The Spitfire.

Finished Spitfire

How NORFED brought together more than 100 divers over a four-year period to achieve something special .

Saturday October 25th, 1941, Flying Officer František Hekl, of 312 (Czech) Squadron, took off in spitfire P7540. Having recently been involved in the desperate hours of the Battle of Britain P7540, was now on a sedate training flight from RAF Ayr. Once safely airborne he set the course on 290°. The flight time for the 25 miles to Loch Doon would have taken five minutes. Flying down the gently curving loch just above the water level F/O Hekl made to turn right causing his starboard wing to dip into the water. The resulting drag would have caused the aircraft to cartwheel and dive into the loch, quickly disappearing below the surface, taking the pilot with it.
The incident was witnessed by the Loch Doon Water Bailiff who cycled the six miles to the village of Dalmellington to alert the local Police Constable. After radio contact was lost, the tragedy was confirmed by a phone call reporting the accident. At 12.20pm, F/Lt. Tomáš Vybíral took off from Ayr to search for the lost aircraft and for F/O Hekl but nothing could be seen from the air. When, sometime later, the water bailiff and the constable arrived back on the shores of the loch there was nothing to be seen apart from an oil patch.

The week prior to the crash had seen exceptional rainfall and storms over south-west Scotland and in consequence the Galloway hill lochs were at record high level. At Loch Doon, part of a chain of lochs supplying water for hydro-electric production, this surplus water was being run off via the outfall on the eastern bank. An RAF salvage crew brought a boat to Loch Doon and spent several days trying to trawl up the wreckage. Predictably, with the Spitfire then lying in something like 25 metres of water, and the actual position of the wreck unclear due to surface debris and the oil slick having been drawn towards the outfall, only complicated the salvage operation. Despite a thorough search the only remains recovered were a boot and a glove.
The still waters were to keep their secret for another four decades.

In 1977 Bruce Robertson of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Group persuaded David Greenwood and members of the Dumfries branch of the Scottish Sub Aqua Clu

b to search for the remains of the aircraft in the six-mile length of the Loch Doon. In August 1979 divers from various branches of NORFED joined in the search, with the Blackpool Branch assuming the role of project organiser. With the underwater visibility being zero the search was carried out by dividing the probable location into squares of approximately 100 metres. Using information from the water bailiff, who witnessed the crash, they started near the outfall (see diagram below) using the method of circular sweeps. Patiently over three years, using precious weekends and holidays, the divers covered the numbered squares. Search after search turned up no results and eventually it was realised that a different approach may be more effective. During the winter of 1981/2 new plans were drawn up. The 1982 Loch Doon season began with the new plans and greater optimism.
Further careful study of the known facts e.g. the line of flight, the effect of the overflow from the outfall on the oil patch, lead the team to conclude that the impact area was probably further up the line of flight than had been previously considered. A new area was defined, and the method of searching was switched from circular sweep to a linear method in which six divers guided by a line and swimming line abreast could cover an area 15 metres wide by 150 metres long. To the delight of all concerned the new plan finally brought the long-earned success.

Ironically, this summer Loch Doon was at a record low level, with only about eight metres of water covering the point where the wreck lay compared with a more normal l0 to l2 metres.

The first part of P7540 to be found was the rear fuselage and tail section, intact up to the cockpit rear bulkhead. It lay inverted on top of the mud in contrast to all later finds which were buried. Over the ensuing weeks more and more of the Spitfire was found the wreckage was scattered along a line about 200 metres long, on a track of approximately 280 degrees.

Each find was carefully charted and then brought to the surface, the heavier items being raised with air bags. The wings were found to be extremely badly smashed and the D&GAG would, no doubt, be on the lookout for fresh wings when the rebuild of P7540 finally got under way. In contrast the Merlin XII engine proved to be in excellent shape with reduction gear and propeller boss still attached and even the paintwork intact on the rocker covers and ancillaries.

After 4l years the murky waters of Loch Doon finally relinquishes its hold on its victim. The fuselage of Spitfire P7540 was raised using air bags and then carefully towed towards the shore.

The badly broken wings laid out ashore.

A Plaque in the museum is mounted alongside the recovered engine it reads as follows

“This excellent example of the famous Merlin engine which powered so many British (plus the odd American one) aircraft during WWII, is from our own Spitfire Mk.II which is currently under restoration.

On Saturday 25th October 1941 a lone Spitfire, P7540 from 312 (Czech) Squadron on a training flight from RAF Ayr was flying low over the waters of Loch Doon. The pilot banked his aircraft and his starboard wing struck the surface, causing the aircraft to crash into Loch Doon where it lay for 40 years, at a depth of about 12 metres.

With the invaluable help of the divers from the Dumfries branch of the SCOTTISH SUB-AQUA CLUB and from various clubs in the NORTHERN FEDERATION OF BRITISH SUB-AQUA CLUBS, the aircraft was recovered, it is estimated that 567 separate dives were made by 109 individual divers and a total of 337 hours were spent underwater searching an area of ¼ of a square kilometre.”

