An icon of British aviation history, known for its speed and agility, has arrived in equally rapid fashion at its new home on the edge of Lisburn.
It’s a Spitfire Mark II, a stalwart hero of the Battle of Britain, and the new pride and joy of the Ulster Aviation Society.
Actually, it’s a full-size, very accurate replica of a Spitfire fighter, built from fibreglass by a specialised English firm.
“We’re very excited about this,” said Ray Burrows, chairman of the Society. “The indications are that it will be a very popular attraction.”
The Society has been angling for four months for a reproduction Spitfire. It was a fighter aeroplane which was based at various times during World War 2 at several Royal Air Force bases in Northern Ireland.
Pilots trained and patrolled from Aldergrove, Eglinton, Ballyhalbert and Long Kesh — the last location being the home of the Ulster Aviation Society.
The organisation, founded in 1968, boasts a collection of 20 machines, the largest assemblage of historic aircraft in all of Ireland.
Thousands of people have visited the Society’s hangar in recent years, either through group tours or on occasional Open Days, and the majority of those visitors have been from the Lisburn area.
A large percentage of Society members are also from the area — many dropping in regularly to assist with aircraft restoration and preservation.
The Society hopes the presence of the replica Spitfire will stir the local interest even more, to the point where the whole community is proud of a unique facility on its way to becoming a full-fledged museum.
The cost of an actual, flying Spitfire, can be upwards of £1.7 million because they are a relatively rare aircraft. But that kind of price is far beyond the financial resources of the 370 Society members, said Mr Burrows.
However, a small number of replica Spitfire have reached the market in recent years, and the builders have taken extreme care to ensure that the full-scale airframes are exact in every detail.
Mr Burrows explained that the Society’s original plan was to mount an 18-month public campaign early this year to raise £85,000 — the price from one builder of a single replica.
“But this aircraft came on the market in December at a fraction of that £85,000 price,” said Mr. Burrows. “It was just too good an opportunity to miss, and the guy who was selling it wanted it to come here.
“This aircraft was basically looked at, purchased, delivered and assembled here in three days — which is a record, even for the Society.”
The aircraft is a precise (but non-flying) copy of the type of aircraft purchased through the famous Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund of 1940 during the Battle of Britain.
The newspaper’s aim was to raise £5,000 through public donations — the price of a Spitfire at the time.
“The Telegraph in fact raised £85,000 and the fund was able to buy 17 Spitfires,” said Mr. Burrows. “Not only was that excellent; it was the best newspaper fund-raiser throughout World War Two.”
Thousands of people, as well as businesses, schools, unions, churches, social and sports organisations took part in the campaign.
Each of the 17 Spitfires was named after a community, county or region of Northern Ireland, and the Society hopes to name its replica Spitfire after one of those actual ”presentation” machines.
The Society is on the lookout for people, organisations or businesses who contributed to that campaign, or who helped with the fund-raising efforts, or who organised donations in their communities, said Mr Burrows.
“And we’d love to hear from anyone who flew, produced or maintained Spitfires,” he added.
The organisation is planning public exhibitions for the replica Spitfire in the near future, but specific dates have not yet been approved.
It is hoped, however, that March 8 will mark the official beginning of a fund-raising campaign to pay for the aircraft.
It was on March 5, 1936 that the very first example of the famous fighter took to the air.
The Society’s campaign, which will directly reflect the 1940 fund-raising efforts, is necessary to replenish is own finances and to repay a loan which was rapidly arranged to take advantage of the low price being offered.
“But while we’re scrambling for funds, we’re also aiming to have our Spitfire play a role in a limited number of public events and for education purposes throughout Northern Ireland during the months and years ahead,” said Mr Burrows.
“It’s important to us that we portray this replica as accurately as possible,” he said. “It’s a powerful symbol and its distinctive appearance still evokes strong, positive feelings from people.”
Further information on the Society and its collection, as well as information on how to donate can be found on Facebook ore their website www.ulsteraviationsociety .org.