by Nick Meikle
In as much as this review is, literally I guess, a bookend for airscape’s Spitfire Month, I hope by now you have a burning passion for one of history’s greatest fighter aircraft.
And assuming you have, let me begin by recommending Malloch’s Spitfire as a must-have book – even a foundation one – for your Spitfire library. It’s a joy to find such a great story, such a great aircraft, and so much great research woven this neatly together.
And, without trying to spoil it for you, the fact that the tale ends with a truly Homeric tragedy only cements the book’s position as an aviation classic-in-waiting.
The title refers specifically to the only late model Spitfire to be restored and flown, ever. The project was begun by the Rhodesian Air Force, which retrieved their old warhorse from gate guardian duties at New Sarum AFB in January 1977 with a view to restoring it.
However the small force was heavily committed to the country’s ‘Bush War’ and constrained by international sanctions, so a restoration was deemed far beyond all available capacity. In stepped a Rhodesian Spitfire veteran of World War 2 – local legend John McVicar ‘Jack’ Malloch – who enthusiastically took over the project using the resources of his airline Affretair (or Air Trans Africa and, more usually, just ATA) in mid-1977.
With his own maintenance facilities and endless resourcefulness, Malloch was perfectly placed to bring essential but blockaded hardware to the restoration – including replacement propeller blades that could only be sourced from the Spitfire’s former foe, Germany.
At the hands of ATA’s engineering team, led by Dave Hann and Bob Dodds, PK350’s restoration proceeded apace and by March 1980 she was ready to fly again – the only air-worthy F.22 anywhere in the world, then or since. The Griffon engine had been overhauled by South African Air Force technicians and, as its distinctive, threatening growl filled the air, it was 25 years 3 months since the aircraft had last flown.
The day of the first flight, March 29th 1980, was also 37 years to the day that Jack Malloch had first flown – in a RAF Tiger Moth with 25 EFTS at Cranborne, near Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
The name changes only hint at the turbulent world PK350 was being restored into…
Into thin air
The restoration and March 29th test-flight were resoundingly successful, and ‘Malloch’s Spitfire’ was flown and displayed joyously for the next 2 years.
Then, on March 26th, 1982, the aircraft and her pilot were lost at the end of a glorious air-to-air film shoot in company with a Zimbabwe Air Force de Havilland Vampire T11.
Inexplicably, when filming was finished, the highly experienced Malloch turned PK350 into a giant thunderhead and flew into history.
Theories about this moment range from confounded to full conspiracy, but the outcome is always the same: The pieces of Spitfire that were found could have passed through a cheese grater.
The mighty F.22 was gone for good.
Covering a complex history
Of course, that briefest synopsis barely scratches the surface. The full story is much longer, deeper and richer – and that’s where author has done a truly masterful job.
Nick Meikle was born and raised in Rhodesia, and served in the Air Forces of Rhodesia, Zimbabwe and South Africa before moving on to a career in large airliners. Suffice to say, the subject of a restored Rhodesian Air Force Spitfire is very close to his heart and he is admirably connected to tell the story.
Add his university History Degree and all the stars would appear to be aligned. But Meikle hasn’t limited himself to a simple three-act account of PK350’s service, restoration and loss. Instead, he brings together the myriad threads of a genuinely complex history.
The story starts back at the Spitfire’s ancestral home. We’re treated to a concise but very clear and logical explanation of how Supermarine, working with Rolls-Royce and the RAF through peace and war, ended up producing a 22nd major development of their patently brilliant air defence fighter design from ten years before.
Needless to say this section draws on leading Spitfire authorities – including Jeffrey Quill, Leo McKinstry and Peter Arnold – but it is still one of the tightest histories of the Spitfire family that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. It’s one reason you could build your whole Spitfire collection around a copy of Malloch’s Spitfire.
20,350 and 1
With the type-history established, Meikle turns his attention to the early history of PK350 itself. The details of this specific aircraft’s early career could easily have gotten lost in the ‘fog of peace’ that followed World War Two.
In fact, the details would certainly have been lost for good without his unerring research. He found the Castle Bromwich test pilot who first flew her (Battle of France veteran Peter Ayerst); he uncovered the RAF squadron service that, by all accounts, had never happened. And more.
I’ve had several chats with the author now, and I’ve been impressed by his dedication to air-tight research. As a pair of hard-core aviation enthusiasts, our conversations have disappeared down countless rabbit holes, but Nick always has his facts and sources lined up – and PK350’s story is clearly the richer for it.
The African queens
The next phase of the story explains how 22 late model RAF Spitfires ended up serving in southern Africa. Again, it’s not a simple story. But Meikle takes us patiently through the many twists and turns, including detailed accounts of the two ‘impossible’ 5,600 nautical mile ferry flights by short-range fighters from England to Rhodesia in 1951.
