Rhodesian Spitfire Documentary

For many years after World War II, the aircraft of the war were just, “old.” In the heady Jet Age, wartime transports still had economical utility, but the combat types were quickly left behind. They were relegated to duties as instructional airframes for novice mechanics (“learn riveting on this, it’ll never fly again so you can’t screw it up”) or stuck up on plinths as gate guards, showcasing the raw roots of the world’s newest military forces. And those were the survivors: the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of warplanes built for the war ended as scrap metal in the greedy furnaces of postwar industrial recovery. The combat life of a warplane might have been 25 to 100 hours during the war, and perhaps two years from variant introduction to obsolescence; but after the war, the pace of research and development didn’t let up, and the frontline jets of 1946 were outclassed by time of the Berlin Airlift of 1949.

22-PK350PRACollection-001

This devastated the world supply of WWII combat types, and entire types became extinct. Even those most historic, most pleasant to fly, most likely to wind up as a rich man’s toy, were endangered species.

In the 1970s, this began to change, as a new appreciation for the old types led to recoveries and restorations. Now, there are more Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs flying than there were ten years ago, or ten years before that, or ten years before that. Even “extinct” types like the Mitsubishi A6M2 “Type 0” carrier fighter, and the Me 262 jet, have returned to the air. This is amazing, because while the Mustang, at least, was an industrial product whose documents are widely available, some of the others, especially the British and Japanese types, were more like machines that were “hand built in quantity,” and no two are quite the same. (The engineers of Packard Motor Car Corporation traveled to England’s Rolls-Royce plant to pick up a technical data package for the Merlin aircraft engine and see how the engines were built. They were appalled, and realized that they’d have to redesign the engine for modern industrial processes, which they then did very rapidly and so successfully that some marks of Spit were adapted to the American versions of Merlin engines).

One of the guys who was part of that early wave of Spitfire appreciation was John McVicar “Jack” Malloch, a former Spitfire pilot turned aviation entrepreneur in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which declared independence as a republic in 1965. Soon after independence, the UN placed sanctions on the Rhodesian government, and Malloch became an imaginative and effective blockade runner and sanctions buster. (He’d already had experience of clandestine aviation during the Biafra War).

And he renewed his love affair with the Spitfire. He and his team of mechanics restored Griffon-powered Spitfire Mk22 PK350, which had last flown 26 years prior. The restoration took 2 1/2 years, and saw Malloch’s initials “JMM” used as the plane’s buzz codes. When Malloch took the first flight, in March 1980, he had done high-speed taxi testing of PK 350 and had flown lots of other aircraft for thousands of hours, including some pretty hairy combat aviation (outflying MiGs in four-motored transports at treetop level, among other things). But he hadn’t flown a Spitfire in 20 years himself.

This video was produced by former Rhodesians in the Zimbabwe Air Force in 1982, after the death of Malloch in a mishap in this very Spitfire. In fact, quite a few of the long scenes of him dodging into and out of clouds in the Spit were filmed on his fatal flight on 26 March 1982. As near as anyone can tell, he entered a thunderstorm which either disoriented him or so upset the aircraft that he could not recover. He was killed instantly in a high-speed impact with the ground.  Nothing of PK350 was salvageable. To date, it remains the only fully evolved late (Griffon-powered, bubble-canopy) Spitfire to be restored to flight.

Not long after the video was made, Zimbabwean president-for-ever Robert Mugabe executed the first of several purges of the air force. Over the years since, it went from a force of unquestioned competence and doubtful loyalty to Mugabe’s person, to a force of laughable incompetence but unquestionable loyalty to the dictator. Rhodesia produced men like Jack Malloch; Zimbabwe never will.

30 Degrees South Publishing in SA says they’re working on a book about Malloch and PK350. We didn’t find the book on their website but we haven’t looked everywhere (it’s a confusing website).

17 thoughts on “Rhodesian Spitfire Documentary

  1. aGrimm

    Hognose: could be my computer, but the video is not there.

    As an addendum to this piece, in the early days of unlimited hydroplane racing, the Rolls-Royce and Allison airplane engines from these sorts of planes were highly prized, but keeping the engines going was always a struggle for the hydroplane teams. Presuming your description of how they were built is accurate, I now understand why they were always conking out and difficult to maintain.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’ll check on the video and provide an alternative link if it’s gone.

      All the WWII inline engines were rather similar: 30º V-12s with overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, with both mechanical and turbo supercharging (the latter mostly to normalize for altitude). The Germans were the odd man out in that their engine was inverted, but the dry sump used by most of them (all of them, as the war wound on and engines were updated) and the fuel injection the Germans alone used at the war’s beginning made that simply a matter of packaging.

