On August 5th 2019, a Mk IX Spitfire, restored and stripped back to a striking bare metal finish, will take off from the Boultbee Flight Academy at Goodwood Aerodrome, the first step of a hugely ambitious bid to fly the fighter around the world, the first time such a feat has been attempted.
Pilots Matt Jones and Steve Brooks will take it in turns at the controls for the 100 individual flights that make up the journey in a projected four months. The aim of The Longest Flight is to inspire people along the route, flying low where possible to allow people to experience the famous aircraft first hand, both through its iconic silhouette and the roar of its 27-litre V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
The Silver Spitfire, as it is being called, will head first to Canada and on to New York, benefiting from milder Arctic summer weather. After crossing the USA, it will head north to Vancouver before criss-crossing the Pacific, arriving in Tokyo on September 17th. Via Korea and India it will make Abu Dhabi by November 4th, before beginning the home stretch across Europe. All being well, it will arrive back at Goodwood on December 7th.
“The Spitfire was designed to take off, fly for a very short length of time, build a wall essentially, and come back down to land with flight times of 45 minutes or so,” explains Jones. “In doing that job, it won the hearts of people all around the world in defending democracy and freedom. There’s barely a country that wasn’t touched by it during World War II and what we want to do is reunite it with a lot of those places. We’re lucky that we see a lot of them flying here, but lots of places don’t and we want to be able to share that.”
The only logo featured on the fuselage of the Silver Spitfire will be that of IWC Schaffhausen, the project’s main backer, in what must surely be one of the most genuine partnerships in the watch industry given that IWC supplied the RAF with around 8,000 Mk11 navigator watches between 1949 and 1953. It also happens to have an entire collection named after the famed British fighter plane which itself has been overhauled by the brand this year.
Jones first contacted IWC five or six years ago when he and Brooks first set up the academy, making the acquaintance of Christoph Grainger-Herr, IWC’s current CEO who was, at the time, head of marketing. The conversation was enthusiastic but ultimately led nowhere; however, Grainger-Herr was immediately receptive when re-approached with the Silver Spitfire concept, even turning up at the West Sussex hangar unprompted.
Now bearing the modern registration G-IRTY, the Silver Spitfire was built in Castle Bromwich and completed in October 1943, starting out with the RAF serial number MJ271, flying fighter sweeps, dive bombing attacks and escorting heavy bombers, beginning in early 1944. It completed a total of 51 sorties as part of the RAF’s 118 and 132 squadrons, and later 401 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (which had fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940), before transferring to the Royal Netherlands Air Force soon after the war ended in 1945.
The fighter has two years being stripped down and restored by a team of 15 mechanics from Duxford's Aircraft Restoration Company before being hand-polished to a gleaming silver using techniques and materials that preserve some of the patina left by the plane's engines (we're not sure whether there was any crossover in polishing technicians between IWC's watchmakers and the restorers, or who has the harder job...). More than 20,000 rivets have been individually examined; the propellor, undercarriage and several other parts had to be replaced, and extra fuel pumps and vacuum pumps have been fitted as fail-safes. In early July, flight testing began, with one month to go before the Grand Depart.
Jones explains this aircraft is particularly rare and original as it was mothballed to become a museum piece in Holland while still in airworthy condition, and subsequently had not flown for 60 years. The majority of Spitfires still airworthy today are akin to “Trigger’s brooms” through decades of replacement parts and rebuilds.
The Supermarine Spitfire was designed as a short-range interceptor and despite numerous upgrades and modifications throughout the course of its service career it could never fly more than 434 miles using its internal tanks. So why did Jones and Brooks choose to fly around the world in such an unsuitable aeroplane?
“Our business, the Boultbee Flight Academy, is a Spitfire business,” says Jones. “We teach people to fly the aircraft, we have the only Spitfire simulator in the world, we do lots of passenger flights so it was really the only aeroplane we were ever going to fly around the world.”
The team turned to modifications that were first developed in WWII when some Spitfires were reconfigured for photo reconnaissance flights deep into enemy territory. They have added a further six fuel tanks (two in each wing and two behind the pilot’s seat) boosting the fuel capacity from the standard 85 gallons to 200 gallons, increasing the aeroplane’s range to between 850 and 900 nautical miles when flying at 180 knots at 1,500ft.
Should either of the pilots find themselves needing to go further, pulling up to 20,000ft should increase the Silver Spitfire’s range by a further 50 per cent, although Jones points out that data for the engine and the aeroplane flying at that altitude simply doesn’t exist.
“The longest flight we’re currently doing is 430 nautical miles,” explains Jones. “The reason we’ve put the extra tanks in to enable that kind of range is because some of the places we’re departing from are also our ‘alternate’, so if the destination goes down through bad weather or an aircraft in front of us crashes, our only alternative is to turn around.”
