No passing glory for a flying star

THE RAF was 75 years old last week, and in many people's eyes the Spitfire, the legendary fighter designed by R J Mitchell and Joseph Smith and powered by Rolls-Royce, remains its most potent symbol.

Why? Because the Spitfire is one of the most beautiful and charismatic of all aeroplanes. Its profile, the sound it makes, and its wartime successes have enthralled fans of all ages from around the world. True, other contemporary fighters bettered it in war, were engineered to a higher calibre, and were easier to maintain; but none quite matched the charisma of the steel-and-aluminium Spitfire.

The RAF has continued to employ Spitfires as squadron mascots or, as it calls them, 'gateway guardians'. Many have survived complete and, despite nearly 50 years in the open, in relatively good condition.

In the past five years, five of these have been rescued by Historic Flying Ltd, a vintage aircraft restoration firm in Saffron Walden, Essex, set up by Tim Routsis, a Cambridge businessman. This week, one owned by Eddie Coventry, a 56-year-old Essex double-glazing millionaire, takes to the air.

Mr Coventry is one of a growing band of peacetime Spitfire pilots. 'There are 27 Spitfires flying in Britain today and 41 worldwide,' said Clive Denney, of Historic Flying. 'It take us 13,000 man-hours to restore the gate guardians for around pounds 500,000; it costs around pounds 2,500 an hour to fly one, but there is no shortage of takers. The supply of aircraft is falling all the time, yet the number of airworthy Spitfires continues to grow.'

Mr Coventry's 1944 MkXVI Spitfire, painted silver with a red stripe is, according to its proud owner, 'better than it was when first built'. He calls it 'The FB' ('the full bollocks,' he explains) and these initials are painted below its perspex canopy.

'Eddie's Spitfire can be flown as fast and as hard as he dares,' Mr Denney said. 'We're not re- creating museum pieces, but rebuilding, as authentically as safety permits, real, working Spitfires.' The only difference is that today they are designed not to kill but simply to thrill.

In many ways an airworthy Spitfire is a mechanical pterosaur; it has no room for even the smallest passenger, guzzles 45 gallons of fuel an hour and can stay airborne for less than three hours. It is impractical to take on solo jaunts abroad, because, like a pedigree racehorse, it needs its trainer and grooms.

However, it is a practical proposition to own and fly one. Some symbol; some plane.

(Photograph omitted)