2011 UK Airshows

APR 19 2011
Airshows >> UK: Spitfire PL965 - Diary of a Warbird Restoration

Supermarine Spitfire PL965 is something of a unique survivor. Of the 40 plus currently flying Spitfires in the world today, she is the sole representative of the PR.XI, the fastest of all Merlin powered Spitfires. The PR.XI was developed for the specialist aerial photographic recconaissance role and featured the high altitude rated Merlin 70 engine and considerably enlarged fuel capacity as well as the ability to carry a wide range of high resolution cameras. Today, PL965 is based at the historic North Weald airfield, Essex in the United Kingdom and is regularly flown throughout the year by owner operators Hangar 11 Collection.

Originally constructed in the Reading area and assembled at Aldermaston in September 1944, PL965 was accepted in to RAF service at Cosford and eventually issued to 16 Squadron, then based in Melsbroek in Belgium as part of 34 Wing of the 2nd Tactical Air Force. Arriving in early 1945, her first mission took place on 21st January and she stayed with 16 Squadron for the duration of the war carrying out a total of 40 operational sorties up until VE Day on 8th May 1945.

After hostilities ended PL965 returned to the UK for a time but was eventually passed on to the Dutch Air Force. By July 1947 she was at Deelen but was used only for ground instructional duties, her short service flying career already over. Although eventually being consigned, literally, to the scrap-heap, she was ear-marked for preservation in 1960 and was moved by road to the new Dutch Resistance Museum being established at Overloon. There she remained until 1987 when a deal was struck which saw a static Spitfire Mk. XIV arrive at Overloon as a replacement for PL965. The rare PR.XI was in turn dismantled and transported to Rochester Airport in Kent, UK and placed in the hands of The Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS).

Then began a lengthy restoration process that would culminate in a return to flight in December 1992. By 1993 the rejuvenated PL965, in a freshly applied USAAF colour scheme, was based at the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford, near Cambridge, under the care of Ray Hanna’s Old Flying Machine Company. Taking part in many airshows and also carrying out film and television work, PL965 became one of the more regularly seen Spitfires in the 1990s.

A change of ownership in July 1997 saw her move north to Yorkshire and a period of residency with the Real Aeroplane Company at Breighton. Here she was flown and regularly displayed by Tony ‘Taff’ Smith and caught the attention of the public with her new pink colour scheme – an authentic PR colour which was used by 16 Squadron on its FR.IX Spitfires. By the summer of 2004 negotiations to sell the Spitfire to Hangar 11 Collection had commenced with terms being agreed in early September immediately followed by a ferry flight to Hangar 11’s operating base at North Weald in Essex.

Hangar 11 is the brainchild of London based businessman Peter Teichman and started with his acquisition of a Beech Staggerwing in the late 1990s. Peter became adept at displaying the elegant biplane and it whetted his appetite for something more powerful. P-51D Mustang ‘Jumpin-Jaques’ arrived from France in 2003 and soon became a very popular and often seen performer on the UK airshow scene. However, Peter had a strong desire to own and fly a Spitfire and had been looking around for some time before PL965 caught his eye. Having previously acquired a Spitfire project, a Mk.IX, PT879, Peter was mindful of the extended time span needed to carry out a ground up re-build of a Spitfire and decided instead to find a suitable example already flying. PL965 was the ideal choice, fully airworthy and a high-back Merlin powered version, her extensive operational history was something of a bonus!

Shortly after her arrival at Hangar 11 Peter was contacted by previous owner Chris Horsley, who informed him that he still owned the original Merlin 70 engine for PL965 that had been removed on arrival in the UK from Holland and that it was currently in store in the USA pending a re-build that never came to fruition. Since 1992, PL965 had been flying with a Packard built Merlin 266, a version of the famous engine more likely to be found in a Spitfire XVI. However Peter was enthused by the idea of purchasing the original engine, even if it was for static display purposes, so an agreement was made and within a few months it arrived at North Weald and was carefully un-packed.

Both Peter and his engine overhaul specialist Maurice Hammond were very pleasantly surprised at the good visual condition of the engine and the prospect of its restoration to airworthy status and perhaps even potential reinstatement in PL965 started to become a serious possibility. After some stripping down at Maurice’s Eye-Tech Engineering works in Suffolk, the favourable condition of the engine was confirmed and the re-build commenced. Of course it was a challenging task as no Merlin 70s were at that time in use, however Maurice always rises to a challenge and less than two years later the gleaming engine was delivered back to Hangar 11 looking as good, perhaps even better than the day it left Rolls Royce’s Derby works, 65 years earlier!

There were a significant number of basic installation and systems changes that had to be dealt with to allow the old engine to sit once more in the engine bearers of PL965. Not least of all, the header tank for the inter-cooler system, which was integral to the Merlin 266, was a separate, cylindrical unit attached to the firewall on the PR.XI. The more the project was considered the more differences were discovered and these were added to the list of improvements that were intended to be made, including the removal of flexible hydraulic pipes which had been installed in the 1990s restoration and replacement with the correct rigid ‘Tungum’ pipes.

