Col­lect­ing rare Spit­fires

Fly­ing th­ese in­creas­ingly rare Spit­fires is a priv­i­lege that only a se­lect few get to ex­pe­ri­ence.

Jetgala - - CONTENTS -

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.

High fly­ers

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.

Im­ages courtesy of Aero Le­gends

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