Some members of the team (Bernard Scott is in the centre in the light jacket)

Corrosion, generally, was found to be very low, only the aircraft’s wheels and a few other magnesium pieces having completely disintegrated. All the wreckage recovered – about 90%- was transferred to the D&G Aviation Museum on the former airfield at Tinwald Downs where each piece was treated with the rustproofing solution ‘Waxoyl’, a quantity of which was donated to the group by the makers, Finnigan’s Ltd.

Some figures compiled by Bernard Scott, Vice Chairman of NORFED, illustrate the scale of diving operations since their involvement began in 1979. No less than 567 separate dives were carried out by 109 individual divers, a total of 337 hours being spent underwater searching a total area of a 1/4 square kilometre. The D&GAG had immense praise for the perseverance of all the divers who participated, many of whom travelled long distances to take part.

P7540 was now in the hands of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum.

The damaged fuselage was taken to Polmont Young Offenders Institution, near Falkirk, for restoration work by detainees. It was later returned to the Dumfries group for completion, where they fitted the replica wings. ‘The Polmont lads did a tremendous job. It will be our prize exhibit. It is the only Spitfire in Scotland that served in the Battle of Britain and we are determined to keep it here,” Mr Reid said. ”Everyone who comes here is fascinated by it and its story, and we may be able to fill in some more details about the pilot when his grand-nephew (see below) comes back.”

Restoration of DGAM’s first Spitfire Mk II P7540, salvaged from Loch Doon, attracted much attention at Tinwald Down airfield.

The next part of the story comes from The Herald Scotland

“AIRCRAFT enthusiasts restoring a Second World War Spitfire which plunged into a loch in 1941, killing the Czech pilot, have been surprised by a foreign visitor and been given an unusual link with the past for their museum.

The young man had hitchhiked from the Czech Republic to Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum just to see the plane.

He was a grand-nephew of the man at the controls of the Supermarine Spitfire Mark II on its fatal flight, Pilot Officer Frantisek Hekl, who was a member of the Czechoslovakian 312 Squadron based at Ayr at the time. His body was never found.”

František Hekl is mentioned on panel No.36 of the RAF Memorial in Runnymede, and is commemorated by a memorial stone at the side of Loch Doon. He was posthumously decorated with the Czech War Cross 1939 and the Polish Virtuti Militari (when Czechoslovakia was invaded F/O Hekl, and many other pilots escaped initially to Poland to continue the fight, before being forced to flee to Britain). In 1991, he was promoted to ‘Colonel in Memoriam’.

Grand-nephew Hekl had arrived at the museum on Heath hall industrial estate in Dumfries earlier this month, only a few days after the 56th anniversary of the Spitfire’s crash into Loch Doon, in Ayrshire, on July 6, 1941. He was shown the recovered fuselage and its Merlin engine.

”His English was really poor and we don’t speak Czech, so he couldn’t say a lot about how he felt. But you could see that he was really moved when he laid his hand on the plane,” Mr Reid said. ”You could tell by his face that it meant a lot to him.”

The surprise visitor was almost speechless when he was presented later with a memento to take home to his family, a fragment from the Spitfire’s control panel.

”It really got to him. He told us before he went that he would be back to see the plane when we have finished restoring it. He said that he would make sure that his English was a lot better by then,” Mr Reid said.

The most recent part of the story is taken from the BBC South Scotland 16th July 2017

A restored World War II Spitfire that saw service in the Battle of Britain has gone on public show in Dumfries.

The plane was salvaged from the bottom of Loch Doon in Ayrshire in 1982 after a four-year search by divers.

It crashed during a training flight from Ayr in 1941, killing the Czech pilot.

Returning the bodywork to its former glory has taken 35 years of work and involved several false starts before being carried out.

However, the Spitfire is finally ready to take pride of place at Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum whose founders first commissioned the salvage project way back in 1977.

Chairman David Reid said it was a fantastic addition to their collection.

A Yorkshire-based expert was able to finish the fuselage but could not work on the wings due to ill health.

Eventually the museum secured some funding to buy a set of wings and the plane has finally been able to go on show.

“If you ask anybody in the UK or probably worldwide to name the most famous World War II aircraft – depending on which side you were on, it is almost certainly going to be a Spitfire,” said Mr Reid.

“It was the greatest World War II fighter, really.”

Although the exterior of the plane has been largely completed there is still a significant amount of work to do to the interior.

Nonetheless, the museum is optimistic that it can be carried out in the not too distant future.

“Hopefully within the next couple of years we will be able to let people actually sit in a genuine Battle of Britain survivor,” said Mr Reid.

The Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum is run by volunteers in their spare time, it was established in1977. Other famous aircraft are on display around what was once the control tower for the former RAF station at Dumfries.

References utilised include: BBC South Scotland, The Herald Scotland, FLYPAST Magazine and the personal account of Bernard Scott, who provided all the early photographs

Authors Note:  It has been very rewarding for me to bring this story up to date, I have only one regret, Bernard Scott was a great friend of mine for over 50 years, I am sorry he is no longer around to see the latest developments in a project to which he had devoted so much time.

Ken Crow, Sep 2017

NORFED committee member