This Spitfire had it all.
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…?"
It was no problem. From a roll-up step platform, Henocq coached me on how to climb into a Spitfire. "You put your left foot there on the edge," he said. "Then with your right foot, stand on the seat. Now hold here." He guided my hands to a grip as I swung my other foot on board and lowered myself into the seat. "Do you see those shiny stripes down there?" he called out. "You want to put your feet up above them on the pedals." And there I was, sitting ear-deep in a Spitfire cockpit.
Henocq called out to his shop guys: "All clear on control surfaces? All clear on electrics?" Then he showed me how to swing the rudder, pull back on the stick, and break right and left. "If you reach down there on your right, you can throw the power switch," he said. Red lights blossomed around the cockpit. "And here's your gun button." Henocq adjusted the anti-glare gunsight screen and flipped a switch to project crosshairs onto the windscreen.
And here the illusion stopped: The crosshairs didn't light up.
Henocq studied the gunsight. Apparently a new bulb was still to be installed. It was just as well or I might have swooned.
Instead, I squinted down the Spitfire's long Merlin-filled nose, through the three-blade prop, to scan the clouds swirling over Duxford. Tally-ho! Bandits at six
o'clock! My left hand went for the gun button, but I swear I didn't say "Rat-a-tat-tat." (At least not out loud.)
Warbird intoxication is a widespread ailment, even if most of the afflicted get no closer than photographs or static aircraft displays and flybys at airshows. For those who can afford a serious case, there are few more dangerous afflictions than Spitfire fever. It burns brightly in hearts across the old Commonwealth, including India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but also in places like the Netherlands and Israel, where after the war Spitfires served as air force founding fighters. Americans are susceptible too: U.S. Army Air Forces squadrons flew Spitfires out of England and in the Mediterranean theater until well into 1944. Not surprisingly, though, Spitfire fever is strongest in the United Kingdom.
For Britons of a certain age, the very name recalls a historic pageant: Dapper young pilots scramble from lawn chairs, London burns, and Luftwaffe aircraft break apart in gun camera films, all against a soundtrack of sirens, whistling bombs, and Winston Churchill growling his way through the Few, the Many, the Finest Hour, etc. Slicing down the middle is the Spitfire, the airplane that won the Battle of Britain.
Well, not exactly. Such a statement leaves out the Hawker Hurricane, the other frontline fighter the Royal Air Force fielded in the battle. In July 1940, when the fight began, the RAF Fighter Command had 396 operational Hurricanes and 228 Spitfires. That ratio, three Hurricanes to two Spitfires, held through the summer. Fighter Command tended to steer Spitfires against the Luftwaffe's high-altitude fighters, freeing the Hurricanes to attack the slower, lower-flying German bombers. By the battle's nominal close, at the end of October, Hurricanes had claimed 656 enemy aircraft, versus 529 for Spitfires.
Yet Spitfires got top billing. In the "after myth" of war, Hurricane supporters have long complained that their fighter was denied full credit. They even name the villain, British actor Leslie Howard, and the 1942 film he directed and starred in, The First of the Few. A half-century after its first run, John W. Fozard, a retired Hawker designer and aviation historian, wrote a book titled Sydney Camm and the Hurricane, in which he denounced First of the Few as the "infamous wartime movie…that fixed forever in the public mind the image of the Spitfire as the winner of the Battle of Britain thus performing a permanent assassination job on the Hurricane."
You can still catch The First of the Few, which has been released on video. It's a creaky, old-fashioned biopic about the Spitfire's designer, R.J. Mitchell, who died of cancer at age 42. (In the film, though, Mitchell succumbs to what the physician character refers to as "overdoing it, old boy.") Mitchell lived to see his prototype fly, but not the operational Spitfire squadrons that were filmed for the movie's opening montage. There is not a single Hurricane in sight.
Even today, the Battle of Britain is thickly barnacled with myths and celluloid memories, and historians approach the subject warily. Richard Overy, a professor of modern history at King's College, London, is one of the brave. Overy has chipped away at some of the crustiest legends: that the British public was 100 percent behind its bulldog prime minister (the government's top-secret surveys showed that the average Londoner's enthusiasm for Churchill was inversely proportional to how heavily he or she was being blitzed every night) and that Adolf Hitler was champing at the bit to invade England in 1940 (Hitler was an opportunist, says Overy, but was more interested in forcing the British into a one-sided "peace" treaty so he could devote all of his resources to conquering Russia).
