The Spitfire has a form so achingly beautiful that it can reduce grown men to tears. Its iconic, graceful wing and purposeful silhouette are recognized to this day by not only the “greatest generation”, but by their children and grandchildren the world over. It embodied a Saxon fighting spirit, a nation's determination and final victory all at the same time. To be born a Spitfire is to be born an aristocrat among fighting machines. It is no surprise that certain truly accomplished airmen of the Royal Air Force who rose to high rank would be knighted for service. A few, like Air Chief Marshal Sir James Milne Robb would choose as their knight's charger the Supermarine Spitfire.
Of the more than 22,000 Spitfires of all marks, there remains very few still flying today and of those, fewer still can claim the ultimate sign of high pedigree - a combat record. To be a Spitfire that can claim a warrior history is to be elevated to greatness. This is understood. There is, however, a Spitfire that has no combat record but whose life has been touched by airmen of great stature over the 60 years that she has graced the skies and gardens of England and North America. She is Supermarine Spitfire XVI s/n SL721. She has flown to RAF bases throughout Great Britain, flown the blazing hot skies of the Nevada desert, the liquid blue dome above Wisconsin dairy land, the sweet, full air of California and now the icy air of the Great White North. She has been called in turn the Five Star Spitfire, the Swandean Garage Spitfire and the Rose Garden Spitfire but now, she is OUR Spitfire. From Blackbushe to Vacaville, from Oshkosh to Reno, from Chicago to Hendon, from Carefree to Gatineau, she has made men happier than men should be.
There are those who feel that her history with Sir James Robb trumps all future paint schemes and that anything else is spurious. But Robb, himself a veteran fighter pilot and ace of the First World War, would be the first to say that painting his old charger in the markings of a Canadian fighter pilot who fought in the skies of Europe is a fine thing to do, that commemorating the Canadian pilots of the war is the greatest purpose this airplane has even been given in all these years.
There is no better way to demonstrate her fine lineage than to start at the beginning of that line and take you through to today. There are probably many more images to be found of Spitfire SL721, but after many weeks of web sleuthing, these images presented here are all to be found. Put in order, they tell a compelling story of greatness. Let's go time travelling.
Other than the markings she received when she exited the Spitfire assembly line, this can be considered the first paint scheme that SL721 wore. She wore this paint scheme after her refit at Vickers to the specifications he required. The paint scheme is called Scheme “D” PRU Light Blue. In July of the same year she suffered a landing accident at the hands of another great British aviator, John Boothman. She was shipped back for repair. We can tell that this photo was taken between February when Robb took delivery of her and when she was damaged for there are just three stars on his rank pennant. At the time he was Air Vice Marshal, but during the repair the pennant was given two more stars, for “Robbo”, as he was known by friends, was given command of all the allied air forces in Europe.
This photo was taken after her repair for she is now wearing a five-star pennant. The letters do not follow the standard letter code layout with two-letter squadron code to the left of the roundel and the single letter aircraft code to the right. All three letters are aft. The paint scheme is now a darker shade of blue - the scheme was called Scheme “D” PRU Dark Blue. She was attached to the Metropolitan Communications Squadron and the Central Flying School while wearing this scheme. We'd like to think that is “Robbo” at the controls.
Air Chief Marshal Sir James Milne Robb, First World War pilot and Commander-in-Chief, Airforces Europe in the years following the Second World War, stands before his personal aircraft - Spitfire XVI SL721 in conversation with another officer. The location is Hendon and this, for the purposes of our little chronology, we will place at the end of 1948 or perhaps 1949. Inset: A painting of Robb in a similar flight suit wearing a crest from the Central Flying School.
