The Making of the film:
Spitfire Mk.LFXVIe TB863
Engine: Packard Merlin 266
Serial/Reg. TB863, (G-CDAN), (ZK-XVI)
Sqdn - code: 453-FU-P, 183-HF-C, 567-14, 691-5S-E, 17-UT-D, No.3 CAACU (Civilian Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit), CC-R
Role in film: Spares, Currently: Airworthy
This aircraft was built at Castle Bromwich with C/No CBAF10895 in early 1945 and delivered off contract to No.19 MU St Athan on 27th February, being transferred to No.84 Group Support Unit at Dunsfold on 7th March. It was allocated to No.453 squadron of 125 Wing, No.83 Group 2nd TAF on 22nd March1945. The unit was based at Matlaske at the time. The aircrafts first action was on the 24th March when, laden with two 250lb bombs and a long range belly tank, the aircraft headed a flight of four Spitfires for an armed reconnaissance; briefed to bomb rail targets in Utrecht/Hague/Leiden area. Crossing the Dutch coast at 10,000ft, the four spitfires positioned for dive bombing the railway lines, pilots observing only two clusters as near misses. TB863’s cannons were fired in anger for the first time during a strafing attack on a large railway coach by the four, claimed as probably destroyed, before returning to altitude. By 9:45 am the aircraft were back on the ground at Matlaske. The aircraft continued with these sorties including a mission flown on 30th March when Flt Lt Leith placed his bomb, under a rail bridge before strafing a road convoy suspected of including V2 transporters on the Harlem/Leiden road. The last offensive operational sortie flown by TB863 was on 25th April when the squadron provided target cover for Lancaster’s and Halifax’s bombing the seaplane base at Wangerooge Island. TB863 had flown twelve missions, mostly on rail interdiction, during its six weeks on operations; 23 hours 55 minutes in total. The month of April it was to be found at Lympne, Kent, moving on to Hawkinge in May and being finally disbanded on 31st May. After the end of hostilities TB863 escorted Queen Wilhelmina on her return to Holland. 863 was transferred to No.183 (Gold Coast) squadron, possibly at Wunsdorf (B116) on 21st June 1945, but the squadron moved within days to Millfield and then Chilbolton, probably as a prelude to disbandment – and on 5th July 863 was allocated to 567 squadron.
It was still with the unit according to the home census of aircraft on 21st March 1946, but on 20th June that year it moved to N0.691 squadron at Chivenor, where it was initially coded “5S-“. This squadron was renumbered as No.17 squadron at Chivenor on 11th February 1949 and No.17 was officially reformed on 1st March 1949.
TB863 by this time had been issued with the squadron code letters UT-D, and for the 1950 SBAC Farnborough Air Show the squadrons aircraft were repainted to represent yellow-nose Messerschmitt Bf109’s, with the iron cross and swastika, but retaining their code letters. This was a re-enactment of the famous wartime precision bombing raid on Amiens prison by Mosquitos of No.487 squadron. 863 remained on squadron charge until 15th March 1951, when it was transferred to No.3 CAACU at Exeter, sustaining damage Cat.3R in a flying accident on 17th July that year. The damage was reclassified Cat.5S on 28th September and the aircraft struck off charge.
On an unknown date the aircraft was sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, for use in the film Reach for the Sky, which was filmed at Kenley and Pinewood in the summer of 1955. It is thought that 863 was used for studio cockpit shots at Pinewood.
Remarkably TB863 was placed in store in the props department at Pinewood Studios and re-emerged in 1967, but by this time minus engine and much of the cockpit structure. With the making of the film the Battle of Britain it was taken by road from Pinewood to Henlow on 8th January 1968, and was surveyed by Simpsons Aeroservices Ltd for possible use in the film. However, by this time the film unit had obtained enough flying and static aircraft and TB863 was used as a source of spares, its centre section fuselage spar being exchanged with that from Mk.Ia AR213, the latter having been damaged in dismantling at RAF Abingdon.
The filming over, TB863 was acquired by A W Francis as part of his contract with the film company and transferred to the new owners home at Southend on 11th December 1968, when restoration commenced.
The aircraft was examined in detail at Southend in early 1969, and traces of its many unit codes, indicating that it was FB-Y in Reach for the Sky, FU-P with 453 squadron, UT-D of 17 squadron, with traces of unit codes 5S (691 squadron), 14 (567 squadron) and HF (183 squadron), together with individual code letter C and E, to which no actual unit tie-up could be decided.
The aircraft stayed at the Southend home of Bill Francis until 1972, when it was moved to the covered accommodation of the nearby Historic Aircraft Museum at Southend Airport. Here some work was carried out on the fuselage and an ex-Avro York Merlin 502 installed. The fuselage was repainted and the film codes FB-Y reapplied. Little further work was done on the airframe and with the museum in financial difficulties 863 was transferred to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, where it was stored. The owner was not able to arrange a suitable rebuilding schedule and with a number of parts stolen while at Duxford it was transferred early in 1977 to its owners new home at Southam in Warwickshire, where it was stored.
It was registered to J Parks and A W Francis as G-CDAN on 30th November 1982, using its fuselage firewall number CBAF 10895 as the constructor’s number. It then moved to Personal Plane Services at Booker, where work was commenced on its rebuild to airworthy status, work initially taking place on the wings.
It was later sold to Stephen Grey and work continued at PPS on the wings which were rebuilt to include wing fuel tanks. The fuselage was transferred to Duxford later followed by the other parts in the autumn of 1985.
Now at the Fighter Collection restoration was begun in earnest on 19th February 1986. All internal fittings were stripped from TB863’s fuselage, all panels and rivets being systematically replaced. Crack testing and corrosion treatment was applied before new skins were fitted to the fuselage. The electrical system was rewired to the original wartime specifications, the only concession being a conversion to a 24 volt system from the original 12 volts. Final fitting out and assembly began on 5th July 1987, moving towards the installation of a Rolls-Royce Packard Merlin 266 and a zero-timed propeller in January 1988 in preparation for test flying.
The aircraft was first re-flown at Duxford on 14th September 1988. On 13th October 1988 the aircraft was placed in a container and shipped to New Zealand. It was reassembled at Wanaka and test flown on 25th January 1989 as ZK-XVI in the hands of Stephen Grey. The aircraft was successfully displayed at Auckland, but on the flight south to Wanaka had fuel problems. The aircraft made a forced landing in a paddock neighbouring the Waipukurau Aerodrome. SAFE Air at Woodbourne carried out repairs, and the aircraft returned to the air on 7th April 1990. The aircraft was again damaged in an accident at RNZAF Woodbourne on 18th November 1992 when the aircraft developed a swing landing on wet grass and the undercarriage collapsed after striking a taxiway. SAFE Air again carried out repairs and the aircraft was returned to the air early in 1994.
Since then the aircraft has appeared at many airshows throughout New Zealand wearing the exact colours of No.453 squadron RAAF – the uniform it wore on its first operational sortie across the English Channel in 1945. Today the aircraft is airworthy and based with The Alpine Fighter Collection at Luggate airfield near Wanaka.
Current location – The Alpine Fighter Collection, Wanaka, New Zealand – airworthy.