Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk XI - PL965
Although most people associate the Spitfire as a fighter, one of the many variants produced during the war was the photo reconnaissance version. Such a mark was refurbished to flying condition over a period of three years at Rochester beginning in 1988. Nicknamed 'Stella', it was built in 1944 at Aldermaston and designed to operate at high altitudes of over 40,000ft and speeds of over 400mph. She was fitted with a 1,750hp Merlin engine and a cluster of three cameras instead of the usual armament of cannon and machine guns. After a period at a maintenance unit, PL 965 was issued to 16 Squadron then based at RAF Northolt on April 16 1944. Carrying out high altitude photographic work, the aircraft was often intercepted by the new German jet Messerschmitt 262 which was one of the few aircraft fast enough to reach her. Bullet holes found in the fuselage are an indication that it did receive several hits but was not shot down.
After the war, the aircraft became surplus to requirements and was sold to the private sector. It was placed at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk to await its fate. Purchased by the Dutch Air Force Engineering School as an instructional airframe, it served in this role for many years before a team from RAF Bruggen decided to carry out a refurbishment. Once completed, the aircraft was placed out of doors and on concrete blocks in the middle of a wood.
In 1987, the late Nick Grace and his partner Chris Horsley purchased the aircraft with a view to getting it airworthy once again. Sadly, Nick was killed in a tragic road accident and Chris contacted MAPSL to restore it to flying condition. The task took some 45,000 man hours and in the words of Managing Director Lewis Deal MBE: "This was the first war plane to be built in Kent since 1943. It is 80 per cent original and the restoration incurred us to strip the entire fuselage. The new engine, a Packard Merlin, was flown in specially from America."
Once completed, the aircraft was test flown by the late Mark Hanna in front of an invited audience that included nine former pilots and two airframe fitters from the aircraft's squadrons. Today PL965 is part of the Hangar One collection owned by Peter Teichmann and based at North Weald. It regularly flies at airshows and when in the area always overflies Rochester. The rebuild to flying condition was a testimonial to the skill of the men from Medway.
PL965 as she was before being moved by MAPSL