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BANGKOK 16 June 2019 18:20

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Johpa

The Search for the Missing Spitfire of Phrae

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A few months ago there was a post regarding historical aviation in Chiang Mai concerning events in WWII. I interjected into the conversation the story of my search for a long lost Spitfire in Phrae. I did not have the images while in Thailand, but now that I am back in the US I can post the images and relate the full story.


There are only a few characters involved. Myself, my good friend Peter who I will refer to as US-Pete, his acquaintance in the UK who I will refer to as UK-Peter, an early 1960s Peace Corp volunteer named Bob, and Carl who ran the Tepavong Place Guesthouse in Phrae.


US-Pete is an avid aviation enthusiast. He runs a very successful tech company that is the global leader in a specific niche and has the ability to purchase a Spitfire and restore it and it is his dream to do so. His acquaintance, UK-Peter, is a leading authority on the history of the Spitfires who maintains a database of just about every Spitfire plane manufactured, a record that contains few gaps. Somehow US-Pete obtained photos of the Phrae Spitfire, taken back in the early 1960s by a Peace Corp volunteer named Bob, and forwarded those pics to UK-Peter. Below is the original response from UK-Peter to US-Pete.



"Hello Peter,


These are fascinating images. You have located the missing Thai Spitfire. I have/had absolutely no knowledge of this Spitfire.


It was always thought that five Spitfires were given to regional institutions but only four could be accounted for. These were:-


Mk XIX PS836 at a technical school in Chiang Mai. Now in the Don Muang Museum complex Bangkok..


Mk XVI RM797 at Surin. Now under restoration to fly in Brisbane, Australia.


Mk XIX PM630 at a technical school Trat. Now restored in and in the Crown Prince's palace in Bangkok.


Mk XIV RM873 at a children's play area at Sawankalok. The fuselage recently sold by the Thais to New Zealand and since further sold on.


Two further ex Thai Spitfires survive, the Mk XIV SM914 in the Don Muang Museum and the Mk XIX PS890 given by the King to Ed M. in California in 1962.


In 1980 I was invited to join a Spitfire owner on a 'cold call' visit to Thailand to recover parts from the Chiang Mai Spitfire that was then derelict in several pieces. The school took the money, the parts were packed and on their way but they were intercepted and we never saw the parts in the UK. The aircraft has subsequently been rebuilt in Thailand to static condition. It transpired the school did not have the authority to dispose of the parts.


Garry C. from Australia negotiated and recovered the Surin Spitfire in 1973


Peter S. from Australia negotiated for the wings of the Sawankalok Spitfire for his project and got them. Some time later there was a major diplomatic incident over this, with Thais making strong representation to the Australian Government. This was generated by the King's then son in law who was and still is passionate about vintage aircraft in general and Spitfires in particular.


The King's son in law a Group Captain in the Air Force, Veerayuth Didyasarin set up an organisation called Royal Thai Air Classic Association /'Tango Squadron' to preserve and fly Thai aircraft. I was invited to accept life membership. His father flew Spitfires and he would cherish the thought of there being a flying Spitfire in Thailand. The costs are too high and the quality to low for this to happen. SM914, which is amazing original condition, in the museum is governed by some religious covenant. They currently have just flown their Bearcat.


The Group Captain took on the Air Attaché post in Washington, later got divorced and it has been quiet for a while. I met him in Thailand on a couple of occasions in the 1990's. I was commuting to Australia on Ford work. He is currently based in Chiang Mai.


With this man's drive and enthusiasm it is inconceivable to me that this Spitfire at Phrae could still be there, out in the open, at a school, without it coming to his notice. Phrae and Chiang Mai are quite close Phrae is a major town rather than a small village. It was still there I would rate the chances of negotiating a sale and getting export clearance at close to Zero.


I greatly appreciate you sending me these images and until further notice from you, they and the information are off limits to the Spitfire fraternity. That said I am very keen to pursue the fate of this aircraft to either discovery or its demise.


The photos tell me a lot. That data plate. This to me looks like an exposed piece of damaged or corroded skin on the inboard trailing edge of the wing. You are looking through the skin at the inside surface of one of the inner split flaps. This is a sub contracted part by SAL, Scottish Aviation Limited, for 6S, Supermarine. It is a Mod plate. It tells me that the part, at this design level, was first introduced on the Mk 7 Spitfire.


The key photo is image103. This tells me all I need to know. That black 10 on the fuselage. U14-10/93 of the ThaiAF. It ended its service with the Air Force 26 April 1955, having served with the 1st Squadron of the 4th Wing. I have the construction number form the cockpit plate as 6S/648264. From a reliable and proven source I have the RAF serial of this Spitfire as NH698.


NH698 had and interesting history with the RAF and is credited as being the first aircraft to tip a VI doodle bug using its wing tip. It flew operationally with 91 Squadron as DL-F and with 350 Squadron as MN-C. I will pull the movement card from the RAF Museum and expand on this later.


The image 103 is special. As sent to me it appears to have slipped in the scanning frame. Would it possible please for it to be re-scanned at very high resolution at full frame?


I currently cannot access Google earth due to some glitch, but it would certainly be worth having a peek in the hope that it might now be one of the high resolution areas. I attach a map of Phrae, perhaps Tom could indicate where the shots were taken.


