Inside the Spitfire Factory
The Supermarine Spitfire is synonymous with Biggin Hill airfield in Kent. A former RAF 11 Group Fighter Command sector station in the Second World War, Biggin Hill played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain, being heavily bombed in the process. The station remained operational and throughout the summer of 1940 Hurricanes and Spitfires rose from its runways to do battle with the Luftwaffe. Fighters continued to be based at the airfield until 1958 and the RAF remained until 1995 when the Aircrew Selection Centre moved to Cranwell. The airfield is now a thriving centre for both business and general aviation and also home to a rather special operation that has grown from small beginnings to become a centre of excellence for the restoration and operation of warbirds, and in particular, the Spitfire.
This organisation is the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar (BHHH), brainchild of Peter Monk. BHHH has two main operations, namely a comprehensive set of flight experiences and hangar tours run through flyaspitfire.com, and the restoration business, the Spitfire Factory, which has, to date, brought 15 of these famous fighters back to airworthy condition.
The BHHH started in 2011, centred on the operation of Peter’s first Spitfire restoration, MkIX TA805/G-PMNF ‘Spirit of Kent’ which Peter still owns. A second Spitfire, MkIX MK912 also joined the fleet having been restored between 1992 and 2000 and owned and operated by Ed Russell in Canada. Both Spitfires were on show at the BHHH nightshoot in November of that year alongside Harvard IIB G-CTKL restored to flying condition in 2009 by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS) at Rochester, while the fuselage of a third Spitfire could be seen in the hangar. This was MkXVI RW382 G-PBIX which flew again in 2013 in RAF 322 (Dutch) Squadron markings and has since taken on a new lease of life as the ‘Suffolk Spitfire’ painted in USAAF 31st Fighter Group colours and now based at Duxford.
Spitfire IXc MK912 G-BRRA running up its Merlin at the 2011 nightshoot.
The BHHH founding father! Spitfire IX TA805 G-PMNF 'Spirit of Kent.'
Flying again in 2009 after a comprehensive rebuild by MAPS at Rochester was Harvard IIB G-CTKL. Peter Monk co-ordinated the restoration on behalf of the aircraft's Hong Kong based owner.
The fuselage of Spitfire MkXVI RW382 G-PBIX could be seen in the BHHH hangar in 2011. The aircraft flew again in 2013 in 322 (Dutch) Squadron markings and is seen above being displayed by Dan Griffith at Damyns Hall in 2014. Below, RW382 can be seen at Duxford in its latest guise as the 'Suffolk Spitfire.'
The operation continued to grow, a second nightshoot visit in 2014 seeing Hurricane MkX AE977 performing, now part of the collection, while in the hangar MkXVI TE184 was undergoing its annual inspection with MkI X4650 also resident. Three fuselages were queued for restoration, namely MkV EP122, MkIX LZ842 and MkIX EE602, all of which are now airworthy. By 2016, the BHHH had outgrown its original base and the current facility was opened in March of that year giving the team a dedicated restoration hangar, a second hangar to house the airworthy aircraft and a tailor made base for operating the flight experiences.
Hawker Hurricane MkX AE977 G-CHTK running its Merlin at the 2014 nightshoot. The Hurricane had recently been repainted in the markings of Mk1 P2921 flown by Pete Brothers of 32 Squadron which was based at Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain.
Spitfire MkXVI TE184 G-MXVI was resident at Biggin Hill in November 2014 as it underwent its annual inspection and service.
Spitfire Mk1a X4650 G-CGUK at BHHH in 2014.
One of the projects on view at the 2014 nightshoot was Spitfire LFVc EE602 G-VMIJ which flew again in May 2015 after a three year rebuild. The fighter is seen here at the 2017 Biggin Hill Festival of Flight.
Fast forward to 2023 and the BHHH is open 364 days a year with two-seat Spitfires providing once in a lifetime flights whenever the weather allows. Prospective passengers can also choose to fly in P-51D Mustang G-CMDK, owned by Peter’s Warbird Experiences company and leased by the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight. This is the aircraft I flew with last July for an air-to-air photography experience. The camera ship was GippsAero GA8 Airvan G-CSPT which is usually used to allow a customer’s family and friends to fly alongside them during their warbird flight.
North American P-51D Mustang 44-73877 G-CMDK airborne from Biggin Hill in July 2022. The machine is owned by Warbird Experiences Ltd and leased by the Rolls Royce Heritage Flight who base the Mustang at East Midlands Airport. The Mustang is also available to fly passenger rides from Biggin Hill.
The view from inside BHHH's GA8 Airvan G-CSPT on approach to land at Biggin Hill.
As previously mentioned, hangar tours can also be booked and it was one of these that we undertook on April 13th to see the latest happenings at the facility. A warm welcome awaited us before our guide took us into the restoration hangar, explaining details about Biggin Hill that were well pitched for both the casual visitor and seasoned warbird enthusiast. A look at the current projects in the restoration hangar followed. These include the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Spitfire LFXVIe TE311 which is undergoing a ‘major.’ The work, which began in May last year, includes replacement of the carry-through spars, upper and lower spar booms and spar webs. The progress on two-seater conversion MkIX EN570 could also be seen. This Spitfire was shot down on 11th June 1943, its pilot F/O Gordon R Lindsay being killed. The wreckage was recovered in 2013 and purchased in 2018 by Norwegian Flying Aces, with restoration beginning with Airframe Assemblies in the Isle of Wight shortly after. Once complete, the aircraft will begin passenger rides in Norway.
