I am describing an article that talks about the Aircraft Restoration Company (ARCo), located in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the world’s largest restorers of vintage airplanes. The company has a particular focus on warbirds, and approximately 40% of the 70 Spitfires that still fly today have been restored by ARCo. The company has an international register of high-net-worth clients, many of whom seek out ARCo to restore rare, specific planes.
The article describes the storerooms at ARCo, which house a hoard of vintage instruments, technical manuals, and Rolls-Royce engines, as well as various airplane parts, including a late-model Mk XIV Spitfire that crashed in Germany in 1945. The Spitfire is waiting for a buyer to restore it to its former glory. The article highlights John Romain, the managing director of ARCo, who has over 1,000 hours of experience flying Spitfires alone and specializes in one-of-a-kind airplane restoration projects, such as a Mk I Bristol Blenheim, which is likely the only one in the world and the only flier in the world.
ARCo, a company that specializes in restoring vintage planes, caters to clients who value discretion, as some of the aircraft are subject to non-disclosure agreements. During a tour with ARCo’s Jack McBride, there were several Spitfires in progress, with some being Mk IXs in the two-seater configuration that has become popular, allowing passengers without a pilot’s license to experience warbird-flying. The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s C47 Dakota was also in for an overhaul, but the most exciting project Romain was anticipating was the hands-on work for an exceptionally rare 1930s Supermarine Walrus biplane, scheduled to begin in nine months.
ARCo’s restoration process starts with a project plane, which could be a complete aircraft that needs major work or, in the case of the crashed Mk XIV Spit, little more than a data plate identifying what the plane once was, requiring a reconstruction from the ground up. Romain describes this as a “basket case,” which begins an intensive process of research and repair, using traditional skills that are increasingly rare. Finding good sheet-metal workers and engineers who are used to working on old planes is extremely challenging nowadays. Hence, ARCo teaches these skills to their employees.
When large portions of the aircraft are missing, they have to be fabricated, which brings its own difficulties. “We sometimes can’t get the original materials,” says Romain, “then we need to bring in stress engineers to dictate which material it’ll be and how the part can be made.” However, modern computerized numerical control (CNC) machining makes this process easier, and the fabricated parts are indistinguishable from their vintage counterparts, down to the machined forge marks for the detail-obsessed.
Reviving Vintage Aircraft
Depending on the client’s preference, restoration can take up to six years for a unique build. Costs can range from around £20,000 for an annual maintenance bill, hundreds of thousands for an engine overhaul, and into the millions for a complete rebuild. It all depends on the client’s expectations, whether they want to restore the plane back to stock condition and make it a concours airplane or make it safe and operable and put a new paint scheme on the exterior. For instance, a basket-case Spitfire would take about two and a half years and cost around £2.4mn.
The US billionaire and conservationist Thomas Kaplan and his childhood friend Simon Marsh had a pair of early Mk I Spitfires restored from 2007 to 2012 by Romain and his team. After Marsh died in an air crash in 2013, Kaplan parted with his two Spitfires – P9374 sold at Christie’s in 2015 for a record £3.1mn, while N3200, the earliest surviving Spitfire, was donated to Duxford’s Imperial War Museum.
The restored planes are kept in top condition in ARCo’s maintenance hangar, and the company also offers training for owners on how to safely fly vintage aircraft. ARCo’s Bristol Blenheim, for instance, has unique and delicate engines, and if it’s a plane that hasn’t been in use since the second world war, ARCo does extensive research on how they were flown.
The article discusses the joy of owning and flying restored vintage aircraft, such as the Blenheim and Spitfire, which are restored by ARCo, a company that specializes in vintage plane restoration. The reward of owning and flying a restored aircraft is the chance to experience a piece of history come to life. According to Romain, the owner of ARCo, there is nothing better than taking colleagues on a weekend air show or performing a display at a village fête in a Spitfire.
If owning a vintage aircraft is not feasible, ARCo’s sister company, Aerial Collective, offers flights in the back seat of a Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, or the Blenheim, allowing people to experience the thrill of flying in a restored vintage aircraft.