Saffron Walden engineer’s Spitfire role in Battle of Britain memorial flypast
- Credit: Archant
Duxford is synonymous with European aviation history, and this year veteran warbirds gathered to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The Reporter’s ABIGAIL WEAVING was given exclusive access to the Spitfire workshop on display day by Saffron Walden aircraft engineer Arun Khatri, who has made his career caring for the iconic aircraft.
The pinnacle of this year’s aviation calendar has been the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle Britain.
And the flypast last week was the biggest yet, involving some 20 Spitfires and Hurricanes from across the world.
Aircraft engineer Arun Khatri, 22, from Saffron Walden, has been instrumental in preparing some of these aircraft for their historic flight.
A member of The Aircraft Restoration Company (ARC) based at Duxford, Arun services and restores a host of vintage aircraft on a daily basis, and even worked on seven of the Spitfires for the 75th Battle of Britain flypast.
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“I am the only one in my family that has anything to do with aviation,” he said, showing me around the hangar.
“My dad is a property developer and my mum is in interior design.
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“When I was at school I never thought I’d be doing anything like this. You’d be sitting there in design and technology classes, making whatever, like a wooden box to put things in, and I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I was interested in bigger things.”
Arun has always had an eye for engineering though, often dismantling his father’s lawnmower as a child. “I used to strip lawnmowers apart and then re-build them,” he told me.
“It was the love of flying that got me into aircraft engineering though. I started flying with the Air Training Corps in Saffron Walden and then at 15 we had to do a two-week work experience at school and I didn’t know what to do.
“A friend of mine worked here and I came to see what it was like. I really enjoyed it and thought, ‘Yeah, I could get into this.’ I finished school at County High and started working here full-time, and now I’ve been here for six years.”
Tucked away at one end of the airfield, the private workshop is split into two halves. One side houses the ARC while Historic Flying Limited (HFL) covers the other and specialises solely in Spitfires.
Working between the two, Arun is no stranger to the aircraft, or to the importance of perfection when rebuilding one.
In fact, it takes up to two years to make just one pair of wings.
Showing me a partially constructed wing, he says: “Planes here are very loved. No one really thinks about the amount of work that goes into them; every single detail, every rib, every plate is all made by hand and then you have to put it altogether to make an aeroplane.”
Even the rivets on the wings must be equally level to ensure the smoothest airflow, and to avoid complications during a stall.
Arun even struggles to find the right tools for working on the aircraft, sometimes having to invent his own to get a job done.
“It’s a great job, but like any it has its moments. I spent four hours once making a custom tool just to lay ten rivets.
“Most things you end up making your own tools for because you can’t buy them. You get jobs where nothing in the toolbox is going to do it, so you buy something that you can modify or you make a tool from scratch.”
Thinking on your feet can be key to solving a Spitfire engineering problem; most of its tiny access panels are in awkward places.
“On the whole, Spitfires are fairly good to work on but British design is very quirky. If you look at a wing, it’s very awkward to work in. It’ll say ‘electrical’ here, but what you really want is all the way over there. You end up covering your arms in grease to get into tight spaces.”
Arun has lost count of the number of Spitfires he’s worked on, and relishes the chance to explore other aircraft.
“People think they’re rare, but there are more than you think,” he explained.
“Come wintertime we’re tripping over them. They’re just everywhere and anywhere you look. All in here, next door, we’re just tripping over Spitfires.
“We once had a Spitfire come though with a de Havilland Puss Moth,” he continued.
“No one was looking at the Spitfire, we were all gathered round the Puss Moth saying, ‘Look at this!’
“They all have their own personalities though, and the Mark 1 Spitfires really excite me to work on.
“I like stuff with a quick turnover and that way you don’t get a chance to get bored with what you’re doing.”
Weaving through biplanes, spare engines, Chipmunks and Lysanders, we headed outside to watch the September Air Show, where 17 Spitfires were performing.
“That’s always the goal isn’t it – to be flying in the air show,” he said.
“Get a pilot’s licence, fly Chippies, and then learn to fly Harvards. Then you can fly Spits and after that you’ve pretty much made it, I think. Once you’ve flown a Spitfire solo you’ve made it in life.”
To fly a Spitfire, you must have at least 1,000 hours in your logbook and have spent around £40,000 flying the other aircraft.
Until then, Arun splits his time between ARC and Steamer Trading in Saffron Walden, working every Saturday.
“It’s obviously two very different jobs, but both are enjoyable,” he said.
“Working in the shop is a lot more sociable. You get to meet a lot of interesting people and it’s a very relaxed vibe.”
As some of the Spitfires rumble back into base, Arun jumps onto the wings to help each pilot out.
And with the crowds heading home, the engineers hop into the hangar’s Jeep to start getting each plane ready for bed.
“Working at ARC you form a very close bond with the other engineers and pilots,’ Arun said.
“You all rely on each other to get the job done. I couldn’t ask for better guys to work with.
“It’s a great job,” added Arun.