Plane Sailing

Jonny McNee. (2905PG02)
Jonny McNee. (2905PG02)

If Jonny McNee had been alive during World War II he would surely have flown planes for the RAF or maybe even the Luftwaffe.

Jonny, a senior planner with the Department of Environment (D.O.E.) Marine Planning team in Derry, has been obsessed with everything to do with aviation history since he was a young boy.

Author Jonny McNee launches his book 'The Story of the Donegal Spitfire' at the Central Library with his children Dylan and Grace. (2905PG03)

Author Jonny McNee launches his book 'The Story of the Donegal Spitfire' at the Central Library with his children Dylan and Grace. (2905PG03)

Jonny is the man responsible for finding an RAF Spitfire in Inishowen last summer and the story of the plane’s recovery was featured in a three part documentary screened on BBC NI.

“I was born in Gloucester in October 1967. My dad ran a business there but soon after we moved to a little place outside Ballyclare called Ballyeaston.

“It was a wonderful place to grow up - I had a brilliant childhood. There was an old railway track near to the house and I would have spent my days discovering the landscape around me - I suppose when I think of it, that’s probably where I got my love of nature and the country side.

“My father was studying in Dublin to become a Church of Ireland minister at the time and my younger brother Rhodri was at boarding school and my younger sister Alexandra was still a baby so I was the man about the house - it was good fun.”

Aviation historian Jonny McNee, with a scale model of a  Mark IIa spitfire. INLS 4811-526MT.

Aviation historian Jonny McNee, with a scale model of a Mark IIa spitfire. INLS 4811-526MT.

Jonny attended the local primary school before moving on to Ballyclare Grammar School but just as he was about sit his O-level exams, his education was cut short when he fell 60ft from the edge of a cliff.

“My friend and I were into clay pigeon shooting when we were young and I think I had sat my Geology exam on a Friday and the next day we went shooting at a quarry near Larne.

“As it was a warm day the heat of the sun forced the lime stone in the quarry to contract and although I was no where near the edge of the cliff, the earth gave way and I fell 60ft to the bottom.

“I know that what I am about to say next sounds strange but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me the kick up the backside I needed to get my education sorted.”

Jonny spent the best part of a year recovering in hospital and even managed to pass one of his O-levels.

After serving his time as a curate attached to a parish, Jonny’s father, Bill McNee, was made director of the parish of Donemana near Strabane.

“When we moved to Donemana I attended Strabane Grammar. I was really interested in Geology but they didn’t offer it at the school but the principal helped me to work my timetable in such a way that I was able to travel to Derry and study it at Foyle College.

“Because of my accident I essentially had to repeat my O-level year all over again at Strabane Grammar.”

Jonny completed his O-levels and also went on to complete his A-levels also. He secured a place at the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster studying Environmental Science.

On completion of his studies Jonny returned to the family home in Donemana where he lived with parents Bill and Avril for a brief while before securing his first job managing a duck farm in County Monaghan.

“My father and I shared a passion for ornamental ducks, we collected them. There were not too many jobs to do with environmental science at the time so when I saw an ad in the newspaper for a manager of a duck farm in Monaghan I thought myself ‘why not?’.”

Jonny got the job and moved to Emyvale where he kept more than 20,000 ducks company for 18 months.

“I really enjoyed it but it didn’t do anything for my social life and no right minded thinking woman came within in a mile of me because of the smell,” he joked.

“I always wanted to out my Environmental Sciences degree into action so about two years later I applied for a job with the Inner City Trust and became its Environmental Project officer.”

If you think that Jonny’s next job was in keeping with his penchant for the environment you would be completely wrong.

Jonny wanted a challenge so he applied for the position of food hall supervisor when Marks and Spencer opened their store in Foyleside in Derry.

“Thousands of people applied for four position with Marks and luckily I got one of them.

“I can even tell you the first item that was bought in Marks and Spencer in Foyleside - it was a packet of 98p biscuits.

“I enjoyed my time there and learned a lot about management but my favourite memories were when customers who had bought out of date chickens in another supermarket came to Marks thinking they had bought them there.

