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Commercial Pilot and AeroTime team member Richard Holme previews the new Spitfire exhibition at Imperial War Museum Duxford.

Richard Holme in the Spitfire exhibition

As a lifelong aviation enthusiast, if you surround me with planes, I’m a happy man. The more iconic they are, the better, and in the UK, they don’t come much more iconic than the Spitfire.

The aircraft played a vital role in the Second World War, particularly in the Battle of Britain, when the Royal Air Force fought Germany’s Luftwaffe for control of the skies over Britain. Instantly recognisable to spotters on the ground for their sleek elliptical wings, they were also beloved by pilots for their responsiveness, power and maneuverability.

To get a chance to see multiple Spitfires side-by-side is rare, so when I heard there was an exhibition with a dozen originals (all but one of which are airworthy) in one place, I enthusiastically volunteered to go and visit.

Up close with the Spitfires

IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire is Europe’s largest air museum and its new exhibition, ‘Spitfire: Evolution of an Icon’, brings together 12 Spitfires of varying marks. The exhibition in Hangar #1 represents the largest collection of Spitfires under one roof and runs from December 27, 2021 until February 20, 2022.

In one decade, over 20 000 Spitfires were manufactured. The first rolled off the production line in 1938, just one year before the start of World War II. It was the only Allied aircraft to be produced continuously throughout the War, and few aircraft from the first half of the 20th century went through as many design developments and iterations.

Lined up in chronological order within the large exhibition space at Duxford, visitors can observe the many variations and evolutions between each mark and sub-mark.

There are two examples of the Mk I, the original model, which helped win the Battle of Britain together with the Hawker Hurricane.

Alongside the Mk IX, the Mk V is one of the most iconic variants. With three models on display, you can see different cannon arrangements and wing designs. Although all Spitfires retained the beautiful elliptical leading edge on their wings, the Low-Level Fighters (LF) had their wingtips clipped to increase maneuverability near the ground. There is one Mk V LF on display.

Admiring a movie star: MH434, Mk IXb

Arguably the favorite mark among pilots, the Mk IX has a couple of representatives in the exhibition. MH434 is one of the best-known Spitfires still flying today, having appeared in multiple films, including The Monuments Men. Visitors who get up close to the other Mk IX will spot the flush riveting, which was great for aerodynamics, contrasting with earlier models which have a mix of flush and round-headed rivets.

The Mk XI on display was originally used as a photo reconnaissance aircraft. Recently painted blue, with ‘THANK U NHS’ printed on the underside of the wings as a tribute to the workers of the British healthcare system for their efforts during the ongoing pandemic, it is now on the other side of photographers’ lenses.

Concluding the exhibition are two Mk XIV aircraft and individual parts of a Mk 22 which is undergoing restoration. With five propeller blades facing the opposite direction to the other models on display, the Griffon engines of the Mk XIV aircraft are instantly recognisable to Spitfire enthusiasts, even if they are hidden beneath the cowling.

A gift for aviation photographers

As well as bringing these 12 magnificent machines together under one roof, IWM Duxford has lined up various activities, including a special treat for aviation photographers. The event ‘Duxford in a Different Light’ will present the Spitfires lit by white and colored lights on the evening of February 19, 2022. 

Of course, the Spitfires are not the only reason it is worth a trip to Duxford. The museum also houses many other aircraft, including the Hawker Hunter, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and Concorde. There is also a working airfield on site, with vintage aircraft regularly flying in and out during the spring, summer and autumn months.

However, the museum does not just focus on aircraft. It also brings to life the stories of those who have flown in them.