4 Jul 2015

Rare WW2 Spitfire restored to flight

11:37 pm on 4 July 2015

A rare example of one of the world's most iconic aircraft, a Mark 1 Spitfire that was painstakingly restored after being shot down during World War Two is to be sold at Christie's in London, the BBC reports.

While 22,500 Spitfires were originally built, just 56 are still air-worthy, and most of these are later versions of the aircraft. There are only four Mark 1s still flying.

A Spitfire Mk.1A outside the Churchill War Rooms in London before its auction.

A Spitfire Mk.1A outside the Churchill War Rooms in London before its auction. Photo: AFP

Christie's Nic McElhatton says interest in the aircraft has been incredible: "The plane we're selling is very special."

The aircraft is expected to fetch up to £2.5 million but could easily go for more.

"We've had a number of clients who've expressed serious interest. Anything is possible," says Mr McElhatton.

The sale on 9 July has thrown the spotlight on Britain's burgeoning vintage aviation restoration scene. Air displays are increasingly popular - the demand to see examples of rare and often unique aircraft seems never to have been higher.

There are now around 80 air shows a year in the UK from small locally-run events to big displays such as the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford.

In May 1940, Spitfire P9374 was being flown by Flying Officer Peter Cazenove when he was shot-down. Successfully crash-landing on Calais beach he radioed: "Tell mother I'll be home for tea."

Sadly getting back home for tea took longer than he hoped. He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. His Spitfire sank into the sands and was forgotten about.

Then in 1980, winds and tides uncovered it again. Aviation historian Andy Saunders remembers getting an unexpected call from the manager of Calais hover port.

"He telephoned me out of the blue and I thought it was complete rubbish. But then he sent me the photos to prove it - it was pretty much intact when it emerged from the sand."

After languishing in storage, it was eventually bought by US billionaire and philanthropist Thomas Kaplan.

The spitfire will be auctioned in London on 9 July 2015 at Christies.

The spitfire will be auctioned in London on 9 July 2015 at Christies. Photo: AFP

"I have always been a student of military history, it was a great passion from an early age - and in particular aviation history and the Battle of Britain," he says.

When he found the wrecks of two Mark 1 Spitfires, he decided to restore them both to flight - and to exactly as they had been when they crashed - with no compromises.

One was Peter Cazenove's Spitfire that is now being auctioned for the RAF Benevolent Fund and the big cat charity, Panthera.

The other was flown by Geoffrey Stephenson, the commanding officer of 19 Squadron - based at Duxford - the first unit to be equipped with Spitfires.

Mr Kaplan is giving this second plane to the aviation branch of the Imperial War Museum, which is now based at the same airfield.

"For me it is a thank you to the UK - this thin red line separating us from barbarism - at a time when the United States was not in the war."

Both of Robert Kaplan's Spitfires ended up at one of Europe's biggest aviation restoration specialists, The Aircraft Restoration Company (ARC) at Duxford, in Cambridge.

The hardest challenge was working out exactly what a Mark 1 Spitfire looked like, as records weren't often kept, says ARC engineer Martin Overall.

"They changed so rapidly and you'd find aircraft three or four months older that were completely different, because they'd been modified just to keep pace with German development.

During the war Spitfires were mass-produced but in restoration projects like this they are now hand-built

"We investigated several crash sites and gained a snapshot of what the aircraft would have been like."

It took 12 engineers three years to restore it at a cost of several millions, though exactly how much nobody will say - but eventually Spitfire P9374 flew again.

"It was just a breath-taking moment," says Andy Saunders.

"Having seen the wreck when it came off the beach, I never dreamed it would be recreated and fly."

A mk1 Spitfire in flight.

A mk1 Spitfire in flight. Photo: Wikicommons

Besides restoring Spitfires, ARC regularly works on up to eight major restoration projects for clients. Manager John Romain says companies like his are helping preserve vital engineering skills.

"There's a lot of old skill-sets in our industry, from sheet metalworkers to the electricians. There's a lot of interest in working with us now, so we have our own apprenticeship scheme which gives us our engineers of the future."

Thomas Kaplan plans to officially hand over Geoffrey Stephenson's Spitfire to the Imperial War Museum on 9 July, and then head down to London to watch Peter Cazenove's aircraft being auctioned off.

"To me it is all about 'The Few' who stood up and said - this is the line beyond which we won't be pushed."

Rightly or wrongly the Spitfire, thank perhaps to those elliptical wings, easily outshines many other aircraft in people's affections.

Says Christie's Nic McElhatton: "You look at the silhouette of a Spitfire and you recognize it instantly.

"It's timeless, it is the most perfect piece of engineering - a work of art."