April 14, 2024

 Once the bits and pieces were carted into Ambala, The IAF started pondering as to what the next step was going to be.

Based at Ambala at that time was the 41 Repair and Salvage Unit. 41 R&SU as they would be known was one of the oldest RSUs in the IAF’s Orbat. They have been involved in aircraft recovery and salvage right from the 1950s . The CO of the Unit , Wg Cdr PK Shrivastava, an Engineering Officer decided to take up the job of putting together the Relics in a ‘Static Restoration’. The Base Commander at that time, Air Commodore SK Sofat agreed to let the RSU attempt the task.

As Wing Commander Shrivastava explained to us when we visited the base, they decided to do an external restoration. I.e. construct a frame that would incorporate the existing bits and pieces and look complete from the outside, though it would not be an actual restoration per se according to Western Standards. But it would create a complete aircraft that would take up all the components that they had managed to salvage.

The first job was to get measurements and dimensions of the Mk VIII held at the IAF Museum in Palam. An Officer was duly sent to Palam to examine in detail Spitfire NH631 and returned with several measurements and readings. During the visit, the officer also managed to refer to the IAF Museum’s copy of ‘Spitfire International’ and take the details of MV-459.

The small makeshift ‘Museum room’ of 41 RSU displays this flowchart detailing the tasks of rebuilding MV-459 Click to Enlarge

The Relics were then cleaned out of the grime and dirt and ‘straightened’ out. Some components that were recovered could not be used. These included the burnt fuel tanks in front of the cockpit or the various skin panels that got torn out during the escavation from the river bed sand.

What was left of the wings were to be straightened up and reskinned. The top access panels and most of the skin panels were either taken off by the original crash team or have simply corroded away. This whole section required re-panelling. However the team did not build the control surfaces into the wing – the Spitfire wing does not have the Ailerons or the Flaps. It is assumed that the original flaps which can be seen in the pictures is enclosed within the panels of the wing.

Click to Enlarge Photograph shows the aircraft wings resting on jacks and the undercarriage being fixed.

It was a slow and frustrating process. One day they would find that the wing had drooped after the skinning was done, and they would set about taking it apart and correcting it again. The second day they would realize that the rods that hold the center fuselage with the tail section were not holding, and they would have to figure out an alternate method of fixing the rods .

One godsend was that the Spitfire had landed with its undercarriage raised. Thus the original U/C legs and covers were retracted into the wings and was in good condition. The U/C legs were lowered out and a set of wheels and tyres from another aircraft whose dimensions were about the same as a Spitfire were bought and affixed to the legs. And it was perfect.

Since the actual engine could not be fixed to the frame to be displayed, a frame structure was built up in front that would later be reskinned. Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge Taking Shape: Another view of the rebuilding in progress.

The trickiest part was to design the front engine cowlings. It was decided in the beginning itself that the Wrecked engine cannot be fixed onto the fuselage – The fuselage structure was too weak to take on the weight of the engine. Moreover, the Engine itself was quite broken up and taken apart in its original state. None of the original engine cowlings could be recovered .

So the only alternative was to construct a ‘shell’ which will be skinned to represent the complete aircraft. This was done in due course of time. A metal spinner was manufactured , But no propeller could be found or made, so the blades were carved out of wood and painted and affixed to the Aircraft.

At this stage, with all the riveting done on the fuselage, the aircraft was wheeled outside its hangar to be painted in primer and its display scheme. It was decided to paint the aircraft in exactly the same way the IAF Museum’s NH631 was done. And two tone scheme of grey and green promptly applied , with the original serial MV459 proudly painted at all the required locations.

Click to Enlarge Click to Enlarge
Two views of the aircraft before the final painting. The Spinner is yet to be fixed.

The team ran into the even more problems when it came to completing the cockpit, especially the Cockpit windshield and canopy. No Windshield frame or the bubble canopy existed during escavation, the originals probably removed by the 47 Crash investigation team for spares. Only one organization in North India had the facility to manufacture bubble canopies but they expressed their inability to devote time and resources to make one for the Spitfire. So Wg Cdr Shrivastava got his men to manufacture a mould and scratch build a Canopy using a mould made of wood and a hair dryer to heat up the perspex. It didn’t come out well, but it was better than displaying the aircraft without a canopy or windscreen.

Click to Enlarge Whatever components that could not be used for the restoration were promptly labelled and archived in the unit for future display.
This color-coded illustration shows the restoration activity. The area in Red had to be built up from scratch. The areas in Green were recovered from the wreckage site. Items not colored (i.e. Prop, spinner, wheels, canopy etc) were either not recovered or were not available at the crash site. Click to Enlarge

Finally, as the aircraft was completed, news came in that the Defence Minister Shri George Fernandes was due to visit Ambala to fly in a MiG-21 two seater of No.3 Squadron. Western Air Command had always been taking interest in the progress of the work with MV-459, and it was decided that the aircraft will be shown on the occasion.

August 1st was the day the Defence minister visited Ambala. And soon after his flight, he was taken to 41R&SU’s hangar and shown the Spitfire. The Defence Minister was very much appreciative of the work carried out by the team and congratulated all those involved.

Defence Minister George Fernandes with the Restored Spitfire VIII MV-459 and the senior officers of Ambala Air Force Station. Seen in the photograph are Air Commodore SK Sofat AOC Ambala, Air Marshal AR Ghandhi AOC-in-C WAC, the Defence Minister, Wg Cdr Shrivastava who carried out the restoration and Wg Cdr N Harish CO 3 Squadron. Pic Courtesy: Sainik Samachar Click to Enlarge

All the time the aircraft was in one of the hangars of No.41 R&SU. However it became quite apparent that a more permanent place has to be found for the aircraft. In October, when the new base commander, Air Commodore LK Malhotra took over, he identified a place where a permanent platform could be constructed.

This was promptly done and the Spitfire formally moved to the platform for permanent display on base. It was an occasion for celebration for all warbird enthusiasts in the country – and there was a tinge of sadness among the men of 41 RSU – as one of them said “After the amount of work we put it in it, we were slightly sad to let it go – it had become ‘our’ aircraft.”

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