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These days it’s a golf course, but roll back 63 years, and RAF Ayr, near Glasgow, was home to a group of young pilots eagerly taking stock of their new Super marine Spitfires. The men were survivors of a Czech air force that had been hammered by the Luftwaffe. After fleeing their country, they had fought alongside the French before that country was overrun. Finally they were based in Scotland, flying with the RAF. These sleek new aircraft offered them a chance to strike back, a chance to play a part in liberating Europe and their own homes from Nazi domination.

On a windy Saturday afternoon, Pilot Officer Frantisek Hekl took his warbird for a trial flight. The dips and twists of the Galloway hills would be perfect for putting it through its paces. Approaching from the northwest, Hekl crossed the wider top of Loch Doon. From there the loch narrowed into a hill-flanked, south-running silvery strip. An island halfway down the waterway, once the home of Doon Castle, would do for target practice. As Hekl banked south, he could not know that it would be his last flight.

A 12-year-old boy was watching as the Spitfire, P7540, flew overhead. He saw the right wingtip touch the water, and after that there was no escape. The Spitfire somersaulted and smashed into the choppy waters of the loch. Twenty-six-year-old Frantisek Hekl, who had been chased from his homeland but refused to give up fighting, would never see Czechoslovakia again.

The alarm was raised, and an RAF recovery team was sent to the site, but weeks of heavy rain had raised the loch’s water level. This (and, local legend has it, the pleasant distractions of a group of Women’s Air Force sent to help) meant the wreck was not found. There was a war on, and resources were needed elsewhere, so the RAF said goodbye to Hekl. He would not be forgotten in his native land, however.

Thirty-seven years later the lad who had watched the last few seconds of that disastrous flight stood again on the banks of Loch Doon. Bob Howatson had come to aid Bruce Robertson of the Dumfries and Galloway Aircraft Recovery Group and David Greenwood of the Dumfries and Galloway Sub Aqua Club. Together, they were determined that this iconic aircraft would see the light of day again.

Robertson, then chair of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum, was a man with a passion for planes. A chance meeting with another eyewitness had excited his curiosity, so he got in touch with the Sub Aqua Club, asking if they would be interested in a challenge.

Greenwood, the club’s diving officer and former national diving officer of the Scottish Sub Aqua Club, described that initial call as tantalizing. Decades after the event, two eyewitnesses had independently pointed to where they thought the Spitfire had gone down. A third would later point to where he remembered seeing an oil slick. All three were within yards of each other.

It seemed likely that finding the wreck would take one dive, two at the most. If they had known they were facing six years of frustration, the searchers might have thought twice before starting. The paperwork alone might have put off less dedicated people. Maps of the loch had to be obtained, along with weather reports for the day the Spitfire crashed. Permission had to be gained from the water board and the local landowner. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had to be satisfied the divers would respect what might turn out to be a war grave. And once again the armed forces of Britain were in action. MoD approval was delayed somewhat because of a dispute on the other hemisphere of the world—the Falklands War. Added to all of these complications was the knowledge that fighter planes often had explosives strapped to their radios to keep them from falling into enemy hands.

Paperwork completed, the divers set to work, anticipating a quick recovery. It wasn’t to be. The loch bottom was covered in mud, at some points 11⁄2 meters deep. It was almost impossible to search the bottom without disturbing decades, perhaps centuries, worth of silt. In one report David Greenwood described conditions as “Nil viz.”

Inevitably the first dives were disappointing. Throughout the year, whenever enough divers could be gathered together, the search continued using a variety of methods. Divers would swim circles around a fixed buoy or swim in lines of six, spaced along a rope. None of these assured them they were covering all the ground. Eventually a simpler method was found to be the most effective. Two divers with strong torches searched along a line on the loch bottom, then they would turn and swim back along the edge of the silt they had disturbed on the last pass.

As 1976 closed, the crash site had been comprehensively searched. The divers had gained in experience but found nothing to show them they were on the right track. In fact they were, at one point, all not far from the aircraft’s silent resting place.

The next year, a more scientific approach was tried. RAF West Freugh supplied a proton magnetometer that they hoped would do the job. The device was suspended from a boat and dragged through the search area. But the magnetometer snagged frequently, and divers often had to free it. One of those involved remembers they found a syrup can but not much else.

Understandably, enthusiasm began to wane. Divers had jobs and family lives. They had to meet their own expenses and contribute toward the group expenses. They were diving in waters often only 4 degrees above freezing, and finding nothing but mud and rock. Greenwood worked tirelessly, issuing press releases and trying to get other clubs interested, to make sure the search didn’t fizzle out.