On one point, Overy remains a True Blue about the battle. "Britain was forced to fight with what she could produce herself in 1940," he writes in his 2004 book The Battle of Britain. "The aircraft available were among the very best fighter aircraft in the world. There is no myth surrounding the performance of the Hawker Hurricane and Vickers Supermarine Spitfire, which between them formed the backbone of Fighter Command."
No matter what they flew, British pilots faced grim odds. Of the 2,917 men who flew for Fighter Command that summer, 544 —almost 20 percent—were dead by the end of October.
Unlike idolized Spitfire designer Mitchell, Hurricane designer Sydney Camm did not inspire the making of any wartime biopic. For one thing, Camm was alive and continuing to be his difficult self. "An odd combination of arrogance and diffidence—each characteristic feeding the other" is how one Air Ministry civil servant described him. Yet despite Camm's daily tongue-lashings, the young men who crowded the design office at Hawker worshipped him, according to Fozard, who was one of Camm's apprentices. "Most of us would have walked on glowing coals if he had asked us so to do in the interests of the job," wrote Fozard in his book. Camm, or Sir Sydney, as he became after the war, lived a long, honored life, continuing as chief designer for Hawker-Siddeley until his death in 1966. Camm led Hawker into the Jet Age with the Hawker Hunter fighter and pushed the company into short-takeoff-and-landing technology with the P.1127 project, which evolved into the Harrier jump jet.
Yet Camm is remembered today for the Hurricane, which in turn is remembered as the Battle of Britain fighter that was not the Spitfire.
In truth, the fighters had much in common, starting with the engine they shared, the experimental Rolls-Royce PV-12 that became famous as the Merlin. Both fighters were the product of the frantic rearmament race set off by Hitler's chilling 1934 debut of the Luftwaffe, with its bristling array of swift, low-drag monoplane designs. In 1934, the Royal Air Force's frontline fighter was the Hawker Fury biplane, with a top speed of 200 mph. It had two machine guns, an open cockpit, no oxygen system, and an ineffective radio. The Air Ministry needed a more advanced fighter—quickly. The leading designers were Mitchell at Vickers Supermarine and Camm at Hawker.
Camm came up through the ranks of the Hawker drafting office in the 1920s, working on a series of Royal Air Force biplane designs. Camm's design for the Fury, which he developed in 1931, marked him as a master of Hawker's tradition of building airframes from struts and wire. When the big hurry-up began in 1934, Camm decided against a radical retooling for the new monoplane interceptor. He figured he would have his hands full dealing with the long, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce engine and his first retractable landing gear.
Before it was bought by Vickers in 1928, Supermarine had been a small niche designer, filling contracts for flying boats. Mitchell also followed the draftsman's route into the aircraft business, rising quickly as an apprentice designer on Supermarine's amphibian projects. In 1925, Mitchell designed the startling Supermarine S.4, a single-seat seaplane racer. To the modern eye, the S.4 looks like a Spitfire on floats. It's not, but if airplanes can be said to have genes, the S.4 is the Spitfire's grandfather. A mid-wing monoplane, the S.4 is driven by a long, narrow, liquid-cooled engine and sits on fully cantilevered floats. There are no bracing wires.
Designing for Supermarine, Mitchell learned how to build in metal. Supermarine's bread-and-butter product in the early 1920s was the two-engine Southampton flying boat. The original, with a hull of double-skin, diagonal mahogany planking, was a fine specimen of traditional boatbuilding but monstrously heavy. Mitchell duplicated the hull but used a light metal alloy that maintained strength, cut weight, and improved performance. Under the skin, his S.4 racer had a conventional strut-and-wire construction, but each succeeding S racer design incorporated more sheet metal. By the time the Air Ministry sounded the alarm in 1934, Mitchell was already working on an all-metal airplane in which the metal skin would serve as the frame: a monocoque design.
By 1934, both teams had started to think about their monoplane designs when Camm and Mitchell received visits from Squadron Leader Ralph Sorley of the Royal Air Force's Operational Requirements Branch. He told them that the Air Ministry had been running tests on a firing range and had determined that it would require 266 hits from .303-caliber ammunition to lethally damage an all-metal bomber. The Air Ministry had further calculated that at a closing speed of 180 mph, a fighter would have two seconds to score. Thus, at 1,000 rounds per minute per machine gun, the new interceptor would need eight .303 Brownings to deliver a total of 266 rounds in a two-second burst. Could the designers squeeze eight guns into their interceptors?
