3/4 Scale Spitfire donated to project by Nico Brandt

An Ode to a 3/4 Scale Spitfire: How it all began

Article by Nico Brandt

I have always felt that it was my father’s fault, although he would have no doubt said ‘influence’ was a better word. He took a magazine called Aeroplane, which mainly dealt with aviation in England and even before I could read, I would be totally absorbed in gazing at the photographs, and he would tell me what the planes were. It didn’t take me long to memorise the different aircraft and their names.

As I grew older, he would take us kids to the ‘War Museum’ in Saxonwold, near the Joburg Zoo. That, of course, is now known as The Ditsong National Museum of Military History. But then, it was ‘the museum’, a place I could get lost in, and dream up all kinds of fantasies, fueled by war comic books and Airfix 1/72 scale models of second world war aircraft. When I visited, there was always one plane that stood apart from the others, devoid of camouflage: a polished beauty, and probably like many other little boys, and it started a lifelong obsession for me: the Spitfire.

My ceiling was a bit like a spider’s web when I was eight. I had Messerschmitt 109s and 110s being pursued by Hurricanes and Spitfires, all hanging from the ceiling on fishing line – Some trying to get away, others being shot down. There were long trails of cotton wool streaming behind, painted as if burning, punctured wings and fuselages to represent bullet strikes, with holes created with a hot needle held in a pair of pliers, parachutes made from ping pong balls cut in half and attached to scale pilots by thin cotton strings, swinging in the air after they had escaped from their stricken aircraft.

At Parktown Boys High School, when I was in standard 8, my music teacher Mike Bird (also an artist), took an interest in my hobby. He rented some documentaries of the Second World War, and it was on these that I first heard the magical Merlin singing its song, a sound that is never forgotten. One that never fails to raise goosebumps and, I must admit, sometimes a tear or a lump in the throat. Not everyone will understand that, of course: only the chosen ones. With his tuition, I soon started some serious pencil drawings and ink sketches of aerial war scenes.

This only lasted for two years, until I was 17, and the allure of girls, bikes and teenage life led me astray. The Spitfire was temporarily set aside as I pursued another chapter in my life but always backed by events like the film ‘The Battle of Britain’ and, in time, the appearance of Evelyn.

My involvement in aviation hadn’t hatched yet, so I was completely oblivious to the rebuild of Evelyn. One day, I heard that unforgotten sound at a meeting with the Transvaal Provincial Authority and a team at the Johannesburg College of Education. I saw the architect also tense and look up. I made a gesture, and we locked eyes. I pointed and asked, ‘Rolls Royce Merlin?’ He just nodded, and we both rushed out of the meeting to watch Evelyn fly over Parktown, doing a photo shoot. Of course, I attended every opportunity to watch her fly, took photographs and was indeed sad when she left our shores.

However, another chapter was to begin. I started flying with what I could afford in November 1995. I was working near Bapsfontein when one Friday afternoon after work, as I stopped at a T junction, I heard this dreadful noise overhead. I looked up, and there was a trike microlight, and the pilot caught my eye and waved. I waved back, and he indicated to me to follow, which I did. All the way to Microland, where I went up for my first lesson with Steve Roe.

A few years later, I moved to Panorama Flight Park, south of Johannesburg, and one day after flying, I was heading home when I halted at a stop street, looked right for traffic and saw this so familiar shape, far in the distance. I knew immediately that it was a Spitfire and stalled the car as I got out and watched in absolute surprise as Andrew Torr flew low over the airfield and gunned the Merlin engine. That ignited the dormant spark: I had to have my own Spitfire.

Around that time, I met Rob Macfie, who was based at Panorama, and after telling him about it, he showed me the Mustang he had built. It was a ¾ scale wood and fabric replica marketed by a company called Loehle in America. He mentioned that they were working on a Spitfire to be launched soon.

I realised that I would never own a full-size “Merlin and metal” Spitfire and gave this a lot of thought. I contacted Mike Loehle in America in January 2004: his company was developing a wood and fabric ¾ scale Spitfire powered by a Rotex 582. The aircraft was in the very early design stages, and only the fuselage mock-up had been completed and was not nearly ready for sale to the public.

I think Mike recognised a passion like his in me after many hours of chatting across the ocean in what was the middle of the night for me, and we struck a deal. I would be the first recipient of a fuselage, with the wings to follow a year later as their project progressed.

The first sections of the fuselage were delivered in May 2005, and construction started in my garage. More lights than usual were required, and some wall heaters. My wife readily agreed that my hangar was too cold and too far away for the late nights envisaged ahead.

Once the kit had arrived, I went to CAASA and obtained a build number, and I could reserve the registration ZU-SPT. As sad as the memories around this registration are, I felt it is fitting that another Spitfire grace our skies with it and not some other aircraft in the future.

The core of the fuselage is based on the Mustang 5151, which Rob McFie flies here in S.A. It consists of timber bulkheads and longerons, strengthened with multitudes of geodetic bracing. One then adds the tail fin and the formers, giving it the full shape. In time, when fitted out, it will be covered in cloth and painted in a SAAF desert scheme. 

Mike, with his father, who designed and supplied the P5151 Mustang, P40 Kittyhawk, Curtis Jenny and Parasol, tried to keep the Spitfire as true to scale as possible. This, of course, is subject to certain design limits concerning engine weight and has resulted in the wing being moved nine inches back to allow for mass and balance. The cockpit has remained to scale and will be a tight fit for an average pilot.

My build of the fuselage reached a point of completion far quicker than we had imagined; it was a simple structure. In a matter of weeks, I had built as far as I could, and with the wings a year away, I started to add formers to give it the shape, from a box to the superb streamlining of the thoroughbred we know. Mike had agreed that I could fit a Rotax 912 instead and feed the coolant to an underwing radiator. With that in mind, I built an additional bulkhead behind the position for the Rotax 582, which gave ample space for the new motor I had already purchased.

Weeks dragged into months and years as I tried to get the wings and sundry parts from Loehle. Mike eventually suggested I employ an engineer here in SA to design the wings as they had abandoned the project and that I purchase the materials needed to finish the build here. He also declined to reimburse me for the kit or even part thereof.

Unfortunately, I felt the added costs did not warrant continuation, so I abandoned the project and hung it up in my hangar for some unknown future fate.

I was pleasantly surprised ten years later when I had a call from Ian Grace. Our many conversations, his passion, and his ambitious plans to convert it into a Spitfire simulator led to my happily parting with it, knowing it was going to a deserving cause.

I wish everyone involved in the restoration of Spitfire 5518 everything of the best, and I hope they will have great pleasure and fulfilment in completing their project successfully. Perhaps one day, I will get the chance to sit in her cockpit and let the moment’s thrill wash away the disappointment I endured those many years before.

Baby Spitfire ¾ scale arrives at Swartkop and is welcomed by the team.