Finding of a wreckage of an old aircraft was reported to the Ambala air base Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Air Commodore SK Sofat by the Ambala Superintendent of Police, Shri Hardeep Singh Doon, late in the evening of 05 Feb 2003. Sofat was AOC Ambala from 01 Oct 2002 to 30 Sep 2003. Immediately a team was sent to the site and pictures were taken. It was established that the wreckage was of a Spitfire aircraft. The AOC then decided to recover the entire wreckage and restore it closest to its original state. It was to be a long tedious process requiring both research and engineering.
How the Spitfire was Discovered in the river bed
When some local workers went to a field adjoining the Markandey River to dig the soil for planting watermelon saplings, who could have thought that they would, in their wildest dreams, stumble upon an aircraft. On February 5th, 2003, a group of workers were digging sand from the dry riverbed. After they had dug about four to five feet, they hit something metallic. As they dug further, they found that it was a metal part that could be of an aircraft. Seeing this, crowds started gathering, and soon the police were in the picture. The Superintendent of Police, soon cordoned the area and called up the airbase commander about what they had found. He asked the AOC if the aircraft belonged to the station. The AOC immediately asked for the exact location. He realised that the location was close to a satellite base of the station at Kalpi, and immediately spoke to the commanding officer (CO) of the satellite base, Wing Commander JJS Panwar, and directed him to visit the site. After the site visit, the CO informed that it was some old vintage aircraft. As it was getting dark, so it was decided to start the recovery next morning. AOC visited the site along with Wg Cdr Panwar and his team on February 6, 2003. It was now established that the aircraft could be a Spitfire.
Personnel from the local Squadron based at Kalpi, were pressed into service to extricate the wreckage. The operation was led by Wg Cdr Panwar and coordinated by Flg Offr Shareni Satani. Care was taken not to damage any part. As the excavation progressed the full aircraft started becoming visible. Many parts had separated. The wings, cockpit, piston engine, fuselage and tail were pulled out. Soon, part by part, the entire aircraft could be pulled out.
Operations on February 7th ran into trouble because the team could not free the aircraft from the mud and silt. It was clear that more digging and more excavation was required before the aircraft could be lifted off. The initial plan to ‘lift’ the aircraft with ropes had to be abandoned as the ropes started cutting into the airframe and damaging it. The next plan was to dig a ramp from a distance so that the wreckage could be pushed onto the tractor trailers.
On February 8th, Panwar’s team made an artificial ramp with iron girders and wooden planks (in Punjabi Ballies) to pull out the wreckage. Two auto-movers and three tractors were also pressed into service. The team dismantled the wreckage and separated the cockpit, piston engine and the tail from the body. The wreckage was then successfully pushed into auto movers. The entire aircraft was finally moved to the trailer. It was a tough task, but the team from Kalpi did an excellent job. The entire crowd present at the site cheered once the job was completed. The entire wreckage, part by part, was moved to Air Force station Ambala for further examination.
Decision to Rebuild
The AOC called Wg Cdr Shrivatava, the CO of 41 R&SU (Repair and Salvage Unit) to his office. The unit was located at Ambala itself. The officer had already looked at all the wreckage brought to the station. He asked him about his analysis of the Spitfire parts that had been retrieved and whether they had the expertise to rebuild it. Shrivatava was quick to say that it was possible. The entire wreckage was then moved into the 41 R&SU Hangar.
Examination and Analysis by 41R&SU Team
‘MV-459’ was found marked on one of the panels. From the photographs of the various parts retrieved, it was difficult to imagine that one day the aircrfat would get reconstructed. A substantial portion of the original must remain was the criteria set for the ground up restoration. During the excavation, the aircraft had been separated into three major sections. The Engine was recovered sans the cowling covers. The main fuselage with the main spar wing formed the second section. and the last major section recovered was the tail section with the rudder, fin and elevator.
The Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 that was recovered was pretty broken up – perhaps as a result of the internal fire and impact with the ground. While one row of cylinders with the cylinder heads was intact, the other row had the main cylinder block and head removed – revealing pistons and crank rods sticking out of the main crank case. The engine was perhaps partly opened up by the crash investigation team in 1947 as the aircraft was traced backwards. A few parts seem to have been taken for study/investigation. The partial remains of the Merlin can be seen charred and stained by oil and the engine fire that bought down the aircraft.
After the restoration of the engine, ‘the Team’ could not find a use for the engine as it was too broken up and heavy to mount on the wrecked airframe. The Team cleaned up the engine and painted the engine in a mix of silver dope and black paint.
