Who doesn't recognize the graceful yet purposeful beauty of that paragon of English design, the Spitfire? Of all the myriad marks, there are many who will argue the Mk IX is the most beautiful and balanced of all. The subject of this walkaround, MJ730, certainly helps bear that out. This aircraft has an extensive service history, as related below. This information has been provided by the Fighter Factory, the current owners of this beautiful aircraft.
In 1943, the largest single contract for Spitfires was being produced at the Castle Bromwich factory near Birmingham, England. One of these aircraft was MJ730, a Mk. IX, first test-flown by Alex Henshaw, the factory's chief test pilot, on December 10, 1943. Within a couple of weeks, it was dismantled and crated for shipping to the North African port of Casablanca. The first operational unit that MJ730 served with was 417 Sqn, RCAF. There, it's first mission was escorting a group of USAAF B-25 Mitchell bombers during the Italian campaign. It was involved at this time with the Allied landings at Anzio and flew 15 sorties over 24 days.
On May 9, 1944 the aircraft was transferred to 154 Sqn., RAF and the codes were changed to HT-W. Here it operated from the island of Corsica on 95 missions flying bomber escorts for the American forces over northern Italy and in support of the invasion of southern France (Operation Dragoon, July 1944). It was during these operations from Corsica that MJ730 was filmed in color by William Wyler, famed director of the Memphis Belle documentary and later Ben Hur, for an Army movie about the use of P-47 Thunderbolts in the Italian campaign.
Below are four color stills from Wyler's film showing MJ730 taxiing out and taking off on another support mission. Items to note are the belly tank fitted, long carburetor intake, closely spaced codes, the white "W" on the black spot beneath the spinner, lack of Sky fuselage band, and the patch of primer on the lower port side of the rudder.
(Images provided by the Fighter Factory)
On October 9, 1944, MJ730 was transferred again to 32 Sqn., RAF at Kalamaki, Greece (note: former base of IV./JG27 and Heinrich Bartels). The aircraft was chosen by Sqn. Ldr. George Silvester, DFC, as his personal plane. Before its individual code had been assigned, he jokingly said to some of his ground crew that there was "a bit of a question mark" over which identity letter to give his personal Spitfire, because as Squadron Leader, he belonged to neither 'A' Flight or 'B' Flight. The ground crew as a lark placed a large "question mark" where the individual code letter would have normally appeared. Sqn. Ldr. Silvester was amused by the gesture and MJ730 was referred to as "The CO's Query". This tradition continued into the 1950s with 32 Squadron's future commanding officers continuing to also display the "?" on their Vampire jets.
The war ended with the aircraft being flown by 249 Sqn., RAF, from Yugoslavia in harassment of the retreating German forces. After the war it was ferried to RAF Brindisi in Italy. Here it was stored for almost a year before being sold to the newly reformed Italian Air Force. The aircraft underwent a major overhaul by Aeronautica Macchi at Varese and then accepted by the Italian Air Force at Centocelle Airport on the outskirts of Rome.
In 1951, MJ730 was among a batch of Spitfires sold by the Italian government to Israel. The Israeli Air Force assigned the number 66 to the aircraft and it served in an Operational Training Unit at the Ramat David airfield. It was finally decommissioned in June 1956, when most of Israel's other Spitfires were sold to Burma. MJ730 was saved to provide young Israeli children with a subtle desire to become fighter pilots. It was moved to a playground at a kibbutz in Kabri, near the border of Lebanon.
It was here that the aircraft was found in a dilapidated condition and transported back to England by Robs Lamplough in 1978. The initial restoration work was begun by a firm in the south of England, but in August 1986 the project was sold to Fred Smith, founder and President of Federal Express. The work was completed in November 1988, but immediately offered for sale. It was purchased by David Pennell, an electronics manufacturer in Birmingham, England. The aircraft spent the next ten years in the Midlands area performing at many charity events and memorial functions.
In 1998, the Fighter Factory learned about the possible availability of this aircraft while in New Zealand searching for assorted Curtiss P-40 parts. An inspection in England was arranged and a contract was signed at the May Duxford show. An engine problem developed prior to delivery, which necessitated an overhaul of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine in Great Britain. The aircraft finally arrived at the Fighter Factory facilities in Suffolk, Virginia during the beginning of 2000.
Dec. 10, 1943- Castle Bromwich- Alex Henshaw, Test Pilot
Jan. 29, 1944- Shipped to Casablanca, North Africa on SS Leeds City
April 6, 1944- 417 Squadron, RCAF- Marcionise, Italy- coded AN-T
May 9, 1944- 154 Squadron, RAF- Poretta, Corsica- coded HT-W
Oct. 9, 1944- 32 Squadron, RAF- Kalamaki, Greece- coded GZ-?
Feb. 16, 1945- 94 Squadron, RAF- Sedes, Greece- coded GO-Y
May 3, 1945- 249 Squadron, RAF- Prkos, Yugoslavia- coded GN-Y
June 27, 1946- Sold to Italian Air Force- Rome, Italy
June 17, 1951- Sold to Israeli Defence Forces- Ramat David- coded 66
Summer 1978- Recovered from Israel- Robs Lamplough
August 1986- Project Purchased by Fred Smith, FedEx
Nov. 12, 1988- First post-restoration test flight- Hastings, England
June 1989- Purchased by David Pennell, Gloucestershire, England
May 2, 1998- Purchased by Tidewater Tech/Fighter Factory at Duxford, England
Feb. 2000- Delivered to Virginia, registered as N730MJ
And now...the pictures!