Spitfire Restoration Project celebrates new hangar with roof wetting

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The Spitfire Restoration Project on Saturday officially celebrated the completion of the new roof for its restoration hangar at Air Force Mobile Deployment Wing (formerly AFB Swartkop), with an SA Air Force fire truck performing the honours.

The hangar framework was completed in March last year, and although the roof was put on some months ago, the formal roof wetting took place after the 1 July SA Air Force (SAAF) Museum flying day, with a ceremony attended by guests, sponsors, and members of the restoration project team.

The Officer Commanding the SAAF Museum, Lieutenant Colonel Aobakwe Gaelejwe, arranged for a fire truck to spray the hangar roof with water, opening the official event before speeches by Project Lead Ian Grace and Friends of the SAAF Museum chair Phil Scallan.

Grace led a moment’s silence for four airmen associated with the project who recently passed away, namely retired Major General Des Barker, retired Colonel Rama Iyer, retired Colonel Glen Warden, and retired Colonel Butch Bester.

The Spitfire Restoration Project (SRP) was registered nearly nine years ago as a non-profit and public benefit organisation. Its sole aim is to bring back to display status Spitfire 5518 after the World War II fighter crashed during an air show in 2000.

The project has received numerous donations that are going towards building the hangar and workshop, purchasing spare parts, collecting drawings etc. Now the hangar roof is on, the next goal is to complete the hangar so restoration work can start – roughly R500 000 is needed to finish it. When that is done, the fuselage will be moved in and a jig built for it.

The SRP estimated it will take about 15 years to get Spitfire 5518 flying again, and tens of millions of rands. It has been estimated that fixing the wings alone will cost R10 million – total damage from the crash amounts to an estimated £2.8 million (R67 million).

The project has seen many people and companies becoming involved, and offers a chance for young engineers to engage in certain parts of the restoration. In 2020, for example, Robert Cathro, the project’s Aeronautical and Engineering manager, engaged with second year University of Pretoria students from the Faculty of Engineering, Built Science and Environment to evaluation of the plans of the Spitfire empennage. The project says huge progress was made in establishing the completeness of these plans.

On display during the 1 July roof wetting ceremony was Spitfire 5518’s fuselage section, canopy and seat; a 5/8 scale Spitfire (donated by the Knobel family); a partially completed three-quarter scale Spitfire replica (to be used as a simulator); and some of the paintings donated by artists to use for raising funds. Many artists have donated to the project, and artwork has been sold and auctioned to raise funds. Felix Gosher, organiser of the Childrens’ Flight and Elders’ Flight, raised nearly R100 000 for the hangar roof and auctioned some artwork for the SRP.

The scale replica Spitfire.

Spitfire 5518 was built in May 1945 and delivered to the SAAF two years later. It was retired from service in the first quarter of 1954 and preserved in non-flying condition as a “gate guard” on a plinth at Air Force Base (AFB) Waterkloof. After the only flyable Spitfire in South Africa (Evelyn) was exported, 5518 was taken off its plinth, stripped down and re-evaluated as the SAAF Museum motivated its restoration to flying condition to serve as the star attraction at SAAF air shows to promote the air force and aviation among youth. Parts were then either restored and re-used or remanufactured in a combined effort by the SAAF Museum, 1 Air Depot and what was then the Atlas Aircraft Corporation (now part of the Denel Group). Restoration was completed in 1994. Six years later the Spitfire was badly damaged after crashing into the southern boundary wall of AFB Swartkop during a SAAF Museum air show.

The fuselage of Spitfire 5518.

The Spitfire Restoration Project requires skills from many services and if anyone wishes to get involved or contribute, they can contact Ian Grace: cell: 082 452 5291 or email: [email protected].