ONCE A RACER
WORDS: Jack McBride
PHOTOS: George Romain & Paul Biddles
It’s neither light nor dark. It is not navy, royal or cobalt, and it doesn’t have subtle tones of green or purple to it, ruling out turquoise and midnight. You could almost place it to a similar colour the sky turns when the sun meets the treetops, with the light fading the sky blue into a darker shade of itself. The deep navy blue of the RAF roundel stands out against it, as do the branded blue coveralls of the Historic Flying Ltd engineers, standing around different parts the airframe. In fact, this colour is most likened to azure, and is given its own very unique and very specific name, photo-reconnaissance blue (Colour Hex #72A0C1).
Inside ARCo’s restoration hanger back in late 2017, a Supermarine Spitfire PR.XI with the serial PL983, started to take shape in a photo-reconnaissance blue livery. Occasionally shortened to ‘PR blue’, the colour was first utilized by the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. With a similar tone to the ‘Air Force blue’ that is sported in the field of the RAF ensign, its use on aircraft was intended as a low visibility camouflage for reconnaissance aircraft flying at high altitudes. As a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire, PL983 was assigned to IV Squadron RAF on 13th January 1945, operating out of the Gilze-Rijen airfield in the south of Holland, before being later reassigned to 2 Squadron RAF, in post-war Germany. The aircraft’s extensive history had only just started.
With jet aircraft replacing Spitfires operationally, the aircraft’s service with the RAF came to an end. The Spitfire was sent to 33 Maintenance Unit at RAF Lyneham where it was stripped of all military equipment before moving to Vickers to be prepared for civilian use. The Spitfire’s post war history continued as a personal transport aircraft for Livingston ‘Tony’ Satterthwaite, American Air Attaché. The Spitfire was registered to the American Embassy in 1948 by the Civil Aeronautics Administration with the registration number changing from PL983 to N74138. Helping to ferry the aircraft around the UK between its occasional use by Tony Satterthwaite was Lettice Curtis, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who referred to the aircraft as 'The American Spitfire'. Whilst transporting Tony to Thruxton, a small club airfield close to Boscombe Downs, Lettice learnt of an Air Day being held by the Royal Aero Club, where a handicap race was open to all types of aircraft. Tony proposed that he would enter the race in a Harvard training aircraft if Lettice would race in the Spitfire.
After the aircraft was taken to Boscombe Downs to have the engine serviced by Rolls Royce volunteers and have racing numbers added, it was ready to race. The handicap meant Lettice had to wait half an hour for her take off slot, meaning that the first aircraft would already be on the return leg of the race route from Thruxton to Totland Bay in the Isle of Wight before she’d be in the air. When eventually flagged away, Lettice immediately climbed to 2,000 feet with the aim to be above her competitors. She made the checkpoint at Totland Bay, smoothly turning to head back to Thruxton. In the closing stages of the race, Lettice dropped the nose of the Spitfire, swapping altitude for speed, sending her shooting past fellow race competitor and Chief Pilot of the Civil Section, Bruin Purvis, within seconds of the finishing line.
In the 1950’s, the Spitfire was passed onto the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, where it spent several decades resting on static display. The decision was made by Shuttleworth volunteers to restore the aircraft to an airworthy condition, but in 1983 the collection sold the aircraft at auction to French wartime pilot, Roland Frassinet. Formally N74138, the Spitfire was registered in June 1983 as G-PRXI and underwent her first major restoration. As the first Spitfire to be restored by Trent Aero Engineering, the former racing star took to the skies again in her wartime scheme in July of the following year from the East Midlands Airport. The aircraft was not back in full photo reconnaissance livery for long. After being sold to collector Doug Arnold, the Spitfire was painted in the Dark Earth and Dark Green RAF camouflage of the Battle of Britain era to be featured in the 1988 Television Series Piece of Cake.
