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A Classic Boy-Meets-Plane Story

November 16, 2000|STEVE CARNEY | carneysteve@hotmail.com

Matt Kortas fell in love with the Supermarine Spitfire while flying the legendary British plane in dogfights against German aces.

He was 15, at the controls of a computer game in his home near Detroit.

But his simulated adventures spurred him first to take flying lessons and then five years ago to create a World Wide Web homage to his favorite craft, the single-seat monoplane that helped the Royal Air Force stave off the Luftwaffe's onslaught during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

"It's kind of like a storybook interest," said Kortas, now 24 and living in Santa Clara, Calif. "I got to learn a lot about the history of the plane, its unique shape, how it was responsible for winning the Battle of Britain."

Part of Kortas' interest came from his father, an aviation buff, and from a family friend in England who sent the teen books about the plane and the World War II exploits of RAF pilots. He went to Michigan State University to study computer science, and as part of a class project he built a site about the Spitfire while a sophomore in 1995--medieval times by Internet standards.

"That was before everyone on campus had access to the Web," Kortas said. "It was kind of like, 'This is cool. This is something I can do.' It was kind of a geeky thing."

The site, http://www.acm.cps.msu.edu/~kortasma/spitfire.html, includes photos of the plane in flight and on the ground, a short history of the plane, technical specifications and links to related sites, including a page from the Smithsonian's Air & Space Web site with a pilot's detailed description of the plane's idiosyncrasies.

Once the Spitfire site was up on the Michigan State computer server--where it still resides for free, an alumni perk--Kortas and his friends decided to register their hobby pages with the nascent network of search engines. "It was like, 'Hey, let's add our stuff on there and be the first.' I started getting e-mail from people around the world," he said. "My page was the one coming up because it was the only one out there.

"I never expected to get any response. And from such a vast number of people--schoolkids, people building kit planes, people who said, 'My grandfather flew the plane,' " Kortas said.

His site even spurred one cyber-pen pal to change careers. For a couple of years he's been trading e-mail with a member of England's Spitfire Society, a club of the plane's aficionados, who was fascinated by the Web site.

"At the beginning he didn't know too much about the technology. After a few years of corresponding he discovered it was something he was interested in. He quit his day job," Kortas said, and now is the full-time Webmaster for the society, whose home page is http://www.spitfiresociety.demon.co.uk/.

Kortas, who works for Exodus, a Web-hosting company in Silicon Valley, said he gets about two to five e-mails a month about his site.

"It's not a lot of traffic, but the people who know it's there appreciate it," he said. "A lot of people send me clippings. Friends in Britain send me information from the RAF museum."

Kortas is gratified that his hobby has connected him to people worldwide whom he otherwise would never have met, and even has made him an information resource for many of them.

"The Internet is supposed to be this thing where people can communicate without barriers," Kortas said. "I hear family stories as well as requests for technical things. It's interesting to be part of something that's like a home-grown thing, with people from other countries."

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Steve Carney is a freelance writer.

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