Pride of place in the hangar was taken by the next project due to fly which is Spitfire MkI P9372. This ‘baby’ Spitfire flew with 92 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, based for part of the time at Biggin Hill. It was shot down near the airfield on 9th September 1940 during combat with Bf109s, Pilot Officer William Watling baling out with severe burns on his face and hands. The remains of the Spitfire were excavated in the 1970s with many parts put on display at the BHHH until 2019 when the decision was made to restore the aircraft. Once completed, the Spitfire should remain in the UK for a few years before moving to Holland.
Moving towards the second hangar, the fuselage of Spitfire MkIX MK912 could be seen. As mentioned above, this aircraft had joined the fleet in 2011 (see the image below from that year's nightshoot) and was a regular sight in the Kent skies until 2015 when an engine failure on take-off led to a force landing back on the airfield, thankfully without serious injury to pilot Dan Griffith. The Spitfire was badly damaged and its restoration is due to be progressed later this year.
Entering the next hangar, our eyes were immediately drawn to the ultra rare yellow nosed Messerschmitt Bf109E-4 W.Nr 3579. This machine served with LG2 at Westerland in April 1940 before the unit moved to Calais-Marck, France in July. On 10th August, future 158 victory ace Hans-Joachim Marseille joined I(J)/LG2 and on 2nd September flew 3579 in combat, the Messerschmitt being damaged to the extent that Marseille had to return to Calais-Marck and belly land the fighter on the airfield.
After repair, 3579 was issued to JG77 and served on the Russian front, being damaged again in December 1941. The aircraft was repaired once more and sent to JG5 in Norway, flying with the unit until 2nd August 1942 when combat damage saw pilot Lt Kurt Hammel force land the Bf109 on the front line. Abandoned, the Messerschmitt lay where it had fallen until 1992 when it was recovered to Moscow by the Russian Aircraft Recovery Group.
Sold and shipped to the United States, a six year restoration ensued and the aircraft spent time with the Museum of Flying in California and the Ed Russell Aviation Group in Ontario, Canada before being sold to its current owner in 2014 for display and exhibition in the UK. Unfortunately, apart from a few flights, problems with its Daimler-Benz DB601A engine have kept the aircraft grounded and the powerplant is currently away for overhaul in Austria. With the engine due back later this year, it is still planned to fly the aircraft on a limited basis.
Due to the continued shortage of critical metals and alloys during World War Two, German aero-engines suffered numerous problems. These impacted the combat capability of the Bf109Es replacement, the Bf109F which was fitted with the more powerful DB601E. However, due to issues with engine failures, pilots were initially forbidden from using full power. It was such an engine failure that caused the death of Hans-Joachim Marseille on 30th September 1942. Forced to abandon his flaming Bf109F, Marseille struck the vertical stabiliser and fell to his death. His 158 victories included 17 claimed in one day during three sorties on 1st September 1942.
Looking past the iconic shape of 3579, another yellow-nosed Messerschmitt could be seen, the profile giving away the fact that this is actually Rolls-Royce Merlin powered Hispano HA-1112-M1L Buchon ‘White 9’ which was acquired in late 2022 to provide the option of a tailchase with the passenger Spitfires.
Other airworthy aircraft in the hangar included Spitfire MkIX TE517, which became BHHH’s fifteenth completed restoration after its first flight on April 7th, and another relatively recent addition, Curtiss TP-40N Warhawk N293FR, which arrived at Biggin Hill in March 2021 and offers the tantalising prospect of passenger rides at some point in the future.
Long term projects were also on view with the fuselage of Spitfire LFIX ML119 sitting in front of the Warhawk in its Burmese Air Force markings. Another exciting prospect is Griffon-powered Spitfire MkXIVc RM694 which arrived at Biggin Hill in early 2021. It is one of the most original fuselages left to be restored and is therefore likely to remain at Biggin Hill once completed.
Hispano HA-1112-M1L Buchon ‘White 9’ G-AWHH acquired from Air Leasing in October 2022 to provide tail chase experiences.
Curtiss TP-40N Warhawk N293FR acquired in 2021
View of the second hangar with airworthy Curtiss TP-40N Warhawk N293FR, Hurricane MkX AE977 and Spitfire IX TA805 on show. In the front of the Warhawk is the fuselage of Spitfire LFIX ML119.
The fuselage of Griffon-powered Spitfire MkXIVc RM694
Ex-Burmese Air Force Spitfire LFIX ML119 awaiting its turn in the restoration queue
It’s not just airframes that are on display as there are various other items of memorabilia and also some classic vehicles. One of the most evocative sights is the bonnet of a World War Two era jeep that has been signed by many veterans that have visited the hangar over the last few years as the team keep the history of these machines and the people that flew and maintained them alive.
This is just some of the highlights that were on display and I could keep going for another thousand words! However, it’s really best to see for yourself if you get the chance.
For more information on hangar tours and flight experiences, visit www.flyaspitfire.com