Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Salvation of a Spitfire: For 40 years it lay decaying but thanks to one man's passion (and £3m) it's soaring again

Cleared for take-off: The rare Mk1 Spitfire was painstakingly restored at Biggin Hill 

Restored: The Spitfire flies above the Biggin Hill airbase having been rebuilt four decades after it crashed 

  Reunited: Seventy years after he flew her aged 20, Howard Squire climbs into the cockpit of his Spitfire

Taking to the skies again over the green fields of England for the first time since it was downed during World War II, this Spitfire in its British standard camouflage colours epitomises the heroic defiance of our island nation against the might of the Nazi onslaught.

The stunning sight above Biggin Hill airfield in South-East London is the result of an eight-year restoration project which cost £3 million.

The Mk1 Supermarine Spitfire — one of just three in existence which are still airworthy — has been completely rebuilt using original Spitfire parts salvaged from aircraft which flew in the Battle of Britain.

Its reconstruction was made  possible only after a team of some 30 dedicated restorers gathered the parts from more than 20 aircraft enthusiasts from all over the UK.

The plane had lain submerged in a North Yorkshire river for decades after 20-year-old fighter pilot Howard Squire bailed out during a training exercise in 1940.

It came to light only when water levels fell during the 1976 drought, exposing the wreckage embedded in a clay riverbank.

The wrecked plane ended up in the hands of a North Yorkshire collector, and some years later it came to the attention of former commercial pilot Peter Monk, 48, who supervised the restoration.

Mr Monk, who runs The Spitfire Company at Biggin Hill — which reconstructs old planes — and is considered to be the world’s leading expert on early Spitfire restoration, took ownership of the legendary fighter in 2004, in exchange for a truckload of Avro Lancaster bomber parts.

‘I was on the search for Spitfire parts, so I went to see this chap in Yorkshire,’ explains Mr Monk.

‘He mentioned he had some wreckage in store and I was taken aback by how much there was of it.

There was the fuselage, engine, propeller and a third of each wing. There was more than enough to start a restoration.’

The project was given a huge boost when the Spitfire was bought — for an amount Mr Monk says he found ‘very difficult to refuse’ — by Texan businessman Dan Friedkin, grandson of Pacific Southwest Airlines founder Kenny Friedkin, in 2009.

Kenny had been an American  volunteer with the Royal Air Force before the U.S. entered the war. Dan, 46, and his billionaire father, Tom, now have two airworthy Mk1s. The other is owned by the Queen.

Peter Monk was kept on to supervise the restoration. ‘The whole point was to use as many original parts as possible,’ he says. ‘It would have been easy to get these parts made new, but I would rather get in the car and drive 100 miles if an original part exists. It’s a testament to how good they were in the first place — that so much effort was put into the original parts.’

This Mk1 came down during a training session on December 28, 1940, when Howard Squire, then a promising sergeant pilot, was being given a lesson by a New Zealand fighter ace, Flight Lieutenant Al Deere DFC, over fields close to RAF Catterick in North Yorkshire.

Flt Lt Deere was giving Sgt Squire a lesson in how to keep close to an enemy aircraft and told him: ‘Stick to me like glue.’

But Squire took the advice too  literally and his plane hit Deere’s. Both men bailed out safely, and Squire’s plane plummeted into the River Leven, where it lay our of sight and out of mind for decades.

A lovely footnote to the story is that Howard Squire — who was shot down near Calais in February 1941 and spent more than four years as a PoW — was reunited with the plane two years ago, months before his death at the age of 90.

So what is it like to fly today? Pilot Paul Bonnehome, 47, has put the Mk1 — the fastest plane in the Battle of Britain — through its paces, reaching 400mph in a steep dive. He says: ‘Flying it is a bit nerve-racking as you are taking a priceless piece of history into the air.

‘It’s like driving down the High Street in a Ford Model T. But it flies brilliantly. My strongest feeling is to give thanks to those guys who were there to fly these in the first place, so we can do this now.’

The Mk1 was the original incarnation of the Spitfire and the first of its kind off the production line. Now, more than seven decades after its finest hour, it has returned to the skies in all its glory.

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