The Supermarine Spitfire was a British single seat fighter plane flown in WWII. The Spitfire was the most widely produced aircraft in Britain during the war. Differing from other warbirds, the Spitfire was used pre and post WWII. The aircraft excelled at defensive fighting. Aviation historians cite that the plane had the best maneuverability, climbing ability, and speed of any WWII aircraft on either side.
British Fighter Aircraft Concept
In 1931 the Air Ministry, a department of the UK government that managed Royal Air Force operations, ordered fighter aircraft that could sustain a speed of 250mph and be armed with multiple machine guns. Reginald Joseph Mitchell (RJ), Chief Designer of Supermarine Aviation, was up to the challenge. His first design was a monoplane fighter featuring an inverted gull wing, known as Type 224. The aircraft had issues with the evaporative cooling system and lackluster performance, leading to its rejection.
Mitchell had previous success with racing seaplanes, prompting him to use this as a reference point for an updated design. The following Type 300 featured a decreased wingspan and retractable undercarriage. Still unable to get approval, the aircraft was refined to a greater degree during 1934. An aerodynamic enclosed cockpit was added complete with oxygen breathing system. To strengthen performance, the wing size was decreased further and the Goshawk engine was swapped for the Merlin.
A prototype was made, the first flight occurring 5 March 1936. The flight time totaled 8 minutes. Test pilots indicated that the aircraft wasn’t fast enough and the rudder was too sensitive. A better propeller enabled the Supermarine spitfire to reach 348 mph (560 kmh). An order was placed for 310 of the aircraft the next month.
The Supermarine Spitfire wing design was a challenge due to the need to generate lift while housing the retractable undercarriage and munitions. A skewed ellipse was able to accommodate both requirements. The washout wing feature allowed for resistance to spinning, which many believe gave inexperienced pilots a way to achieve maximum performance.
The Spitfire was modified many times during its time in service. One of the most notable variations was the upgrade from the Merlin engine to the more powerful Griffon. To increase engine performance, later aircraft were fitted with superchargers. The Seafire variant was built to takeoff from aircraft carriers. Armament varied throughout WWII as 7.7 mm machine guns were swapped for 20 mm cannons. Other modifications included munitions capability, carburetion, and pressure.
On 4 August 1938, the Supermarine Spitfire, referred to as an Mk I, entered service with the Royal Air Force. The Spitfire first saw action during a military evacuation at Dunkirk. However, the fighter aircraft is remembered most for the performance at the Battle of Britain. The key allied aircraft of the battle were the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire. The Hurricanes were more prevalent but the Spitfire had a higher victory to loss ratio. RAF strategy commanded the Spitfires to engage with German escort fighters while designating the Hurricanes for bomber attack.
Spitfire modifications allowed for low, mid, and high altitude flight. Variants with light armament performed high speed reconnaissance missions. The intelligence gathering began in 1941.
The Supermarine Spitfire flew across the Channel, Mediterranean, Eastern Front, and Pacific. The Spitfire Vs were used in the Mediterranean, missions required takeoff via aircraft carrier. The biggest challenge for Spitfire pilots was in the Pacific. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero rivaled the Spitfire for steep climbing, maneuverability, and flight duration. To avoid direct engagement, Spitfire pilots employed a dive and run technique.
The RAF kept the Spitfire in service for 17 years. Former pilots remark that the aircraft was easy to handle. The Supermarine Spitfire remains one of the most versatile aircraft of WWII.
Supermarine Spitfire Today
There are over 40 surviving, airworthy Spitfires around the world. The Royal Air Force Museum in London is offering a Spitfire experience for 2017. Museum visitors will have the opportunity to climb inside the Mk16 cockpit and learn about the aircraft. Aviation enthusiasts in Ohio can stop by the National Museum of the US Air Force to see a reconnaissance modified Spitfire. Around the US, the Collings Foundation presents the Wings of Freedom Tour. Many of the aircraft that are flown or displayed during the event have been restored by the Foundation. A recent project has been the restoration of a Mk 9. To catch the Wings of Freedom Tour, view the Schedule.