Spitfire SL721 first moved into the spotlight when she was selected to become the personal aircraft of Air Chief Marshal Sir James Milne Robb, then head of Fighter Command. When selected, it was transferred back to the Vickers facility at South Marston to be refitted for RAF royalty. The guns were removed and the gunbays modified to take luggage. The aircraft was painted an overall shade of light blue and letter-coded with his initials - J-MR. Robb received his newly refurbished aircraft in February of 1948 utilizing SL721 to travel to bases around Great Britain. It was stationed at RAF Hendon/RAF Northolt for just 4 months when it was damaged in June 1948 in a landing accident by Air Vice Marshal John Boothman. While it was being repaired, Robb was promoted to Commander-in- Chief, Airforces Europe and the three star rank pennant on the fuselage was upgraded to five stars. In the photo above we see SL721 at rest in a corner of a busy hangar as “erks” push back a Percival Proctor training aircraft - perhaps to pull Robb’s Spit out to the ramp. The Proctor was a 3 or 4 seat radio communications training aircraft of the RAF that saw service throughout and after the war. The VS letter codes on the sides of these Proctors tells us this was No. 31 Squadron and they were reformed in July of 1948 to take over the training duties of the Metropolitan Communications Squadron at Hendon. This would place this photograph sometime after their arrival and after SL721 was repaired at Vickers. Photo via Howard Cook
In 1951, when Robb was due to retire, he flew Spitfire SL721 one last time - to RAF Little Rissington, home of the Royal Air Force’s Central Flying School (and later, the Red Arrows). There he handed it over with great ceremony and some sadness and the Spit became the personal aircraft of the CFS’s commanding officer. The number of stars on the red pennant she wore on her fuselage was reduced from five to one to reflect his rank. At CFS, SL721 remained operational for a few years and then was sent to storage and eventual scrapping at RAF Lyneham. It was here that, in 1954, she attracted the attention of an automotive garage owner by the name of Michael Wilcock. Wilcock figured if the oddly painted blue Spitfire could attract his attention from a group of 20 Spits up for disposal, it could attract customers to his Swandean Garage in Worthing. He purchased it for its scrap value - a mere £140, disassembled it and moved it by truck to a concrete pad in front of his garage. Here we see SL721 sitting on that pad for passersby to enjoy and marvel at. Wilcock would occasionally fire up the Merlin to the delight of assembled admirers, thus keeping the engine in working order despite some deterioration of the aircraft itself. The rank pennant was increased to 5 stars to reflect Robb’s connection, but was altered to a shade of blue.
A later photo of SL721 at rest outside Michael Wilcock's Swandean motor garage sporting the same paint scheme she wore when she flew with Robb.
A postcard featuring the display outside Michael Wilcock's Swandean motor garage- as we can see, the Merlin is alive and possibly this is Wilcock at the controls. Photo courtesy of Norman
SL721 at Beaulieu. In 1958, the RAF persuaded Wilcock to lend the Spitfire back to them and it was trucked to RAF Thorney Island and put on display for Battle of Britain Day. Afterwards it was overhauled by RAF maintenance crews flown briefly and then delivered to Lord Montagu’s Motor Museum in Beaulieu. There SL721 languished (though loved) uncovered in the adjacent garden for seven years where it became known as “The Rose Garden Spitfire. Photo via Howard Cook
Spitfire SL721 at Beaulieu in 1962 - seems like the canopy and the exhaust manifolds are covered over. While at Beaulieu and still owned by Michael Wilcock, it was exchanged outright for a vintage Bentley automobile owned by Monty Thackray. Both the Spitfire and the Bentley were valued at £2,000 for the purposes of the trade. Thackray then had a heart attack and a change of heart, promptly selling SL721 to the Marquis of Headfort for £3,000. Then he had another change of heart, or rather pocketbook, when he realized the true value of the Mk. XVI Spitfire in the nascent US warbird market. Monty then bought SL721 right back from the Marquis for £4,000 and offered it for sale in the USA. Photo: Dick Bateman
SL721 was sold in 1967 to William “Bill” Ross, a Chicago businessman and warbird collector. Before moving it to his home airport near Chicago, Ross had it crated and shipped across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Georgia to a warbird repair facility called Mustangs Unlimited. Here it underwent a makeover with an all new paint scheme - no longer did she have the light blue colour she was so well known for in England. Here we see her in pieces at Mustangs Unlimited. Photo via Bob Swaddling
SL721 in colour. The paint scheme given to her in Atlanta was a brown-green camouflage but with the JM-R letter codes of ACM Sir James Robb. This photo was taken at Oshkosh in 1970. Photo: Steve Williams
In the early 1970’s , SL721 (now US registered as N8R) was making appearances in public in her new paint scheme - still sporting the Robb letter codes and the odd green-brown camouflage scheme. In the background sits a Hawker Sea Fury in Canadian markings belonging to Ormond Haydon-Baillie. This photo was taken in June of 1971 at East Alton, Illinois. Photo via Peter Arnold
