The Spitfire bears one of the most famous names in fighter history. It would be difficult to find any pilot or aviation enthusiast who could not identify a photograph of one. Reginald Mitchell's masterpiece has had thousands books written about it (I was involved on the periphery of one of these tomes), TV series and even feature films - the 1942 propaganda vehicle, 'The First Of The Few', (known as 'Spitfire' in the U.S.) for example.
However, one type of Spitfire remained unarmed throughout the war. One of the little-known, but utterly vital, contributions to the Second World War made by the Spitfire was in the field of photo-reconnaissance. At the start of WW2, the Royal Air Force took over a secret, civilian-operated, unit at Heston Airfield run by Sidney Cotton, which had been using Lockheed 12 aircraft to undertake clandestine photographic sorties over Germany. Quickly, the unit became No.1 Photographic Reconnassance Unit, and other aircraft types were added to the mix, including the Spitfire. By removing all armament and the associated ammunition tanks, sealing the 'D' shaped wing leading edge, to give even more fuel capacity, the Spitfire became an ultra-longe-range aircraft. The design team then added a low-altitude rated engine, and oblique cameras, and the Spitfire was converted into a highly-capable tactical reconnaissance aircraft; alternatively, with a pressurised cockpit, two-stage, high-altitude rated engine, and panoramic long-focal length vertical cameras it was transformed into a magnificent strategic reconnaissance platform. Spitfires based in the U.K. could make sorties covering multiple targets, to places as far away as Prague or Stettin.
Of the many marks of Spitfires produced, the earlier Merlin-engined PR versions were amongst the most beautiful. Here, on this PR.XI, you can see the deeper nose contours compared to the fighter marks, in order to accommodate the larger oil tank which was needed on the longer, deep-penetration missions; this Spitfire is currently powered by a Parkard-built Merlin 266 . This particular example, PL 965, is wearing the black and white ‘invasion stripes’, used after D-Day, and is in the markings of ‘R for Robert’ of No 19 (PR) Sqn, 34 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force, RAF, based out of Melsbroek, Belgium. It is finished in the specially developed 'PRU Blue' (Federal Standard 595B - 35189) which made the aircraft almost invisible at high altititudes - unless it was unlucky enough to make contrails. PL965 made over 40 sorties over enemy objectives during the period 1944 – 45.
After residing in Florida for a while, and then being with the Real Aeroplane Company at Beighton, the aircraft is now being lovingly cared for by ‘Hangar 11′ at North Weald, and flown primarily by Peter Teichman. To say that this organisation does a splendid job with their collection of classic World War Two fighters is putting it mildly.
One piece of exciting news is that the Hangar 11 team plan to re-unite this airframe with the actually Rolls-Royce Merlin 70 engine used to perform its last 20 or so war-time missions; this will make it one of the most authentic flying Spitfires, anywhere!