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.

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).

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