He then recounts Rhodesia’s experience with their Spitfires, including the twists, turns and occasional nose-overs of the fleet’s service until the final flights in December 1954. We’re also given the crucial details of PK350’s elevation to gate guardian duties at New Sarum – a process that was handled in ways that would later prove crucial for her return to flying condition.
And so, the scene is set for a priceless restoration 22 years later. Enter Jack Malloch.
I use the phrase ‘Enter Jack Malloch’ advisedly, because even though this is a story about an extraordinary aircraft, it would be nothing without a series of extraordinary men. (Sorry ladies, but they were all men this time – no doubt with great women behind them though.)
Like any prima donna, PK350’s entire story pivots on a large and devoted supporting cast – people who played a major role in this book’s events by either making them happen, making them possible or, occasionally, both.
Jack Malloch is the obvious and ultimate example. But there were many others, and Nick Meikle’s ability to balance aviation hardware with aviation people is extraordinary.
One of the many
A great example is Warrant Officer Spike Owens, the famously resourceful maintenance officer leading the RhAF’s Aircraft Servicing Flight. He initiated the idea of bringing PK350 back inside after some 14 years on a gate plinth, with a view to surveying and restoring the aircraft.
As a maintenance officer on the Spitfires when they ended operations, Owens may even have been instrumental in the fact that the aircraft had been mounted with her engine and most fittings intact – a ‘coincidence’ that made the eventual restoration feasible. What is certain is that the same crane operator who lifted PK350 onto the plinth, WO1 Jimmy Gordon-Brander, would also lift her off. So other connections would have to be a possibility…
But still Gordon-Brander, like Spike Owens and Jack Malloch, is just one in of the many people who were essential to PK350’s story. As far as possible, Nick Meikle manages to recognise them all and recount their individual contributions.
It’s an extraordinary acknowledgement of the primary natural force that enables any aircraft to fly – human dedication.
So if I were asked whether this was a book about aircraft or people, I don’t think I could say. Even the title, Malloch’s Spitfire, gives equal billing. Only its subtitle, The Story and Restoration of PK350, might tip the balance. Or does it?
Suffice to say, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
All I can tell you is that this is an indispensable Spitfire book – complete with historical and technical detail, a fantastic plot, a very human aspect, and a heart-breaking end to make it all the more unforgettable.
The text is generously illuminated by three large sections of photos (black and white and colour), maps, and colour profiles by Phil Wright covering every chapter of the aircraft’s life. There are also copious notes, references and Appendices to satisfy the most demanding students, artists and modellers.
The pursuit of a dream
Another source that is frequently mentioned in Malloch’s Spitfire is the movie project made to celebrate PK350’s return to the skies of Rhodesia – Spitfire: The pursuit of a dream. Championed, written and produced by the (now) Air Force of Zimbabwe’s Public Relations Officer Wing Commander Bill Sykes (and named by his wife Mary Ann) it includes interviews with the key characters, several of whom are no longer with us, along with coverage of the rebuild and plenty of beautiful in-flight footage.
This is the film that was being made when Malloch and PK350 were lost in March 1982 and, most poignantly, it ends with footage that was captured just minutes before the Spitfire flew into the storm cloud.
It’s a big cloud. As Nick Meikle points out in the book, it wasn’t as close as it looks – but it is still an incredibly powerful finale.
I read the book first, then found the film on YouTube. But I don’t think it will matter if you do things the other way around, so why not enjoy The pursuit of a dream while you wait for your amazon shipment to arrive…
35 thoughts on “In memory of an F.22”
Amazing, the stories of how airplanes live and die. To have been treated so carefully during military service, then abandoned to the elements and stuck on a pike for a quarter century, then lovingly restored… and then finally one day flung into a thunderstorm — it just doesn’t make any sense.
On the upside, I think that sort of thing is far less common today. Every shrub with a smartphone has instantaneous access to the latest satellite photos, radar returns, PIREPs, SIGMETs, and forecasts. That’s not to say pilots don’t still do stupid things. I know we do, because I’ve seen me do ’em.
Incidentally, I was Guatemala City — or was it Panama City? — and noticed a P-51 Mustang on a pole outside what used to be a military facility. I was half tempted to get up there and pry open the canopy. While I appreciate the gesture and good intentions, it’s a real shame to see it rotting away like that.
Yeah, I guess the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are nothing compared to what we throw at our airplanes… I don’t think anyone will know what was going through Jack Malloch’s mind when he turned into that storm; even if it was a mistake or a decision that he would never ever have a better day. Zimbabwe lost big that day.
