Monday, October 27
The Supermarine Spitfire was a British single-seat fighter aircraft, used by the Royal Air Force and many other Allied countries during the Second World War, and into the 1950s. It was produced in greater numbers than any other Allied design. The Spitfire was the only Allied fighter in production at the outbreak of the Second World War that was still in production at the end of the war.
The Spitfire was designed by R. J. Mitchell who was chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works, a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrongs. He continued to refine the design until his death from cancer in 1937, whereupon his colleague Joseph Smith became chief designer. Its elliptical wing had a thin cross-section, allowing a higher top speed than the Hawker Hurricane and many other contemporary designs.
The distinctive silhouette imparted by the wing planform helped the Spitfire to achieve legendary status during the Battle of Britain. There was, and still is, a public perception that it was the RAF fighter of the Battle, in spite of the fact that the more numerous Hurricane shouldered a great deal of the burden against the potent Luftwaffe. Much loved by its pilots, the Spitfire saw service throughout the whole of the Second World War, in most theatres of war, in several roles and in many different variants. The Spitfire was to continue to serve as a front line fighter and in secondary roles for several air forces well into the 1950s.
The Spitfire will always be compared to its main adversary, the Messerschmitt Bf 109: both were among the finest fighters of their day and followed similar design philosophies of marrying a small, streamlined airframe to a powerful liquid-cooled V12 engine.
The operational history of the Spitfire with the RAF started with the first Mk Is, which entered service with 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford on 4 August 1938.The last flight of a Spitfire in RAF service, which took place on 9 June 1957, was by a PR 19, PS583, from RAF Woodvale of the Temperature and Humidity Flight. This was also the last known flight of a piston-engined fighter in the RAF.
The Spitfire achieved legendary status during the Battle of Britain but continued to play increasingly diverse roles throughout World War II and beyond, often in air forces other than the RAF. The Spitfire became the first high-speed photo-reconnaissance aircraft to be operated by the RAF. Sometimes unarmed, they flew at high, medium and low altitudes, often ranging far into enemy territory to closely observe the Axis powers and provide an almost continual flow of valuable intelligence information throughout the war. In 1941 and 1942 PRU Spitfires provided the first photographs of the Freya and Würzburg radar systems and, in 1943, helped confirm that the Germans were building the V1 and V2 Vergeltungswaffe ("vengeance weapons") by photographing Peenemünde, on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany.
In the Mediterranean the Spitfire blunted the heavy attacks on Malta by the Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe and, from early 1943, helped pave the way for the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. Over the Northern Territory of Australia RAAF Spitfires helped defend the port city of Darwin against air attack by the Japanese Naval Air Force.
Design and development
R. J. Mitchell's 1931 design to meet Air Ministry specification F7/30 for a new and modern fighter capable of 250 mph, the Supermarine Type 224, resulted in an open-cockpit monoplane with bulky gull-wings and a large fixed, spatted undercarriage powered by the 600 horsepower evaporative-cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine. This made its first flight in February 1934. This aircraft was a big disappointment to Mitchell and his design team, who immediately embarked on a series of "cleaned up" designs, using their experience with the Schneider trophy seaplanes as a starting point. The F7/30 design accepted was the biplane Gloster Gladiator.
Mitchell had already begun working on a new aircraft, designated Type 300, based on the Type 224. With a retractable gear and 6 ft shorter wingspan, the aircraft was submitted to the Air Ministry in July 1934, but again was not accepted. The design evolved through a number of changes, including an enclosed cockpit, oxygen breathing-apparatus, even smaller and thinner wings, and the newly-developed and much more powerful Rolls-Royce PV-XII Vee-12 engine, later named the Merlin. In November 1934, Mitchell, with the backing of Supermarine's owner, Vickers-Armstrongs, started detailed design work on the Type 300. The Air Ministry issued a contract AM 361140/34 on 1 December 1934, providing £10,000 for the construction of Mitchell's "improved F.7/30 design". On 3 January 1935, the Air Ministry formalised the contract and a new Specification F.10/35 was written around the aircraft.
Just 15 months later, after several major design changes and refinements, on 5 March 1936 the sleek new prototype (K5054) took off on its first flight from Eastleigh Aerodrome (later Southampton Airport). At the controls was Captain J. "Mutt" Summers, (Chief Test Pilot for Vickers (Aviation) Ltd.), who was reported in the press as saying "Don't touch anything" on landing. This flight was just four months after the maiden flight of the contemporary Hawker Hurricane.
Testing continued until 26 May 1936, when Summers flew K5054 to RAF Martlesham Heath and handed the aircraft over to Squadron Leader Anderson of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE).
The Air Ministry placed an order for 310 aircraft on 3 June 1936, before any formal report had been issued by the A&AEE, interim reports being issued on a piecemeal basis. The British public first saw the Spitfire at the RAF Hendon air-display on Saturday 27 June 1936. Although full-scale production was supposed to begin immediately, there were numerous problems which could not be overcome for some time and the first production Spitfire K9787 didn't roll off the Woolston, Southampton assembly line until mid-1938. The first and most immediate problem was that the main Supermarine factory at Woolston was already working at full capacity fulfilling orders for Walruses and Stranraers. Although outside contractors were supposed to be involved in manufacturing many important Spitfire components, especially the wings, Vickers-Armstrongs (the parent company) were extremely reluctant to see the Spitfire being manufactured by outside concerns and were slow to release the necessary blueprints and sub-components. As a result of the innumerable delays in getting the Spitfire into full production, the Air Ministry put forward a plan that production of the Spitfire be stopped after the initial order for 310, after which Supermarine would build Bristol Beaufighters. The managements of Supermarine and Vickers were able to persuade the Air Ministry that the problems could be overcome and further orders were placed for 200 Spitfires on 24 March 1938 (the two orders covered the K, L and N prefix serial numbers).
The Air Ministry submitted a list of possible names to Vickers-Armstrongs for the new aircraft, now known as the Type 300. One of these was the improbable Shrew. The name Spitfire was suggested by Sir Robert MacLean, director of Vickers-Armstrongs at the time, who called his daughter Ann "a little spitfire."
The word dates from Elizabethan times and refers to a particularly fiery, ferocious type of person. The name had previously been used unofficially for Mitchell's earlier F.7/30 Type 224 design. Mitchell is reported to have said that it was "just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose".
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