Bob DeFord since he was a young boy was always interested in flying and built model aircraft to satisfy his desire in flying. Bob , who lives in Arizona U.S.A. joined the Air Force as a mechanic, came out and became a crop dusting pilot in Piper Cubs and then started his flying career until he eventually ended up as a Captain of a DC 10 but that’s not the resume that counts. From the beginning he had a fascination especially for those aircraft that ” set your hair on fire ” or might have carried machine guns. He did some flying for the Commemorative Air Force’s heavies as well as other peoples P – 40s and P – 51s. He bought a number of his own aircraft. ” He recalled that the Mustang and P – 40 really fired him up saying there is nothing like sitting behind a big V – 12, even taxing it’s a real thrill, but when you drop the hammer on it, there is absolutely nothing like it ” I had to have my own V – 12 ! That’s all there was to it.. He was going to have a V- 12 no matter what, but how that was going to happen was in question.
I couldn’t afford to write a cheque for a real fighter and he therefore looked for other options. He came across Marcel Jurca in France who for many years had been offering plans for homebuilt fighters, mostly three-fourths scale and were made entirely of wood. Amongst his drawing were plans for a full size MJ – 100, a full size SPITFIRE, that could easily hold a Merlin or Allison engine.After lengthy correspondence Marcel went across to meet with Bob so they could go over the plans and the details of building the aircraft. Unlike most of Marcels other plans these plans had the fuselage using steel tube covered with aluminium but the wings and tail could remain wood structures.After many hours of discussions on all the pros and cons Bob decided to go ahead with the project. Although he was skilful with his hands Bob knew he had to find someone who could work on the aeroplane fulltime as well as having the talent and responsibility that would carry the project to fruition. He found that combination in Vern Goodsell in Sisters, Oregon. Bob took the plans up to see Vern who went through every sheet and finally said ” Yeah, I can do this ” I replied ” Great then let’s do it ” I can’t describe how it felt knowing we were actually going to build a SPITFIRE.Okay it won’t be a real one but it would be close enough for me. I was finally going to scratch that V – 12 itch.
When Bob was not flying for the airline he was in Oregon helping Vern who Bob describes him as a Master craftsman in every area being welding, steel fabrication, aluminium, wood etc. He can do it all. After the airframe was more or less in one piece we moved it to Prescott where I did a lot of the covering of the plywood, painting and the instrument panel. When I got stuck Vern would come down and I was then the extra pair of hands when he needed them. This was a big project especially when it came to that wonderful sensual elliptical wing which is more than 36 feet long and is complex considering that every surface is a compound curve. This means that not only is every rib a different size, but doing it in wood meant a lot of steaming and forming of the plywood to get it to conform exactly to the prescribed shape. The main spar is one gigantic piece running tip to tip Bob said. It’s a Douglas fir box spar with a total of 10-3/4inch laminations in the spar caps, four at the top and six at the bottom. All are 6 inches wide but are tapered down as they get to the tips. The skin45-degree mahogany plywood 3/16 inch thick. We used West epoxy pretty much throughout and covered the plywood skins with light glass cloth. When that was cured, Vern profiled the surfaces using a filler so they were perfectly true. All the control surfaces were balanced except for the rudder. ( After they started flying adjustments were made to make flying easier )
A few years after he started the project in ’95 Bob began to think about what he was going to do for an engine .Partially due to the cost of a Merlin engine Bob was then specifically looking for a Allison which has a good reputation for not only being a reliable engine but was fairly easy to maintain. Allison’s were always easy to find and Bob was lucky when he ran into a gentleman who had 12 Allison engines in crates. He immediately purchased 2 of them. They were originally from a P – 39 and needed some modifications to the drive shafts which was not a big deal. He sent the engines down to Joe Yancy in Chino California who is the guy to go to for Allisons and really easy to work with. He’s a good guy and always there to help when Bob has a question or a problem. One of the difficulties in building something around a liquid cooled engine is that it needs radiators and a lot of radiator. Bob designed his radiators and had them custom built in Phoenix. An aircraft engine is no good without a propeller but again Bob was lucky when he found a DC – 3 prop with the skinnier ” tooth pick ” blades and was grinning from ear to ear when it slid right onto the shaft as if it was made for an Allison. Bob found a spinner from another old SPITFIRE that could not be rebuilt together with a number of original pieces such as the canopy, seat etc etc.
In so many little areas while building the aeroplane Bob happened to meet the right person at the right time. For example they were planning to fabricate the cowling from either fibreglass or carbon fibre but a gentleman, Loren Richards, heard they were building a SPITFIRE and stopped bye and happened to ask what they were going to fabricate the cowlings from. When they told him they were thinking about fibreglass or carbon fibre he said he will make gladly make them from aluminium for them. He then proceeded to fabricate the cowlings for them. They had to come up with the correct ideas for the wheels and brakes including the tail wheel and finally managed to come up with workable parts from other aircraft. As if wanting the soul of his aeroplane to be that of a real SPITFIRE, Bob found an original control stick, a seat and of course a complete canopy. However he could not find an original rear view mirror and he managed to fabricate one, from of all things, a soup ladle, a reminder that this is still a homebuilt. Vern Goodsell definitely proved himself to be good at everything when he painted the aeroplane to replicate a given RAF scheme. Bob said in general we modelled the aeroplane after of Mk1X Spit which was the most numerous of all the models and used early war colours.
Then the day came when it was time to convert his creation from being simply a machine to an aeroplane by taking it into the air. The first flight was by accident. Bob said I just wanted to see 3000 rpm and 50 inches of manifold pressure for a few seconds but it got off the ground. It had no spinner or lower cowl and only minimum fuel but I had plenty of runway and got it down .As he then knew it could fly he was not so nervous and tense for the first real flight which went flawlessly but kept it down to 220 miles per hour. Bob has flown the aircraft many times now and has got to know it better and better with performance figures, landing speeds, rate of climb and so on.
So now that he has scratched his V – 12 itch, when asked what his next aeroplane will be Bob just grins and replies ” I’m happy with what I have ”
It’s nice to know a happy man.
I have written this condensed version with very kind permission of Budd Davisson of the EAA of America who wrote the full version in the March 2016 EAA Sport Aviation magazine.. Budd is an aeronautical engineer , has flown more than 300 different types and has published four books and more than 4000 articles. He is editor in chief of Flight Journal magazine and a flight instructor. Thank you Budd.
In conclusion when Bob De Ford’s SPITFIRE replica was on display at the 2015 EAA ‘s Air Venture annual airshow the vast majority of people looking at the aircraft had no idea it was a homebuilt aeroplane. They thought it was the real thing and for good reason. I hope you can see that on the photo’s I’ve attached.