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Here, the Spitfire leads; World War II statistics say otherwise. (John Dibbs)

Best of the Battle of Britain

In this corner, the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire; across the ring, the Hawker Hurricane. Which is the more valuable restoration?

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In combat, Hurricanes were also sturdier than Spitfires. A bullet or even a cannon shell could pass harmlessly through a Hurricane's canvas skin. If ordnance struck a structural member, the average Royal Air Force ground crew had the tools and expertise to fix the damage on the spot. For more serious wounds, the Air Ministry set up a civilian repair organization to sort through damaged Hurricanes, repairing what could be fixed and junking what couldn't. In 1940 alone, the triage operation returned 973 Hurricanes to combat squadrons.

Today, according to Ditheridge, the equation is reversed. With its elaborate tube frame and wooden members, a Hurricane is much more work than a Spitfire. "We could restore two Spitfires to one Hurricane," says Ditheridge. Camm also designed the Hurricane for production by machinists who knew the patented Hawker techniques and pattern-makers who could turn his complex drawings into easy-to-use templates. "He didn't make it easy to re-create it without a vast factory and an experienced workforce," sighs Ditheridge. "There are times when I'd like to get him in a dark room alone."

To rebuild a Hurricane requires an assortment of crafts: steel tubing bending, high-style cabinetry, sheet metal origami, sewing, and archaic pneumatic plumbing. The wheel brakes were actuated by a shot of compressed air, inside the hub, inflating a rubber bellows, which "are getting as scarce as hen's teeth," says Ditheridge. "I don't even want to think about looking for those right now."

Yet the biggest problem facing Ditheridge and the community of would-be Hurricane owners is not lost skills or hard-to-find parts. It's finding whole airplanes. Ditheridge does his best by watching for stalled private projects and tracking down rumors.

The Canadian north woods is said to be littered with Canadian-built, Royal Canadian Air Force-crashed Hurricanes. Supposedly, Hurricane gate guardians abound in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and ditched fighters are said to lie at the bottom of Arctic lakes. Russian deals tend to be a bit "dodgy" these days, says Ditheridge, but there are certainly many picked-over Hurricanes in that country. "You gave the Russians 3,000 P-39s," he explains. "We gave them 3,000 Hurricanes." Ditheridge rejects no source as too outlandish. He tells me that one of his current projects will be powered by a Merlin engine discovered driving a rock-crushing machine in Colorado.

Walking around the Hawker Restorations shop, I can easily discern the structural differences between the Hurricane and the Spitfire. The aluminum skin of the Spitfire serves as an exoskeleton, like an insect's shell. A Hurricane, on the other hand, has an internal skeleton, like a bird's. A Hurricane's skeleton is a tapering box of steel tubes, braced by wires and joined with sockets, flanges, and pins. Over that go the wooden ribs, spars, longerons, and plywood sheets that are this bird's flesh. Over that go the feathers: Irish linen doped with nitrocellulose. The sight of so much woodwork on a World War II fighter is startling. In the early stages of construction, the fuselage looks like a boat hull. As it fills up, the fuselage resembles a flying grand piano, with all the wires, tubes, and castings fitted inside a masterpiece of cabinetry.

"When it's finished but not yet fabric'ed, people say that the Hurricane is the most beautiful aircraft they've ever seen," says Ditheridge.

I can't say I disagree.

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