Prize fighter

Mail On Sunday, 2010

In autumn 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged, Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring gazed across the Channel towards Dover’s white cliffs and asked German fighter ace Adolf Galland what he’d need to defeat the RAF. “Eine Ausstattung von Spitfires für meine Gruppe (An outfit of Spitfires for my group),” was Galland’s reply. Göring’s response wasn’t noted but as the newly appointed Reichsmarschall was under intense pressure from Berlin to gain air superiority prior to an invasion of England (planned between Worthing and Folkestone), we can assume he wasn’t overly impressed. Adolf Hitler expected swift victories against air forces equipped with obsolete biplanes, not a furious defence by an island of obstinate garden-shed inventors.

The Spitfire, designed in 1935 by aeronautical engineer RJ Mitchell at Southampton’s Supermarine Aviation Works, was quick to capture the public’s imagination. Its aggressive pilots and tireless ground crews gave Britain the breathing space it needed to formulate a sustained fightback against Germany during Europe’s darkest hours. It was tighter in the turn than the Messerschmitt 109, its rounded edges were more appealing to the eye, and with the growling pitch of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, it was a mechanical symphony. The Spitfire proved the scourge of the Luftwaffe.

According to The Spitfire Association, there are now 60 airworthy Spitfires in the world, and this figure is growing steadily. Since 1997, the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) has flown five Spitfires ­– a Mk II Battle of Britain veteran, a Mk V, a Mk IX and a pair of PR XIXs – but last month the BBMF base at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire welcomed another variant into the fold, a Mk XVI. Built in 1945, the XVI features a bubble canopy to assist the pilot’s all-round vision, clipped wingtips to improve rate of roll and an American 1,500hp Packard V-1650 engine – a licence-built Merlin (and, according to BBMF’s engineer Nigel “Sticky” Bunn, superior to the British original).

Beneath snow-threatening clouds in the veldt of Lincolnshire, the jagged triangular shapes of Typhoon jet fighters tear apart the winter sky. It’s nose-nippingly cold in Coningsby. “You get used to that round here,” the lady in the BBMF shop cheerfully states. In the nearby BBMF hangar rest the familiar profiles of a Lancaster bomber, Dakota transport aircraft, Hurricane fighter and three Spitfires. These ancient aircraft are in various states of servicing but the restored Mk XVI, serial number TE311, is battle ready.

“TE”, as friends know her, has just returned from a test flight replete with loop-the-loops, rolls and rumbling hangar flypasts (the pilots refer to this as “shaking her down”). Rebuilt from the ground up over a period of 12 years, TE311 is the current darling of BBMF pilots and engineers. “Those who’ve been up in her have come back with a massive smile on their face,” reports avionics corporal Andrew Bale. “They’re saying it’s perfectly balanced and a lovely plane to fly.”

The last time TE311 flew was 58 years ago on less-than-glamorous pilot-training duty. She was delivered to the Air Ministry a month after the end of World War II and was quickly placed in storage before finding work with flight schools. Once her uneventful career came to a close, TE311 was moved to RAF Tangmere near Chichester where she was used, for 14 years, as “gate guardian”. For most Spitfires in the late Sixties, the next stop should have been a museum, but TE311 found an extended life as a static exhibit, visiting air shows and village fetes on the back of a flatbed truck. But life on the road took its toll.

In 2001, in a bedraggled state, TE311 was hauled to Coningsby and given an inspection by BBMF chief engineer Paul Blackah. After a look around, he believed the aircraft could be restored to flying condition, but realised it would be a lengthy journey. “Although TE311 had an engine fitted, there was no pipework, so a lot of the project was about finding the systems,” says Blackah. “It’s alright having your wings and your fuselage, but you need the systems to fit into it. That’s why the project has taken so long.”

Her transformation is nothing short of a miracle. TE311 was suffering from critically corroded engine bearers, a weakened cockpit structure, a brittle canopy and a rain-damaged airframe, while the aileron flaps, elevators and rudder had been fixed in position for road travel with aluminium alloy plates. On the positive side, the Packard engine had heroically stood up to the elements and has since been brought back to full-working order, gaining valuable bedding-in time as one of the Lancaster’s four engines.

