Flying with an icon - Spitfire N3200

By Pete van der Spek

July 2017 was a special month for me - I got to fly alongside an icon.

Me with N3200 before the air-to-air

Spitfires have always been a favourite of many people worldwide - ask any aviation enthusiast what his/her favourite aircraft is and the list will ALWAYS include the iconic Spitfire. The subject of my story is a Mk1 Spitfire with a very interesting background. Built in 1939 at the Southampton factory, it was delivered to 19 Squadron in April 1940.

N3200 lying on the beach at Sangatte with German troops around it

In May 1940, the British army found itself in retreat and stuck on the beaches in and around Dunkirk. 19 Squadron were sent to cover the retreat and Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson was flying in N3200 as part of the operation - in fact as the squadron leader. He shot down a Stuka - JU87 dive bomber. Geoffrey was in turn shot down and crash landed N3200 on a beach at Sangatte in France. The Spitfire lay on the beach while German troops took bits and pieces from the aircraft as souvenirs and the aircraft slowly sunk into the sand.

The second Rapide with 8 people on board taking photos

Fast forward to 1986 when a storm swept through the area and N3200 was uncovered. The wreckage was recovered by some enthusiasts and eventually bought by Simon Marsh and Tom Kaplan (Mark One Partners) and returned to the UK for restoration.

Cockpit of one of the ARC Spits - credit Aircraft Restoration Company

Work started around December 2000 and work continued at Duxford under the capable hands of Historic Flying Company and The Aircraft Restoration Company. The two companies, under the guidance and management of John Romain, completely rebuilt the Spitfire and on 26 March 2014, this famous Spitfire flew once again in the hands of John Romain.

The Rapide that I flew in called "Nellie"

The air-to-air in my case was organized through Classic Wings based at Duxford and cost many hard earned Rands but was well worth it. I spoke to the owner of Classic Wings and asked to be put in the best spot on the photoship which in itself was a classic WW2 aircraft - a really good example of the De Havilland Rapide.

N3200 flying wing tip to wing tip with us - not on my side but shows how close he flew to us

I had a tiny window to shoot through - the only one on either Rapides owned by Classic Wings. At least I had clear air between my camera and the Spitfire - shooting through glass is not such a great idea as one gets distortion. We took off from Duxford (that in itself was awesome) and were soon joined in the air by N3200 flown by Martin Overall.

A closeup of Martin Overall - a picture of concentration

N3200 against the background of the approaching storm

Martin is a talented fellow - he is a senior engineer at The Aircraft Restoration Company (ARC) and was very involved with the rebuild of N3200. He is a pilot and trained to fly the Spitfire and gets to fly N3200 on occasion. He placed the Spitfire in exactly the correct position with great dexterity - the speeds are obviously totally different and Martin had to work hard to get it right for around 5 minutes, remember, he had two sides of the Rapide to please.

N3200 in a banking turn towards the photoship

We had to work quickly to get the shots and to put even more pressure on us, there was a storm on the way which made things worse. This made for some amazing photos and I am really thankful the day happened at all as for a while, the sortie was going to be cancelled because of the weather.

N3200 with the English countryside in the background

ARC and Classic Wings have a winning formula in this arrangement and I recommend doing this trip if you can afford it.

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