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Reginald Mitchell was dying, he knew it, and his specialist in Vienna knew it, too. The original operation for colorectal cancer in London in 1933 had held the disease at bay for a time,  and had caused him to drive himself harder than ever to complete the design for the Supermarine Type 300 fighter. Now, it was the Spring of 1937, and the latest treatment in Austria had proved worthless; he spent the days in his garden, or being driven to Eastleigh Airport, Southampton, where test pilot Captain Joseph 'Mutt' Summers was putting the prototype Spitfire, K5054, through its paces following the first flight on 5th March, 1936. Mitchell's driver would park his car away from the active apron, and the designer would watch as much of the flight as possible. He died on the 11th June, 1937.

R. J. Mitchell led a highly successful design team at Supermarine Aviation; but their first attempt at satisfying Specification F.7/30, the Type 224, had been truly terrible. The Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine , which was steam-cooled, could hardly drag the cranked-winged,  spatted undercarriage machine off the ground. It was scrapped. The Type 300, which very nearly came to be called the 'Supermarine Shrew' (close call, there), however, was just out of this world. Rolls-Royce had thrown the Goshawk away, and their new PV.12 (or Merlin) was, apart from some difficulties with the first batch of cylinder heads, and a redesign of the cooling system - a winner. Putting out about 1,030 hp, it would haul the Spitfire Mk 1 around the sky at 365mph.

Here we see the earliest Mark of Spitfire still flying, a superb Mk 1, G-AIST, AR213, coded LZ-E (57 OTU), on display in the hangar of Delta Jets, Cotswold Airport, Kemble during the Great Vintage Flying Weekend, 2010. The owners are now Sheringham Aviation, but AR213 has had a long and interesting life. Built by Westland Aircraft at Yeovil, the Mk 1 was tending towards obsolescence when the RAF took delivery on 12th July,1941, so instead of going to a front-line squadron, she was delivered to a succession of Maintenance Units (MU) and Operational Training Units (OTU) to help train fighter pilots. She was on the books of 12 MU (Kirkbride), 57 OTU (Hawarden), 53 OTU (Llandow), and finally transferred to 8 MU (Little Rissington) in 1944 for storage, pending disposal.

Group Captain (later Air Commodore) Alan Wheeler, RAF bought AR213 in 1949, and flew her from time to time until she was sold to the Hon. Patrick Lindsay, a true British eccentric and talented racing driver, in 1974. It was then acquired by Victor Gauntlet, another racing enthusiast and entrepreneur who died suddenly. The present ownership decided that a full restoration would be necessary, as various nonstandard parts had been fitted to make AR213 flyable for the 1968 film 'Battle of Britain' (four-bladed Rotol propeller, 12-port exhausts, later Merlin, etc). After a hugely complicated rebuild at Booker Aerodrome by Personal Plane Services, it has emerged as you see it now. Correct in all major details, even including an external armoured windscreen, AR213 is finished in the Dark Earth/Dark Green camouflage scheme with Sky undersides typical of the early war years . The propeller is now the correct three-bladed De Havilland unit, and AR213 carries the codes 'JE-Z' in Light Grey, which she wore when at 57 OTU,  Hawarden in July 1941.

However, the oldest airworthy Spitfire is not this lovely Mk 1, but a Mk IIa, P7350, which actually flew with 266 Squadron and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force during the Battle of Britain in 1940. After being brought back to flying status for the film 'Battle of Britain' in 1968 (just like AR213), P7350 was eventually presented back to the Royal Air Force, where it graces the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, to this day.


Since I wrote these words, I am delighted to report that, thanks to a magnificent effort by the Aircraft Restoration Company, of the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, an even earlier Mk I Spitfire, P9374, which had been recovered from a French beach has now taken to the air. A magnificent machine, shot down as the Battle of France was in its final stages, is once again in its natural element!

Originally posted to Kossack Air Force on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 04:00 PM PST.

Also republished by World War Two Aircraft and Community Spotlight.

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