Supermarine Spitfire and Seafire

The Spitfire was designed by Reginald J. Mitchell and produced by Supermarine, a division of Vickers-Armstrong.  It first flew on March 5, 1936.  The Spitfire became numerically the most important British fighter of World War II and in history, being produced until 1948 to the extent of 20,351 aircraft.

Spitfire IX MK923

The Spitfire’s most distinguishing aerodynamic feature was its elliptical wing, credited to Canadian aerodynamicist Beverly Shenstone. The advantages of the elliptical plan-form probably were more theoretical than real. What really benefitted the aircraft was the wing’s thin cross-section, or airfoil, which allowed to Spitfire to approach the speed of sound more closely in a power dive than even many first-generation jet fighters.

The name “Spitfire” was chosen by Supermarine’s directors when the British Air Ministry threatened to name the type the Shrew.  Supermarine actually recycled the name from Mitchell’s first attempt to design a fighter a few years previously, which was utterly unsuccessful.  The traditional definition of “spitfire” is a quick-tempered, excitable or aggressive person, especially a woman.  The Spitfire may be the only instance of an airplane adopting a previously existing word and then making that word more famous and often-used as the name of the airplane than in its traditional usage.  Mitchell is reported to have called it a “bloody silly sort of name” but even he must have preferred it to Shrew.

There was little to foreshadow that Reginald J. Mitchell (1895-1937) would create this brilliant and beautiful aircraft.  His past designs consistent of good but workmanlike flying boats and one failed fighter prototype.  Mitchell had created the successful Schneider Cup racing seaplanes in the late 1920s, but these bore almost no resemblance to the Spitfire in conception, structure or appearance.  The earlier aircraft that looked most like the Spitfire was the Heinkel He 70 transport, another single-engined aircraft with elliptical flying surfaces, outward-retracting undercarriage, oval-section fuselage and similar elegant performance.  Rolls-Royce used one as an engine test-bed, so it was likely Mitchell was familiar with it; this is the sum total of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the Heinkel inspired Mitchell’s creation.  Whatever the inspiration, Mitchell’s fusion of compound curved sheet metal into the Spitfire was startlingly original and efficient.  Mitchell died of cancer within 16 months of the Spitfire’s first flight, but the design was continually upgraded to remain among the first rank of fighter aircraft through the end of World War II.  This development work, nearly as brilliant as the original design, was carried out under the direction of Joseph Smith, who replaced Mitchell as chief designer.

Unfortunately the Spitfire’s complex geometry made it difficult to manufacture in quantity, so the RAF never really had as many as it would have liked.  The elliptical wing, whose shape did not really contribute much to the Spitfire’s performance but whose airfoil cross-section made it possible for the Spitfire to achieve its high maximum speeds, was especially hard to produce.  Production of the Spitfire also had to be dispersed around England during 1940, when Germany was fully aware that interrupting Spitfire production with its bombers could ultimately make the difference between winning air superiority over the British Isles or not.

The Spitfire is known to every educated adult in Britain for its role in defeating Germany’s Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.  Spitfires flew operationally with the Royal Air Force until 1954.  Significant postwar users included Belgium, Czechoslovakia, India, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden,  Thailand and Turkey.  Most of these countries preserved at least one Spitfire for their national museums and some have been a source of restorable airframes in the warbird era.  To a great extent, however, preserved and restored Spitfires are airframes that managed to escape scrapping in Britain after the war.  Some were mounted as memorials or gate guards and later taken down for private sale and restoration.

Like the P-51 Mustang in the United States, they enjoyed popularity with civil owners even before there was a concept of flying restored military aircraft as “warbirds.”  About 25 airworthy Spitfires were assembled for the filming of the 1969 epic “Battle of Britain,” and these taught the public (and potential collectors) that Spitfires were still around and flying.  Others were obtained from the Royal Air Force, which kept many for memorial purposes, and from other countries that had retired them relatively recently.  Today, shops exist in Britain that can build a Spitfire virtually from new, and the most exciting restoration activity is centered around rare variants like the early Mk.Is of 1940, of which there were none flying at the dawn of the 21st century but as of 2014, at least four, with more on the way.

