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?

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

From This Story

It was a Mark Vc, the distillation of everything the Royal Air Force had learned in the desperate days of the Battle of Britain. "This is the gold standard," Martin Henocq tells me.

"This is the one everyone wants."

Henocq is the shop foreman at Historic Flying Limited in Duxford, England, a private restoration outfit that specializes in raising highly desirable Supermarine Spitfires from the dead. As Henocq sketched out the beauties of this example, I suddenly wanted to sit in the cockpit—badly.

The object of my lust was a Spitfire with the airframe number JG891. It had returned to England in 1999, 56 years after it was shipped to the Royal Air Force's fleet in North Africa. En route, the crated Spitfire was diverted to an assignment with the Royal Australian Air Force. In 1944, JG891 attempted a landing on a wet jungle airstrip in the Solomon Islands, ran off the far end, and flipped. Thirty years later, a New Zealand flying enthusiast hauled the wrecked fighter to his home for a back yard restoration. He never quite finished. Twenty-five years after that, Historic Flying imported the fuselage, most of the wings, and a wild miscellany of leftover parts. The restoration shop had the resources, skills, and special wing jigs required to make JG891 whole again.

It's the wings that separate the amateurs from the professionals, says Henocq. "Everyone does the fuselage. They like having it there in the shop so they can sit in the cockpit and think they're nearly there, nearly done with the project, and nearly ready to fly. They'll say it's almost done but it's never done."

Historic Flying got its start in the late 1980s, when the Royal Air Force was persuaded to replace many of its deteriorating "gate guardians"—surplus Spitfires stuck on poles at air bases—with fiberglass replicas. The gate guardians were trucked away for reconstruction as museum pieces or flying restorations.

The golden era of the gate guardians is over, though. "We're running out of good airplanes to do," says Henocq. These days, available Spitfires are often abandoned private restorations, ex-gate guardians from air forces in faraway lands, and crashed aircraft back for a second or third rebuild. "Finding customers doesn't seem to be the problem," says Henocq. "It's the supply."

JG891 stayed in storage for five years before Historic Flying spent 18 months transforming it from a nightmare to a flying machine, salvaging some parts and replacing others. Retro Track & Air in the United Kingdom supplied an overhauled Rolls-Royce Merlin 35 engine. Other vintage parts used include a gunsight, IFF (identification friend or foe) transmitter, and Dowty propeller.

In the summer of 2006, JG891 was getting its last "bits and bobs" at Historic Flying, along with a new radio and a GPS navigation system. Henocq and I were standing alongside the fuselage so he could show me the fine points of the cockpit when I finally lost control. The side hatch was folded down. The bubble-shaped Plexiglas canopy was pushed all the way back. What did I have to lose? "Could I…? I wonder if…? Maybe, um…?"

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