AVIATION experts last night were investigating the crash of a unique

Spitfire which millionaire property magnate Mr Charles Church died.

He was at the controls of his favourite aircraft when it stalled in

mid-air and plunged in flames into a field only a few miles short of an

airport runway on Saturday night.

Mr Church, 44, a father of three, had taken the hand-built aircraft on

a half-hour test run from his private airstrip at Popham, near

Basingstoke, Hampshire.

Mr Church, a farmworker's son, was reputed to have amassed a fortune

of more than #140m. He was listed among the 200 richest men in Britain.

A police spokesman, Inspector Paul Stallard, said that Mr Church had

lodged a flight plan with air traffic controllers saying he was carrying

out a non-stop flight over north Hampshire, circling above Blackbushe

airport at Yateley, and then returning to Popham.

The Spitfire -- described as a ''bastard'' by purists in the vintage

aircraft fraternity -- had been specially built by the property

developer's flying enterprise, Charles Church (Spitfires).

It combined the best parts of all Spitfire models ever produced, but

was not a true version of any of them, said Mr Stallard.

Mr Church, who had two daughters, aged 22 and 19, and a nine-year-old

son, was flying towards Hartley Wintney when the aircraft developed an

engine problem.

He put out two Mayday calls, requesting permission for an emergency

landing at Blackbushe, but crashed into a field several miles short of

the airstrip.

As the second Mayday call went out, Police Constable Philip Smith, who

was on duty in Hartley Wintney, saw a pall of smoke and raised the


Emergency services found the Spitfire in a ball of flame, with Mr

Church's body trapped inside, said Mr Stallard. Civil Aviation Authority

investigators later visited the scene.

The Spitfire, one of a number owned by Mr Church and kept in a

collection at Popham, had been used in an air display at RAF Dunsfold,

Surrey, earlier on Saturday, flown by another pilot.

When it returned to Popham, Mr Church told his wife, Susie, that he

was taking it out himself.