How kit 81 came to Project Spitfire, the Dan Springer story

As most of the readers know, on the 18th of August 2022, the USAAF PRU Walter Weitner tribute Supermarine Spitfire Mk.26B 90% scale replica crash landed just short of runway 36 of Hilversum Airfield, ending up in a full-grown corn field with the right-hand gear up and retracted. Our Spitfire, High Lady, sustained heavy damage. The forward and aft main spar were bent in the center section. The engine was disintegrated at two cylinders. Due to the heat generated by the engine running without enough oil, a fire had started just before impact. The Firewall was damaged, as well as most of the fairing parts on the lower side of the aircraft. The tail section rearwards of the aft passenger seat was pretty much intact. Luckily no injuries sustained by neither occupants.  

High Lady stranded

The Spitfire was salvaged and inspected by both technical experts as well as a representative of the insurance company. A list of required replacement parts was compiled and a quote was drawn up by Van den Bos Aviation to perform the required repair work. But a huge obstacle stood in the way to commence the procedural route that would lead to ordering those parts and start up the repair work: the factory that made the kit planes and would have to make the replacement parts was packed up in a couple of sea containers and for sale. As there is no way of predicting how long it will take before the Supermarine Aircraft company is sold and rebooted, we sought out different ways to get a Mk.26B up in the Dutch skies again at a as short as possible term.

Several scenarios passed by: purchasing a nearly finished Mk.26 (not B!) kit to serve as donor, purchasing a brand new Mk.26B kit that is on stock with Campbell Aeroclassics, New Zealand (the last one on the planet as far as we know of), purchasing a flying Mk.26B aircraft and use the front bit to connect to the tail of High Lady. Obviously, the Dutch Civil Aviation Authorities would have a big say in the matter, so they were consulted in a very early stage.

After they had due internal consideration, we got word they would approve the tail transplantation operation and maintain the Dutch registration of PH-PSF, High Lady. They would also approve the donor option. But after thorough studying that, it turned out the differences between the Mk.26 and the Mk.26B kit were too many to justify going on that road. We also learned there are some noticeable differences between the Mk.26B kits: we could have known that there are some early versions that are about 8.6 cm shorter than the newer versions. Test flights had proven that flight characteristics benefit from that fuselage extension (it would increase stability). Another noticeable difference is with the size of the gear wheels: 15 x 6.00-6 and 6.00-6. The latter was mounted on High Lady and the tyres were slightly taller than those of the 15 x 6.00-6 versions. That’s why the top of the wings of High Lady were fitted with so called “blisters” so that the gear could be retracted in full and be flush with the lower wing surface.

That bulb shaped form right of the cloth is the “blister”

Going for the “Tail Transplantation Option” would require two sets of jigs to be built to keep both airframes perfectly level. Research learned that the second section right after the bulk head was the section that was lengthened in later models. The donor aircraft that was in to view up to that point was the “BOSS”, the Spitfire of “Spitfire Project” in Australia and built by Brian Scoffell and his son. They were half way through a mission around Australia to collect money for research fighting Leukemia when they stranded after a crosswind landing on a narrow landing runway (nose over). That aircraft is the shorter version, High Lady could very likely have been the first “stretched” version. Cutting both frames at the same distance aft of the bulk head would result in a stretched flyable version. A complicating factor would be the cutting process of the longerons: these consist of 3 L profiles, each would have to be cut at different positions and those different positions would have to be precisely the same on both frames (for strength purposes after reconnecting the two frames, having the cut at the L profile not at the exact same spot will result in a stronger structure once reconnected). A huge challenge would be how to mount stiffeners as room for drilling in rivets is limited.

Victor Telkamp, our Technical Board Member of our Foundation, had lengthy talks with both the sheet metal worker expert as well as the insurance company representative about how to go through the procedure. Both of them saw quite a number of uncertainties in the matter. It was not completely unthinkable that we would be faced with serious setbacks during the execution of this procedure. And just as the spirit was turning towards gloomy acceptance that getting a flying Spitfire Mk.26B back in the air might turn out to be a “bridge too far”, our technical expert contact in the US brought us in contact with Dan Springer.

Dan is a huge Spitfire fan. Flying one of these epic warbirds was and is a dream of his. At some point in the second decade of this century, he had an original Spitfire sitting in a hangar, getting it ready to get up in the air again. When a fire destroyed the hangar and the Spitfire within in one go. So that dream shattered to pieces there and then. 