The Spitfire performed very few displays in the following years and was eventually dismantled and put into storage where it remained in full camouflage, hidden away for over five years. The ownership of the aircraft briefly transferred following the death of Doug Arnold to Wizzard Investments, who had the aircraft re-assembled in 1999 at North Weald Airfield, where the Spitfire was then sold on. New owner Justin Fleming designated operating the Spitfire to Martin Sargent; the aircraft was overhauled but still remained in her filming colours. By June 2001, the aircraft had over 220 hour flying hours and was taken to Rouen, France for an air-display. During the display, the Spitfire suffered magneto failure, forcing Martin to break from a display formation and return to the airfield. Tragically, the airfield area wasn’t clear for landing and the aircraft crashed, killing Martin and marking the end of 57 years of life for the Spitfire.
The Aircraft Restoration Company acquired the severely damaged airframe in 2003, and the Spitfire’s remains were transported to Duxford where the lengthy restoration project began. The first step of the project had the fuselage reconstructed at Airframe Assemblies on the Isle of Wight, whilst ARCo continued to focus on client work before their own projects. With the Blenheim amongst other aircraft taking up any spare time available, the Spitfire’s restoration was on the back burner for a number of years. Whilst Historic Flying Limited completed work on the wings, the finished fuselage was finally returned to Duxford in the Spitfire’s original photo reconnaissance blue colours. Next on the list for the HFL restoration team was the overhaul of the Spitfire’s Rolls Royce Merlin 70 engine.
Over a decade after arriving at Duxford, the restoration slowly started to take shape. The work on the Blenheim had finished and two years later ARCo’s new Stephenson Hanger had opened. Tucked to the side at one of the hangar’s first events in September 2016 appeared the fuselage of the blue Spitfire, complete with an exposed Merlin 70 engine, RAF roundel, and her original registration serial of PL983. The absence of her two elliptical wings made it clear that there was a lot of work left to be done before the Spitfire would be in the air again. Abiding the true ARCo ethos, the restoration would need to be completed as accurately as possible to match the original aircraft that rolled out of the factory in 1944, adding more challenges to the unique restoration. This meant the fighter type windscreen that had been previously fitted would need to be replaced by the wrap-round clear view windscreen that was correct for the original photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Following the pioneering installation of a mock camera fitted to the restoration of a Griffon engine powered, photo-reconnaissance Supermarine Spitfire MK.XIX (PS853), previously completed by Historic Flying Ltd in 2012, HFL decided to incorporate a mock oblique camera to the port side camera hatch of PL983.
By the end of 2017, the Spitfire’s airframe was starting to come together. The wings had been fitted and the aircraft was already resting on her front undercarriage, awaiting her prop. As the restoration progressed step by step, more and more of the blue livery could be seen. Under the white light of the restoration hangar, the hue changed with your perspective. The older of ARCo’s facilities have little to no natural light; the artificial light illuminated the top of the Spitfire making the PR blue’s paler-self appear to glow, while underneath the wings radiated a darker space blue. In February 2018, PL983 gained her four-blade prop, each in a matte black finish with yellow detail, marking the approach of the Spitfires first engine tests.
On 1st May 2018, the Spitfire was wheeled back into the hangar following her first engine runs, bringing with it the smell of a hot Rolls Royce Merlin engine and marking a huge milestone moment of the rebuild and the Historic Flying Ltd team. With the end in sight, it was full steam ahead and all the final touches were completed. Three weeks later, the restored Spitfire was wheeled out of the hangar and sat patiently waiting on the grass at Duxford. With John Romain at the controls, a cloud of smoke was sent firing out of the Spitfire’s exhaust stacks, the propeller thrust into motion and the aircraft taxied out onto the grass runway. Final checks were made, and the sound of a Merlin engine echoed across the airfield. PL983 smoothly took flight once more.
74 years and 6 months after joining IV Squadron RAF in Holland, the Supermarine Spitfire PR.XI PL983 was back in her original colour scheme and markings over the Cambridgeshire countryside. After a series of testing manoeuvres and celebratory passes over the HFL engineers and ARCo's hangars, the Spitfire completed her first flight test. PL983, now given the nickname ‘L’, introduced herself as the latest airworthy Spitfire to leave the Aircraft Restoration Company hangars. 70 years had passed since ‘L’ and Lettice Curtis had participated in the Royal Aero Club Air Day at Thruxton, but even after several overhauls and several full rebuilds, the Spitfire’s personality was still unmistakable. As John Romain shut down the engine, “Wow! She is so fast!” were the first words to leave his lips. It must be true what they say, ‘Once a racer, always a racer’.