Superstar Spitfire meets warbird legends. Here, at Washington in 1972, we see Ross (centre) leaning against SL721 with two of the great superstars in the warbird world - Jerry Billing (left) and Don Plumb. Jerry Billing is still considered one of the greatest Spitfire demonstration pilots to fly in the North American air show circuit, gaining acclaim for his appearances in actor Cliff Robertson’s Spitfire. He would accumulate many hours in SL721 as well - ferrying her about the country and displaying her for Ross and future owner Woodson K. Woods. Canadian Don Plumb was also a legendary figure in the warbird world, in particular in Canada. Sadly Plumb was killed in 1975 while flying his P-51D. Photo: Peter Arnold
Bill Ross brought SL721 to an event called The United States Transportation Exposition (Transpo 72) at Washington’s Dulles Airport. Ross, like Plumb, would himself die in an airplane crash. Photo: Peter Arnold
SL721 was then sold to charismatic/controversial warbird collector and entrepreneur, Englishman Doug Arnold and then shipped once again across the Atlantic. Arnold was a larger-than-life character whose connection with SL721 simply added to her pedigree. This time her home would be Arnold’s base at Blackbushe Airport where Robin Walker photographed her in 1973 not long after she arrived there and was re-assembled. Photo: Robin A. Walker
In 1974 when this photograph was taken, SL721 (G-BAUP) was still in the collection of Doug Arnold at Blackbushe. Also operating at the time from this field, formerly a Second World War RAF base known as Hartford Bridge, was a Heinkel HE-111, a Junkers Ju-52 and a couple of Sea Furies. Photo: Ian Howat
Later Arnold would succumb to the same vanity that befell Robb - painting letter codes on her sides that were his own initials. Here we see SL721 in 1975 in Doug Arnold’s hangar at Blackbushe sporting newly applied D-A letter codes. Behind her we see one of two Hawker Sea Fury aircraft that operated from Arnold’s facility during that time. Photo: National Archive of Transport, Travel and Trade
In 1976, Arnold’s vanity-plated SL721 was seen and photographed by Trevor Davies on April 19th at a Blackbushe event. In the background stands a Harvard painted in similar and perhaps spurious colours. Being the same colour as SL721, it most likely also belonged to Doug Arnold. Photo: Trevor Davies
After a lot of research on the web, it was a delight to finally come across a photo of SL721 flying during her early years as a private warbird. Trevor Davies, the photographer, notes that the flypast was impromptu and brief. Luckily, he was there. Photo; Trevor Davies
1978 - two years later, SL721 was back in the USA, having been sold to another well known American warbird collector Woodson K. Woods. Here is a fairly early photo taken at Chino, California in July of 1978 showing her new markings with the owner’s initials emblazoned yet again (Her new registration was N8WK). Though colour photography is sometimes hard to interpret, SL721 appears to still be wearing her brown-green paint from Bill Ross’ paint scheme of 1967. Photo Verne Geddes via Glen E. Chatfield
Woodson K. Woods, or “Woodie” as he asked his friends to call him, would display the Spitfire in its WK-W paint scheme for many years, though it appears he repainted it in a more accurate grey-green paint scheme. This photo from ground crew member Bob Swaddling was taken in 1981 at the Reno Air Races. To avoid having to put oil sponsor Pennzoil’s stickers on her, it was agreed that she could be strung with lines carrying Pennzoil pennants - hence the ignominy of the laundry. Photo via Bob Swaddling
This was the first time in the history of the Reno Air Races that a Spitfire made an appearance and the great Jerry Billing was asked by Woods to fly SL721 from his base in Carefree, Arizona to Reno and perform his much respected aerobatic display each day of the races. During one of the race days, Bob Swaddling introduced Tennessean Bubba Beale, who owned a Merlin-powered Buchon (a post-war Spanish-built variant of the Me 109) to Jerry Billing and suggested that maybe Jerry could get permission to do a couple of fly-bys with the "109" before his aerobatic display. It was organized for the next day and Jerry flew SL721 in formation with the "109". Bubba must have been distracted because Jerry had to remind him over the radio to retract his landing gear as they were well over the safe speed limit for the extended undercart. Jerry couldn’t say for certain whether this damaged the gear on the "109", but when Bubba landed the gear collapsed and the "109" skidded off the runway in a cloud of dust while Jerry and SL721 continued on with their aerobatic display that included a “Victory Roll” over the damaged Buchon. Bubba was not hurt but nor was he in good humour . When Jerry taxied SL721 in and switched her off, Swaddling jumped up on the wing and stuck a duct tape swastika kill marking on her fuel tank. All in fun. Photo via Bob Swaddling
Though built too late in 1945 to see combat, SL721 finally managed her first “kill” at the Reno Air Races in 1981. Here she is in hot pursuit of “Bubba” Beale’s Buchon (a version of the Messerschmitt 109 built in Spain with a Rolls Royce Merlin).