The Cockpit and Main Wing Spar
The largest intact section was the canter fuselage with Cockpit section and the complete Wingspan. The port side wing seemed to have been damaged, nothing beyond the first machine gun port was recovered, but the starboard wing was almost complete.The recovery in the mud and sand made it difficult to remove the aircraft in one piece. However incredibly almost the entire wingspan and cockpit structure was removed intact as can be seen in these two photographs.
From the wing section, the cannon and gun access panels were missing. Only the skin on the leading edge of the wings was intact. Photographs also show that the trailing edge flaps were in place when recovered.
The Cockpit photographs revealed that the instruments were missing. The only identifiable components were the rudder pedals and the Compass mount. It is clear from the photographs that while the section from the engine firewall to the canter of the cockpit was recovered, the entire section from the middle of the cockpit (around the wing root trailing edge) right to the tail section was not recovered. It is assumed that this part of the section was lost during recovery. Of the main fuselage longeron, only half of it seems to have been bought up.
The photograph below shows the section where the airframe was ‘cut off’. The ‘flap’ mechanism can just be made out.
View from the front, below, little of the rest of ‘fuselage’ is visible. Normally the engine bearers would have come and the cowling panels would have been affixed on the engine itself.
The Tail Section
The last piece of the identifiable wreckage was the tail section which had the elevators intact as well as large parts of the fin. The tail section did have some of the original paint scheme still showing up. The tail was largely intact, but the Rudder and Elevator surfaces were ‘eaten’ away by the elements. The portion of the rear fuselage where the tail wheel would have been fixed seemed to have been ripped off with the crash landing impact. No tail wheel was found.
The tail fuselage of the Spitfire had to be separated and removed from the fuselage. These pictures show that remnants of the paint can be viewed on the tail surfaces even after 55 years!
Other Bits and Pieces
Another photograph showing the piece of wreckage from which the serial number MV-459 was found out.
Initially reported as the Supercharger, this component below has later said to be the Thermostat by one source and as the Oil Cooler by another.
Various other bits and pieces were recovered from the wreckage site – most of it being the mangled fuselage skins. The “Team Ambala” decided to take up the job of putting together the relics and making fit for a ‘Static Restoration’. The target was mostly external restoration. That would mean construct a frame that would incorporate the existing bits and pieces and look complete from the outside, though it would not be an actual restoration. But it would create a complete aircraft that would take up all the components that were salvaged. This scheme was agreed by the AOC.
IAF already had a Spitfire in the IAF Museum at Palam. The AOC asked the CO 41 R&SU to get measurements and dimensions of the Mk VIII Spitfire on display at the museum. The Palam Spitfire NH631 was measured in detail, and several photographs taken. Special attention was paid to the propeller, canopy, fuselage and wing measurements.
41 RSU made a work flow chart detailing the tasks of rebuilding MV-459. The chart looked something like this.
The relics were then cleaned, and the grime and dirt was removed. Next step was to ‘straighten’ out bent parts. Some components that were recovered could not be used. These included the burnt fuel tanks, parts in front of the cockpit, or the various skin panels that got torn out during the crassh or the excavation from the riverbed.What was left of the wings were straightened up and in some cases fresh skin had to be created. The top access panels and most of the skin panels were simply corroded away. This whole section required re-panelling. However, the team did not build the control surfaces into the wing – the rebuilt Spitfire wing does not have the Ailerons or the Flaps. It is assumed that the original flaps which can be seen in the pictures is enclosed within the panels of the wing.
It was a slow and frustrating process. One day they would find that the wing had dropped after the skinning was done, and they would set about taking it apart and correcting it again. The second day they would realize that the rods that hold the canter fuselage with the tail section were not holding, and they would have to figure out an alternate method of fixing the rods. One good thing for the team was that the Spitfire had landed with its undercarriage raised. Thus, the original U/C legs and covers were retracted into the wings and was in good condition. The U/C legs were lowered out and a set of wheels and tyres from another aircraft whose dimensions were about the same as a Spitfire were bought and affixed to the legs. And it was perfect.
The trickiest part was to design the front engine cowlings. It was decided in the beginning itself that the wrecked engine cannot be fixed onto the fuselage. The fuselage structure was too weak to take on the weight of the engine. Moreover, the Engine itself was quite broken up and taken apart in its original state. None of the original engine cowlings could be recovered. So, the only alternative was to construct a ‘shell’ which would be skinned to represent the complete aircraft. This was done in due course of time. A metal spinner was manufactured. But no propeller could be found or made, so the blades were carved out of wood and painted and affixed to the Aircraft.