Sharing his grieve with a friend who had the luxury of having flown both an original Spitfire World War II Warbird as well as the Supermarine Aircraft Spitfire replica, that friend told Dan that those aircraft fly exactly the same way. That motivated Dan to buy himself a Spitfire Mk.26B kit. That was 2012 and Dan was aged 70 at that time.

Dan started building kit number 81 in his workshop on Echo Bay Airfield, near Sault Ste Marie, Ontario Canada. His intention was to make a tribute “Johnnie Johnson” Spitfire. Air Vice Marshal James Edgar Johnson was an Englishman who lead the No.127 Wing RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force). Symbolic for the roots of Dan Springer himself: a Canadian father and an English “Warbride” mother.

Johnnie Johnson in front of JE-J

Dan thought things through thoroughly and improved the kit design by integrating an electrical rudder trim and by making symmetrical elevator trim tabs to prevent a skew or torque force on the elevator operating at higher speeds. He took the wings to his second house at an Airfield Park in Florida and built the set there. To get the multi curved leading edges of the wings perfectly done, he had practiced bending them on a couple of aluminum plates before actually starting to work on the wing plates themselves. 

And so the built gradually progressed. But having a grown business in aircraft maintenance and converting aircraft from passenger aircraft to cargo aircraft, limited the amount of spare time Dan could put in his project. The Covid-19 pandemic did not really help there either. Thus it could develop toward the situation where legislation was changed (80-up pilots are no longer allowed to fly without a safety pilot and getting the Spitfire insured would be virtually impossible) and the project not yet finished. That was a real “bummer” for Dan. He shared this grieve with a mutual acquaintance, Chad Faykus and asked him if he would be willing to function as “Aircraft Broker” and see if he could sell the Spitfire kit for him. The first party informed by Chad was Project Spitfire, as Chad was involved from the beginning of that project.

Now in the Netherlands legislation also had changed recently. As of the first of October 2020, it is no longer possible to import experimental / home built kit aircraft that were completed abroad. That had put the purchase of High Lady in a tight time frame back than and applicable deadlines were just barely made. Since kit 81 is not completed, could import of that kit be acceptable to the Dutch Civil Aviation Authorities? We asked Dan for some pictures and shared these with our rendezvous within the Dutch CAA (IL&T). They concluded the kit was far enough from completion to be accepted as “home built kit”, construction could be completed in the Netherlands under supervision of a certified AMT. We suggested to involve our connection within the Dutch Amateur Aircraft Builders Association (NVAV), that was appreciated by IL&T. From their side, we were good to go.

Leaving only two challenges: A. The insurance Company needed to agree and B. Coming to an agreement with Dan. After due consideration internally, we decided it be best if two delegates of the Foundation would pay Dan a visit. That would serve multiple purposes: we would get to meet each other in person and we could have a thorough look at the kit and should we have any questions, we would have Dan readily available to answer those. 

Fate had it that it was possible to line up three agenda’s perfectly for the 6th of December. Despite the cold (although Dan would refer to -4 degrees Celcius as being “fresh” rather than “cold”), Victor and myself were given a warm welcome. We were very anxious to meet both the builder as the Spitfire Number 81 kit. Patiently, Dan host us for over 6 hours. Agreed to remove the bottom engine cover plates (captured in an entertaining “time lapse”) so that we could have a closer look to the GM LS3 V8 engine.

Nearing 17:00 LT, we separated, arranged for us to meet again in the morning before Victor and myself would “set sail home” again. The evening could be used to consult the co-owners of our foundation. 

The next morning we informed Dan our financial limitations: the funds transferred to our bank account by the insurance company would be a start. Yet a portion of that funds needed to be reserved for the 21% VAT that need to be paid upon import as well as the 7% of import fee. Added to that the cost of hired labor as we can do a number of things ourselves (as we have proven on the High Lady project), but neither one of the participants is comfortable enough to take care of the riveting. Surely something some of us could learn to master, but learning it on kit 81 would not be the appropriate occasion. Dan was surprised by the high VAT figure that is common in The Netherlands and showed understanding.

