Silver Spitfire at Vintage Wings of Canada

The Silver Spitfire undergoing its standard 25 hour maintenance inspection in the hangar at Vintage Wings of Canada on August 17th. The aircraft has traveled almost 4,000 miles so far on its 27,000 mile circumnavigation of the globe. (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)

Silver Spitfire at Vintage Wings of Canada

by Richard Mallory Allnutt (Editor WN)

We have been following the Silver Spitfire since the team first announced their intentions to fly  combat veteran Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX MJ271 (G-IRTY) around the world. But on Saturday, I finally got to see this magnificent aircraft up close and personal for the very first time. The aircraft had been slated to attend a display with the RAF Red Arrows at Vintage Wings of Canada’s home in Gatineau, Quebec last Tuesday August 13th. However, a series of weather-related delays conspired to leave her holed up in Reykjavik, Iceland, then Greenland, for longer than anticipated, pushing her departure westwards until several days later. However, the team managed to make it to Kuujjuaq in Northern Quebec by Thursday. Spurred on by good fortune and good weather they managed to make it the remaining 1000 plus miles to Gatineau Executive Airport just before sundown on Friday evening after five hours of flying and stops in Scheferville and Chapais, Quebec. Given her previous holdups, her evening arrival caught most of us by surprise, so none of us actually caught an image of her landing. But Vintage Wings of Canada’s Peter Handley got the news out a short while later, with a lovely image of the silvery beauty nestled inside the collection’s hangar, keeping company with two other Spitfire Mk.IX’s (the Collings Foundation’s BR601 and VWoC’s TE294)… not to mention a host of other significant vintage military aircraft.

So bright and early on Saturday morning, my brother and I made the 30 minute trek from our digs in downtown Ottawa, Ontario out to Gatineau to check the aircraft out for ourselves. Despite a veneer of soot and engine oil from her labors the previous few days, she was every bit as beautiful as we’d imagined. Vintage Wings’ boss, Mike Potter along with John Aitken arrived soon after we did, every bit as eager to see the aircraft as we were. We joined Peter Handley, who was already on hand, admiring the shimmering lines and curves of this singularly beautiful aircraft. Soon after Vintage Wings’ Annie Carreau brought out a bucket of warm water and polish to begin the process of removing the grime. Much in the same way as Mark Twain’s iconic character, Tom Sawyer, inspired his friends to help him whitewash a picket fence, most of us put down our cameras to join Annie in her task. And we were happy to do so…

Unlike most airworthy WWII-era combat veteran fighter aircraft, MJ271 is remarkably original, retaining 85% or so of her wartime-manufactured structure. While the aircraft did recently undergo a period of significant refurbishment at the Aircraft Restoration Company in Duxford, England, this was more sympathetic conservation than restoration. Yes, they took her completely apart, replacing all of her original, though deteriorated magnesium rivets, but almost everything else dates back to WWII. And you can detect this authenticity with your own fingertips through the washcloth when wiping the aircraft clean. Every ripple and minor deformation in her Alclad skins is evident to the touch, if not immediately to the eye. However, the minute part numbers stamped into each monocoque section are highlighted against the otherwise silvery sheen by dirt gathered in their indentations. Another interesting detail was the handful of brass screws protruding slightly from the wingtip skins, holding them to wooden formers hidden beneath. I might otherwise have missed them, but the sharp screw head edges caught my shammy as I wiped off the cleaning solution. It was a surprising reminder that the Spitfire has numerous wooden components. 

Standing back to admire our efforts in cleaning G-IRTY, it was easier to appreciate the gentle elegance of the airframe’s design without the mottled hues of her traditional warpaint; ample proof of the Spitfire’s beauty in comparison to the brutish, muscular feel presented by most other military aircraft types.

With the aircraft now clean, the scheduled 25 hour maintenance check can begin. The Silver Spitfire’s maintenance chief, Gerry Jones, gets to work on pulling her cowlings with help from Smithy (Ian Smith) pilot for the Pilatus PC-12 support aircraft and the former Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Commanding Officer. Together they begin undoing fasteners from the top and moving down, the sequence of the undoing being important in such processes. Vintage Wings’ Paul Tremblay joins them in the endeavor, helping shift the unwieldy panels. With each removed cowl, more of the Spitfire’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and associated systems are revealed; a labyrinthine array of copper pipes, cables and wires, much like human blood vessels and sinew, linking various critical components together. Smithy tells me this particular Merlin flew over 500 hours of trouble-free service in one of the owner’s two-seat Spitfires used by the Boultbee Flight Academy to offer flight experiences and pilot training back in England. They selected the engine because of its reliability, placing it in the Silver Spitfire after a zero-time overhaul.

Her stay with Vintage Wings in Gatineau will be relatively short, as the team needs to get back on the Longest Journey soon to regain some of the time already lost to weather. After the maintenance is complete, with pilots and crew rested sufficiently, the Silver Spitfire will be on her way again… perhaps even today. Here’s to a safe and successful journey for the team!

Many thanks to Mike Potter, Peter Handley, Annie Carreau and the rest of the Vintage Wings team for being such marvelous hosts during our visit. For those able to make it, Vintage Wings will be presenting their annual air show, AERO Gatineau-Ottawa 2019 over September 6th through 8th. It will be a fabulous display, as always; one of the very best aerial events on North America’s east coast! 

P.S. For those interested in following the Silver Spitfire, you can keep up to date with her movements.


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