In 1981, at the Reno Air Races with Jerry Billing at the controls, SL721 executes a low, high speed pass past one of the pylons. This would be the first time a Spitfire made an appearance at this world famous warbird and racing event. A superstar pilot at the controls of a superstar Spitfire at a superstar event. Photo via Bob Swaddling
“Woodie” Woods spends a few moments with Jerry Billing before he sets out for the Reno Air Races of 1981 from his base in Carefree, Arizona. Woods was also a superb pilot and warbird expert. The two pilots along with SL721 constituted Spitfire royalty. Photo via Bob Swaddling
After 1982, SL721 (in the middle above) was registered as N721 and then loaned to the San Diego Aerospace Museum for nearly 7 years. Woodson K. Woods then had the Spitfire trucked to Colorado for a complete restoration. Chris, Woodie's son would own and care for her for the next 8 years. Here SL721 is piloted by Chris Woods as he formates on a 2-seat Spitfire flown by Elliot Cross. Photo by Air2Air
In late 1998 or perhaps early 1999, Chris Woods had SL721 repainted - and he chose as his paint scheme the original ACM Robb all-light blue scheme and even J-MR letter codes. She was given her five star status back and was flown by Woods across the southwest. Here he is seen in May of 1999 in Nut Tree, California taxiing for take-off. In addition to once being known as the Rose Garden Spitfire, she was also known for obvious reasons as “The Five Star Spitfire”. Photo: Jorge A. Dietsch, Wings Photo Images
In the hot sunny skies of America’s Southwest, SL721 forms on a camera ship. Judging by the mountains and sage landscape, this could easily be at Reno during the air races. Photographer: Unknown
One last winter in the sun. SL721 is seen here in Reno in September of 2000, prior to coming to Ottawa. The Robb paint scheme is a real head-turner, unless of course two F/A-18 Hornets from the Blue Angels are messing about in the sky. Ian J Berry / TZ Aviation
Vintage Wings of Canada founder Michael Potter brings Spitfire SL721 in on final at YOW - MacDonald-Cartier International Airport. The much-admired, much-travelled beauty would bring with her the beginnings of a new idea - Vintage Wings of Canada. If any one aircraft in the early Potter collection could be said to have inspired awe, fathered an idea, or tipped the balance, it was and is the achingly beautiful Supermarine Spitfire XVI s/n SL721. Photo: John Davies, CYOW Airport watch
Spitfire SL721 brought with her not only a phenomenal pedigree, but a history of visually representing the aristocracy of aviation history - the Robbs, Rosses, Billingses, Arnolds and Woodses of the world. Though the idea of a foundation that might give fuller meaning to his collection was still vague and unformed in Potter’s mind, he knew that he should paint SL721 in a truly authentic paint scheme that would communicate a Canadian story. Mike knew he would be flying SL721 at events to commemorate our aviation heroes of the Second World War and he knew that if she wore the war paint of a Canadian, the commemoration would be all the more poignant and powerful. In order to be authentic, it had to relate to a real Canadian Spitfire of the same exact mark and canopy configuration. This would mean that only a few could possibly be considered. Bob Swaddling suggested a Spitfire XVI with blown canopy flown by Niagara Falls native William Harper. After much careful and detailed research, decisions were made and the Spit was flown to Sky Harbour aircraft in Goderich, Ontario. Here we see her fully stripped of paint and tail feathers and covered in a slight Lake Huron frosting. Soon she will be wearing her new colours - for the first time, it would be those of an ordinary combat squadron and a frontline fighter pilot.
Now, SL721 wears the markings of an ordinary Canadian man who fought and flew the Spitfire during the Second World War. Vintage Wings of Canada truly understands the aristocratic heritage of Robb’s Spitfire, but we know he would agree that the best uniform to be worn by his old mount is one that celebrates and commemorates a frontline fighter pilot from the country that SL721 now calls home. Photo: Bob Swaddling
F/L William Harper, 421 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force sits in his original AU-J in Europe during the Second World War. In these rough forward airfields, and indeed in regular service, there was not much requirement to keep these aircraft clean - only serviceable.
Rob Erdos overflies the Ottawa River en route to Geneseo, New York in the summer of 2007. The incredible heritage of this magnificent machine rides with her as we tell her story to all who will listen. Photo: Marty Periard
Photo of William Harper via Stephen Fochuck. Photo of Spitfire Marty Periard
Vintage Wings of Canada would like to thank the many photographers and research experts who made their images and thoughts available to us. They include Stephen Fochuk, Marty Periard, Bob Swaddling, Peter Arnold, John Davies, Howard Cook, Don MacNeil, Ian Berry of TZ Aviation, Jorge Dietsch of Wings Photo Images, Trevor Davies, Robin A. Walker, Ian Howatt and Steve Williams. If part of this chronology is incorrect or slightly out of order, or if I stated some detail that is incorrect, be kind - I am no historian.
There are a few sources of images which we have credited but for which we were unable to receive permission though we tried. For this we (Dave O’Malley) ask for forgiveness. They are Air2Air, Verne Geddes, and Dick Bateman.