 1951’s prototype Vickers Valiant, WB210, the first of Britain’s incredibly bold V-bombers. (SDASM #01 00089295)

In this ‘first flights’ capacity, Summers flew the prototype Nene-Viking (the first all-jet civil aircraft); Vickers Viscount (the first turboprop airliner); and Vickers Valiant (Britain’s first four-jet nuclear bomber). It must have seemed a far cry from his days on Avro 504s.

He retired shortly after launching the Valiant, with 54 ‘first of type’ flights to his credit. He had also accumulated 5,600 hours of flying time – the highest number of hours achieved by any test pilot. Both records still stand to this day.

Just as remarkably, Summers logged a total of 366 different aircraft types over his flying career, making him second only to the remarkable Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown’s 486 types flown.

Britain’s greatest test pilot

Mutt Summers died on March 16th, 1954, aged just 50, from complications after colon surgery. He was honoured with a funeral in Westminster Abbey, and buried in Weybridge Cemetery, Surrey (plot #4359), close to the Vickers factory.

Mutt Summers 1946
Mutt Summers in his office at Vickers in 1946. The model is of the new VC-1 Viking airliner. (Flight)

At the time, he was described as Britain’s greatest test pilot. It was an extraordinary accolade – and quite probably true.

If he’d had the chance to offer some advice to his 21-year-old self, I’m sure he would have said ‘Don’t change anything’.

“To those who designed the aeroplanes he was a tower of strength… One learned never to regard his criticism or advice lightly. In a world of science and instrumentation his judgement and horse sense often threw an unscientific but accurate light on some dark problem.”
– Sir George Edwards, Chief Designer for Vickers (later Chairman of BAC)

Supermarine Spitfire
“…Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue…” A gorgeous portrait of Britain’s favourite fighter and Mutt Summers’ most important first flight. (Meg Vaughan | CC BY 2.0)


13 thoughts on “The man inside K5054

  1. What catches my eye most about this bio is the sheer number of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to which Mutt was afforded. Talk about being in the right place at the right time — and by that I mean born during a critical moment in the history of aviation. For all the horror and death that generation suffered, they also saw some of the most incredible growth and opportunity, too. A time of extremes, for both good and bad.

    1. Yes, he worked through an absolutely incredible period in aviation development; fired by the crucible of war, obviously, but still – to go from Avro 504s to V-force jets must have been quite amazing.

  2. What an incredible experience he had. How these guys remain calm and collected when all around them is going wrong, is testament to their bravery. Many of these guys are little known about, yet without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.

  3. I have always wondered why anyone would want to be a test pilot because of how dangerous it is. But if you must fly, you must fly. (After all we are a slave to our “art”.) I just find it sad that so many amazing pilots have died testing airplanes. Don Gentile and “Mac” McKennon just to name a few.

    1. Dick Bong springs to mind too… Some of those guys really put themselves in harm’s way. As to why, that’s a question for a test pilot, if not the individuals themselves. I wonder if the death toll is linked to them being the kind of pilots who would stay with the plane, trying to resolve whatever was wrong?

  4. Possibly the greatest of the great pilots from British aviation history,yet I doub´t many people today know who he is.A great pity he died so young.

  5. Many thanks indeed for that potted history of Mutt Summers who was my grandfather! Some of this I never knew at all, if you have anything else about him I would be most grateful for you to share with the family.
    Melanie Laidlaw (nee Summers)

    1. Hi Melanie, how wonderful that I’ve been able to help you discover something new about your grandfather! He was, without doubt, a wonderful and essential pilot in the history of British aviation. Sadly, he has been greatly overshadowed by his most famous charge – the Spitfire. I feel very pleased to have kept his light alive, so that you could pick up the torch.

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