A small crowd had gathered as the early morning calm was broken by the crackle of a V12 Merlin roaring into life as the culmination of many years hard work and dedication were about to be put to the ultimate test.
Saturday, 11th of December 2021 saw Australia’s newest Spitfire (VH-IXF / MH603, a Mk IXc), return to the sky for the first time in over 60 years following a long and meticulous restoration by the dedicated team at Vintage Fighter Restorations (VFR), Scone, Australia.
MH603 was built at Castle Bromwich UK in 1943 and delivered to 39 Maintenance Unit (MU) in October 1943. It then passed on to 405 Repair and Salvage Unit (ARF) Croydon before being issued to 331(Norwegian) Squadron in January 1944 where it served operationally coded” FN-B”. MH603 then moved to 274 Squadron coded as ‘JJ-K’ in June ’44, where it was flown by W/O.S.G.Barker. The Spitfire is then recorded as going to Fighter Leaders School FLS Millfield August then to the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE) Tangmere in June ’45.
Following its operational service the aircraft passed through a number of training and maintenance units until, in 1949, it was sold to the South African Air Force where it was finally retired in 1955 and sold to South African Metal & Machinery Co, Salt River, Cape Town as scrap. The hulk was purchased in 1980 and has passed through several owners in the UK and USA before being purchased by Pay’s Air Services in 2009.
The team at Vintage Fighter Restorations have rebuilt the airframe from the ground up over several years and have painted the aircraft in the original WWII scheme it wore when it served with RAF 331 (Norwegian) Squadron, and flown on operations by Capt. Bjorn Bjornstad.
After months of system testing, engine runs and final touches and adjustments by the VFR engineers, pilot Steve Death had the honour of making MH603’s post-restoration maiden flight. After starting the mighty Merlin on the apron in front of the VFR hangar and warming up, Steve taxied to the end of the runway to carry out final high power checks before the moment we had all been waiting for. The engine roared and the Spitfire eased gracefully into the air for the first time since 1955!
Steve gained altitude and orbited the airfield as he began checking out the aircraft and its systems. He was joined by Paul Bennet in Ross Pay’s CAC Mustang, VH-AUB, who had flown up from Cessnock to act as a chase aircraft and check over the Spitfire externally for any possible issues. After determining that the aircraft was functioning perfectly, Steve brought the Spitfire back down to give the assembled crowd a flypast before bringing it back to earth.
After a debrief on the aircraft’s performance from Steve, the VFR engineers took MH603 back into the hangar where they removed panels and checked t it over for any issues, leaks or adjustments. Everything was found to be in order so the aircraft was panelled up and it was decided to make another flight to check other parts of the flight envelope, again with Paul in the Mustang as chase.
Following that successful flight, Steve and Paul brought both aircraft back for a couple of formation passes and that wonderful sound of a pair of Merlins.
It was determined that the only work required was a minor tweak of the aileron trim, which is a physical adjustment made to the trailing edge of the aileron itself, as this marque of Spitfire only has trim tabs on the elevators and rudder. As this would require one final flight to confirm the adjustment, I was asked if I could also go up and get a few photos at the same time.
With that done, the day’s flying was complete. It is a testament to the professionalism and attention to detail of the team at Vintage Fighter Restorations that the aircraft flew without any issues on its first flight after such a lengthy rebuild. Let’s see what they come up with next.
ASO would like to offer our sincere thanks to everyone involved for the opportunity to witness and record this significant event for the team.
Information sourced from www.warbirdsonline.com.au/, where you can find great coverage of the restoration of this and many other Warbirds in Australia.