If these situations arise anywhere they are likely to happen in north-east Russia where populated areas and therefore airfields are sparsely distributed. As a consequence, it is difficult to get live information relating to weather and the airfields en route, something pilots take for granted when flying over Europe. Instead, the team will phone ahead before each departure and get the best information available at that time and hope it holds true for the duration of their flight.
Despite the aircraft’s obvious wartime links, the pilots have been keen to “demilitarise” the Silver Spitfire project. “It’s exactly as it flew in the war except we wanted to remove the guns,” Jones explains. “We didn’t want this to be about aggression but rather the beauty of engineering and we haven’t painted it for the same reason. It’s about the beautiful lines of the aircraft; it was probably too beautiful for purpose. But we’ve kept everything so we can restore the Spitfire to its original state on our return, if that’s what we decide to do.”
The cockpit too is almost entirely original, the only additional contemporary equipment being a navigational and communication aid that will feed the aeroplane’s GPS co-ordinates to an iPad.
The resting pilot will follow behind aboard a Pilatus PC-12 light aircraft also carrying a support crew, including an onboard mechanic. The team, which is more accustomed to 20-minute flights and frequent landings on rough grass airfields, believes the Spitfire’s landing gear will cope well with the comparatively smooth landing strips it will encounter along the route, but maintenance is to be expected when flying a 75-year-old aircraft.
“It’s really the general consumables,” Jones predicts. “The vacuum pump might pack up, the electric or the engine-driven fuel pump might pack up, those sorts of things. They’re all original parts even though they’re overhauled; the internals are still all original, so we do have a few issues - hence the spares.”
IWC has also issued the two pilots some equipment that is certain to be more predictable: a brace of its 2019 Timezoner Spitfire Edition “The Longest Flight” watches. The Timezoner was first introduced as part of the IWC brand in 2016; the patented technology purchased from Michael Vogt, owner of independent watch brand Vogard.
The first watch, a chronograph with the Timezoner complication (an ingenious worldtimer adjusted using its rotating city ring bezel) overlaid as a module, was an awkward beast; its dial suffocating under the weight of available information and its case cumbersome due to the depth of the combined movement and module, and the need for four central hands which increased the height between dial and sapphire crystal. But IWC has persisted, not prepared to give up on the interesting complication after its first outing.
In January, IWC revealed its second version of the Timezoner, this time to celebrate the Silver Spitfire project, and now reflecting the simplicity of the complication with a pared-back design. Gone are the sub dials required for a chronograph with the only addition to the dial, other than the date at three o’clock, a window covering a 90° arc that sits at 12 o’clock displaying the 24-hour worldtimer zone, controlled by the rotating bezel. It’s a far more successful take on the complication this time around: more compact (if a 46mm watch can ever be considered compact) and suggesting a robust military sense of purpose rather than the overly fussy chronograph that came before it.
The Timezoner Spitfire Edition “The Longest Flight” is also the sole steel-only watch in this year’s new Spitfire collection. Those seeking to purchase either the chronograph or the simple Mk XVIII-esque automatic have the choice between stainless steel case, black dial and green textile strap or bracelet, or bronze case, olive drab dial and a studded brown leather strap.
The two final complications are bronze-only: a simple 41mm UTC, or at the other end of the spectrum, a full-on 46mm perpetual calendar.
IWC’s shake-up of its Spitfire collection is not to be underestimated. The watches have always represented a compelling entry into the brand’s wider pilot watch collection, with more sensible case sizes and more accessible pricing, too.
But now, IWC has enhanced the line, not only through the use of on-trend bronze cases, which is sure to stoke demand, but also with in-house movements for the first time instead of pieces from Sellita. The chronographs use 69000 family movements already found in the Pilots and Ingenieur collections, automatics from the 82000 and 32000 families, and the same 52615 perpetual calendar movement used by the Portugieser QP.
While the Silver Spitfire can be sure of a hero's welcome when it arrives back from its journey - and hopefully at many of its stops along the way - it has already given Jones and Brooks a taste of the limelight to come. In January IWC built its notoriously lavish Gala Ball, held each year at SIHH in Geneva, around the Silver Spitfire partnership. Jones and Brooks were centre stage with Grainger-Herr interviewing them beside the fireplace in a fastidiously recreated pilot officers’ mess. But the standout moment came when Jones taxied a Spitfire out onto the stage with the Merlin engine filling the vast auditorium with its deafening roar.
“It’s certainly not normal behaviour,” recalls Jones. “I don’t think anything these guys do is normal and I love them for that. The whole event was mind-blowing. The dedication that went into making it perfect went way above our hopes and dreams. They’ve kind of ruined me I’m afraid, because I’m never going to go to another party again unless I can drive in — in a Spitfire — and get a round of applause from everyone. They’ve created a monster.”
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