Visit to Spitfire display at Hanley Museum                       21st October 2004         

Organised by Ian Clark.         Article and pics by John Ridyard.

      Now that the dark evenings are with us, what do most Austin Healey Club members do for entertainment on a cold wet Thursday evening in October?
     Visit the Potteries Museum in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent for a lecture? not the usual format for a standard meeting. However this was something extra special, but not truly automotive in this instance, for we were to be treated to a talk on the fabulous Spitfire (Not Triumph in this case) and as a back drop was an example of this wonderful flying machine famous for its vital role in winning the battle of the skies in WWII. In addition there was another reason why this aircraft should be displayed in Stoke-on-Trent, for this city was the birth place of its designer Reginald Mitchell, and as it happens I pass his birth place in Butt Lane everyday to and from my place of work, of which I was not aware until this evening.
      This event had been organised by Ian Clark of the Leek sub-centre, and in addition to the local AHC members, Ian had kindly opened the invitation to those Northern Centre members that lived within reasonable traveling distance of Stoke-on-Trent.
      Therefore on a very wild October evening, there assembled in the region of 30 members and friends in the warmth of the Potteries Museum foyer, and promptly at 7.30pm we were all led into one of the main halls on the ground floor of the museum. To be greeted with a view of a Spitfire MkXVI standing in all its glory, even though it was in a obvious state of restoration one could not ignore the feeling of ore that such a item of History deserves. I suppose the Spitfire has a special meaning to people of our generation, with the knowledge of what a special place it has in the History of this country.
      Our guest speaker for the evening was the guardian and the man responsible for the restoration of this complicated and costly project namely Mark Harris, aptly designated as a Director of the Supermarine Aero Engineering company of Burslem Stoke-on-Trent.

Mark Harris in front of his baby. Better than an Airfix.  

     Mark began his talk with a brief history of this particular MkXVI (Spitfire RW 388), having seen the light of day on 18/07/45 Contractor: Vickers Armstrong (Castle Bromwich), Contract Number: B981867/39, Engine: Merlin 266 (Packard build) of 27ltrs capacity, being commissioned into the 667 squadron. This particular aircraft never actually saw active fighter service, and after a spell in the Battle of Britain display it was presented to the City of Stoke-on-Trent in 1969 as a recognition of the designer's birth place. Initially it was put on display in a "glass house" outside. As we are all aware green houses produce vast amounts of condensation, and unfortunately this took its toll on RW 388 in the form of the fuselage skin parting company with most of its rivets. Fortunately with the building of a new museum in Hanley to celebrate the areas pottery industrial heritage, the Spitfire was re-housed in a permanent display where a full restoration could begin, and in addition outside the museum stands a statue to Reginald Mitchell. 
     Mark then talked about the history of the Spitfire from its fledgling days of the record breaking Supermarine flying boat and the winning of the Schneider Trophy before the second world war on to its development into the Spitfire we all recognise. Apparently the MOD only ordered 300 or so Spitfire for fighter duties against the superior Luftwaffe as the thinking was that bombers would dominate and give air supremacy in the end. Therefore each Spitfire was very much an individual hand built item, with little or non uniformity of parts across the plane. Its innovative monocoque construction build method, using formers, frame assemblies, and bulkheads to give shape to the fuselage, and with its skin to carry the primary stresses was to be used in the aero industry for many years right into the late 1960s. In fact the later Spitfires were used as test beds for many avionic experiments and devices that found their way into subsequent jet fighters, so it can be seen what a versatile plane it was. The Spitfire was in production from 1938 to 1948, the Mk.1 of 1938 having a 990hp Merlin (27ltr) and a top speed of 350 mph, to the Mk.47 of 1947, with a 2200hp Griffon (36ltr) and a top speed of 452 mph, truly a quantum leap in performance and technology. Comparing planes of the period it can be said that other aircraft, such as the Messerschmitt 109, had reached the end of their life long before the Spitfire did. In all, over 20,000 Spitfires and Seafires were built. Today, it is only a handful that fly on in the hands of private owners and with the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and long may that continue.


     Next the evenings event was opened up to the audience for questions to be put to Mark, before we were guided around the display. Many questions were directed towards the restoration of such an aircraft and the vast amounts of money needed to put it back to working plane. Well at a rough guess we were talking something in the region of 1 million pounds and a vast amount of free labour to get it near to flying again, but with "sky high" costs in keeping it in the air, this project would not fly again. However Mark put out the bait to all in attendance by offering the opportunity to help in its restoration in our spare time, this was greeted with a stony silence, as I suppose most present had experienced a Austin Healey build, so to multiply that a 1000 fold  was enough to frighten any one. So then it was to the guided tour around the Spitfire, however this was mainly confined to the magnificent 27ltr, 1200hp Packard built Merlin engine and the two stage super-charger, petrol heads to the end!
     Due to the limited time allotted to us the visit had to come to an end at 9.30pm, with our appetite just wetted we had to leave, but not before Ian had thanked on our behalf our guest speaker Mark Harris for his time and for imparting his enthusiasm for this wonderful piece of aviation history. Then it was back to a normal evenings meeting, we all retired to the lost hostelry for a slight libation.

OK. Who nicked the exhaust manifold?  
Now if you can imagine two Browning machine guns pointing at you.  
New regalia? As Healey pilots Ridyard and Haslam take the Michael out of Wing Commander Broster.