Tucked away on an industrial estate in Horndean, there’s a masterpiece in the making.
Robbie Swan is building a model of the most famous fighter aircraft of all time – the Spitfire.
The self-confessed model aeroplane fanatic has built close to 400 models in his lifetime, but this is surely the biggest and perhaps the most challenging.
It’s hardly surprising that passers-by and local youths stop and gaze at this eye-catching relic of the Battle of the Britain as the 69-year-old slaves away night and day to complete it.
Built out of wood and fibre-glass, it contains no less than 4,000 nails, measures 22ft at the wings and weighs a quarter-of-a-ton.
But there’s no chance of this model aircraft getting off the ground.
Robbie agreed to make the model for free after being contacted by the air cadets in Chichester through a mutual friend. He’s put hundreds of hours into making the Spitfire, but, ironically, the whole point will be to dismantle it and then reassemble it.
In a kind of aeronautical version of the Royal Navy’s Field Gun competition, young cadets will have to work as a team to put together the 11 pieces of the plane against the clock.
One team will be assembling a Spitfire and the other a Hurricane, which Robbie will be making after he has put the finishing touches to the Spitfire.
‘There will be two teams of youngsters sitting outside the Dispersal Hut as they would have done during the Battle of Britain,’ says Robbie, who lives with his wife Mary, in Murray Road, Horndean.
‘A chap will lean out of the cabin and shout “Scramble!” and the two teams will run forth and essentially assemble these two aircraft.
‘They will then apparently start up because there will be smoke generators inside them. The first one that appears in smoke is the winner.’
In return for building the model aircraft, Robbie was offered a teaching slot at the cadets’ headquarters in Chichester.
Having taught at Bedales School, near Petersfield, and Park Community School in Leigh Park, Robbie says children learning how to build models gives them a plethora of useful skills.
He says: ‘For years now I’ve been going to exhibitions and flying displays and I’ve found that men of my age, 40 and upwards, were the only ones there.
‘There are few youngsters. So it’s been a bee in my bonnet to teach young people how to make radio-controlled aircraft.
‘Knowing how to use wood, fibre-glass, carbon fibre and different glues – it teaches youngsters different things that will become useful later on in life instead of just playing computer games and staring at the television.’
Robbie’s love affair with the Spitfire runs much deeper, however, than just an admiration of the design of the aircraft, which he describes as ‘beautiful and adaptable’.
His biological father, who he knows only as Retford, was a Canadian fighter pilot and died during the Battle of Britain.
Understandably, Robbie finds it difficult to talk about the subject, but remembers his mother telling him when he was 10 years old.
Soon after he was bought a Spitfire model kit as a gift.
‘I think that’s what really got me started,’ says Robbie, whose middle name is Retford.
‘When mum told me when I was 10 years old, it must have kicked things off in my mind. I suppose I wanted to build a Spitfire, thinking he was a Spitfire pilot.’
Robbie never found out if he was a Spitfire pilot, but has made it his life-long hobby to learn about Second World War aircraft – and indeed recreate the planes in miniature.
He says: ‘Model aircraft has been a life-long obsession for me and being able to imitate something in miniature. It’s all about making them look real.’
This particular Spitfire, at two-thirds the original size, is being built on a shoe-string, with the cadets paying a few hundred pounds for the plywood.
Apollo Motors in Chichester has bought the fibre-glass and Key2 Group, located in the warehouse next to Robbie’s, is supplying the lettering, insignia and canopy. Robbie’s wife, Mary, has also played her part in this team effort.
Robbie used plans from an American firm’s 24-inch Spitfire – but was unsure how big to make it until Mary stepped in.
‘I copied the plans on to clear film,’ says Robbie.
‘My wife’s idea was to project them on to the wall and then pull the projector back until it enlarged to the average size of a cadet’s shoulders.
‘It turned out to be two-thirds size.’
He laughs: ‘My wife has been very tolerant in this! I’ve got an ensuite bathroom to be fitted and she’s been waiting for nearly nine months.
‘I saw her face fall when I agreed to do this because she knew the bathroom wasn’t going to get done.
‘But I will be very satisfied when this is done and it will probably give me the appetite to do more.’
As we talk, a bee suddenly flies into the room – and I realise that Robbie is fascinated by flight of all forms, whether it be an animal, model or machine.
He says: ‘Bees are not supposed to fly, but they do. Their power to work ratio is all wrong. They do it by sheer muscle power, by beating their wings hundreds of times every second.’
Robbie has flown hundreds of model aircraft at displays across the country. But his face lights up as he tells me of the one time he flew a plane for real.
He says: ‘I have flown a Cessna. I knew a chap in Canada who was an ex-Lancaster pilot during the Second World War. We went for a holiday in Canada and he owned a flying school.
‘He said to me “you model aircraft people reckon you can fly a full-size one, don’t you?”
‘I said “yes”. So I took off and flew around. I bounced just once on landing but I got it down.
‘When he came to this country two years later and I gave him a model aeroplane, he couldn’t fly it.
‘I am definitely a frustrated pilot!’