After decades without any airworthy Seafires anywhere, and scant examples on public view, recent years have seen the return of three Seafires to the air, as well as several more under restoration.
The first to fly was the last mark, and two earlier marks have since taken to the air – with even earlier examples to follow.
Seafire F Mk. 47, VP441
The Seafire Mk.47 was the last of the Spitfire family, but the first Seafire to return to the air, after many years of disinterest and poor care. Manufactured at Vickers-Armstrong’s South Marston works, VP441 was taken on charge on 29 November 1947, and in January 1948 joined No. 804 NAS at RNAS Ford.
The unit became the first Squadron to operate Seafire F Mk. 47s. They embarked on HMS Ocean on 24 August 1948. However, following an oil leak in the rear propeller, VP441 was transferred to RNAS Hal Far and moved to Kalafrana, on Malta. It was later transferred to the Rear Admiral Reserve Aircraft and shipped back to the UK and placed in storage, before (on 24th January 1954) VP441 was struck off charge and the aircraft relegated to ground instructional use at the Royal Naval Engineering College at Manadon, Plymouth.
By 1958 its usefulness was over and it was offered to a local unit of the Air Training Corps, No 335 Squadron. Although the airframe was intact, no propeller blades were fitted and all armament and barrel covers for the cannons had been removed and the cockpit had been stripped almost bare. The Seafire passed through numerous hands before ending up with Nelson Ezell in Texas, in October 1995, as the sole-survivor of the mark.
Stored at Ezell’s in Breckenridge, Texas, it was acquired by Jim Smith in 1997 and restoration commenced. Given the difficulty of finding a propeller and contra-prop of the correct type, the very reasonable course of substituting an ex Avro Shackleton Griffon with cropped Shackleton type propellers was taken, and a feathering switch added in the cockpit, a potentially vital new accessory.
It finally took to the air again seven years later in April of 2004; VP441’s first flight in over 50 years, and it now graces the skies of Montana.
CAPTION: Jim Smith's Seafire F Mk. 47, seen here over Montana, US with Nelson Ezell at the controls. Acquired in 1997, it flew seven years later in April, 2004. VP441 was the last type in the Spitfire family, but the first Seafire to return to the air. (Philip Makanna/GHOSTS)
Seafire F Mk. XVII SX336 (see lead photo)
The second Seafire to fly again was Seafire SX336, which was built by Westland Aircraft Ltd. at Yeovil and handed over to the FAA on May 3, 1946.
It was withdrawn from operational use in 1954 and sold as scrap. In 1973 the fuselage was recovered from the Joseph Brierley & Son scrap yard in Warrington, Lancashire, together with parts from its sister ship, SX300. Rebuilt to airworthiness, the aircraft was registered as G-BRMG to Peter J. Wood of Twyford on September 19, 1989 where she remained until 2001. In November 2001 she went to a new owner, Tim Manna, Cranfield for a long-term restoration.
In the meantime the registration G-BRMG was cancelled in 2003 and changed to G-KASX (Kennet Aviation SX). Her original Fleet Air Arm colour scheme was applied at Turweston Airfield on February 6 2006 before making the first post restoration flight on 3 May 2006 from North Weald. After six years of display appearances, sadly SX336 suffered a wheels up landing at Lille-Marcq Airfield, Bondues, France, on 1 July during practice for an airshow. Thankfully damage to airframe is hoped to be minor.
Seafire Mk.XV PR503
It is ironic that North America now sees the greatest population of Seafires flying, with the return of Seafire PR503 to the air. This Seafire was ordered from Cunliffe Owen in July 1943 and delivered to the Royal Navy in late 1945, prior to transfer to the re-formed 803 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Navy. The squadron embarked on HMCS Warrior on 23 March 1946 destined for its new base at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Struck off charge on 4 April 1950, after service with 803 Squadron and 883 Squadron (then coded VG-AA-A) at Dartmouth, HMCS Shearwater, Nova Scotia, it was relegated to fire practice duties surviving ten years in the role. Rescued by a student group, restoration was beyond them and it passed into the hands of the Nova Scotia Chapter of the EAA in 1964, the aircraft formally being purchased from Crown Assets on 21 December 1967. Ownership transferred to the Canadian Warplane Heritage in 1972, but passed to Wally Fisk of the Polar Aviation Museum at Anoka, Blaine, Minnesota. Restoration continued in the hands of Ray Middleton, and registered N535R later N503PR in 2000.
By May 2005 it was reported that PR503 had been sold yet again to Dr Wes Stricker of Columbia, Missouri. Here the restoration continued to fruition under the intense, detailed care of Jim Cooper, including a livery change back to its original RCN 803 Squadron markings. On 1 July 2010, former FAA pilot John Beattie, principal pilot of Seafire XVII SX336, took the Seafire XV into the air at Columbia for a twenty minute shake-down. Later in July it headed for AirVenture, Oshkosh, where it picked up the 2010 Silver Wrench award.
CAPTION: Dr Wes Stricker's Seafire XV PR503 on show at Oshkosh, where it picked up the 2010 Silver Wrench award. Work on these Rolls Royce Griffon Seafires began during WWII. (Platinum Fighter Sales)
Only one Seafire is on permanent public display in the UK, rightly so at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton, Somerset. This is Seafire F17 SX137, which has been on display usually with the wings folded since 1964. Another of the ‘teen’ mark Seafires is on public display with the Military Museum of Alberta, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. This is Seafire PR451 which was an instructional airframe after brief service. This example differs from the fliers in being both a ‘high back’ example and equipped with the earlier A frame style hook.
There are a number of other Seafires in private hands of various marks undergoing restoration as we go to press. These include ex-French Aeronavale and Irish air Corps examples, wrecks from around Malta, as well as the remarkable cache of Spitfires that was re-discovered by Peter Arnold in Myanmar (Burma) which included several Seafires. These have since been recovered for rebuilding in the UK and the US.
Additionally, at least one Seafire gave up parts for an Australian Spitfire restoration as well. As one specific example, and as noted above, the fuselage hulks of Seafire Mk.XVII SX300 and SX336 were recovered from a Warrington scrapyard in 1973. After passing through several owners, SX300 is now registered as G-CDTM (to Tim Manna of Kennet Aviation, at North Weald) and is also under a long-term restoration to fly like its stablemate SX336.Given the often partial nature of these airframes, and the extensive industry now rebuilding Spitfires with facilities and material that can be adapted to Seafire restoration, it is certain we have not seen the last of the Seafires take back to the air.
Our thanks go to, Phillip Makanna/GHOSTS, Ezell Aviation, John Rayner of Platinum Fighter Sales, Gary Brown, Scott Schaefer, Steve McGregor Spitfire Association Australia, Geoff Litchfield, David Hamilton, & UK Seafire experts Laurence Bean and Peter Arnold for their help in the production of this feature.