      The Merlin, for instance, had a long and troubled genesis. It failed its first RAF trial by not going 100 hours on a test stand without breaking down. That was the Merlin V. The main mass production version was the Merlin XX, which formed the basis of the Packard V-1650. (The Ford company also set up a plant to mass-produce Merlins in England, and unlike the RR plant, their parts were all fairly interchangeable and their

      The US engines (i.e. the Merlin V-1670 or the Allison V-1710) were 1000 to 1500 hp engines, and had a time between overhauls of perhaps 200-250 hours (the Merlin maint manual, which you can find online, specifies 240 hours or on condition. Nowadays aviation operators can get 300 to 500 hours depending on how they flog a Spit or Mustang. Fly it on the airshow circuit, you’re on the low end. Note that the modern aviation fuel is only 100 octane so you can’t get the boost (and speed) they had in WWII. The Reno race engines have a TBO of one practice session and one race, they hope.

      For a racing boat (a totally different duty cycle than the warplane, more like today’s race plane) the engines were revved higher, compression or boost might be increased (Merlins already needed “grape juice” 115 octane to make full manifold pressure without detonation, so increasing compression was asking for trouble) and all kinds of tricks boosted power to over 2,000 hp with a concomitant shortening of service life. I get the impression that in the heyday of unlimited hydroplane piston engines (50s-70s?) there were a lot more surplus parts, and even the best funded race boats tried to get a season out of an engine, as car racers of that era did.

      The many different variations of Merlin and Allison are also a source of trouble. Imagine building a race engine, not knowing your crankshaft or rods were from an early 1935 model that was good for 700 hp.

      1. aGrimm

        Still no video, but did the YouTube. Thanks. Very cool plane. Every day you teach me something new – thanks. Your engine discussion with others chiming in has been most enjoyable.

  2. RobRoySimmons

    Back in the day the tractor pullers used the RR or Allison, and they were sweet sounding.
    Displaced by V-8s when they figured out a compatible drive train.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Nothing sounds like a geared 30º V-12, although a 30º V-6 is close. One of the homebuilt P-51 replicas uses a V-6 for that reason, and the sound is … approximate. Not quite right.

  3. RobRoySimmons

    If you have a healthy heart then check out the youtube video of “16 Spitfires” 3:27 of motorized bliss, though I must warn you once they get past doing the formation fly bys there exists the possibility of excessive heart palpatations.

    1. Hognose Post author

      There are a lot of tank engines around, based on the same design but optimized for low-rpm grunt. Allison made the engines in M47s and M48s (Leno has one in a steampunk-styled car) and Rolls-Royce made a tank version of the Merlin called the Meteor, that has been built into a couple of cars over in Europe. One by a guy named Peter Dodd or Dodds — thing looks like the 1970s personal-luxury-coupe from hell. The tank engines would probably be a better choice for a tractor pull where the game is instantaneous torque delivery.

      Actually, diesel-electric like a locomotive or Porsche’s tank designs in WWII would probably be the cat’s ass for tractor pulls.

      1. robroysimmons

        The announcers from the tractor pulls always said aircraft, take it for what its worth. Besides I never thought they worked off of torque in tractor pulls more like wind it up and dump the clutch like instrument and spin the hell out of the tires.

        Small factoid, NASCAR in the mid 80s experimented for economy reasons in their Busch series going with V-6s and they sounded cool, but not to most people.

        Sunday got my fix of horsepower albeit small pony type, two Lima Lima planes went overhead today out to do some flying.

  4. Woodsman

    Somewhere in YouTube land there is a video of the Packard engine factory being built, which also includes some details on the engines. A great video to watch.

    The hydroplane races with the V-12’s were always an enjoyable way to spend a day. The contest to watch was Ms. Budweiser and the Atlas Van Lines guys.

    The only sound that generates the same amount of “juice” is standing next to a P&W R-2800 or equivalent while idling.

    Thanks for the link on the Spitfire. I wonder what became of the Burma dig for the missing planes?

  5. Aesop

    We loves us some Spitfires and V-Ohmigod engines any day, and living in the pattern of a small airport where there are several examples of radial piston engines is a pleasant thing when they pass over.

    But when one plays in such toys regularly, the epitaph is almost a leadpipe certainty.

    1. Hognose Post author

      That’s all being contested on a political battlefield, not a technical one. A bit like the huge battle royal just fought over who’s going to make the next tanker, Boeing or Airbus. Airbus won the competition, but they kept changing the rules until Boeing did.

      Either plane is a perfectly effective trainer for UPT, and either plane can deliver air-to-ground ordnance in a permissive environment. Both have foreign origins and a US bureaucracy to deliver them as “American” planes.

      It’s kind of silly to do basic flight training in a turboprop aircraft (Academy grads have a few hours in a piston trainer first). But it was even more stupid to do it in turbojets (NOT turbofans) and that was the Air Force policy from the 60s to the introduction of the T-6. Reason for the policy? A general staked his career on making the USAF an “all turbine air force.”

  6. Stefan van der Borght

    Looks like WM likes donks (Oz talk for engine) almost as much as gats. Any liquid fueled guns in the works, then? That might be a solution to the difficulty of feeding a 3D printed tool….since one can’t print off double base powder and primer.

    For those of us that can’t get our mitts on a Merlin, here’s hope….

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3KdpzL3Hkk

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