This author’s contribution to the project was, in conjunction with the Hangar 11 team, to oversee the stripping of the numerous layers of paint on PL965 and to return her to bare metal in anticipation of a new, highly authentic, paint scheme that would present her, for the first time, looking exactly as she was in service with 16 Squadron in Spring of 1945.

In September 2009 PL965 was pushed in to position at the back of Hangar 11 and the work to remove the old Packard Merlin commenced. The adjacent benches and storage shelves soon filled with a myriad of pipes, fittings and control rods together with the larger items associated with the engine such as the half circular coolant header tank and the underslung oil tank and intake filter housing. Each and every item was to be paint stripped, inspected (repaired or overhauled as required) and re-finished in authentic colouration for re-installation.

The largest items removed were the engine bearers which were carefully cleaned, inspected and re-painted in the correct grey-green shade typically used for this assembly, along with the firewall. The main fuel tanks immediately aft of the firewall were also removed for inspection, testing and re-finishing and crucially to gain access to the lower fuselage area where the hydraulic pipes were to be changed.

This in itself proved to be a time consuming and demanding task, however it was superbly carried out by Chris Norris, working in very cramped conditions in the lower fuselage. By early 2010 it was becoming apparent that the associated works were more extensive than had been anticipated and concern grew that the Spitfire might not be ready for the upcoming Battle of Britain anniversary airshow season. However, the project was moving forward and gradually the Spitfire started to show obvious signs of progress, particularly with regard the paint stripping which, by February 2010 was largely complete. Once the engine bearers were re-installed, using newly manufactured high-tensile bolts, the Merlin 70, which had been waiting patiently in its cocoon, could be gently lowered in to place. The sight of the engine, finally installed, was a huge boost to the team and a significant moment for PL965 as it was the first time that engine, in operating condition, had been fitted in the airframe since the late 1940s!

But there was a huge amount of work ahead of the team to re-install the many engine accessories, filters and pipe-work. Again, there were numerous significant differences and, in some instances, more modern accessories had been installed in the 1990s requiring frantic searches for authentic items. The Packard engine had used an alternator to generate electricity to charge the battery, but the Merlin 70 required the more traditional generator and this too had to be located and overhauled. This also entailed the sourcing of the correct type of voltage regulator and also the distinctive radio suppressor, the square black box which can be clearly seen fitted on the port side of the engine mounting frame.

The work was painstaking but visual progress was heartening, particularly when the larger items such as hydraulic and oil tanks, freshly re-finished with authentic colours and stencilling were permanently re-fitted in place.

PL965’s place in the Battle of Britain commemorations that summer were admirably filled by the Collection's fabulous Hawker Hurricane IIB as it became obvious the Spitfire was not likely to fly again until autumn of 2010. By October, the Merlin 70 installation was complete and ready for ground testing. When the great day finally came to start the engine in the airframe for the fist time, to everyone's relief she started first time, a true testament to the superb engineering abilities of Eye-Tech engineering and Hangar 11 Collection.

November 26th saw the first test flight of PL965 following this extended ‘mini restoration’, Peter Teichman, with great pleasure, flew her and, after landing, reported he was delighted with the engine and the aircraft as a whole. A further flight was undertaken that afternoon; however the poor weather of December 2010 put paid to more flying that year. Of course, there was still the matter of the re-paint to deal with, the initial flights having been undertaken in bare metal with her civil registration, G-MKXI temporarily applied in black vinyl letters on the fuselage and under the wings.

It was in fact not until February 2011 that PL965 was finally ferried up to the superb new spray facility at the former RAF Finningly base (these days known as Robin Hood Airport), near Doncaster in Yorkshire, where she was prepped and masked by the Hangar 11 crew and sprayed in authentic matt finish PRU Blue by Peter Madeley and his team at Flying Colours. It had been decided at the outset of the project that once the new engine was fitted PL965 would once again wear authentic 2nd Tactical Air Force colours and be presented exactly as she was when carrying out her operational service in 1945. Fortunately there were several surviving pictures of her, confirming her appearance and also published photos of other 16 Squadron Spitfires in service in the Spring of 1945.

The painting work at Doncaster actually took just a few days to complete and was something of a transformation, the team having by then got used to PL965 in her bare metal. Following her return flight to North Weald the roundels were masked out and sprayed on by the author and Hangar 11 crew over a busy extended weekend, followed by the detailed stencils over the ensuing days. The flight testing programme continued throughout March 2011 and, as I write this, we look forward to presenting PL965 on the UK/European airshow circuit this coming summer as the world’s sole flying example of the magnificent Spitfire PR.XI.

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