Great Vintage Flying Washout - G-VFWE 2006!
Derek Mason looks back at the tenth anniversary event, held At Keevil Airfield, Wilts over the Bank Holiday weekend of 26-29 May
Okay, not really a washout, but Saturday was a bit of a disaster due to the inclement weather. Sunday proved popular, with about 260-odd aircraft of all shapes and sizes arriving - the approach looked a bit like Heathrow on a good day! However on Monday at lunchtime there were only about thirty aircraft left and the Keevil ATIS was passing the message that there wasn't any fuel left at the airfield, so a quiet day was had by the enthusiasts.
Saturday's stream of aircraft wasn't trauma-free with several minor incidents on the ground - OO-MOM got stuck in the mud and had to shut down waiting for assistance, which turned up in the shape of half a dozen burly firemen who eventually picked the whole thing up and lifted it clear! One intrepid aviator kept stopping his aircraft, getting out, picking up the tail, pointing it in the right direction, getting back in the cockpit and carrying on for a bit more.
Keevil, of course, was well known to the Spitfire fraternity - over fifty years ago the RAF's premier front-line fighter was being manufactured in requisitioned buildings and motor car garages in nearby Trowbridge. This former RAF aerodrome, built in 1942, was originally intended for fighter training but was then redesignated to full 'bomber' status with three large hard runways. In the end it enjoyed diverse roles including 'occupation' by the USAAF, a Spitfire assembly facility and, most importantly, as a focal point for the Airborne Forces for Operations 'Overlord' and 'Market Garden'. It's located just outside the village of Steeple Ashton, about four miles east of Trowbridge.
It was during the dark days of the Battle of Britain that the traditional local industries of wool processing, farming and brewing of fine ales yielded to accommodate the modern and unfamiliar smells associated with the production of aircraft. War workers drafted from as far afield as Kent and Cornwall were suddenly faced with the intimidating prospect of leaning the required skills to make wings, fuselages, tail planes and detail fittings of this legendary fighter.
The birthplace and centre of production of Spitfires was the Supermarine works on the banks of the River Ichen at Woolaston, Southampton. After a succession of damaging air raids the Woolaston factory was abandoned and on 27 September 1940 plans for dispersal production were instigated. Eventually there were sixty-five units spread over Southern England, of which forty-six were directly involved in production with other supplying supporting functions.
The building of a new airfield at Keevil presented the opportunity to assemble, test and deliver aircraft to the squadrons less than ten miles from the production centres. An assembly and flight test hangar plus various offices were built on requisitioned land on the airfield boundary together with dispersal and taxiways on the main airfield. The aircraft were completed and engines tests run before being prepared for their maiden flights. Test flights were usually undertaken by company or seconded RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, some whom later achieved fame during the heady post war jet aircraft development - John Derry and Mike Lithgow in particular.
At the height of Spitfire production almost 1,000 men and women in the Trowbridge area were making between ten and fifteen aircraft a week. Many of the workers had no previous engineering experience but quickly learned the required skills to manufacture something foreign to them - in doing so they made an invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort. Almost 600 aircraft of both Merlin and Griffon engined variants were dispatched from the Keevil hangar.
Indeed, my father-in-law was based at Keevil on his return from the Far East in 1946 and worked for a number of months on Spits as an Engine Fitter. There were lots of tales of his time there, but not too many of them involved Spitfires! The 'Spit' was represented at G-VFWE by Peter Teichmann's lovely example. There are eight, possibly nine, surviving Keevil-built Spitfires worldwide, of which four are located in the UK. Four of the survivors were discovered in India during the 1970s as derelict hulks lying forlorn on perimeters of old airfields.
During Keevil's time at the end of the war many RAF personnel returned here for de-mob and many of those were flown in by DC3s, so it was fitting that the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Dakota paid a visit, in both its role as a vintage aircraft and as an example of the sort of trooping operations that used to happen here in Wiltshire.
There were lots of wonderful aircraft present (perhaps, bearing in mind their age, I should be calling them aeroplanes) - I certainly loved seeing the de Havilland Dove again, such elegance! It certainly did sterling service on Saturday in the pleasure flight business.
There were many preserved aircraft - not least were the Miles aircraft, the Dragon Rapide, Chipmunks, Tiger Moths and Austers. All from the heyday of British aviation when Britain ruled the air as well as the waves! Mind you, there were lots and lots of other interests too; the Antonov, Pipers, Cessnas, and quite a few of rather novel appearance, I suspect most being homemade! Oh, and one unsung hero for whom it was obviously all too much - he had his lunch sitting in the cockpit.
I for one will be only too pleased to return for the 11th G-VFWE, wherever it will be.
With thanks to Raymond Ward and the Keevil Village website.