There are more Spitfires flying today than have been airworthy since the early 1950s: at least 50, some sources say, with as many as 150 more in various stages of rebuilding and modification all over the world. Though they’re not rare by top classic-car standards, Spits are still enormously valuable. The record price for a Spitfire sold at auction was set in England on April 20, when a totally rebuilt and airworthy two-seat Mark IX Spit went for the equivalent of $2,535,791—a substantial jump from the then-record $1.8 million paid for a Mark XVI in New Zealand last September. (The auction company Bonhams had hoped for $3 million, making the buy something of a bargain.)
The classic-car world would in fact turn up its collective nose at G-ILDA, nee RAF identifier SM520, for it’s a replica two-seater. The airplane left the Vickers-Armstrong factory in 1944 with a conventional single-seat cockpit, spent four years with the RAF and then was sold to the South African Air Force, which flew it for six years (nothing is actually known of its service history). Abandoned in a Cape Town junkyard, the airframe and engine were rescued by the SAAF’s museum in 1979 and ultimately sold to the late Charles Church, a well-known British warbird collector.
After passing through the hands of several private owners, SM520 was rebuilt over five years as a two-seater and painted in Royal Netherlands Air Force colors, since the Dutch once operated three actual Vickers-built two-seaters. Two crashed; G-ILDA, as the airplane is now civil-registered in the UK, bears the buzz number D-99 of the one that didn’t.
With only 15 hours logged since the rebuild, G-ILDA needs another 10 before full certification, but the new owner, real estate developer Steve Brooks, will only be along for the ride: He’s a helicopter pilot.
Riding in a Bathtub Over New Zealand
The Vintage Aviator Ltd., based in Wellington, New Zealand, has long been devoted to building authentic replicas of World War I aircraft, but its most recent product, a two-seat pusher with wings and control surfaces held together by a labyrinth of struts and wires, was a real challenge. Originally built by the Royal Aircraft Factory, the Farman Experimental F.E.2b was a mainstay of the Royal Flying Corps, serving as a reconnaissance and bombing plane until 1917 and as a night bomber thereafter. Its armament consisted of a .303-inch Lewis machine gun on the front of its bathtub-like nacelle and another on a pole, so the observer had to stand up to fire backward over the upper wing. The “Fee” nevertheless proved tough in combat.
The Vintage Aviator had to build nearly every part from scratch, although it did manage to obtain an original 160-hp Beardmore engine that had powered an F.E.2b. While the manufacturing techniques were modern, the components were made from the original ash, spruce, Irish linen and hand-spliced cable.
During a demo flight Australian Colin Owers went up in the observer’s pit. “There is no seat in the front cockpit,” he reported. “You sit on the floor with your knees up in front or you kneel down. I found it easy to stand up and hold onto the gun mount. It would have been interesting to see how you handle the rear gun. From the photos it seems that you have to jam your bum against the nacelle side to support yourself. Imagine being up in the middle of a European winter. Imagine trying to hold off an Albatros D.II.”
Time is needed to cool the engine between flights, since the Fee doesn’t go high enough for cold air to supplement the radiator. This limits flight time during airshows, which are conducted regularly in New Zealand. More info at thevintageaviator.co.nz.
Retiring the Tweet
The Air Force has retired its longest-lived training type, the Cessna T-37, which first flew in 1954 and went into service over half a century ago, in 1957, taking over USAF training duties from the Beech Bonanza–derived T-34 Mentor. If the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny trainer had lasted as long, it would have been soloing pilots to fly F-4s in Vietnam, and the North American T-6 would have still been in the Air Force inventory in 1992. Which means that if an Air Force–family pilot soloed the last T-37 this year, it’s possible his grandfather trained in one of the first of them.
The T-37 is universally known as the Tweet, a surprisingly frivolous designator that has actually become the airplane’s official name. It came about for the same reason the T-37 is also known as “the 6,000-pound dogwhistle”: Its wing-root intakes create a punishing high-frequency squeal as they draw in air for the two small J-69 turbojet engines.
Although the T-37 design was given ordnance hardpoints, tip tanks and other aggressive features to become the Vietnam-era A-37 Dragonfly ground attack airplane, it missed out on becoming a Thunderbird. In 1962 Cessna suggested transitioning the Air Force Thunderbirds display team from F-100 Super Sabres to far cheaper and far more aerobatic T-37s, much like the Canadian Snowbirds’ Avro Tudor trainers. Ultimately it was decided that the Thunderbirds just wouldn’t be the same flying screechy little jets named Tweets.