“If you were designing an aircraft today, you wouldn’t make it how he [RJ Mitchell] designed it,” Blackah says. “When you’ve got an oil leak, you think, ‘Why did they put this here, because I can’t reach anything?’ It’s annoying. But they are nice to work on, don’t get me wrong. They’re all nice to work on.”

Climbing into the cockpit of a Spitfire is no easy task. A foot on the wing, then one on the seat and you carefully lower yourself behind the flight instruments. What’s striking about TE311 is that it doesn’t feel antique. Everything is new; the dials are sharp and clear and there’s no smell of aged leather or oil. You have to lower your head to slide the canopy closed but once it’s locked, you have just enough room to swivel your head round – 360-degree vision was a vital attribute in 1945.

“The Spitfire is a legend, and rightly so,” states Squadron Leader Duncan Mason, BBMF officer commanding, and one of two dedicated Spitfire pilots at Coningsby. “The first Spitfire I flew was a Mk V. I said to Paul Blackah and Sticky, who built and restored TE311, that when I flew TE last week, the excitement was on a par with when I flew my first Spitfire. When you get her airborne, she’s made to fly. She doesn’t want to be on the ground. She’s beautifully responsive. It also has that lovely Packard Merlin 266 engine out the front. It is the smoothest Merlin I’ve ever been behind. I’m not trying to big the aeroplane up too much when I say the boys who’ve built this have done the most phenomenal job. We try to make everything as authentic as we possibly can. Everything is how it should have been because we feel this is a living memorial to the guys that flew them.”

In total, 22,789 Spitfires were produced, many used as front-line fighters around the world well into the Sixties. During the war, the Spitfire would be transformed to such an extent that later marks bore little in common with the 1938 version. The Mk I, in front-line operation until 1941, was three feet shorter and 2,700lb lighter than the Mk XIV that entered service in January 1944, while the Spitfire’s engine power almost doubled in five years. The Mk II, for instance, was introduced with a slightly improved 1,175hp Merlin 12 in 1940. By 1945, the photo-reconnaissance Spitfire PR XIX had a 2,050hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine and was capable of 446mph.

When the RAF’s final Spitfire sortie was flown on 1 April 1954, a PR XIX on a photographic mission in Malaya, it brought the curtain down on 16 years of exceptional service. But the enduring popularity of the Spitfires means that the future of this fighter is stronger than ever; ten have returned to an airworthy state since 2004.

Despite the attractions, restoring a Spitfire is an arduous task. “We had to have bits specially made,” Blackah reveals, “and that can be time-consuming – and those parts don’t always fit when they arrive. A lot of spares for TE311 were bought from Supermarine Aero Engineering at Stoke-on-Trent, which is one of the world’s leading suppliers of Spitfire parts, while wings are overhauled at Airframe Assemblies on the Isle of Wight. There’s a whole industry out there.”

If you can’t afford the £1.4m needed to obtain an original Spitfire, and the hundreds of thousands to maintain it, it’s now possible to buy a “new” Spit, a 90-per-cent-scale aluminium-skinned “Mk 26B” kit, from Supermarine Aircraft in Texas, with prices starting at £110,000. 

As for TE311, a busy season awaits. Her first engagement will be in May and then she’ll take part in numerous airshows and flypasts until October. But if you want to witness the BBMF’s latest attraction performing the sort of stunts you’d never usually see at an official event, try driving to the BBMF Visitors Centre car park at Coningsby during the week and hanging around. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable display.

The importance of the Spitfire shouldn’t be underestimated. Its extraordinary crews gave Britain hope when it was needed most. Without it, Hitler would have triumphed in Europe and Britain would have fallen. Captured German documents revealed that 25 per cent of the British population would have been transported to the Reich and used as industrial slave labour, while Heinrich Himmler, the Holocaust’s chief architect, was keen to eliminate 80 per cent of the British people – that’s 38 million – with the assistance of a special SS force. Thanks to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the heroism of our wartime pilots and their unbending determination will remain fixed in our minds every time we hear the thrilling throb of the Merlin. The Spitfire was instrumental in maintaining our freedom.

Haynes Supermarine Spitfire Owners’ Workshop Manual by Dr Alfred Price and Paul Blackah is published by Haynes, price £19.99.