The airworthy Spitfire population worldwide has reached a sort of equilibrium of about 50 airplanes, a number constantly augmented by new restorations but diminished by accidents and retirements.  Most of these aircraft are in Britain, with perhaps 10 or 15 in the United States and ones and twos in a few other countries.  The Royal Air Force still maintains five Spitfires in its Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.  Perhaps another 50 are on view in museums around the world.

Mk.I P9306

This Spitfire Mk.I is one of the most originally preserved Spitfires.  After seeing combat in the Battle of Britain it was shipped to the United States for display, and had entered the collection of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry even before the war ended.  As possibly the first Spitfire committed to a museum, it was kept as original as possible.  It even still has its wartime paint, although this paint job does not date from the Battle of Britain period but is a repaint applied by the RAF a year or two later. 

Mk.Vb BL370

The fuselage and tail of the National World War II Museum‘s Spitfire are fairly accurately restored from a wreck that crashed in a marsh on September 20, 1944.  BL730 saw combat with several RAF squadrons and is restored in the markings it wore on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when with 64 Squadron.  The wings, unfortunately, are poorly made mock-ups that show many obvious defects.  Hopefully this Spitfire will be fully and properly restored one day.   

Mk.VII EN474

Several variants of Spitfire were built as specialized high-altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft, taking advantage of the aircraft’s superior altitude performance.  These machines were tuned for higher altitude flight, equipped with pressurized cockpits, and in some cases were unarmed to increase performance and save weight.  The Mk.VII was one of these variants, although it did feature armament and was capable of high-altitude interception.  It had extended, pointed wing tips that were sometimes removed and replaced by normal wing tips in service.  Only 140 Mk.VIIs were built, and only one survives.  EN474 was given to the United States for evaluation during the war and preserved for the Smithsonian.  It has been on display in the National Air & Space Museum since it opened in 1976, and probably is the most-viewed Spitfire in the world.

Mk.Vc MA863

This Spitfire spent the war in Australia, where it was serial A58-246 with the RAAF.  Recovered from a farm in Victoria in 1975, it was ultimately restored in Britain for the National Museum of the USAF, which put it on display in 2000.  The plane is painted in the colors of the 308th Fighter Squadron serving in North Africa in 1942. 

HF.IXe MJ730

The Military Aviation Museum‘s Spitfire served during World War II with 417 (RCAF), 154, 32, and 249 Squadrons in the Mediterranean and Yugoslavia.  After the war it served in Italy’s air force as MM4094, and then Israel’s as 606.  In 1980 a British preservationist found it being used as playground equipment at an Israeli kibbutz; it was recovered and flew again in 1988.  Registered G-BLAS and G-HFIX in Britain, it is now N730MJ and wears its original markings from 32 Squadron in 1944.  Flown at that time by the squadron commander, George Silvester, it wore a question mark as its individual letter code because the ground crew were uncertain what letter the commander wanted.  This aircraft appeared briefly in a William Wyler documentary, “Thunderbolt,” about a P-47 unit that was sharing a base with 32 Squadron.

Mk.IXe MK923

Now at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, this Spitfire served with the RAF’s 126 Squadron during the time of the Normandy invasion, as well as other units.  After the war it was sold to the Netherlands, where it was used in Java until 1950.  Its next user was the Belgian Air Force from 1950 until 1956.  It became a civil aircraft in Belgium registered OO-ARF and appeared in the film “The Longest Day.”  In 1963 it was purchased by American actor Cliff Robertson, restored and registered N521R, and from the mid 1970s until the mid 1990s it was flown by Canadian wartime Spitfire pilot Jerry Billing, based at Windsor, Ontario.  Billing was a gifted pilot, very proficient in Spitfires, and his solo performances in the Spitfire were dazzling.  

Mk.XI PA908

The National Museum of the USAF‘s second Spitfire is a rare Mk.XI photo-reconnaissance version whose past service was with the Indian Air Force as MA82.  It has been restored with the serial MB950, an aircraft that served with the 14th Photorecon Squadron, 17th Wing, 8th Air Force in Britain from late 1943. 


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