And yes, there are still million dollar airframes alternately baking and drowning on poles in front of air force facilities – invariably in tropical countries. I think there is still a pair of P-51s outside a headquarters in Indonesia somewhere, and I bet there’s something equally worthwhile in the Philippines too. But perhaps the ultimate story is the half-dozen CA-18 Mustangs subjected to an atom bomb test in the Australian outback. If you’re after a great aviation yarn, check out this: https://youtu.be/99lXChVpXFM
There’s still an F22 in Zimbabwe at the military museum in Gweru. This is SR65 or PK 355, a close sister ship to PK 350. She’s under cover at least and is the museum’s most prized asset with a decent cross section of other ex-AF aircraft. She’s stripped of everything even her construction plate, with Vampire legs, but still unmistakably an F22.
Good, I’m glad. I really don’t want to trigger that whole “fly /em/preserve ’em” debate – but it would be a double tragedy if Zimbabwe had been left without a single example of its signature warbird.
There’s still an F22 in Zimbabwe at the military museum in Gweru, Zimbabwe. This is SR65 or PK 355, a close sister ship to PK 350. She’s under cover at least and is the museum’s most prized asset with a decent cross section of other ex-AF aircraft. Sadly, she’s stripped of everything even her construction plate, with Vampire legs, but still unmistakably an F22. The best F22 on display is PK 481 at the RAAFA Bull Creek Museum.
Thanks very much for a great set of posts. Very enjoyable.
I have immensely enjoyed Spitfire month! I know feel equipped to talk more intelligently about Spitfires.
Thank you so much for all these amazing blog posts. I’ve only known one other blog to be as interesting as yours (and they don’t post anymore!). 😀
Thanks for your kind words. As long as I can keep finding people like you, who are interested in being interested, airscape will be in good shape.
A great series of posts. The book sounds as interesting as the history of the aircraft itself. One to look out for.
Thank you. It’s been a very satisfying month.
Just come across this after tracing the silverspitfire.com project. The memories of the sound of that machine at that level is still hair lifting. The young boy in the red jersey, terrible socks.
I think a lot of us were that young boy, Julian. Happy to have brought back some memories for you.
I would dearly love to get a copy of the video of this spitfire and would like to get the book as well. then I would like to say that I had the privilege to sit in the spitfire whilst she was standing in a hanger at new Sarum before she was used as a gate guard. and that about in 1967 I took photos of her where she was mounted as a gate guard and she was at that time not painted silver. can send you copies of these photos.
What a privilege to have sat in SR64 when in the hangar. I can get you a copy of the video Hans & the book when I get back to Aus. Alternatively you can get a copy of the book on Amazon. What is your email & I can follow up? I’d love to get pics of SR64 from that time.
Hans, if you prefer, use the Contact link on airscape to send me your email address securely, and I can forward it on to Nick for you.
hi there my email address is email@example.com
Mick Kemsley, I was sumewhat disapointed after reading the book which I purchased on ebay. I had tthe privaledge of working on the Spitfire but most
of my work was carried out in the New Sarum Instrument Section when I was
not engaged with Airforce equipment. The instruments from the Spitfire were
in reasonable condition. I had to recalibrate the Turn & Slip, I calibrated the Altimeter which passed all tests but the dial was close to unreadable so we
found an exact replacement in the main store, it also calibrated very well.
I cleaned up the instrument panel & got it repainted. The pipot pipes had to be replaced & panel rewired, we had retained most of the instrument with a new oil pressure indicator & new light fittings, switches. I also managed to find a new Pitot head the same as the Islander aircraft. Whilst back at Affretair I assisted often with other things.
Except whilst on holiday I saw all the take offs except the last on I had a
meeting at our club. Mick Kemsley
thank you for the information and I would like to ask is it possible to obtain a copy of the video of this truly remarkable achievement by those guys. I am most interested in this particular spitfire of which I have a couple of pictures whilst she was a gate guard and I also had the privilege to sit in her when she was still stored in one of the hangers during my military training at new Sarum. regards Hans Kleynhans
I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I’m not sure of anywhere you can buy a copy of ‘Pursuit of a Dream’. Your best bet is probably to search for a YouTube downloader that suits your system, then select ‘Watch On YouTube’ in the video frame above and download a copy for yourself.
good morning I would just like to send you a few photos that I took at the New Sarum gate of this spitfire in about 1976/77 it was then still in the colors that she had on when she was stored in the hanger. how can I add these photos, please regards Hans Kleynhans
Hi Hans, Thanks. Would you be able to send the photos to my email address? I don’t think you’ll be able tp upload them onto this means. Nick
Thanks Foxx. All good and hope you’re well too?
with pleasure, Nick and I will include the photos that I have of our mustang and mark 9 spitfire as well send me your email address and I will send them mine is firstname.lastname@example.org and after some digging I found the date more or less when I was in the RRAF and had the opportunity to sit in this lovely lady it was in late 1959 regards Hans
Thanks Hans. Fascinating to hear you were in the RRAF in the late 50s. In that case it was likely SR64 (PK350) that you sat in. SR65 was moved to Bulawayo for many years. We believe SR64 was only placed on the plinth (at Sarum) in about 1964. I’d be fascinated to see whether you have pics from 1959 and if by some chance they’re in colour? There has been much discussion over the years as to the exact colour of the High Altitude Blue in which the RRAF Spits were painted.
