South Normanton man's painstaking restoration project to bring back iconic Spitfire to our skies
Nearly 80 years since it was shot down over northern France, an iconic Spitfire ML295 is being painstakingly restored at the historic Biggin Hill airfield in Kent.
The MK9 Spitfire is owned by South Normanton flying enthusiast Graham Oliver, who is investing thousands of pounds into bringing the legendary aircraft back to life.
But the back story to the restoration project is a fascinating one which features the Spitfire’s Canadian pilot Hal Kramer being declared missing in action for eight weeks after it was hit by German anti-aircraft fire on July 30 1944.
He emerged from the cockpit unharmed but, deep in enemy territory, he made his escape by hiding in grass as a German patrol passed within just a few metres of him.
Remaining undetected, Kramer crawled through fields and woods until he made his way to a nearby farm.
It was there a priest hid the grateful pilot in his car boot and drove him to safety in a remote village where he was greeted by a French family, who kept him hidden for several weeks until Allies liberated the area.
Now eight decades later, the very plane which Kramer skillfully glided to touch down in a marshy northern French field is being carefully restored at the airfield where it began its journey in 1944.
Once finished, the Spitfire will be a two-seater variant to allow enthusiasts and family members of the pilots to take to the skies in the original aircraft – providing a fitting legacy to Kramer and his brave colleagues.
But how did Graham, a vet by profession, come to own the legendary aircraft?
Well, the origins can be traced back to the late 90s when his passion for flying first emerged but, unsurprisingly, the costs of buying and then bringing the Spitfire back to its full glory put such an ambitious project out of reach.
"I looked at Spitfire prices, out of the blue, back then,” says Graham. "I think they were around £700,000 and I was earning around £20,000 at the time and I thought ‘well, that’s very nice’!”
But as the 58-year-old grew his veterinary business so do his passion for flying and he never gave up on his ambition to own a Spitfire.
He bought other planes – includng a 1942 Tiger Moth and Maule – before eventually taking the plunge to buy one in 2017.
An initial, speculative Google led him to Peter Monk, owner of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar.
“I drove all the way down to Biggin Hill and Peter showed me round the heritage hangar and said ‘why are you here?’,” said Graham.
"I said ‘I understood you had a Spitfire for sale’ and he said ‘well, no not really. There’s this one here that the owner might be persuaded to sell’ . . . and then we started talking about what the possibilities were.
"Then he said ‘there’s one in a museum in Normandy’ and he said he’d known the curator there for many years because he flies Spitfires over Normandy beaches for the D-Day commemorations and that I could have a word with him. That’s where it’s come from. It was quite badly crashed.”
Graham funded his purchase after selling a stake in his business – which was launched in the mid-90s – and has been ‘pouring’ money into the restoration ever since.
The project itself is taking place at Biggin Hill – where the world’s biggest collection of Spitfires are – and is now in its fourth year, with Graham playing an enthusiastic and active role ahead of its eventual return to the skies.
"I try to get down there as often as I can. The amount of work involved in re-building them is colossal. A lot of the critical components for flying have to be re-made – pretty much from scratch. It’s very intensive on labour. With all the fixings, there’s something like 30,000 rivets. It’s a day’s work to put the engine in.
"There’s about 10 people working there, but they’ve got multiple projects on the go so they sort of dot and dab. If they know I’m coming there’s a flurry of activity!”
The costs involved are also eye-watering and can put a serious dent in anyone’s bank balance – especially as the plane was so badly damaged, although the cockpit was still intact.
And then there’s financial hit of operating the plane once it is finally airborne.
"Every 350 flying hours the propeller needs overhauling and that’s around £25,000 . . . the engine does 500 hours and that’s nearly £140,000 and then you’ve got all the other costs associated with it. A year’s insurance is £55,000 and then there’s hangaring and servicing. It just goes on,” said Graham.
So, when will Kramer’s MK9 Spitfire take to the skies for the first time since July 30 1944?
"It’s nearing completion, now, but is going to be moving to Gamston (near Retford),” says Graham, who said it will be hired out of the iconic Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire.
"It should have been ready a year ago but I’ve almost given up setting a time. It’s getting closer all the time.”
And Graham has also reached the stage of taking provisional bookings for flights in Spitfire, which he believes will be an attractive proposition to folk.
"Most people from my generation are in awe of Spitfires,” he said. “The engineering achievement; it’s a beautiful plane to look at; it’s a beautiful thing to fly and it had a really pivotal role – alongside the Hurricane – in the survival of this country in the Second World War.”
For details on how to book a flight, contact Graham via [email protected].