At this stage, with all the riveting done on the fuselage, the aircraft was wheeled outside its hangar to be painted in primer and its display scheme. It was decided to paint the aircraft in the same way the IAF Museum’s NH631 was done. And two-tone scheme of grey and green promptly applied, with the original serial MV459 proudly painted at all the required locations. Below are the two views of the aircraft before the final painting
The team ran into the even more problems when it came to completing the cockpit, especially the cockpit windshield and canopy. No windshield frame or the bubble canopy was found during excavation. The canopy bubble was posing a problem. AOC approached the AOC of the Base Repair Depot (BRD) at Chandigarh for help. AOC Ambala was of the impression that they had the facility to manufacture bubble canopies, but the BRD expressed their inability to devote time and resources to make a new one for the Spitfire. So, the Ambala R&SU team got going to first manufacture a wooden mould. They then built a Canopy by making a wooden mould and then putting a layer of Perspex and heating it with a hair dryer. It did not come out too well, but it was much better than displaying the aircraft without a canopy or windscreen. Whatever components that could not be used for the restoration were promptly labelled and archived in the unit for future display. One such picture below.
This colour-coded illustration below shows the restoration activity. The area in Red had to be built up from scratch. The areas in Green were recovered from the wreckage site. Items not coloured (i.e. Prop, spinner, wheels, canopy etc) were either not recovered or were not available at the crash site.
Finding the Details of the Original Spitfire
One of the immediate questions that needed an answer was the background of the original aircraft and how it had crashed. AOC approached HQ Western Air Command (WAC) for the support to find the details of this Spitfire MV459. Soon it was clear that on 13 Mar 1947, a Spitfire MK VIII (S. No. MV 459) flown by Pilot Officer A D’Cruz encountered engine trouble. According to information from a book on Spitfires the pilot belly landed the Spitfire in a riverbed.
Finally, the aircraft was complete. The aircraft build up was known to very few. In Aug 2003 AOC Ambala was informed that the Defence Minister George Fernandes was to visit Ambala to fly in a MiG-21 trainer of No.3 Squadron. The AOC-in-C arrived earlier before the arrival of the Minister. By now he had also been informed about the Spitfire. It was decided to showcase the Spitfire to the Minister after his sortie. On 01 August 2003, the Spitfire was positioned next to the MiG 21 he was to fly. The Defence Minister saw the Spitfire and was appreciative of the work carried out by the team and congratulated all those involved.
It was decided to park the Spitfire in the station.
Details in Pictures
Great detail and attention was required to get the forward fuselage right. Perhaps at a future date – they get to fit a complete Merlin and a prop on this aircraft.
The Undercarriage legs and covers are original – The Wheel bays are covered with clear plastic sheets to prevent dust and grime accumulating in the wings. Note the Radiator scoops. Can you recognise where the wheel hubs and tyres came from?
Salute The Team
Excavation and building of the Spitfire posed tremendous challenges. It would not have been possible without the clear directions and drive of the AOC, Air Commodore SK Sofat. Extraordinary work was put in by Wg Cdr Panwar, CO AF Station Kalpi and his team for excavation. Wg Cdr Shrivastva, CO 41 R&SU and his team did a marvellous job in building the aircraft. The entire exercise was done within the resources and capabilities available at AF Station Ambala. Good Show Team Ambala.
Post Script – How did the Aircraft Reach there – More Tales
There was one witness near Rolanheri, Mr. Faqir Chand, who was 75 years old in 2003. He recollected that a Spitfire did crash in that area in the year 1947. The pilot having ‘bailed out’. Faqir Chand recollected that the aircraft did not catch fire or get burnt out and recollected seeing the wreck still half buried in the sand some three years later when he visited the site.
An examination of sources (Spitfire International by Helmut Terbeck, Ray Sturtivant – Pub by Air-Britain) and by Warbirds of India revealed that on 13th March 1947, a Spitfire Mk VIII [S No: MV-459] flown by Pilot Officer A D’Cruz encountered engine trouble. According to the records, the pilot belly landed the Spitfire in a riverbed near Mullana village. It may be recalled that Rolanheri is only about 2 km from Mullana. There is a high probability that the aircraft in question is the same one found by the Air force excavation team.
Though initially it was believed that Plt Offr D’Cruz was the same officer who was a decorated war hero from the 1947-48 Kashmir war. However subsequent evidence and correspondence with the family of the decorated officer reveals that he was posted to No.1 Squadron flying the Tempests near Peshawar. So appaently they were two separate persons.
Pictures and Story Credit: Air Vice Marshal SK Sofat, Retd (Then AOC Ambala). Credit is also to Mr Jagan Pillarisetti who made physical visits to the airbase and had actually taken many of the pictures in this article.
Cover Picture Source: airliners.net