Dan had told us the day before about the aircraft he had the pleasure to fly. Amongst them the North American T-6 (in Europe commonly referred to as “Harvard”). Dan had participated in formation flying during numerous airshows. Somewhere during day 1, we suggested Dan he would be more than welcome to visit the Netherlands once kit 81 was completed and flying, if he would like it, he could be taken on for a spin. At that point, Dan told us he would not want to see kit 81 fly in person as it would hurt too much. That morning, we made it clear that, given his experience, we would suggest he could fly kit 81 himself with Victor on board as safety pilot. That changed things a bit. Earlier, Dan had already told us his father had spent time in the Netherlands during the war and had made several friends during that period. His father had frequently visited our country after the war and was paid visits by several Dutch people as well. Dan had never been to the Netherlands. We suggested he would come over, stay at my place and we would take him on a short Holland tour. Ticking of compulsory boxes, amongst them the Airborne Museum (that has an impressive display in its basement where they made a permanent “re-enactment” of The Battle of Arnhem, also known as “Operation Market Garden”). With the prospect of getting to fly the Spitfire himself, that sounded thus attractive that Dan inquired about the optimum time frame to visit, weather wise. We told him that being a sea climate country, guarantee on the weather can only be given about 24 hours in advance. But July and August mostly are fairly good.

Understanding our situation, Dan was so kind as to grant us a deal that could (tightly) fit our budget. That lead to mixed feelings: sorrow for Dan to part from his project and joy on our side: this path was the path with the least uncertainties and probably the fastest towards flying again. Sure, a number of things need to be arranged before kit 81 can be packed in a sea container and set sail towards Rotterdam Harbor. But it does help that we did something similar only just over 2 years ago. And this time no need to fear unpleasant surprises in the harbor with radioactive instruments (High Lady was fitted with beautiful original Battle of Britain instruments that were painted with Radium 226 paint so that the dials would light up in the dark and no internal lighting would be needed that could give away to German Luftwaffe Pilots the whereabouts of Spitfires).

On the first day, we had presented Dan a book written by Albert Plesman, son of the founder of Royal Dutch Airlines (1919) and brother of Jan Leendert Plesman, a Spitfire pilot that was shot down in his (Dutch) 322 RAF Squadron Spitfire on the 1st of September 1944. There was a reason behind this gift. A scenario is thinkable that the remains of High Lady are valued thus low (as it has not much value just as long as there are no new spare parts on the market) that we can maintain the wreckage. Either a built up for static display or, in a further future in which Supermarine Aircraft has managed to restart on one side and our foundation grown enough to have acquired sufficient means to finance the acquisition of required replacement parts AND have the knowhow/skills “in house” to justify a rebuilt operation, as a rebuilt-to-fly of High Lady, would make it not so self-explanatory to use the exact same livery for kit 81. Taking that fact as a starting point, a number of our foundation members tended to feel for a Dutch 322 RAF Squadron Tribute aircraft. That of Jan Leendert Plesman would be a logical choice for more than one reasons. First of, quite a number of the flying members are (retired) KLM Royal Dutch Airline pilots. Secondly, the Spitfire Jan Leendert Plesman flew was given the name “Prinses Beatrix”, the former Dutch Queen who happens to reside in exactly the same village as where the foundation has its address. 

Jan Leendert Plesman his Spitfire

The descendants of Jan Leendert Plesman were approached with the question if they would object to our intention to have our kit painted in the European Theatre Camouflage livery marked with the markings their late (great) uncle had flown in and completed several hundreds of missions. Quite quickly, I was honored with a phone call of Jan Leendert Plesman, born just about a year after his uncle was shot down and named after him. He informed us the family had discussed this and come to the conclusion they would feel honored and pleased to see a Spitfire take up to the skies again and thereby keeping the memory of their deceased family member alive. At the moment of writing this, our foundation is awaiting the reaction of Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrix on our request to have her name depicted on our Spitfire in the exact same way as it was on the VL-P.

At this point in time, the sheet metal worker as well as the supervising AMT are working out their quotes for the building and certification process (registration and certificate of Airworthiness). As soon as they have come up with their figures, those will be send in to the insurance company. And once they have transferred the insured sum (minus own risk and minus the value of the wreckage) we can put things in motion to get kit 81 in a sea container and cross the ocean.

As was the case with High Lady, progress on the project can be followed on our website as well as our Facebook, Linked-In and Instagram accounts.

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