Wes Stricker’s beautifully restored Supermarine Seafire Mk. XV should soon be joined by another, doubling the number of airworthy examples.
In 2010, after four years and 8,000 man- hours of work, Jim Cooper finished restoring a Supermarine Seafire Mk. XV owned by his boss, Dr. Wes Stricker. He took it to Oshkosh, where it won the Best Fighter award, and Cooper himself took home the Silver Wrench trophy for restorers. It’s the only flying Mk. XV Seafire in the world.
Happens every year, as the world’s most experienced warbird restoration pros bring the world’s fanciest warbirds to Wisconsin to joust for prizes. The only thing different about the Seafire prize, however, was that it was given to the very first warbird Jim Cooper had ever restored, and it was his first-ever trip to Oshkosh. His previous experience? Renovating an old Cessna 170 and a Piper Tri-Pacer, plus years of work as an A&P mechanic.
One other quality Stricker recognized in Cooper: Jim has been besotted by warbirds since he was a teenager, and his regard for them borders on reverence. A perfectionist (“I’m pretty anal,” says Cooper, “I make all my screwhead slots aim in the same direction…”), and an amateur painter and model- builder, Cooper knows warbird history better than most museum curators. “Doc Wes,” as he’s known, realized there was no need to ship his Seafire to a faraway shop for restoration. He already had a “shop” working for him as a mechanic on his aircraft-management firm’s business jets. Stricker currently owns a Falcon 50, Cessna Citation X and Gulf stream IV, and has a staff of five A&Ps, including Cooper, at his Columbia, Mo., facility.
Stricker’s Seafire, PR 503, had no combat history—no Mk. XV does, this Griffonengine mark having barely entered squadron service in mid-1945—but it had been around the block. Transferred from the Royal Navy to the Royal Canadian Navy, it served aboard the carrier HMCS Warrior but was eventually struck off charge and sentenced to death as a firefighter-training hulk at Naval Air Station Shearwater, in Nova Scotia. For eight years, the engineless airplane sat in a field awaiting the torch, but somehow remained untouched. A minimyth that has attached itself to PR 503 is that in 1958 the airplane was stolen from Shearwater, with the connivance of a highranking officer, and hidden in a barn. The truth is three young men were actually given permission to drag the Seafire away (one account says money changed hands), and they stored it with the pipe dream of someday restoring it. That never happened, and in 1964 they sold it to the Nova Scotia Experimental Aircraft Association chapter.
In December 1967, PR 503 was officially “purchased from Crown Assets” by the EAAers. By 1970, the homebuilders realized they could never afford a restoration either, and they sold the airplane to Dennis Bradley, president of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, in Hamilton, Ontario. The museum began restoration— “gathering parts more than rebuilding,” Cooper says—but the Seafire was then sold to Amjet Services, in Minnesota. There, restoration continued, most of it at the hands of British warbird expert Ray Middleton, and a Rolls-Royce Griffon was rebuilt for it by Mike Nixon’s Vintage V12s shop in California. The big Rotol wooden prop was sent to Germany for an overhaul.
When Doc Wes bought PR 503, it was relatively complete and standing on its gear, with a cosmetic and inaccurate paint job to pretty it up for sale. A lot of interior work was already beginning to corrode under the paint simply because it had been more than 20 years since the last restoration efforts. “I would rather it had come to us in bare metal,” Cooper says.
Cooper is loath to name a difficult part of the restoration: “It’s hard to say, because when I went to work every day, I just couldn’t wait to get started. I didn’t even know when it was quittin’ time, I loved all of it.” Pushed to name the toughest job, however, he’ll admit that it was “dealing with the armament”—two 20mm cannons and four Browning .303 machine guns that of course were missing. “So were lots of parts, brackets, mounts, feed trays and cans, heating ducts…there are still pieces that we have never found that should be there, like the firing solenoids.”
Remarkably, Cooper found a nearby vocational school that had salvaged a Colt-built cannon out of an F-86H Sabre that was essentially identical to the Hispano guns used in the Seafire. Even more remarkably, he also discovered a local machinist, John Carron, who had apprenticed at Supermarine in the late 1940s, when the firm was manufacturing the last Spitfires. Carron copied the Sabre gun in aluminum and made matching Brownings. He also fabricated a variety of other intricate parts, and was the only other person to work on the airplane while it was in Cooper’s hands. “I couldn’t have done it without him,” Jim says. “I wish I had the knowledge that he has. If it weren’t for John rebuilding all the valves and components that made everything go, we wouldn’t have gotten into the air.”
PR 503’s paint scheme is Cooper’s particular pride. “It’s neat to me when you can put the original picture back together again,” he says. “It’s one thing to just restore a warbird and another to actually preserve a specific one. We have photographs of it as it once was, so why not preserve that?” With the help of Englishman Peter Arnold, co-author of Spitfire Survivors, who has been called the world’s leading Spitfire historian, Cooper acquired absolutely authentic paint codes and stencil and insignia specs.
One inauthentic touch that Cooper admits: He spent three weeks buffing a badly sandblasted spinner to a mirror finish, though Seafires in service had nothing more than natural-aluminum spinners. “I thought I might lose my job, it was taking me so long,” he recalls. “It’s not authentic, but we chose to polish it to contrast with the flat finish. It really makes the rest of the airplane pop.”
Cooper is currently restoring a second Seafire Mk. XV for Doc Wes, which he hopes to have flying sometime in 2015. Stricker bought it in Burma, where several Seafires ended up as part of the just-formed Burmese air force. He in fact acquired it before buying PR 503. “Most of this rebuild will be a sheet metal job,” Cooper says. “The airplane is currently totally disassembled and deskinned. There’s no engine or prop, the cockpit is gutted and unfortunately a lot of stuff is missing that was simply cut out by the Burmese for its scrap metal value—brass plumbing, copper wires, stainless-steel control cables.” This Seafire had ended its days as an airplane-on-a-stick gate guardian at Mingaladon Air Base, outside Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
While stripping the airframe, Cooper was surprised to find panels from perhaps 10 different airframes, judging by the numbers stenciled inside. As a warbird historian, the discovery delighted him, for he especially enjoys finding the tooling marks and even penciled messages and notes under the paint that form a living connection to a bygone era. Cooper also discovered that the Griffon VI Stricker bought for its restoration had originally powered a Seafire assigned to HMCS Warrior at the same time PR 503 was aboard the carrier.
Today Wes Stricker owns half the existing fleet of Mk. XV Seafires—there’s one still in Burma and one more in the Military Museums, in Calgary, Canada. Though there are other “hooked Spitfires” in various states of repair, he may soon have the world’s only two flying Seafires. His real passion, however, is his P-51D, an obsession that can be traced back to his father’s job as a flight surgeon for the 339th Fighter Group, an Eighth Air Force P-51 escort unit. Stricker’s interest in the Seafires frankly devolves from their extreme rarity and value, and PR 503 has only flown about 12 hours. “It’s not an airplane we take out and fly like the P-51,” Cooper says. “I would love to see it in a museum, myself.”
Does Jim Cooper maybe have the best job in the world, messing around with warbirds to his heart’s content? “Yeah, I’m blessed,” he muses. “I love working with my hands, creating and crafting. But Doc Wes should find me a Corsair to restore—it’s my favorite airplane. Unfortunately, then I’d never go home, and my wife would leave me.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe today!