Collecting rare Spitfires
Flying these increasingly rare Spitfires is a privilege that only a select few get to experience.
For most pilots, aviation lovers or those who simply appreciate beautiful design, even the glimpse of a classic aircraft, especially a warbird, as it reaches for the skies is always a moment to savour.
Enthusiasts love these aircraft for different reasons. For some, it’s the shape of the fuselage, or the history interwoven into every rivet and panel surrounding these incredible machines. For many more it’s all about the music, that bone-penetrating sound and the growl of the high-octane piston engine or engines as the warbird zooms overhead.
Across the globe, there are a finite number of these vintage planes from the 1930s and 40s that are still airworthy, allowing a lucky few to experience “real flight”. Take for example the American P51 Mustang. Over 15,000 of these iconic aircraft rolled off US and Australian production lines to see combat right across the globe. However, there are less than 250 Mustangs in various states of repair still existing today.
Worth of a legend
There is one legendary warbird still flying today – an aircraft whose name immediately conjures up images of the quintessential fighter plane. An aircraft that was flown by the “few” and, will forever be associated with perhaps the greatest air battle of all time, the Battle of Britain. This warbird is of course, the Supermarine Spitfire.
Like the Mustang, the Spitfire was produced in huge numbers, just over 22,000 between 1938 and 1946. Indeed, at the beginning of World War II, both aircraft were fitted with the same legendary engine, the l2-cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin V-1650-3.
There were 24 variants of the Spitfire produced during its lifespan and today there are less than 180 of these incredible warbirds still flying. And those that are operational provide fans an opportunity to experience just what it was, and is, that makes these aircraft so special.
But what does it take to own, fly and keep a Spitfire, or indeed any classic warbird airborne almost 80 years on from when the last model left the factory? Keith Perkins, owner of Aero Legends, a company that owns and flies three Spitfires knows exactly what it takes to preserve and keep these beautiful aircraft alive.
“Spitfires are unique in that they are not only beautiful in form but sound so evocative. However, they are one of a handful of aircraft that are also true icons,” Perkins says. “It takes lots of passion and deep pockets. The cost of insurance, maintenance and hangarage make any luxury car seem cheap in comparison. Also having the right support team looking after the aircraft is essential.”
These days finding a classic Spitfire, even a wreck that needs restoration, is almost akin to discovering buried treasure. “There are very few Spitfires for sale and prices vary. What I would call one of the
classic (MK I to IX) Spitfires with a Merlin engine, elliptical wings and a high back fuselage would be in excess of £2.5 million ($3.4 million),” he continues.
Of course the actual price will vary given the condition and more importantly, the history of the aircraft. Then there are the running costs.
“Most owners typically budget for running costs around £3,500 ($4,800) plus, per hour, which assumes there are no unexpected maintenance issues.
If there are, and there will be, you’ll need a war chest of cash and spares ready to go. For example, an engine overhaul and swap which will be needed after 500 hours will cost around £200,000 ($280,000) all in, but many engines won’t reach that service life.”
Of the three Spitfires ready to fly at Aero Legends, the MK IX TD314 first flew in 1944 and saw service with 183 squadron RAF, while another MK IX NH341 named Elizabeth saw combat with 411 squadron. In 2015, this aircraft was fully restored and converted into a two-seat configuration to allow Areo Legends customers to experience a thrilling flight in a Spitfire.
The third aircraft, another MK IX PV202 saw combat over Germany with 412 squadron RCAF and was converted to a dedicated trainer (Tr IX) variant after the war. This Spitfire was used to train pilots with the Irish Air Corps up until the late 1950s.
Given the complexity and the lack of available, serviceable warbirds worldwide what exactly would one need to fulfil a lifelong dream and actually pilot a Spitfire?
“A Spitfire can be flown with a PPL (private pilot license), except where flying passengers in the two-seat variants, which will require a commercial pilot license or specific exemption to do so by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). But being a warbird it will have to be operated by an organisation approved by the CAA,” Perkins clarifies.
“Each organisation will have specific requirements for experience and will require the prospective pilot to undergo a training regime to be competent in a Spitfire. Even after qualifying to fly a Spitfire getting ongoing access to fly one is another issue.”
There is another issue and perhaps given the history and legacy connected with these incredible aircraft, this is a concern worth noting as well.
“The Spitfire is synonymous with the Battle of Britain and the allied victory in WWII and all of these factors will be impacting on the pilot and the extra care they will take when piloting the aircraft,” Perkins concludes.
However, given the necessary dedication, time and funds, it is not an impossible dream for those who have long fantasised of taking to the skies alone in a warbird. If you already have your PPL, you will need to log some experience flying tail-wheel types. There are a number of organisations worldwide that offer training with a view to a solo flight at the controls of a Spitfire.
Or, you could just hop on the plane as a passenger. In the UK, the CAA has allowed Spitfires to fly passengers since 2015, says Perkins. “You can be a passenger in the back of a two-seat Spitfire with no experience at all,” says Perkins, who does this for a living. Aero Legends’ main business is flying passengers in two-seat Spitfires.
But beware, taking to the skies in a Spitfire – alone or as a passenger – with the power of the Merlin engine coursing through every fibre of your body, comes with a warning.
All too soon, when your first flight is over and you step down from that signature elliptical wing, you may find you are afflicted with a strange, and these days extremely rare, condition. This disease has no cure and will only increase in severity should you be lucky enough to add more flights in this iconic aircraft.
This condition, commonly known as the Spitfire Grin, will last a lifetime.