The Supermarine Spitfire
This year seems to be a very important year when it comes to aviation. There seems to be many anniversaries of firsts. March fifth was another important anniversary as it marked the 80th Anniversary of the first flight of the Supermarine Spitfire. The Spitfire which is not only an iconic aircraft from WWII but it is also one of the most revered fighters to have come out of WWII. Enthusiasts and historians alike have a passion for the Spitfires. From first conception, to the epic battles over Great Britain in 1940, to Africa, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, South East Asia, and of course the epic dogfights over occupied Europe. The history of the multiple variants of the Spitfire goes on and on and lives on today with numerous examples being flown around the world. Needless to say that this is merely going to be an INTRO post as there is no possible way for me to write about the whole legacy of this plane.
The Spitfire was designed by R.J. Mitchell and his team at Supermarine Aviation works, a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong, to meet Air Ministry requirement F7/30. Mitchell designed the Supermarine Type 224, an open cockpit monoplane with fixed landing gear and a 600hp engine. It was a disappointment so the team “cleaned” up the design and created the Gloster Gladiator Biplane which was accepted into service. Mitchell then designed Type 300, an improvement on the Gladiator, but wasn’t enough of an improvement and was turned down. Mitchell went back and redesigned the Type 300 with a single thinner wing, breathing apparatus, closed cockpit and a more powerful Rolls-Royce PV-XII V-12 engine, later named the “Merlin” engine. In December of 1934 Mitchell got the backing by Vickers-Armstrong to go ahead with the improved Type 300 and in December of 1934, the Air Ministry provided the capitol and contract to produce the improved F7/30. On January 3rd, 1935 Air Ministry approved the contract and designated it F10/35.
In April of 1935 the armament was changed from two .303 Vickers Machine guns to four .303 Browning machine guns. Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers took the controls of the prototype (K5059) for the first time on March 5th 1936 for its maiden eight minute flight. He was later quoted as saying, “Don’t touch a thing.” The flight of the Spitfire came four months after the first flight of the Hawker Hurricane. Over the next several months the K5059 was flown by several squadron leaders adding in their two cents on various performance issues and possible ways of improvement. Multiple propellers was used to increase maximum speed up to 348mph. While later models would go faster than this. Changes were made to the rudder, a new engine and a undercarriage position indicator. The Spitfire gradually became more and more refined. On June 3rd 1936, Air Ministry placed an order for 310 Spitfires before a formal report was issued by the A&AEE.
Many features made the Spitfire a unique aircraft, one of the most distinctive was the elliptical wing design. In 1934 the design staff had to solve the need for a thin wing as well as one that was strong enough to house the undercarriage as well as the armament and ammunition. The elliptical design was the most efficient aerodynamic plan for an untwisted wing. Needless to say that I am not an expert on aerodynamics of drag on wings so in this case I would recommend looking up the engineering and flight characteristic of how an elliptical wing is better then an straight edge or swept wing design. As the Spitfire evolved to handle multiple roles so were the refinements of flight characteristics. The history of the Spitfire is partly due to the history of the multiple engine, wing, armament, airframe, cockpit and other characteristic changes. There is in fact too many to write out everyone here.
This particular Spitfire, NH759, is one of 957 MkXIV’s built. It was built in late 1944 at the Aldermaston factory in Berkshire, England. It went to the 215 MU on 20th May 1945 and having missed the European War went to India in July of 1945 and then to South East Asia Command in August of 1945. However it missed the war against Japan as well, as NH749 arrived on August 9th. It went into storage until it was sold to the Indian Air Force in December 1947. That history is unknown. In 1979 the Hayden Bailey Brothers brought it back to England. It was restored by Craig Charleston, sold to Keith Wickenden, then to David Price’s Museum of Flying and then in 2005 it was sold to the Commemorative Air Force. It now resides with the CAF SoCal Wing in Camarillo. Note the distinct five bladed prop on the Spitfire.
I have only had the pleasure of photographing two Spitfires, the one mentioned above, and the Texas Flying Legends Museum newly acquired Spitfire MkIX. MK959 was built in March 1944 at the Vickers-Armstrong plant at Castle Bromwich. It’s first flight was in April, then assigned to the 38th MU at RAF Colerne. In May of 1944 it was assigned to the 302 Polish Squadron at Chailey England where it did fighter escort roles, providing medium bombers with cover over France before the Normandy Invasion. Nine days after DDAy it was assigned to the 329 Free French RAF Squadron out of Merston. It went on to fly nineteen mission over the D-Day Beachhead. By August of 1944 it was transferred again to 165 Squadron out of Detling. It flew 41 combat operations including Market Garden. MK959 went on to have many more owners in other nations before eventually being restored by Raybourne Thompson who painted MK959 in honor of Andre Rose, the only living pilot who once flew the Spitfire, and the Free French Unit, their mascot being the Half Stork. Thompson went on to sell MK959 to Tom Duffy of Claire Aviation in Millville, NJ and then Duffy eventually sold it to Bruce Eames of the Texas Flying Legends Museum. For a more detailed description of the history of TFLM’s Spitfire MKIX head to their website here.
At the Wings Over Houston Airshow the Half Stork Spitfire made its debut! People all over the field would come over and enjoy the sight of a Spitfire once again being in Texas. After the airshow had ended an air to air photo shoot was held with the Spitfire and the museum’s A6M2 Model 21 Zero in a reenactment of the Battle of Darwin. Drawin, a port city in Northern Australia, was a vital RAF and Naval Base, as well as an allied base later in war. It was used as one of the primary ferrying routes in support of the Philippines. This route helped to move vital supplies without having to go around Japanese held waters. Knowing the strategic value of the city the Japanese Imperial Navy started bombing the city in 1942. The city being poorly defended at the time requested better air support. Churchill sent an urgent need for Spitfires to be sent to help with the island defenses. A small contigent of Australian and British pilots made up the squadron of Spitfires. A great book was written about Darwin Spitfires.
The Spitfire, all variants including the Naval version Seafire, has had a long history of operations throughout many countries. It has produced several of Britain’s top aces including Robert Stanford Tuck who became an inspiration for many pilots after his book Fly For You Life was published in 1956. The Spitfire has a certain quality about it that many pilots lust after. It’s one of the few aircraft that many dream to fly. In another important ceremony, at last years Wings Over Houston, TFlM’s P-51D Mustang Dakota Kid II and MK959 Spitfire took to the skies with Collings Foundation’s ME262. In perhaps the first time in decades two of the German Luftwaffe’s most iconic enemies met with what was considered one of Germanys many “wonder weapons.” Bringing this kind of history to life helps to keep the memories and lessons we learned during WWII alive today. If not for the help of the dedicated few, these beautiful machines would be with us today.