THE MANY owed their lives to it and now the entire world has had a chance to pay homage to the most iconic plane ever built.
A Spitfire arrives back in Britain on Thursday after an epic four-month adventure which has seen it fly 27,000 MILES around the globe, taking in 22 COUNTRIES on FOUR CONTINENTS.
The Red Arrows will shepherd it safely home over the White Cliffs of Dover 79 years after the Battle of Britain victory, which secured its place in the nation’s hearts.
The homecoming will mark the end of an incredible story of British courage and endeavour, which has the royal seal of approval from Prince Harry.
The first ever circumnavigation of the globe in a Spitfire was the brainchild of Matt Jones and Steve Brooks. The Sun met the pilots when they flew to Germany ahead of the final leg of their trek.
Former banker Matt, 46, landed the plane at an old military airfield near Leipzig, where the trademark growl of its Rolls-Royce engine brought fascinated staff out to the runway to watch.
As Matt climbed out of the cockpit, he said: “The trip has been very tiring but we have had a fantastic time. It has been an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.”
The adventure started on August 5, when they took off from Goodwood, West Sussex, and headed north to Scotland. They flew on to Iceland, landing on August 8, then headed to Greenland, before arriving in Canada on August 12.
Then they flew across America before heading to Canada again, then arriving in Russia on September 14. A week later they were in Japan. October saw the duo land in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma).
On November 1 they took off from Myanmar’s Mandalay airport and headed to India and Pakistan. By the middle of November they had tackled the Middle East, landing in Jordan on the 21st, then on to Egypt three days later.
Finally they headed to Europe, landing in Athens, Greece, on November 25, Pescara, Italy, on the 26th, then Leipzig, Germany on Sunday. When they finally return to England on Thursday they will have made 74 stops.
Matt, from Exeter, said: “The highlight for me was the flight from Jordan to Egypt. The colour of the sea and the desert were amazing. We had been told we wouldn’t be allowed to fly over the pyramids but at the last minute a friendly air traffic controller allowed us to do so.”
Steve, 58, said: “For me it was flying from Rangoon to Mandalay. There is so much romance about that location and the Spitfire has a special place in the history of Burma.”
Weather has been their biggest challenge as, unlike modern aircraft, they don’t have instruments that allow them to fly in bad conditions or cloud. It saw them delayed for a week in Japan due to Typhoon Hagibis.
Steve is a millionaire property developer and aviation enthusiast who holds the record of the first person to fly a helicopter from Pole to Pole. He said: “The reaction of people in every place we have landed has been amazing. Lots of people love the Spitfire.”
The pals’ own love of Spitfires saw them set up Boultbee Flight Academy, near Chichester, West Sussex, where members of the public could pay for a flight in the plane.
But they were not satisfied with the 600 customers a year and wanted more to experience the joy of the fighter. Steve said: “We couldn’t bring the world to our Spitfire, so we thought we would take the Spitfire to the world.”
They bought MJ271 — a Mark IX Spitfire now rebranded as G-IRTY — in 2016 after it had spent nearly 50 years in a Dutch museum.
It was in good condition and is reckoned to be the most original Spitfire still in existence, with around 90 per cent of its parts dating back to 1943.
The duo have not revealed how much their epic trip cost, but said the Spitfire is worth “quite a few million”.
To ensure it could safely take Steve and Matt around the world it had to be stripped, with every part checked, cleaned and re-painted or repaired before being re-assembled.
Every one of the 80,000 magnesium rivets were replaced to ensure none were rotten.
Matt, a commercial pilot, said: “We pushed it into the hangar as a complete aircraft and three months later went to see it and thought, ‘Oh my god’.
“It was completely taken apart and we wondered if they could ever put it back together again. It was a massive project, especially because we wanted to keep it as original as possible. If a part needed replacing it couldn’t be replaced with 2019 technology. It had to be with the material and design from 1943.”
Around 21,500 Spitfires were made. Fewer than 200 still exist, of which only around 50 are still capable of flying. The single-seater fighter had two cannons and four Browning machine guns in the wings which were taken out and replaced with extra fuel tanks.
Spitfires had a range of around 400 miles in the war but G-IRTY needed to be able to cover 1,000 miles in one leg for the world tour. The removal of the guns was also done to make sure they weren’t mistaken for a military plane in places such as Russia.
Matt said: “It’s not very nice to arrive in a new country with your guns pointing at them.” That was also a reason for ditching the camouflage paint and instead going for the eye-catching silver appearance — which involved specialist workers polishing the aluminium until it shone like a mirror.
Matt said: “We didn’t want it to look like a military plane but also wanted to show off the beauty of it, which the silver really achieves.”
Steve and Matt — with a three-strong back-up crew in a support aircraft — were given an emotional fly-past by other wartime fighters before starting their trip in August.
Prince Harry sent them a good luck letter beforehand saying: “I am writing with more than a tinge of jealousy to wish you the very best of luck ahead of your audacious attempt to circumnavigate the globe in our most iconic and evocative aircraft.”
Harry, who flew Apache helicopters for the Army, added in his own handwriting at the bottom of the typed letter: “Most importantly — have fun.”
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And he also noted: “Don’t forget the seven Ps!” — in military slang the seven Ps stand for “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance.”
Matt — who had to dash home from Russia to see partner Nikkolay James, 44, give birth to his son Arthur after suffering complications — is looking forward to spending time with his family and is not planning further trips — yet. Steve is also hesitant of more adventures.
But what is certain is that when their silver bird flies over the White Cliffs of Dover this week to mark their safe homecoming, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Inspired by hero pilot Tom
ANOTHER inspiration for the Spitfire’s silver look was Battle of Britain hero Tom Neil, twice decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the first man to land a plane in France on D-Day.
The Wing Commander wrote a book about his experiences called The Silver Spitfire after a plane he flew in had its paint stripped.
Tom was due to take part in the flypast to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2015 but his plane had difficulties.
Matt Jones was also due to fly and when his passenger – Prince Harry – heard about Tom’s plight he gave up his seat for the hero.
Harry enjoyed the day so much he picked a photo of himself with Tom as his 2015 Christmas card.
Matt added: “When Tom’s health started to fail I hoped the dream of seeing the Silver Spitfire would keep him going. Sadly he died last year aged 97 but we managed to meet his son on this trip.”