I’d love to see pics of the SAAF Museum Spit and Mustang, thanks.
Did you receive my email that I sent a couple of days back?
BTW I have just seen that AFB Swartkop has celebrated it’s Centenary. The Mustang was amongst many aircraft/choppers and looking good; I wonder if airworthy or not? Thanks very much. Nick
Hi, Nick, I am herewith enclosing the pictures that I promised. unfortunately, the photos I had in 1959Â were taken to be developed by a friend, and I never saw them again please enjoy these the first were taken at new Sarum about 1977, and then the ones of the mark 9 and mustang were taken at the airshow days before they were involved in the landing accidents they are trying to restore the spitfire but the mustang has a bent main wing spar so it is doubtful that it would be restored to flying condition regards HansÂ ps. the blond dot in the bottom of the first three photos is my son’s head.Â
Hi NICK I am sorry these photos of the mark nine and the mustang were taken at the airshow before the accidents these were taken at water kloof air force base and the accidents were at swartkops
No problem Hans. It would still be great to get those. 🙂 Can you remember if the Spit was still painted in the blue color or had the RRAF changed the colour to the camouflage? I realise it’s a long time ago but I have one photo of SR65 in the high altitude blue colour – the only one I have seen. Thanks. Regards Nick
Hi Nick when we saw her she was in the camouflage colors just as in these photos regards Hans
Thanks Hans. Makes sense. I haven’t received any messages via the email – did you get a mail?
Hi Nick here a photo of me taken on my first pass home when I was in the RRAF
I have followed up with a message to your email address. So sorry I missed a follow up in Dec 2019.
I wonder which year it was that you sat in the cockpit of a Spitfire at New Sarum? It’s likely that it was the other Spitfire SR65 which was up at New Sarum for a short while before being returned to Gweru and the Military Museum? Would you have a photo?
When SR64 was removed from the plinth at New Sarum in early 1977, she was dismantled and sent straight to Thornhill. SR65 was on a plinth at Thornhill for many years before being replaced by a Vampire. That was when she was sent to New Sarum – dates unknown.
Hope you enjoy the video.
Thanks Nick. Let me know if Hans sends you some photos, won’t you? I’d love to see them. Hope you’re keeping well.
I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed by the book. I count Nick Meikle as a friend and I’m sure he’d be interested in hearing where you felt let down. Besides, I’d be happy to offer other airscape readers the balance of your counterpoint.
Regardless, though, thank you for your work on resurrecting that extraordinary aircraft. I have a somewhat atypical weakness for the Griffon Spitfires…
I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed. I wonder what particularly disappointed you?
A lot of the research on the re-build was through Dave Hann, the senior structural engineer at ATA. We set out to record as many of the staff at ATA that could be remembered. As you rightly say you were very active in the rebuild but it was not recorded that you worked in the instrument bay at New Sarum. Is this the area of disappointment?
As I understand it you were an Affretair employee and it is understood that the Air Force personnel were the ones working in the various bays. Barry Yorke OCMU confirmed the work done at the various bays.
If Jack was still alive today, I feel sure he would be very quick to acknowledge his engineers and their role in the re-build. The Dedication at the front and the list of all the engineers that could be remembered in the Appendices is evidence of the effort to remember as many of Jack’s engineers as possible.
The quality of the finish of the aircraft was like she was new – Chris Dams, who last flew her in December 1954, could not get over the finish when he saw the rebuilt aircraft. A huge tribute to all the engineers.
I hope you enjoyed the wonderful colour picture of yourself with your colleagues who worked on the Spitfire?
My name is Stuart Robertson..
I recovered the Spitfire from New Serum air base and returned to Thornbill with it,to 6 Squadron.
I have a picture of the removal
Good to hear from you. I remember you from 6 Sqn days when we were cadets in 1974/75!
I recall you were involved at the start of that amazing journey to rebuild SR64.
Would yo be willing to share the picture you mention? My email is email@example.com.
There is one in the book with you amongst the other 6 Sqn members removing the aircraft off the plinth.
Well if airscape does nothing more than connect some ex-servicemen from time to time I’d be more than happy… Thank you both for your contributions to this memorable (if ultimately tragic) story. I’m glad I could help keep it in the public eye.