By Edith Bevin
During World War Two they screamed through the skies defending the British Empire.
Today, in a boat shed on the edge of the Hobart’s River Derwent, a new version of an old warrior is being brought to life.
Rod McNeill’s love affair with the Spitfire began as a young teenager putting together model planes.
But as he got bigger, so did his ideas.
Now the 69-year-old Vietnam war veteran is building a fully-operational, full-sized, Spitfire Mark One from scratch.
“They’re probably one of the most beautiful planes to fly and they also look one of the best looking planes that are around,” Mr McNeill said.
“I think that’s what the attraction to them is, and also there’s not a lot of them are available — very few are flying so it was a combination of all those things put together.
“And also the opportunity came up to do this when I found out it was such a high price for the kit-scale version, it was good to work out that I can build one for less than I can buy a scale version.”
Many of the kit versions on the market are smaller than the original size and cost about $250,000.
President of the Spitfire Association Geoff Zuber said it may seem like madness to others, but the attraction of Spitfires transcends the generations.
“Every Spitfire looks beautiful from every angle — from the front, from above, from below from the side,” Mr Zuber said.
“It was a machine of war it was designed to be very effective at killing and very effective at defending itself, but it combined that with beauty.
“It’s an extraordinary undertaking because … it is an extraordinarily difficult aircraft to build.
“If you compare it to the American Mustang it’s rough equivalent, the Mustang was very American, very industrial; the Russians [aircraft] were agricultural, they were easy to put together, easy to fix; but the Spitfire represented British manufacturing and British aesthetic thinking. So just the thought of putting something like that together as a one off is in itself quite something.”
A big learning curve
Mr McNeill, a retired farmer, has spent thousands of hours researching, planning, and sourcing original parts, including the cockpit dials from a museum in the UK.
He’s also had to teach himself how to weld, work with carbon fibre, and use computer-aided design software. He said he also had to dust off some long forgotten lessons from his school days.
Mr McNeill has spent hours sourcing original parts, including the cockpit dials from a museum in the UK. (ABC News: Rob Reibell)
“A lot of research, probably nearly as much research in it as actually building it — that’s something that’s all new to me, I’d never done it before,” Mr McNeill said.
“It was a big learning curve for me. I hadn’t done a lot of TIG welding, I hadn’t done any carbon fibre work, and a lot of geometry and mathematics which I didn’t think I was interested in when I was at school.
“So I didn’t do very well [at those subjects] and ended up needing it badly in this. So that was a bit of a shock.”
But most of parts he has painstakingly crafted from hand, many through a process of trial and error, so that they are exact replicas of the original.
“When a pilot flies it he’ll feel like he’s flying the real thing — it’s taken a little bit more effort but I think it’ will be worth it,” he said.
“It’s a true replica. All the shapes you see here is from original drawings — all the dimensions are the same as the original.”
There are parts he could not do himself. He tracked down a replica plane manufacturer in the US to build the almost 3-metre long propeller, and it took five years to track down another craftsman in South Australia who could replicate the Spitfire’s cabin canopy.
A gun button without guns
There are a few differences. The original was aluminium with a V12 engine — this plane’s made out of carbon fibre with a V8.
This Spitfire will still reach speeds of more than 560 kilometres per hour.
Mr McNeill has been meticulous in getting the details exact, right down to the gun button.
“There originally were guns so there is a gun button but we won’t be putting guns in it … unfortunately,” he laughed.
“We probably will just have the ports showing where the guns were.”
It has already taken eight years to get to this point, it will be another two years before it is ready to fly.
“I know what individual components cost but I haven’t added it all up and I don’t know that I ever will,” Mr McNeill said.
“I’ve been advised not to add it all up.”
But the Vietnam War conscript said the act of keeping his hands and brain busy has had the unexpected benefit of keeping his post-traumatic stress disorder at bay, and he is adamant you cannot put a price on that.