At Duxford Airfield, Spitfires still rule the skies
By Neil Hall
Propellers whirring, a group of Spitfire aircraft zooms in formation across the sky over Duxford Airfield, one of the first stations of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF).
It could be a scene straight from the 1940 Battle of Britain, when British and German fighter planes vied for control of the skies in one of the key clashes of the Second World War. But this is 2013, and the shapes streaking over the landscape are models that have been worked on by the Aircraft Restoration Company, a firm dedicated to repairing historic planes, mostly for private owners.
Since there are no longer any factory parts available for the old crafts, this involves building the new elements by hand.
“It reminds me of a simpler time when engineers knew each part of an aircraft – this engineering is like a locked time capsule from an era that I grew up in,” said 74-year-old John “Smudge” Smith, who previously worked for the RAF and has been with the company for over 30 years.
The firm works on a wide variety of models including Spitfires, one of the most iconic planes of World War II. Restoring a single craft typically costs over £2 million ($3.2 million), and takes around three years of painstaking work.
Often designs and schematic plans of the aircraft no longer exist and engineers have to use wrecked parts and photographs for reference to work out how to make new pieces from scratch.
For 55-year-old engineer Dave Smith, the technical challenge is exciting. “You have freedom to use your entire skill set – every part is made by you using the whole background of your knowledge.”
It is a priority for the company to provide apprenticeships to youngsters, allowing traditional skills that might otherwise die out to be passed onto the younger generation.
Sixteen-year-old Conner Dimmock is one such apprentice. “I love the old aircraft – it’s the noise and history,” he said.
“New planes are not as exciting but the Spitfire is a legend… It’s how engineering used to be – not many people know how to build a Spitfire.”