ON a grey and cloudy Thursday afternoon 20 years ago a group of people are standing on the blustery downs above Swindon. Necks craned, we are keeping an eye out – and indeed an ear out – for the sight or the sound of a distant speck of silver.
And here it is, just a dot at first, accompanied moments later by the faraway growl of a Jaguar 5.5 litre V12 engine. Its shape soon becomes familiar to anyone who has ever wrestled with an Airfix kit in their childhood or who may have a fondness for films such as The Battle of Britain or Reach for the Sky.
It is a Spitfire, one of the world’s most easily identifiable and, at least on this side of the North Sea, best loved aeroplanes. Around half-a-century earlier, such machines – sleek, fast and with a nice line in aerial gymnastics – were a familiar sight in the skies above Swindon.
A few miles down the road at the Vickers/Supermarine factory in South Marston hundreds were either built, repaired or modified before being tested and flown off for active service to distant corners of the globe during and after World War Two.
What we are witnessing now, with rapt interest and attention, is the first Swindon-built Spitfire for more than 40 years. There is an undoubted air of excitement among our small huddle of spectators as it majestically breezes in to land.
It is a seamless touchdown and we are all preparing a rowdy round of applause as the aircraft soundly taxies along the runway when, without warning, it all goes dramatically wrong.
The Spitfire veers off course, does a sort of pirouette and ends up, nose down, in the turf. Its undercarriage has collapsed. Peter Thorn, an experienced pilot, climbs out of the cockpit unscathed. He seems bemused. There was absolutely no indication that this was about happen, he tells us.
For one man among us, this is a particularly savage blow. Swindon taxi firm boss Clive du Cros, 43, puts what can only be described as a brave face on the matter. “You have to take the rough with the smooth,” he shrugs, surely masking some deeper emotions.
“You have to remember that ten per cent of Spitfires were written off during the war because of undercarriage failure.” You also have to feel for Clive. This utterly unique aircraft, this beautiful, gleaming silver machine, is his baby.
In what is a truly remarkable feat of engineering, self-belief and sheer determination he had spent ten years building a fully working replica Spitfire from scratch.
This was to have been its grand entrance into the public arena. Having flown in from RAF Hullavington near Chippenham to Wroughton airfield, it was set to become a key attraction at the weekend’s Great Warbirds D-Day Air Display there, before going on to star in numerous other air-shows.
“DIY warbird upended in runway prang,” is the headline of the regional newspaper I am working for at the time. “Spitfire’s unhappy landing,” says the Adver.
With a background in research and engineering, Clive was a businessman who, in the early Eighties ran Viking Wood Products from a unit on Swindon’s Elgin estate and owned the town’s Viking taxi firm.
He was also, since boyhood, a Spitfire fanatic with a long held ambition to actually own one and fly it. The cost of buying and restoring a Spit was somewhat prohibitive (not much change from half-a-million – and that was over 30 years ago.) So he decided on an alternative course – he would build one.
The model he chose to construct was the very first prototype Spitfire – serial number K5054 – which crashed, sadly killing its pilot, on the day after World War Two was declared.
In deference to that aircraft Clive’s Spit would also be silver. Acquiring the original plans from an RAF museum he set about constructing it at his home garage in Aldbourne before shifting production to Elgin.
Ray Hilbourne, who created Terry Thomas’s conveyance in the film Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, provided key technical aid.
“I made a model replicas when I was young and this was going to be the ultimate model replica,” said Clive.
He painstakingly fashioned his Spitfire in wood rather than aluminium so it would be lighter. This enabled him to deploy a 350 horse power engine from Jaguar V-12 car instead the Spit’s traditional 900hp Rolls Royce Merlin engine.
Wheels, instrument panel and seats came from other Spitfires, as did the windshield – salvaged from a crashed Spit in Kent. Presumably he had to curtail the urge to install guns.
Over the years a maze of technical problems arose and were overcome. “Many aircraft experts said it couldn’t be done,” he later told me. “That really spurred me on and made me more determined. It was an ambition that became a reality.”
Minus its wings, the bulk of the aircraft that was soon to become the world’s only fully-working replica Spit was carted by articulated truck along the M4 to RAF Hullavington in 1988.
Clive, who had by then acquired a pilot’s licence, first flew his silver bird in 1992 following a series of test flights. “It was terrific up there,” he afterwards enthused. “It took a few days for it to sink in that I’d actually flown it.”
Three years and several flights later Clive’s “fantastic home built Spitfire prototype” – as it is described in a Great Warbirds press release – is descending onto Wroughton airfield in all of its shiny glory.
You can see the crash on YouTube, the event having been filmed by regional TV. “Things went badly wrong,” intones the newscaster with due solemnity. As the Spitfire crunches to a halt there are some gasps from onlookers and an expletive is emitted.
Seemingly unruffled, Clive displays his static, broken Spit at the Wroughton show. He pledges that it will fly again – which it does. But as can be seen from the same collage of YouTube footage, it ends up in a field, those distinctive elliptical shaped wings looking a sadly lifeless.
So, where is Clive’s dream machine now? There have been some internet musings among aero-buffs over its location. Emailing me from Spain, where he has lived for 15 years, Clive says: “It is currently residing in the Hawkinge Battle of Britain Museum in Kent, where it is in the process of being restored to taxiing condition.”
He goes on: “Is it really 20 years since it flew? My, doesn't time fly, pardon the pun! I've been invited by the museum to help out and am travelling over there in September.”
- Clive’s childhood dream to fly his own Spitfire was finally realised at Hullavington airfield on February 6, 1992.
This is how he described it: “I was a little apprehensive to put it mildly but was gently coerced on the grounds that ‘as you’ve built it, it’s about time you flew it.’ “I climbed into the narrow cockpit and went through my drills. Opening the throttle I roared across the grass and lifted up into the air. “With light pressure I moved the control stick forward to ease off the climb and retracted the undercarriage. “Reaching the circuit height I reduced power and levelled out. Looking out of the side of the open cockpit over the silver elliptical wing of the Spitfire I realised at that precise moment my dream had finally become a reality.”
- Clive never publically revealed how much his dream-come-true cost him in hard cash. However, the decade-long labour of love was the subject of a book published in 1993.
In Birth Of A Spitfire he tells of the trials and tribulations of realising this lofty, hard won ambition.He says: “The book has been out of print for some years now. I’ve heard that copies are still in demand and in the USA they change hands for over 100 dollars.”However, he has updated it and turned it into an eBook which is available from the Kindle department of Amazon and other sellers.