On the wings of history
September 1, 2005
Bill Greenwood’s airplane turns heads just about everywhere he goes.But here at his home airfield on the outskirts of Aspen, one of the most recognizable and revered planes in history attracts little attention. It’s overshadowed by the multimillion-dollar Gulfstreams that whisk the affluent in and out of town. Occasionally, someone strolls over to inquire about Greenwood’s Spitfire, frequently parked on the north end of the tarmac at Sardy Field, but plenty of others don’t give the World War II fighter a second glance.”To them, it’s just an old plane,” he said.To Greenwood and other pilots around the world, though, the Spitfire is a legendary aircraft, revered for its speed and maneuverability, renowned for its role in helping the Royal Air Force keep the tenacious German Luftwaffe at bay in the epic Battle of Britain.Sixty years later, the few Spitfires that remain in flying condition are still a pilot’s dream, according to Greenwood, an Aspen resident who learned to fly in San Diego and owns three small planes, including the warplane.
“It’s just a very good flying airplane,” he said. “Obviously, it’s 60-year-old technology, but 60 years ago, it was the best technology in the world. It didn’t just suddenly become crummy.”The Spitfire remains among the fastest propeller planes in the world, according to an article in the current issue of Pilot Journal. “This fighter was so far ahead of its time that many of its design features are still incorporated into modern passenger and military aircraft,” the magazine notes.Greenwood’s model could reach speeds of about 416 mph and dive at more than 550 mph.Britain built more than 20,000 Spitfires. Of them, roughly 120 still exist, and only 45 to 50 are still in the air, according to Greenwood.He flies his plane to air shows around the country and in Canada, where it is regularly swarmed by history buffs and airplane aficionados. Greenwood is a regular attendee at the annual fly-in in Oshkosh, Wis., where some 700,000 people flocked to Wittman Regional Airport last month to see nearly 3,000 aircraft, including home-built models, vintage planes, warbirds and ultralights.”If you go somewhere like Oshkosh, the moment you stop, 50 people just descend on you,” Greenwood said.But it’s encounters with the pilots who flew the Spitfire in battle that are the most memorable for Greenwood.
“There’s a whole different world between someone like me, who’s lucky enough to fly one, and the guys who flew them when somebody was shooting at them,” he said.In Canada, Greenwood had the chance to talk up an RAF veteran, now in his late 70s, who flew in the Battle of Britain. “I thought he was going to die, he was so excited,” Greenwood said. “When he got in the cockpit, he was 20 years old in his mind.”Greenwood believes his plane was built in the spring of 1945, near the end of the war. Originally a single-seat fighter, it had a second, rear cockpit added after the war, and the plane was used to train pilots. The Irish Air Corps apparently used it until 1961; Greenwood purchased it after he saw it advertised in 1983.The plane’s machine guns have been removed, but its twin 20-millimeter cannons, now inoperable, are still mounted on the wings. A brass button on the stick, used to fire the weaponry, is still there, as are the rest of the original cockpit controls and instruments.Though he’s not sure if the plane ever saw battle, it was used in the 1968 movie “The Battle of Britain,” and Jaguar hired him to fly the plane around the Statue of Liberty in 1991 for video footage and photographs, in commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The automaker now owns the factory buildings in Birmingham, England, where Spitfires were manufactured.
Greenwood also recently flew the plane for a documentary about the Spitfire.”They’re very valuable in England now – very much in demand,” said Greenwood, who added he’s occasionally approached by someone interested in buying the plane.”If you’re lucky enough to ever own one and fly one of these things, I don’t know why you’d ever sell it,” he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org