Three years after the venture began the Dumfries club received an unexpected boost. The Northern Federation of the British Sub Aqua Club was looking for a project and had heard about Loch Doon. A fresh infusion of divers and equipment revitalized the search. The campsite on Lambdoughty farm grew to a small village. A sense of community began to form. Diving tales were swapped over drinks, and lasting friendships were made around the bonfires.

Another boost came when Border Television broadcasted a film of the event. New divers came—and went. A real hard core had developed, and they were determined not to give in.

But by 1982, even the hardcore divers were beginning to accept the possibility that the plane had disintegrated on impact and lay lost in the mud, in thousands of little pieces. As a last throw of the dice, the divers decided to search farther to the east.

Amazingly, on his second sweep of the new area, Blackpool diver Barry Barkworth literally swam into the fuselage. Bits and pieces were strewn around the body of the plane, but there was no sign of the engine, the wings or the pilot.

It seems the engine, by far the heaviest part of any plane, had broken off on impact and had sunk like a stone. Then the wings had fallen away, while the fuselage had floated onward and downward, coming to rest upside down on a rocky rise.

Swimming back along the line of descent, Greenwood found a few inches of pipe protruding from the mud. He slipped a hand down into the mud and found what his engineering experience told him was a rocker valve cover. He was floating a foot or so above the Spitfire’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine.

Recovering the 1-ton engine was almost as difficult as it had been to locate. The diving club assembled buoyancy bags with 12 tons of lift. But the mud would not easily give up its prize.

A 4-inch suction pump was first used to clear the mud, but this proved too slow. Once again, simplicity proved most effective. Equipped with a low-tech plastic bucket, six divers shifted the sediment by hand. This took four days.

Finally, the engine came free, and another makeshift tool was adopted to help get it onto dry land. The divers eased the Merlin onto the upturned hood of an old car. They tied this “sled” to the Range Rover of their temporary landlord and constant supporter, farmer Henry Baird, who then dragged the engine ashore.

The recovery of the wings and fuselage, with its horrendously damaged cockpit, was considerably easier. The radio, because the plane had not been flying into combat, was not booby-trapped. The ammunition was far too decomposed to present any threat. As for the Czech pilot, there was no sign of him except for a flying boot some distance away.

The first six cold and frustrating years of the Spitfire’s recovery came to an end with a simple but touching tribute on the loch side when the divers of Dumfries and Galloway and the Northern Federation held a service of remembrance for the young pilot who lost his life so far from home. Diving officer Greenwood placed a wreath on the loch at the site of the crash.

At first glance, the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum resembles a Boy’s Own adventure playground, with its jet aircraft, missile launchers, helicopters and mangled propellers. But as one lady from Australia commented while I was there, “There’s plenty for the Sheilas, too.” It’s a very handson kind of place, and for those of us with a yen for the past, it just oozes history and adventure.

David Reid, who has been working on the Spitfire restoration these past 20 years, showed me to the makeshift hangar where the fuselage now rests. Several attempts at restoration have been made, but none have quite come up to the mark. Of course, funds are always tight, but there’s a great deal of affection for the wounded bird there. Not least because Spitfires often flew from RAF Heathhall, which is now the home of the museum. It’s entirely possible that P7540 was briefly based there. In a very real sense, after its stay in the murky depths, it might have come home.

The volunteers who run the Aviation Museum are rightly proud of the fact that they never close while there are visitors who want to look around. But Reid did confess to heaving a sigh some five or six years ago when he saw two young men walking up the road just as he was preparing to shut for the night. When he saw their rucksacks and realized they had been on the road for some time, he welcomed them in and put the kettle on.

“Was there anything in particular you wanted to see?” he asked his visitors.

In halting English one fellow explained: “You have our great uncle’s plane here.”

Frantisek Hekl’s family had not forgotten him. His two great nephews had traveled all the way from the Czech Republic to pay their respects.

Afterward the lads hefted their rucksacks and headed toward the door. They were planning to spend the night on benches in Dumfries station before traveling home. The man who had looked after their great uncle’s plane for so long wouldn’t hear of it. Reid took the exhausted travelers to his house. He’s that kind of guy, and the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum is that kind of a place.

The remnants of Pilot Officer Hekl’s squadron flew home to Czechoslovakia in 1945 and were disbanded the next year. The name “Hekl F.” appears on the Runnymeade Memorial for RAF personnel who have “no known grave.”

If the restoration of Spitfire P7540 is ever completed, it will stand as a monument both to Reginald Mitchell, who designed the plane, and Flying Officer 87619, Frantisek Hekl, a brave young man from an occupied land who will be remembered in a corner of a grateful Scotland.


Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.