It is 80 years this week since the first Spitfire took to the airways. Retro looks at a painstaking project to make the last of the famous aircraft fly again
“To my mind, there has never been an aircraft quite like it, and there is never likely to be again…”
Throughout the long and proud history of the UK’s military aviation heritage, few aircraft have received as much attention as the Supermarine Spitfire.
A British-made single-seat fighter used by the Royal Air Force and many other
Allied countries before, during and after the Second World War, during the Battle of Britain it was, and has continued to be, perceived as the RAF aircraft.
And March 5 this year sees the Spitfire celebrate an historic milestone – 80 years since the prototype set out on its very first test flight.
It is an anniversary likely to be acknowledged across the country, particularly in the south where Spitfire’s roots lie.
But fewer people realise Lancashire’s aerospace industry has its very own proud connection with the Spitfire – and one aircraft in particular, as John Waite, the former Executive Director of General Projects at British Aerospace, the forerunner to the modern day BAE Systems, remembers well.
For back in the mid-1980s, it was the expertise, experience and technical know-how of his Preston and Samlesbury-based teams which led to the realisation of something incredible – taking a four-decades-old Spitfire Mk PRXIX – known as PS915 – which had been stood static as a ‘gate guardian’ at an RAF base for years, and returning it to the skies.
“There were very few people in those days who could have done it, and I’m very proud of what we did,” explains John, 84, who first joined the company as a trade apprentice in 1947 and still lives in Lancashire to this day. PS915 was first completed on April 17, 1945 and sent to Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, where it was made ‘operationally ready’ before it was sent a few miles away to a Holding Unit at RAF Benson.
It was just too late to see service in the Second World War, joining 541 Squadron at Benson in June 1945 before moving to the PR Development Unit to take part in tests of new cameras. In April 1947 the aircraft was assigned to No 2 Squadron at Wunstorf in Germany, flying ‘Cold War’ strategic reconnaissance sorties in connection with the East/West divide of Europe and during the Berlin Airlift of 1948/49.
She was returned to the UK in 1951 and, after a period in storage at Cosford, joined the Temperature and Humidity Monitoring (THUM) Flight at RAF Woodvale, near Southport, in 1954.
Ultimately, the aircraft left Woodvale in 1957 and, for a short time, was officially ‘retired’ from active flying. It became a gate guardian, a static display aircraft, at RAF Leuchars in Fife, Scotland, in 1961.
Following some restoration, it remained there until 1967 where it was then transported away to be used as a ground piece for the Battle of Britain film, produced by filmmakers United Artists in 1968. Following completion of the film, PS915 was ‘rebuilt’ (many of its parts had been ‘borrowed’ during filming) and returned to
Leuchars in 1969.
There it stayed until 1975 when it was transferred to RAF Brawdy, in Wales, for a flight survey to be carried out to see if it could take to the skies again as a backup aircraft for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
It was quickly decided that such a refurbishment was not possible and so it was instead transferred to RAF Coningsby and used to test aircraft engines. Eventually, it was ‘demobbed’ in 1980 and returned to Brawdy, again as a static gate guardian. It is perhaps there the colourful history of PS915 could have ended. But then came an intervention from Lancashire’s experts.
In 1984 John was asked to look at a project – a loan agreement between the UK Ministry of Defence and British Aerospace had been signed with an immediate need to survey the aircraft and see if it could be made to fly again.
“We were asked what the chances were of getting it flying again,” he remembers. “It had been a gate guardian for years and it was to put it bluntly, a bit of a mess. I led a small team to go and look at it, including Tom Huxtable, a technical instructor at British Aerospace in Preston.
“We travelled to look at it and my heart just sank. There were birds’ nests inside it, there was no engine, the propeller was falling off... But we decided we would try and bring it back up to flight standard.”
It was dismantled and moved to the Samlesbury site, where it arrived in June 1984 before being moved the short distance to Strand Road, Preston, for a proper assessment.
“We stripped it down, cleaned it all up,” says John. “We changed almost every rivet on the aircraft and repaired most of the parts. It returned to Samlesbury, once the work was completed, for final assembly.
“Once we had finished the work, I negotiated with RAF Strike Command that we really ought to fly it to bed it down before we handed it over and so we had a three-month period where our test pilots were able to test fly it.
“That was a brilliant time and at the end, we made a major event of the handover, with all kinds of Press, television and people there.”
So how did that British Aerospace team manage to return this magnificent aircraft to the skies?
Expertise and technology played a part. The list of restorations and the people involved is exhaustive. But the use of X-ray techniques to assess its condition, expert construction techniques by apprentices at Strand Road and redesign of the electrical systems at Warton all played their parts.
Rolls Royce carried out engine conversion work and the Lancashire team were given a major boost when a group of Swedish historical aircraft restorers from Malmo were found to have a copy of an Illustrated Parts catalogue, previously unknown in the UK and which proved invaluable for tracing parts.
So it was that on November 20, 1986 PS915 ‘kicked’ back into life with the first in a series of engine run trials. And, after a visit to the Samlesbury paint shop to be resprayed, the aircraft did what many thought it would not do again – took to the skies again on December 16, 1986, flown by Squadron Leader Paul Day, of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. It was the first time it had flown since August 1957.
After spending the bed-in flying time at BAE Systems’ site at Warton in early 1987, it was handed over in March that year to the Coningsby-based Battle of Britain Memorial Flight where, after looking for so long like it would never fly again, it remains part to this day.
But for that team, this special Spitfire remains inexorably linked to Lancashire. And for John, it remains an enormous source of pride whenever it flies.
“It is a lovely aircraft,” he says. “It was brought back to being one of the best standard of Spitfires that has ever been refurbished. In my mind there has never been an aircraft like the Spitfire.
“The modern systems in aircraft like the Typhoon mean that these days they can do things that were never thought possible. But when you talk to the pilots who have flown Spitfire they will say they don’t get into a Spitfire to fly it, they put it on like a flying suit. With a Spitfire, the sensitivity means the slightest touch on the controls will move it – and it will do everything you want with grace and precision.
“It was just unbelievable; there has never been a military aircraft that is as well known. If you go anywhere in the world and talk about Spitfire people will know about it, and I am proud of the work we did.”