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Helping to rebuild a Spitfire

This article is sponsored by the University of Sydney. Authorised by Vice-Chancellor and President Prof. Mark Scott. Enquiries: 9351 2000;


Engine parts from a rare Second World War Photo Reconnaissance Spitfire that was shot down by German armed forces in 1942 and lost until being recovered from a Norwegian peat bog 76 years later are being rebuilt at the University of Sydney.

The Spitfire’s Royal Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant Alastair “Sandy” Gunn, escaped the fiery Norwegian crash but was captured and later executed by the German army for his role in the prisoner of war camp break out immortalised by actor Steve McQueen in the 1963 film The Great Escape.

After more than 80 years, the long-lost Spitfire is being entirely rebuilt by an international team headquartered in the United Kingdom in the hopes it will take to the sky again in 2025.

Robert Tomlinson taxies Spitfire AA810 at RAF Wick on 29 January, 1942, just five weeks later the aircraft would be shot down with Sandy Gunn at the controls.
Photo: Courtesy of Tomlinson family

At the University of Sydney, Chief Engineer at the Sydney Manufacturing Hub, Bruce McLean, and his team are rebuilding the aircraft’s Rolls Royce Merlin V12 exhaust manifolds using industrial 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

“The Spitfire is iconic. It is one of the machines that won the war. The aircraft we are helping restore is very special indeed as a rare PR-IV model,” said Mr McLean, who has worked for several decades in aeronautical engineering.

“The Sydney Manufacturing Hub is supporting the AA810 Restoration Project using advanced digital scanning technology, computer-aided design and additive manufacturing to reverse engineer and restore the six original exhaust stacks from the aircraft.

“These were originally handmade articles that were damaged almost beyond recognition in the crash and are unobtainable today. Using modern manufacturing tools enables faithful and fully functional replicas to be manufactured and eventually flown on the restored Spitfire AA810 airframe,” he said.

One of the original manifolds salvaged from the wreckage arrived in Sydney this month. It, and a set of exhausts from a Spitfire that flew in the Battle of Britain, have been scanned at ultra-high resolution by the University’s Zeiss partner Scan-Xpress. These scans will help Mr McLean’s team at the Sydney Manufacturing Hub to develop a blueprint for the restored engine exhausts.

Close to 1700 airmen who flew in the Royal Air Force’s unarmed Photographic Reconnaissance Units have been identified, but only 652 have been confirmed as having survived the war.

Australia contributed 96 airmen to the unit, the second highest number of the nations involved in this highly clandestine work. Tragically, at least 37 of these men died during the war.

The team is commemorating the airmen whose work provided about 80 per cent of the intelligence information used in the tactical planning of the Allied campaign.

Tony Hoskins, who orchestrated the Spitfire’s salvage and is now leading the project from Britain said the project is about people. “Researching the people behind such a secretive mission is a great challenge and few people realise there were so many Australians who played a pivotal role,” he said.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research Infrastructure) Professor Simon Ringer, commended the team on their efforts.

“This is a fascinating case of reverse engineering. We’re using state-of-the-art design, materials science and manufacturing technologies to build this engine system.

“Apart from the learning opportunities for our engineers, it is a very special way to honour the service and sacrifice of the people involved at such a difficult time in history. Nearly 150 pilots of WW2’s Royal Air Force Photographic Reconnaissance Unit were from Australia and New Zealand.”

The AA810 Spitfire project is appealing for families of Royal Australian Air Force airmen seconded to fly Royal Air Force Reconnaissance missions during the Second World War to come forward to help identify the 11 Australian nationals whom the project holds incomplete data on.

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