“I would always give them a Marks chicken and tell them to come back to us the next time,” he laughed.

Although he enjoyed his time with Marks and Spencer Jonny wanted to return to his passion for the environment and he secured a job working for a community group in Portrush.

“It was great working with the community group as we got a big grant to plant trees. I managed to get some low risk prisoners from Magilligan prison involved and with the permission of the governor they came and helped and we even took them to some of the schools to talk to children about the futility of crime.

“I left the community group to join the planning service in 2002 and I have been here in some form or fashion ever since”.

Jonny’s fascination with planes and aviation history started when he was a five year-old boy. His parents bought him a model of a Airfix Saturn Rocket and on the following St. Stephen’s Day he built and painted the entire model by himself.

“I suppose one of the other reasons that I ended up getting into aviation was because of some of the parishioners that my father would known when he was a minister.

“I remember talking to some of the men and they would tell me how they flew Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain. I remember thinking that here these men were living alone, and all of the regalia and history you could imagine was in their attic but no one was interested.

“I was an avid reader of anything to do with planes and then in 1992 I met the late great Nat McGlinchey. Nat told me about a plane that reportedly crashed near City of Derry airport during the war.

“When Nat died I made it my mission to try and find the plane but despite the best efforts of British Army and the Northern Ireland Archaeological Society we couldn’t find the plane. However, we did find what looked like an impact crater under the ground which would have supported the theory that a plane crashed there but who knows where it ended up.

“When Nat told me the story about the plane I remember a while later reading an advertisement in both the ‘Derry Journal’ and the BBC website looking to speak to anyone who was looking for this plane. I told them I had spent the best part of 18 years since 1992 looking for it and after we met I ended up being their aviation consultant for the entire series - it was great fun.”

Although disappointed not to have unearthed the forgotten Spitfire of Eglinton, a glimmer of hope revealed itself when Jonny recounted the story of a crashed Spitfire in Donegal during the war.

“I could see that the producer of the show was a little nervous at the fact that we had not found the Spitfire in City of Derry Airport so I mentioned the story of a Spitfire that crashed in Donegal in 1941.”

Jonny and his daughter Grace set-out to find the Spitfire last summer and within the space of a few hours they struck gold.

“Just by asking a few questions, we found the Spitfire deep beneath the peat on the Glenshinny mountain - it was a great day.”

The discovery and excavation of Spitfire P8074 was recorded as part of the BBC NI series ‘Dig WW2’ and was filmed by Derry based 360 Production.

The Spitfire crash landed on Glenshinny mountain after the engine over heated on the way back from an Atlantic convoy patrol on November 30, 1941. The pilot, Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe was trying to return to base back in Eglinton, now City of Derry Airport.

“The story has just kept running and running. Once we got the plane out we brought 14 members of Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe’s family to the site of the crash - it was very emotional.

“My father even came out of retirement and conducted a service there too - that meant a lot to me.

“The Spitfire was the first of 20 aircraft commissioned to be built by Canadian millionaire Willard Garfield Weston. We contacted the Westons to let them know what we had found and they were really taken aback. They invited myself and my family to meet them in Canada. It was a lovely trip.”

To mark the journey and discovery of the Donegal Spitfire, Jonny has recently released a book called ‘The Story of the Donegal Spitfire’. Only 500 copies have been published but the level of interest in his book has taken Jonny by surprise.

“I’ve had to post copies of the book to Zambia, Germany, Australia and I am sending about 60 copies to America. Like I said the story just keeps running and running.”

Jonny said the story of Spitfire P8074 would not have been possible had it not been for the support of his wife Andree and his two children Dylan and Grace.

“My wife has the patience of a saint - she really does. She had to put up with me bringing parts of the Spitfire back to the house so I think I owe her and the children some quality time. She’s a long suffering wife but my hopes for the future are to devote even more time to my family and for us all to go off on a holiday together - I promise I will not mention the Spitfire,” he laughed.

If you would like to purchase a copy of ‘The Story of the Donegal Spitfire’ email Jonny directly at jonnymcnee@googlemail.com