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Fri, Apr 16, 2004

Spitfire Reborn as Thoroughbred Experimental

By Kevin "Hognose" O'Brien

Mike O'Sullivan remembers Spitfires fondly, and personally. "I had RAAF pilots - Spitfire pilots - in my family. Not my dad, he was in the Navy. But my uncles." Mike smiles, like many of us, when he remembers his earliest interest in aviation. "Yeah, I always wanted to fly. There were always airplanes around the station. Old surplus airplanes, not serviceable… Mustangs, Spitfires." Those planes were destroyed - so much old, irreparable junk, by the standards of the day - before Mike appreciated what they were, or what they signified. But they left their mark.

Mike is in the USA to introduce his successful Supermarine Spitfire kit to the American market. The well-finished demonstrator, now the property of American dealer Craig Muth, is approximately 80% scale. Mike always wanted a Spitfire but as his wealth grew he watched with dismay as Spitfire price tags grew at a faster rate. Finally he decided that, if he couldn't buy a Spitfire, he would build one. He wangled a set of production prints for the Mark IX Spitfire and scaled them down, and built his new plane according to the original plans. The idea was not to start a company, but to build a one-off machine. The problem with that idea is that everybody who saw Mike's original plane wanted one.

Thinking that this might be an opportunity, Mike formed a company - Supermarine Aircraft Ltd., now based in Brisbane, Australia - and began to make kits. Remarkably, he has sold 45 of the kits before even tackling the US. "They are most popular in Britain, I've sold a lot in Europe and have one flying n Canada," Mike said.

The aircraft is available with 8-cylinder Jabiru or 230/240 HP GM V-6 automotive power. Mike's plane was the first to fly with the Jabiru; normal teething frustrated both parties, and I get the impression that he wouldn't recommend trying to shake down an airframe and an engine at the same time again. A cunningly clever cold air manifold provides the Jabiru's air cooling, with two barely noticeable "nostrils" above the prop spinner a rare clue to how the engine really keeps its cool.

What does the Spitfire handle like? The original was legendary for its easy handling and harmonious controls. "Any pilot who's comfortable in a taildragger can fly this," Mike said. But that doesn't mean it's unlike the original. "I have a very experienced RAF pilot here, a man who's flown many hours in original Spits. And he says the handling compares favourably."

But, Mike is asked, what about scale effect? Aero engineers know that when airplane parts are downsized, because air molecules aren't, the effect can be disproportionate. "Yeah, I believed that too, till I built the plane!" He insists that the plane shows no such deleterious effects of downsizing.

The Spitfire cruises at 160 kt. There is a 2-seat cockpit; the entry is a bit claustrophobic for the passenger, but hey, it's a Spitfire, right?

This airplane is not the machine for you if your concerns are primarily utilitarian: range, load, speed. But it is a Walter Mitty experience accessible to the ordinary pilot and builder. The Spitfire is a shape, beautifully shaped by the laws of physics and the hands of man, that gets under your skin. Halfway through the interview, Mike and I were trading favourite scenes from Spitfire-laden movies like Dark Blue World, The Battle of Britain, and Piece of Cake. To quote Mike (from his website, which he says is overdue for an update, which it'll get sometime after the show): "I have invested over $2.5 million over eleven years now and every penny has been worth it to see Reginald Mitchell's aircraft fly again."

FMI: http://www.supermarineaircraft.com

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