A Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire plane that was shot down during the Second World War is flying once again.
Spitfire NH341 flew 27 combat missions between June and July 1944, before it was shot down near Caen, France.
The Canadian pilot on the mission, Jimmy Jeffrey, managed to escape with the help of the French Resistance, but the Spitfire was destroyed.
The Spitfires were the Allies’ greatest airborne weapon against the Nazis.
For the next seven decades, the plane’s wreckage remained in France. But in 2013, the wreck was purchased by a British businessman and aviation buff named Keith Perkins.
Perkins’ company, Aero Legends, restores vintage airplanes. It took a team of engineers three years and around £3 million ($5 million) to rebuild Spitfire NH341.
The warplane is now the star attraction at the Headcorn Airfield in Kent, England.
“[Spitfire NH341] is exactly as it would’ve been during the war,” says Perkins. “When we started restoring the Spitfire, all of the history of the aircraft came out. And she’s got a wonderful history.”
It’s now flying once again.
Spitfire NH341 was assigned to the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 411 “Grizzly Bear” Squadron.
Their Allied Wing was tasked with supporting the D-Day assault.
“That was one of the most effective Air Force machines in the theatre at that point,” says Aero Legends researcher Nick Oram.
“During the time, from D-Day onwards, they downed more than 330 aircraft.”
Spitfire NH341 had nine Canadian pilots.
They included painter Robert Hyndman, whose artwork depicting scenes from the war now hangs in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Pilot Bruce Whiteford flew NH341 more than any other, and took the liberty of naming the plane after his wife, Elizabeth. He even had her name and initials painted on the plane.
But only one of the Spitfire’s original pilots is still alive today: 96-year-old Tommy Wheler who lives in Toronto.
“Your job was to kill as many Germans as you can. And that’s what I did everyday,” Wheler recalls.
He was captured by the Germans three times during the war, but each time managed to escape.
He’s never forgotten the feeling of sitting in the Spitfire cockpit.
“It’s like going to heaven,” he says. “It’s the most marvellous airplane I’ve ever flown.”
In 2015, Wheler flew to England to visit his old airbase in Staplehurst, and witness the restoration of his former plane.
“I was delighted beyond words,” he says. “I still think about it everyday.”
As part of its restoration, Spitfire NH341 was transformed into a two-seater.
Aero Legends now offers paying customers a chance to fly in the Spitfire, retracing some of the same skies the RCAF “Grizzly Bear” Squadron flew during the war.
“It’s just amazing, that you can understand what we had to go through, by flying the same airplane as I flew,” Wheler says.
His health permitting, Wheler is hoping to return to England this year to see Elisabeth flying again.
WATCH: Prince Harry pilots of WWII-era Spitfire
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