The Story of the HKAAF’s Mark XXIV Spitfire VN485

The Spitfire is one of the most famous aircraft ever built.   R J Mitchell developed the aircraft in 1936. He based the design on his successful Schneider Trophy winning seaplanes. The Spitfire had a very aerodynamic shape, and early variants were fitted with the successful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

The first squadron to be equipped with the Spitfire was No. 19 Squadron, RAF, based at Duxford.  The Spitfire remained in production for the whole of the Second World War, with over forty variants built. 

The Mark 24 Spitfire was the final version of this beautiful aircraft and was introduced to service in 1946.

Hong Kong’s original volunteer force was set up in 1854.  Over the years there followed many incarnations.  After liberation of Hong Kong from the Japanese occupation during World War II, on 1st May 1949 the Hong Kong Defence Force Ordinance came into effect, under which three military branches were formed; the Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers), the Hong Kong Royal Naval Reserve, and the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.

RAF Flight Lieutenant Derek Drake arrived in Hong Kong from the United Kingdom on 29th October 1949 with instructions from the Commander-in-Chief, Far East Air Force to establish a self-sufficient Auxiliary Air Force, modelled on the United Kingdom’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Mark XXIV Spitfire VN 485, was delivered to the Royal Air Force on 29 August 1947, and entered service with No 80 Squadron in Hong Kong.

Having already been equipped with Austers and Harvards, in 1951 the HKAAF began receiving Spitfires from the RAF.  The first of these were Mark XVIIIs (ex-28 Squadron RAF) (to be joined later by Marl XIXs – ex-80 Squadron),

The RAF then transferred six Mark XXIV Spitfires from 80 Squadron (having been reequipped with Hornets) to the HKAAF between 15th March 1952 and 15th May 1952.   Their serial numbers were VN313, VN318, VN485, VN492, PK719, and PK720.                            

  Delivery of VN485 was taken 13th May 1952, and remained in service until 21st April 1955. 

On that day the HKAAF flew 4 x Spitfires, 4 x Harvards, 6 x Asters, and the RAF flew 12 x Hornets, and 16 x Vampires in a flypast to mark the Queen’s Birthday.  This was the last operational flight of military Spitfires. 

The Spitfires flown in that flypast were Mk XIX PS 852, Mk XXIV VN 485, Mk XXIV VN 318, and Mk XIX PS 854, flown by Sqn Ldr Geoff Cairns, Flt Lt Ruffus Heard, Flt Lt Adrian Rowe-Evans, and Flt Lt Leo Strange.

Having taken the Spitfires out of service the RAF then removed their engines for shipment back to the United Kingdom.  The airframes were disposed of by bulldozing them into a nullah where they were then covered over.

The HKAAF members “squirreled away” one airframe, VN 485 at the back of a hanger shared with 28 Squadron to save her from such an ignominious ending.  The airframe had only flown for 240 hours.

Eventually, on 19th September 1968 VN485 was parcelled up by the RAF and formally handed over to the members of the HKAAF by Air Marshal Sir Rochford Hughes with the words:-

 “It will serve as a reminder for many years to come of the spirit of the many people of Hong Kong
  who are prepared to volunteer for exacting and dangerous tasks.”

In the years to follow VN 485 was displayed with pride at the Cenotaph on Hong Kong island, and back home at the Headquarters of the HKAAF and later the RHKAAF at RAF Kai Tak.

In March 1979 the RHKAAF moved to splendid purpose-built new headquarters at Hong Kong International Airport.  The downside of this move was that alongside the HQ was the infamous Kai Tak nullah.  The fumes emanating from the nullah were not only unpleasant in the extreme but were highly corrosive to aircraft, particularly to avionics.  It was a constant battle keeping aircraft in service.  With the lack of spare capacity within the hanger VN 485 was kept on display outside.

Sadly the fumes from the nullah took their toll on the fuselage and in an attempt to tackle deterioration a project to refurbish the aircraft was carried out in 1983.

With the responsibility of the engineering staff focused on maintaining the present fleet airworthy, 

this project had to be squeezed in as-and-when time became available.

During the run-up to 1997, and the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, there was a great deal of disquiet on the future of HK and many people emigrated to anywhere suitable where they could obtain passports.  The future of the RHKAAF was also uncertain, with the fear that the Chinese Air Force would take over aviation responsibilities in HK.  Clearly as a military organisation the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force could not continue so that led to the decision being taken that a civilian organisation, called the Government Flying Service would be established to succeed the RHKAAF.

This, however, did not necessarily lay-to-rest anxieties within the RHKAAF in respect of the future of the Spitfire.  The aircraft had already been a bit of a burden to the Engineering section.  All aircraft had been suffering over the years from the fumes coming off the nullah.  Operational aircraft were, of course, being properly maintained but this took much manpower and many spares to fight the corrosion problem.  The Spitfire, not being government property, could not receive the same level of attention and was visibly deteriorating.  The fear was that after HK handover someone up the line might start querying use of government resources on an asset not on its inventory, and might even start challenging ownership of the aircraft.  One way or another it was feared someone would take the decision out of the hands of the GFS personnel and arrange to sell the airframe.

To avoid this from happening alternatives possibilities were explored.  The airport authority declined an invitation to display the aircraft at its new airport on Chek Lap Kok as it had nothing to do with civil aviation.  Similarly the authorities at the new Science Museum were not interested.

Therefore, in December 1987, following pay parade, a meeting was held of the owners of the aircraft – all members of the unit – to discuss what might be done to safeguard its future.  Among those attending were Hon A/Cdre Ross Penlington and the CO, Wg Cdr Alistair Asprey.  Even so it was decided the incoming CO, Sqn Ldr Roy Brooks should chair the meeting as he would need to action the decisions coming out of it.

Much lively discussion took place and the decision taken, by a large majority, that VN 485 should be offered for display at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, with suitable referencing to its HKAAF history. 

Correspondence then followed with the Director at Duxford.  The initial response was that it would not be possible to display an aircraft belonging to another organisation.  As a compromise solution agreement was reached that VN 485 would be loaned to the museum with the assurance that if it were not called for return to HK within six years it would become an unconditional gift to the museum. The loan/gift document was signed 3rd August 1989.  After the stipulated six years the Transfer of Ownership took effect 11th July 1995.

In July 1989 the aircraft was stripped down and boxed ready for shipment on 11th July 1989 to the UK on Cathay Pacific Airways freighter, free of charge. 

On arrival at Duxford, following some preservation work the airframe was re-assembled and the roll-out took place 17th November 1989. 
For the roll-out an invitation was issued to anyone with a history associated with this aircraft to attend. 

Five former HKAAF Spitfire pilots turned up.  They were Geoff Cairns, Adrian Rowe-Evans, “Scotty” Munroe, Rufus Heard, and Donald Malcolm.
In 2001 a full conservation survey was carried out, followed in 2003 by a full conservation programme.

The roll-out was again attended by Adrian Rowe-Evans, who last flew her 9th April 1955 in the rehearsal for the Queen’s birthday flypast.  In the flypast itself Adrian flew VN 318. 

Former Commanding Officer Roy Brooks also attended the roll-out but he could only ever dream of flying a Spitfire.

Another full conservation survey was carried out in 2010, ensuring her condition is maintained to the best possible level, so her beauty may be admired for generations to come.

VN 485 is now on display in the Aerospace area of the Imperial War Museum’s hangers at Duxford, with an information tower alongside her.

An amazing coincidence and how very apt that Duxford, having been home to the first Spitfires to enter service with the Royal Air Force,
should now lend shelter to the last Spitfire to have seen military service, this time with the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.

* * *

Back to top