Best regards,


Peter"




US-Pete forwards all this info to yours truly as he knows I have a vacation home in Chiang Mai. So a few years ago I head off to Phrae and stay at the Tepavong Place guesthouse run by Carl, a Brit, and his Thai wife who is a member of the Tepavong family, the former ruling family of Muang Phrae and whose grandfather fled into exile in Lao after resisting Bangkok domination of the formerly quasi-independent Muang Phrae. Needless to say that Carl, being a Brit, was, how do you say in the vernacular, gobsmacked to find out that there had once been a Spitfire in his wife’s home town and Carl enthusiastically joined me on the search. After consulting some notable locals, thanks to Carl’s wife’s connections in Phrae, we quickly discovered that the plane had been at the Piriyalai High School in the center of Phrae. While driving around the grounds of the high school we met a man whose family had lived adjacent to the school for generations and who remembered the plane well and took us to the location where the plane sat for years, behind one of the older buildings. He, and several other fellows we met, both referred to the plane as the “Dakota”. I think, a total guess, is that this designation was given to the plane by the still influential Seri Thai alumni in Phrae who mistook one of the common WWII code names for the twin engine C-47 as a generic name for all small propeller planes of the era.


Nobody knew exactly how the plane got to the back of the high school. Several times we heard the patently false story that the plane was shot at by the Japanese and forced to land in Phrae. And nobody could confirm what had become of the plane as the stories varied: sold for scrap, sent to a technical school in Lampang, or was now at the home of a local militaria collector in Phrae.


There remains a few unresolved issues apart from the final fate of the plane. One is why the plane disappeared from the historical record. UK-Peter is clearly well connected with the RTAF, and if the plane had been gifted to the school why was it not properly recorded? And if the plane had been gifted, why was it displayed behind the building and not prominently displayed on the school grounds? And if it was gifted, it was a gift of His Majesty, and who in their right mind would take a gift of the King to a recycler? Carl and I never heard once from the locals anything about the plane being a gift to the school. On the other hand we see from UK-Peter’s letter that one plane was traced to a children’s playground in Suwankhalok, although he also noted that the planes were given to regional institutions (technical colleges) and I don’t include a local high school as a regional institution.


The most probable story was that the plane was donated to the school by the RTAF but that a clerical error of omission prevented the tracing of that history by UK-Peter. The second most probable story is that the plane was forced to land at Phrae, for whatever reason, near the end of its service as the plane was now obsolete even by RTAF standards and was abandoned at the airport and then later unilaterally claimed by the high school and sort of discretely displayed behind the school. And my guess is that it has long been scrapped although my son has a friend from Phrae who insists the beat-up fuselage is on display at, where else, but a local Phrae coffee shop.

All in all, although I never did determine the final fate of the Phrae Spitfire, it was a most excellent adventure and I met some great people, not the least of which were Carl and his wife who provided wonderful insight into the history of Phrae.

(Pictures will follow.)

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Here are the scans of the photos from the 1960s. Apologies as it seems I can only attach two photos at a time.

post-9366-139821_thumb.jpg

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Great post. I remember seeing Spitfires over the UK in the fifties.

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Last year I visited the Thai Airforce base in Pratchup Khiri Kan, Wing 5.

The condition of the Curtiss Hawk III was disgusting, impossible to believe if not seen.

If the Thai Airforce cannot/will not maintain one of it's Fighting Aircraft, that actually fought jap, to a reasonable standard then what hope for a upcountry plane.

john

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I too have a fascination with spitfires and wasn't aware of their use over here.

In case there's other similar enthusiasts around, i would like to mention the Warbirds Downunder 2015 airshow in Australia in November this year. They have 2 fully operational spitfires at Temora which also fly throughout the year on specific weekends. There .are lots of videos on the 2013 show etc and i imagine 2015 song be any less spectacular.

If u Google for TEMORA AIR MUSEUM you see the link to the airshow and info on the other flying days as well.

We went to the 2013 show arriving on the Thursday prior to the Saturday airshow. We should have arrived on the Monday before, as the spitfires were flying every day, along without most of the other planes. I should mention that it's a small town in mid NSW so is limited for accommodation. If u can access a motorhome or caravan, you can actually camp at the airfield as we did in 2013 (along with about 1000 other caravanners

So, if u happen to be visiting aussie, and interested in seeing these flying, check flying days and naturally, all the better if you r there in November.

Regards Allan

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All in all, although I never did determine the final fate of the Phrae Spitfire

Go into Google and check out: David Cundall

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I will suggest that the Burmese Spitfires are a non event.

Doubtful if buried and would be in extremely poor condition if.

john

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January 24th was the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. 2 great Britons that contributed greatly to the destruction of Nazism: Spitfire and Churchill.

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Great post, thanks for sharing.

My Mrs is from Phrae and I always joke that it's broing and nothing ever really goes on there. However, whilst that may be the case today, I've found out it actually has quite a history related to WWII.

In addition to your post, Phrae was also the home of the Thai resistance movement against the Japanese in WWII. There is a small but interesting museum located in Phrea town centre, actually in the car park of a town centre hotel.

Interesting stuff if you are into that kind of thing. Many of the locals haven't got a clue about this important part of Phrae's history, which is a shame, given that it could be a great way of introducing local Thai kids to some world history, a such which is greatly lacking in many Thai schools, in my opinion.

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I was living and working in Sawankalok in about 1972 and used to see the a Spitfire there everyday. The playground it was in was poorly kept and barely used and none of the locals seemed to have any idea (or interest) of how it got there. I moved on to Phrae after that but did not know about the Spitfire there.

RM87302.jpg

(Photograph found on the internet)

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Wonder if you can request a campaign on Tomnod.com to locate derelict aircraft in SEA?

May backfire on you, though as I'm sure you won't be the only ones (nor the fastest) headed off to look at anything they may find.

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