The Spitfire is perhaps the most recognizable English airplane from World War II. The elliptical wings, tapered nose and tailwheel profile combine to make it one of the sleekest and sexiest designs in the sky.
For most pilots, owning an airworthy Spitfire is financially out of reach. That is, unless you opt for building a replica Spitfire — and a great many aviators are doing just that, says Mike O’Sullivan, CEO and founder of Supermarine Aircraft, which sells the kits to build the 90% scale replica Spitfire.
During this summer’s AirVenture, O’Sullivan could be found at the Replica Fighters Association display. And although his blue Spitfire replica, “High Lady,” was parked next to the Replica Fighters Association clubhouse, several people still asked if it was a Spitfire flown during World War II.
According to O’Sullivan, aviation — especially warbirds — are in his blood. He grew up in Australia, where there were a lot of retired British aircraft. He learned to fly as a teenager, noting that the family had a stable of warbirds.
“We even had a bomber for awhile,” he said. “The Spitfire has always been the airplane I am the most passionate about. I decided to build one of my own mainly because I didn’t have the money to buy one! To find an original one would cost about $300 million today. This one,” he gestured to the replica, “is closer to $300,000.”
O’Sullivan started Supermarine Aircraft in 1995, manufacturing the kits in Cisco, Texas. In 2003 the company evolved to include the sale of engines for the kits and the development of a re-drive system for better engine performance. The company website boasts: “Our Spitfires are sold and flying all over the world. There are Supermarine Spitfire reproduction kits currently flying in Australia, USA, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and Canada.”
The components for the kit are prefabricated from metal. They are pre-cut and pre-drilled using a computer-controlled CNC router cutter. The uniformity of parts makes it easier to put the airplane together, company officials note. The main spar and wing spars are fabricated and assembled, as are the control surfaces.
The hardware is aircraft grade. All completed components are corrosion protected.? The fuselage shell is completely ready for fit out.? The wings are pre-drilled, then disassembled for flat packing.? The hydraulic undercarriage legs include alloy wheels and disc brakes.
Cockpit instrumentation is left up to the builder, according to O’Sullivan. If he or she wants to, builders could install a glass cockpit, although most replica fighter builders are loyal to steam gauges for authenticity.
O’Sullivan, for example, has basic steam gauges in the cockpit and the rearview mirror for the pilot to “check six” in flight.
The replicas also feature a “donut” atop the control stick. There are many stories as to why the stick has this distinctive design. One is that the aircraft was so fatiguing to fly that pilots would stick their wrists through the hole to get a few minutes of relief for their aching forearms. But, according to O’Sullivan, the design helped less experienced pilots maintain control of the airplane as they were attempting to bring up the landing gear.
“They used to have to pump the gear up before they got hydraulic motors,” he explains. “You could tell who the newbies were because their airplanes would be porpoising up and down as they brought up the gear.”
The exterior paint is left up to the builder. Most people opt to go with a known design, painting their planes in the colors of Spitfires from countries that used them during the war. Earth tones are popular.
O’Sullivan’s replica is blue, with an American flag and the name High Lady emblazoned on the side.
Of course, there’s a story behind that.
“This aircraft is painted in homage to a Spitfire that was the first one to fly over Berlin on March 6, 1944, after the first American bombing raid. It came from the 8th Photo Group, overflying the city to look at the damage about an hour later. The pilot for that historic flight was Maj. Walter L. Weitner.”
O’Sullivan notes that some people are surprised that Americans were flying Spitfires during the war.
“High Lady came from a totally American squadron,” he says. “They had 250 Spitfires, all flown by Americans. They were a totally stand alone unit.”
O’Sullivan chuckles when he’s asked what kind of reaction he gets when High Lady lands. “People gather around,” he smiles. “They all want to see.”
Just as there are few full-sized flying Spitfires left in the world, there aren’t too many of the replicas out there either. “There are approximately 92 of them” says O’Sullivan.
Average build time is 1,200 hours, but there are some builders who come in well under that because they are in a rush to go from the project stage to flying.
“There was one chap in Australia who, at the age of 82, built one in six months and was flying it in about nine months,” he said.
Another point of pride for O’Sullivan: He proudly notes that pilots who have flown full-sized Spitfires have told him the replicas fly like the real thing.
The bottom line: Cost of a firewall back kit is $168,000, which does not include the engine, propeller, instruments, and paint. Expect to pay between $220,000 and $250,000 to complete the kit.
For more information: SuperMarineAircraft.com