I’ve flown the Spitfire. It’s magic. The first time, it nearly reduced me to tears. And I am not alone as it is the pinnacle of most people’s flying experience.
And it is an experience which stays with you for ever because the Spitfire is everything that is special, that is familiar; that is right; that is British. But why is the Spitfire so special and such a British icon?
The Battle of Britain might have something to do with it. The Hurricane might have shot down more enemy aircraft but in the public imagination it is the Spitfire that counts. More elegant and more streamlined, it also stayed in service longer than the Hurricane and didn’t stop operational flying until the 1950s.
There might have been fighters with longer range and better endurance. But there has never been one with such graceful lines which when married to the Merlin engine create the visual and audial perfection.
Sitting in the Boultbee Spitfire – the survivors all have names which reflect their heritage – watching the fields flash by and have the view interrupted only by the silhouette of the icon Mitchell elliptical wing design it pure magic. People happily pay £6,000 for this privilege and the queue is growing longer each day. And it is not as if the entry qualifications are easy, for most two-seat Spitfire trips the punter has to be a qualified pilot before stepping into the cocpkit.
There is a scarcity value too. The Spitfire Society, which watches these things, says there are 51 flying condition Spitfires left from the 20,000 or so built between 1938 and 1946. There are only half a dozen two-seat conversions which can be used as trainers for a new generation of Spitfire pilots.
Today’s refurbished Spitfires are virtually re-built. There are very few with original parts. It can take several engineers many months of painstaking attention to detail to rebuild a Spitfire. The market for wartime aeroplanes in flying conditions is still buoyant but the buyers seem to be fewer and more demanding. They want a Spitfire with a pedigree.
Even the gate-guardians of former wartime RAF Stations have been taken off their plinths and re-engineered. It is not rocket science – the propeller, engine and undercarriage need careful attention but the complex curves of the wings and fuselage might need skilled workers – some of which are in short supply. There has never been a greater need for a Spitfire Technical Academy.
The vintage warbird business is big business. A Spitfire with many original parts can fetch up more than £3 million but so much depends on provenance. In simple language, has the Spitfire actually served with a squadron, taken part in operations or even shot down enemy aircraft?
There are few which have and there are fewer which have many of the original parts with which they were first manufactured. Three years ago, the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford – where the Spitfire first entered Royal Air Force service in 1938 – completed work on the Casenove Spitfire.
This Spitfire Mk I was flown by Fly Lt Peter Casenove of the stockbroking family. On his first mission, he was shot down over the Dunkirk beaches on 23 May 1940 and the aircraft lay in sands for 60 years until discovered by French aviation enthusiasts. This Spitfire has real provenance.
It has been restored with as much as 40% of the original parts reconditioned and made like new. The cost of the rebuild has been estimated at £5 million – compared to the £9,500 this machine would have cost the taxpayer in 1940.
Yet the early Spitfires were built with a very limited service life in mind. Designers at Supermarine talked of 50 hours or perhaps 200 hours in later models. Not because the Spitfire is flimsy or the technology too demanding but because that was the way in which the Air Ministry planned in the late 1930s: a short, swift fight with plenty of replacements.
Yet, 75 years after entering service at RAF Duxford, there are still enough around to thrill crowds. The Spitfire remains the most evocative, iconic fighter of all time. It makes you proud to be British.