Origins: The Spitfire was designed by Reginald J. Mitchell who was the chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works, a subsidiary of British engineering conglomerate Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. It was conceived from Mitchell's 1931 Schneider Trophy race winning Supermarine S6-b seaplane, a float equipped racing monoplane which shortly afterwards set a world speed record of 407.5 mph. Happily, Mitchell lived to see his prototype Spitfire fighter fly before his untimely and premature death from cancer in 1937, aged only 42. Subsequent development was admirably undertaken by his colleague, Joseph Smith who succeeded him as chief designer at Supermarine.
Conceived as a short-range, high-performance interceptor aircraft, ongoing development resulted in variants optimised as low and high altitude interceptor, fighter-bomber, photographic reconnaissance, air-sea rescue and even two-seat trainers and a few float-planes! A successful naval version named the Seafire (Sea Spitfire) was specially adapted for use from aircraft carriers and served with distinction, with variants adding folding wings, arrestor hooks and other application specific modifications.
Additionally seeing active service with U.S.A. and Russian squadrons, the Spitfire was the only Allied fighter to be manufactured before, throughout and continuing after the Second World War.
First Flight: The prototype had its maiden flight from Eastleigh Airport, Southampton, on 5 March 1936, four months after the Hawker Hurricane first took to the air. Resultant to a series of test flights, initial modifications saw its airspeed increase from 330 mph to 348 mph and on 3 June 1936, the Air Ministry ordered 310 Spitfires. The Mk1 entered service with the R.A.F. on 4 August 1938, capable of a speed of 364 mph, an altitude ceiling of 34,500 feet and with a range of 425 miles.
The airframe design was complex; a streamlined semi-monocoque fuselage made from duralumin alloy covered with a stressed skin of alclad (corrosion resistant aluminium) attached by rivets. The wing incorporated an innovative spar boom and together with the original tailplane and fin, was of a highly efficient and characteristic semi-elliptical shape. Although designed to be powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine producing 1,030 hp, the airframe proved adaptable enough to use increasingly more powerful Merlin and ultimately the later Rolls-Royce Griffon engines producing over 2,050 hp.
Variants: One tends to think of the Spitfire as a single aircraft type; however, there were in fact 24 different marks as well as many sub-variants, progressing from the iconic Rolls Royce Merlin power plants to their later Griffon engines. Wing configurations also changed; types A, B, C (or Universal Wing), and E featured variations on armaments, with type D replacing the guns with additional fuel tanks to provide the longer range required for photo-reconnaissance. Numbering 6,487 aircraft, more Spitfire Mk Vs were built than any other, followed by the Mk IX with 5,656 produced.
The Mk XI was the fastest of the Rolls Royce Merlin powered Spitfires, with 471 aircraft built specifically for the purpose of photo-reconnaissance. It was capable of a high altitude ceiling of 41,000 feet, a speed of 417 mph and a longer range having replaced the guns with extra fuel tanks in the leading edge of the wing. Commencing late 1943, the Mk XI was chosen for high-speed diving trials to investigate aircraft handling characteristics at approaching the speed of sound (768 mph), achieving a speed of 606 mph in a 45 degree dive on 27 April 1944!
The first Griffon powered Spitfire was the Mk XII, which took to the air in August 1942, becoming operational with the R.A.F. in April 1943. The final Merlin designation was the American Packard built Merlin 266 engine which powered the Mk XVI, subsequent marks relying upon the more powerful Rolls Royce Griffon power plant.
The Changing Shape of the Spitfire: Manufacture of the Mk 21 to 24 totalled 448 aircraft, a vastly fewer number than the previous Spitfires. The production Mk 21 originally flew on 15 March 1944 and introduced some major changes which had become necessary due to the increased power of the two-stage supercharged Griffon 61 engine. The wing was completely redesigned for greater torsional stiffness and, with straighter edges and blunt tips, was moving away from the characteristic elliptical shape of the previous Spitfires. Combined with a strengthened airframe, the increased weight meant the need for redesigned undercarriage. Most Mk 21s were fitted with a five blade propeller, although a few featured a contra-rotating six blade propeller with two sets of three blades spinning in opposite directions. Not only did this more efficiently benefit the increased 2,375 hp of the Griffon but prevented torque roll effect on the airframe. However, trials of the Mk 21 were less than satisfactory resulting in a damning report for poor flight control qualities, such that further development was required before the aircraft was able to enter service in April 1945. Production of the Mk 21 numbered 122 aircraft.
Spawned from the Mk 21, the later marks introduced a cut back rear to the fuselage, a huge tail fin and a teardrop style canopy. The final Spitfire variant introduced in 1946, the Mk 24, added increased fuel capacity and variations in armaments. Differing greatly from the first Spitfire prototype, it was twice as heavy and more than twice as powerful. An impressive performer, it could achieve a speed of 454 mph and climb to 30,000 feet in eight minutes and with a ceiling of 43,000 feet. Production of the Mk 24 numbered 81 aircraft. Although certainly sleek and attractive, it looked much less like the familiar and iconic Spitfires of the Battle of Britain, such that the mark was to give way to its successor, named the Supermarine Spiteful.
Spiteful, Seafang and Attacker: The Spiteful resembled the last of the Spitfires although featuring a redesigned fuselage and an all new, straight-edged, laminar-flow wing based on new aerofoil profiles developed in the U.S.A. Completely gone now was the elliptical shape which Mitchell had designed with such success. Only 40 in total of the Spiteful and its Naval variant, the Seafang, were built as they demonstrated no significant performance gains over the last Spitfires and were overshadowed by the emergence of jet fighters. There was, however, a prototype jet-powered Spiteful, subsequently renamed Attacker, using the wing from its piston-engined cousin with a new fuselage, which first flew on 27 July 1946. Although this never served with the R.A.F., a Naval version realised a short but successful deployment with 184 being built. Except for the Spiteful's wing, it bore no resemblance to the Spitfire.
Compromise: Alex Henshaw, the Chief Test Pilot from 1940 at the Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory, a shadow facility to Supermarine, wrote: 'the later marks, although they were faster than the earlier ones, were also much heavier and so did not handle so well. You did not have such positive control over them. The essence of aircraft design is compromise, and an improvement at one end of the performance envelope is rarely achieved without a deterioration somewhere else'.
End of an Era: The final version of the Spitfire, the Mk 24, first flew on 13 April 1946, with the last ever production Spitfire being built on 20 February 1948. Spanning almost twelve years from the prototype Spitfire's maiden flight, production totalled 20,351 examples including all variants, with some remaining in service well into the mid 1950s.
In 1962, a mock combat was staged at R.A.F. Binbrook between a Spitfire Mk 19 and an English Electric Lightning F3. Its purpose was to develop combat tactics between the jet-engined Lightning and the Mustang P-51, a piston-engined propeller fighter with similar characteristics to the Spitfire Mk 19, in case of possible hostilities with the Mustang equipped Indonesian Air Force.
The Spitfire Mk XI above and below was photographed at the Southend Air Festival 2011. She was built in 1944 and underwent an extensive restoration completed in December 1992, although continues to run on her original, restored, wartime engine. Since September 2004, she has been privately owner by Peter Teichman and the Hangar 11 Collection. I ask that you please respect my copyright. My thanks to the Commodore and staff of the Alexandra Yacht Club in Southend-on-Sea for their hospitality in affording me a great vantage point from which to photograph.
Some of the pictures in this Gallery are available for purchase! Genuine, chemically printed photographs in quality mounts, individually signed by myself as photographer, give the opportunity to own an exclusive, original work for your private enjoyment for very modest cost.
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Kindest Wishes, Clive