The gun requirement was less of a problem for Camm's prototype Hurricane, which had wings thick enough to house four weapons apiece. But for Mitchell's thinner-wing Spitfire, the eight-gun requirement created a major problem. Beverly Shenstone, a Canadian aerodynamicist, had already convinced Mitchell that the Spitfire should have an elliptical wing, like the one on Germany's high-speed Heinkel He 70 airliner. Then considered the epitome of streamlined design, the He 70 had caused a sensation in British aeronautical circles. Such a planform would permit a speed-friendly, thin thickness-to-chord ratio (the ratio of wing depth to the distance from the leading to trailing edge) while still providing space sufficient to house the guns and retractable landing gear. But now, even this ellipse had to be broadened and skewed slightly forward to ensure that it could retain its thin section yet accommodate the additional weapons. Gone was a Heinkel-like symmetrical ellipse; in its place was the Spitfire's trademark pointy-tip shape.
The Hurricane flew for the first time on November 6, 1935. The first Spitfire flew four months later, on March 5, 1936. In June—not a moment too soon—the Air Ministry ordered 600 Hurricanes and 310 Spitfires. The first production Hurricanes began reaching squadrons in January 1938. The Royal Air Force didn't get its first service Spitfires until August 1938. The Second World War would begin 13 months later.
Time had already run out for Mitchell, who died in June 1937. Mitchell's successor, Joseph Smith, had the daunting job of transforming a prototype into an operational military aircraft. No one in Britain had ever mass-produced a fighter as advanced as the Spitfire. It took Smith and Vickers Supermarine a while to figure the process out, which is part of the reason that in the Battle of Britain, more Hurricanes flew than Spitfires. In 1940 there were just enough of each to hold off the Luftwaffe. To understand how close Britain (and the rest of the free world) came to defeat that summer, I had to see a Hurricane naked.
I went looking for one in the idyllic village of Milden, deep in the Suffolk countryside of eastern England. Milden is the home of Hawker Restorations Limited, which is the domain of Tony Ditheridge. Hidden behind a towering hedge on a narrow lane, Hawker Restorations comprises a compound of garages, workshops, and fields surrounding Ditheridge's 15th century moated farmhouse. "It's a listed building," Ditheridge says, meaning that before he can so much as dredge the moat, a historic preservationist has to come out for an inspection.
I had come in secret hopes of cadging a seat in a Hurricane cockpit, but Ditheridge broke it to me immediately: I was a week too late. He'd just dispatched an ocean-going shipping container housing the fuselage of a late-model Hurricane XIIB and a 40-foot cargo rack holding the airplane's wings. They were bound for the port of Seattle and Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen's Flying Heritage Collection in Arlington, Washington (see "Crown Jewels," Oct./Nov. 2004). Ditheridge had photographs of the Hurricane and of the motor crane that he'd rented to lift it over his front hedge and onto a flatbed lorry.
A seat in a Hurricane is rarer today than one in any old Spitfire: Over time, 22,129 Spitfires were built, versus 14,074 Hurricanes. Hawker Restorations welcomes every opportunity to preserve the scarce fighters. With the Seattle-bound Hurricane out the door, Ditheridge's shop crew had already filled the empty bay with a new restoration project.
As Ditheridge and I walked down to the shop, he told me how he made his fortune in the 1980s selling medical imaging systems around the world. In the 1990s he moved into aircraft reconstruction, combining his passion for flying with his knack for managing technologies, only this time it was the technologies of 1940s metal warplanes like Spitfires, Corsairs, and Mustangs. Along the way, Ditheridge was drawn into pre-World War I projects, restoring and replicating flying machines made of wood, wire, and canvas. From there, a jump to Hurricane technology was not too far.
To give me an idea of what some of his rougher projects look like when they arrive, we stop outside the shop so Ditheridge can show me his aluminum scrap heap. "Just imagine 2,000 pounds of this," he says, pointing to a three-foot-high mound of shredded, corroded sheet metal.
Inside the shop, three bare-bones Hurricanes are waiting. One look around is more enlightening than a thousand pages of Battle of Britain history. Though the modern eye might perceive them as a manufacturing nightmare, the Hurricane's mechanical joints would have seemed very familiar to aircraft builders in 1940, says Ditheridge. It was the Spitfire that gave them conniptions. The Air Ministry calculated that building a Spitfire took 15,200 man-hours but a Hurricane took only 10,300. Camm's old technology saved the day, at least in 1940.
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.