In memory of an F.22

Malloch’s Spitfire

by Nick Meikle

ISBN 978-1-61200-252-1

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.

Rare bird

PK350/SR64 on the plinth at New Sarum in her initial RRAF Federal colours. (© RRAF/Bill Sykes | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

John ‘Jack’ McVicar Malloch in the early 1960s. (© Greg Malloch | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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…

Flypast along runway 06 at Salisbury International Airport on 3 May 1980. Jack Malloch returning from a local flight and flypast over the home of a young Paul Maher in the suburbs of Salisbury. (© Rich Sandercock | Malloch’s Spitfire)

Into thin air

Some evidence of the rough ride and damage experienced by the Vampire whilst pursuing the Spitfire, just prior to the loss of Jack Malloch and the Spitfire. (© AFZ Photographic Section, New Sarum/Guy Cunningham/Steve Nobes | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

This battery fragment showing its number, make and aerobatics capability, was an instantly recognisable item among a number of other bits of wreckage at the crash site. (© Bill Sykes | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

Shortly before the high speed taxi. An exceptional photograph which shows the Spitfire at its best – a perfect outline on the horizon set against a crisp morning sky. John ‘Jack’ McVicar Malloch in the early 1960s. (© The Herald/Paddy Gray | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

Prototype Mk.22, PK312, showing the cut-down rear fuselage that set it apart from the Mk.21, along with a 24V electrical system. (Note the revised wingtip of the Mk.21 and beyond.) PK312 has a short-chord rudder, soon replaced by the larger ‘Spiteful Tail’ to improve stability. (© IWM HU 1682)

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.

A striking shot of one of the SRAF Spitfires in her new colour scheme, still sporting a high-gloss finish, which suggests this photo was taken in 1951 or early 1952, soon after she was repainted. (© SRAF | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

PK350, now numbered SR64, with its red spinner, starting up at New Sarum. (© SRAF/Bill Sykes | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

A rare shot of the port side of the Spitfire, taken from the Bell 205, September 1980. (© Phil Scott/Nick Meikle | Malloch’s Spitfire)

Spitfire men

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.)

Jack Malloch takes time to chat with onlookers during his pre-flight. (© John Reid-Rowland | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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

PK350/SR64 being examined by 6 Sqn crew. From left: Flight Lieutenants Rob McGregor, Steve Caldwell, Roger Watt and Pete Simmonds; WO1 Spike Owens and Dave Thorne. (© RhAF Photographic Section, Thornhill/Jeff Hagemann | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

Some of the Affretair engineers who rebuilt PK350. Behind the starboard wing from left: unk., unk., Mike Hill, unk., Dave Murtag, John Dodds. Back row in front of wing from left: unk., Carlos de Silva, Ben Darck, Scott Parkins, Morgan Maitland-Smith, Carlos Martins, Dave Wood, Andy Wood and Mick Kemsley (holding the propeller). Front row from left: Pete Massimiani, unk., Bob Dodds, Jimmy Gibson and Dave Hann. (© By kind permission of David Dodds | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

Indispensable

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?

Jack Malloch shows great interest just prior to a ground run. Bob Dodds is in the cockpit. (© Chris Faber | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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.

One of the last photographs taken of Jack Malloch in PK350. The crash occurred ten minutes later. (© Bill Sykes | Malloch’s Spitfire)

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…

[youtu.be/1WLxrePTYp0]

With thanks to Nick Meikle for all his co-operation – and a fabulous book.
Feature Image: The AFZ T.11 Vampire, flown by author Nick Meikle with Bill Sykes, taxies out with the Spitfire at Salisbury International Airport, on the second of three filming sorties, 26 February 1982. (© Visiting Airwork Executive/Bill Sykes | Malloch’s Spitfire)

9 thoughts on “In memory of an F.22

  1. 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.

    1. 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

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

      3. 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.

  2. 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!). 😀

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