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SAAF Museum Spitfire fighter project at ‘critical point’

Date: 12 September 2018

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The South African Air Force (SAAF) Museum project to rebuild, into flying condition, one of only two Supermarine Spitfires in South Africa has reached a critical point, requiring significant investment to be able to effectively proceed.

The Spitfire is a Mark IXe, built in May 1945 and delivered to the SAAF in 1947. It was retired from service in April 1954. It was then preserved in a nonflying condition until it was rendered airworthy again in a restoration process that ended in 1995. Sadly, it was written off in a nonfatal accident in 2000. The wrecked aircraft was stored by the SAAF Museum at its main facility, at Air Force Base (AFB) Swartkop, in Centurion, just south of Pretoria. The proposal to restore it again was authorised by the SAAF Museum Council in 2015.

The Spitfire is the most famous and important British fighter aircraft of the Second World War (1939 to 1945) – only the Hawker Hurricane comes close to its fame. Together, the Spitfire and the Hurricane inflicted, in the Battle of Britain (1940), the first strategic defeat on Nazi Germany. It is also regarded as one of the most beautiful aircraft ever produced. In addition to its use by Britain, the Spitfire served in the air arms of almost all the allied countries during the Second World War, including the Soviet Union and the US, as well as South Africa.

As a result of the accident in 2000, every part of the aircraft is damaged. To date, all the main elements of the aircraft – the fuselage, wings and engine – have been stripped and all the parts evaluated. The fuselage, which was badly damaged, is still intact but all the systems and control rods within the fuselage have been removed. The wings were extensively damaged and will require extensive expert restoration, as will the empennage (horizontal tail surfaces). This can be done locally.

Both repairing the fuselage and building new wings and tail planes will require specialised jigs. There is, however, a problem. “The area allocated to us by the SAAF at AFB Swartkop is too small,” observes Spitfire Restoration Project director Ian Grace. “We want to erect a new hangar/workshop where the restoration will take place. Thereafter, the new facility will be used for future restoration projects. We are also agreed that this project should have an educational benefit. We will use it to train young people in the skills necessary to restore and maintain vintage aircraft. This work also provides valuable experience for aviation apprentices and helps develop and empower them.” The new hangar/workshop will cost some R800 000.

Also, the jigs will have to be acquired. “We could buy the jigs from a British company that restores Spitfires,” he reports. “They would send the jigs, disassembled, in a single container. Alternative jigs available around the world are all in one piece and are too big to transport. We would have to assemble the jigs ourselves, using measurements and technical drawings of an intact Spitfire to assemble them correctly.” The restoration team is awaiting the final quote for the jigs. However, it would be a major advance for the project and, indeed, other aviation restoration projects in the country, if any company was able to reverse-engineer a set of jigs, using laser measurements taken from the nonflying Spitfire preserved at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History (formerly the South African National Museum of Military History), in Johannesburg.

“But, first, we need the new hangar/workshop,” stresses Spitfire Restoration Project Steering Committee member and past officer commanding the museum Colonel Tony Smit SAAF (retired). “Without that, there will be no room for the jigs for the fuselage, wings and empennage. We also need some sheet metal tooling, such as bending machines, for the fuselage and wing panels. It would be most appreciated if there are any surplus machines or sheet metal tooling available for donation to the project.”

The alternative would be to ship the Spitfire to the UK to be restored by a specialist company at a cost of £2.8-million (including transport), which would take three years (so badly damaged is the aircraft). So, buying the jigs and doing the work in South Africa will be much less expensive. Other advantages in repairing the damaged parts locally is that it would allow skills transfer from experienced technical experts to young engineers, providing skills development, and ensuring that there will be technical experts to locally maintain the Spitfire in the future. Further, so precious is the aircraft to the SAAF that it will not allow it to leave the country.

The project is receiving active support from South African aerospace companies, especially Aerosud, and local airlines, especially in terms of assigning apprentices to assist in the production of replacement parts, using surplus materials, for various aircraft in the SAAF Museum collection, not just the Spitfire, and assisting in supply chain matters. But the Spitfire project now requires extra funding, as well as extra personnel. “People can come and visit us and see what we are doing,” says Grace. "Alternatively, we can come and brief any companies interested," affirms Smit. “Someone could do an entire apprenticeship on this project– it will take years to finish."

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