WASP Veteran Takes Flight
Violet Thurn Cowden, a veteran of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), made what she thought would be her last flight in a fighter plane on December 20, 1944. That was the day General Henry “Hap” Arnold disbanded her unit, despite its having flown 50 percent of the noncombat air missions in the United States to that point in the war. But on May 1, 2009, Cow – den got back inside a Mustang, the P-51C Betty Jane, for a flight from San Diego to Long Beach. Her 21st-century warbird trip inaugurated the Collings Foundation’s 2009 Wings of Freedom tour. “It was unbelievable,” Cowden, 92, told the Huntington Beach Independent. “It’s been 65 years since I’ve flown in that plane, and when I got in it, it was like the 65 years had just disappeared.”
The WASP program, founded to enable more male pilots to serve overseas, initially rejected the 92-pound South Dakota farm girl for being underweight. She talked the Army physician into granting her a week to gain weight, then went on to become one of the 1,074 women, out of 20,000 initial applicants, to graduate from flight school at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Instructors made no special exceptions for the WASPs. When a colonel overheard Cowden tell a classmate that a flight “really wasn’t bad,” he put her through five evaluated test flights in five days. “I was a basket case,” she said. “It was absolutely horrible.”
Cowden later attended pursuit school in Brownsville, Texas, and was assigned to permanent duty at Love Field in Dallas. She flew 19 different types of fighters during her tenure. All told, the WASP pilots delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types from factories to embarkation points and training bases across the U.S. In 1977 Congress granted WASP servicewomen full veteran’s benefits, and on May 20, 2009, the Senate passed Bill S.614, which, if it passes the House, will grant a collective Congressional Gold Medal to the WASP organization.
“None of us felt [like pioneers], because we were just having such a good time,” Cowden noted. “I didn’t think that it made that big of an impact, because I was just doing a job.” To see an interview with Cowden, visit the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Women Veterans Historical Collection at library.uncg.edu/dp/wv.
A Frenchman Conquers the English Channel
The day did not start well for Louis Blériot. He was awakened at a Calais hotel around 3:30 a.m. on July 25, 1909, with what should have been welcome news: Blustery winds that had prevailed above the English Channel for days had finally abated. Hobbling on crutches (he had recently burned his foot in a flying competition), the 37-year-old French aviator made his way to the campsite where his Blériot XI waited. He later confessed that he really “wasn’t in any mood to fly,” but engine builder Alessandro Anzani was animated enough for both of them. The excitable Anzani had already startled everyone in camp awake earlier by shooting a revolver in the air.
At stake was the prestige of becoming the first aviator to cross the Channel in a heavier-than-air machine, as well as a £1,000 prize offered by the British Daily Mail. Also at risk was Blériot’s life, since 10 other aircraft he had built had generally come to bad ends. With his XI monoplane, first flown on January 23, 1909, he had gained confidence, thanks to recent success in competitions and extensive testing with Anzani’s 25-hp, 3-cylinder air-cooled radial. Extremely noisy, it “spit oil out of the holes at the end of every stroke, smearing the pilot with an oily film,” according to Blériot’s mechanic. But it kept on running.
After Blériot climbed into the cockpit, there was a freakish accident that locals interpreted as a bad omen: A dog ran into the XI’s whirling wood prop and was instantly killed. But the Frenchman was determined to make at least a test flight, which went so well that he headed across the Channel at 4:41 a.m. Flying without a compass, Blériot was worried that he might not be able to find Dover. But the breezes remained cooperative, showers arrived just in time to cool his overheating engine and he spotted some ships—crowded with cheering sailors—that led him to the famous white cliffs. His landing was hampered by gusty winds. After several attempts he shut off the ignition and settled heavily onto a meadow at 5:18 a.m., damaging the landing gear and prop. He had averaged 39 mph.
In his day, Louis Blériot was just as ac – claimed as Charles Lindbergh would be 18 years later. His fortunes were transformed overnight; while he had been bankrupt at the beginning of 1909, by the end of September he had received orders for 101 planes. The XI’s wire-braced, partially covered wood frame, forward-placed engine and horizontal stabilizers would heavily influence the aircraft that filled the skies during World War I.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.