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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

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The last flight of Spitfire P8563...

IT should have been a routine flight for Canadian airman Harold John Appel.

The operational patrol over the coast around Seaham Harbour should have presented few difficulties to a pilot officer with over 140 hours solo flying under his belt.

But on March 26, 1942, there was low visibility and the weather was poor.

Pilot Officer Appel also had little experience flying using only the aircraft’s instruments – he’d come to England just months before in September 1941 for further training before transferring to his squadron.

So when he lost his section leader, out of contact with his base, he dropped below the cloud to find his bearings and flew his Spitfire into the hills south of Blanchland.

Sixty six years on, air crash investigation archaeologists have been excavating the wreckage of Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IIa in a bid to shed more light on the events of that day.

The amateur team, headed by Bellingham’s Jim Corbett, have spent many hours tracing surviving witnesses of the crash, trawling through RAF paperwork to pinpoint the exact crash site.

Relying on written evidence presented to the court of inquiry which investigated the crash at the time, the team factored in possible flight directions and all the hills and valleys in the perceived flight path.

Surviving eye witnesses were also persuaded to return to the area just south of Blanchland, on the outskirts of Stanhope, to help in the search, but at first nothing could be found.

In the end it was down to, as Jim put it, “a large amount of luck” and the wonders of modern science that the Spitfire was even discovered at all.

Using a metal detector, Jim stumbled on what was first thought to be an insignificant light bulb.

But on closer inspection the team agreed the bulb was not from farm machinery, and when they searched the area further, they found more aircraft parts.

Jim recalled: “We had found an aircraft crash site, but we didn’t know if it was the Spitfire; that discovery had to wait for our next visit.”

Jim and his team also had to satisfy certain Ministry of Defence conditions before they could start to dig in earnest.

According to MoD regulations, before a licence to dig can be granted the aircraft must be positively identified.

In this respect the team struck lucky, for on their second trip to the site they discovered a machine gun cover bearing a hand written serial number.

Now they could conclusively identify the Spitfire – they’d passed the first hurdle.

Secondly, the MoD had to be satisfied that the pilot’s remains had been recovered from the site and properly buried.

Once again the team was in luck, for their research had turned up PO Appel’s death certificate showing where he had been buried.

Now, they could get permission to excavate the aircraft.

Jim said: “This dig was quite an easy one and although we were restricted to digging to depths of only one and a half metres, we were finding pieces from the cockpit at that depth.”

Slowly, Jim and his team unearthed pieces of the plane, and after the land owner gave permission for their removal, the finds were taken, cleaned and documented in preparation for further study.

In a similar procedure to registering Roman artefacts, each find has to be catalogued for a national sites and monuments register.

Then aircraft investigators and historians can start to study the finds in the hope that they will shed more light on the events leading up to the crash.

In their search to find the Spitfire, Jim and his team have already uncovered much of the fascinating history of the aircraft and its pilot.

According to his service records PO Appel was considered a very able pilot, finishing fifth in his class.

At the time of his death he had accumulated 141 hours solo flying on all types of aircraft, including 37 hours on Hurricanes and 31 hours on Spitfires.

During his last patrol the court of inquiry found that he had “neither been in transmission nor reception with the ground.”

And no evidence was found to suggest that PO Appel had attempted to deploy his parachute to bale out of the Spitfire – leading to the assumption that the aircraft hadn’t suffered any structural failure.

Even more information was discovered about the Spitfire itself.

A Mk. II, this type of aircraft first entered service in July 1940, later flying the first daylight fighter sweeps over France.

Like other Mk. IIs before it, this Spitfire was converted into a Mk. V and fitted with a more powerful engine, which also meant that it could carry any combination of the ammunition packages available to Spitfires.

PO Appel’s plane also bore the serial number P8563, identifying it as a presentation Spitfire, which meant that the craft had been paid for through fund-raising by an individual, organisation, town or city.

In the case of P8563 it was paid for by the Lord Mayor of Leicester’s Spitfire Fund.

Such funds were not unusual.

Fund-raising for weapons of war had long been an accepted part of British culture and was wholeheartedly encouraged by Churchill’s government in the 1940s.

Churchill’s Minister for Aircraft Production Lord Beaverbrook had even gone on record to encourage this type of fund-raising, claiming that just £5,000 was needed for each Spitfire airframe – but in truth this figure was woefully short of the genuine cost of £12,000.

Once sufficient money had been raised, however, the aircraft’s sponsors enjoyed the privilege of having their name stencilled in yellow letters on the side of the Spitfire and it’s been these details and serial numbers that have helped Jim and his team further pinpoint the fated MkII’s provenance.

They’ve been able to prove that PO Appel’s Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IIa, serial number P8563, began its RAF career in July 1941, when it was flown by Sgt. A. Chudek on a mission to northern France.

The Spitfire claimed two Messerschmitt BF109Es near St. Omer, France, and another on August 14 near Calais.

But these airborne victories were not without cost to the plane;two bullets hit the propeller and one hit the wing, but neither strikes were enough to bring the aircraft down.

However, on August 29, 1941, at Wattisham, Suffolk, the Spitfire was involved in a more serious accident and had to be sent to Hampshire for repair and modification.

It was then transported to the RAF’s No. 81 squadron at Ouston, Northumberland, just months before making its final flight.

Now, Jim and his team hope to give the aircraft a final, dignified resting place, by exhibiting their finds from the crash site at either Sunderland Air Museum or at the re-launch of St Mary’s lighthouse Whitley Bay, next month.

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