Maiden flight of the Spitfire
The legendary designer of the Spitfire, R.J. Mitchell, learned much about how to build fast, sleek new aeroplanes a world away from the sluggish biplanes of WWI via his experience in the Schneider Trophy, creating seaplanes that were built to race. When the Air Ministry issued a specification for a modern plane to update its forces in 1931 Mitchell began designing afresh.
His first effort, Supermarine Type 224, was disappointingly conservative, with an open cockpit and fixed landing gear, and was rejected by the Ministry, though the plane accepted under the official specification was the none too radical Gloster Gladiator, a biplane.
Undaunted and convinced of the need for far quicker warplanes, Mitchell with the support of Vickers-Armstrongs - his employers - designed his type 300. He began work in November 1934, and the Air Ministry was so taken with his work that a month later a contract providing government finance for the work was given (today far longer would be taken to reach a compromise design that would suit nobody).
The new plane had elliptical wings of a revolutionary fineness, could carry eight guns as required, had a covered cockpit and oxygen supply, but more memorably than all this it just looked fast – and it was, faster than the Hurricane which was produced in greater numbers, the Rolls-Royce Merlin 27 litre V12 engine providing enough power to exceed the 250 mph design requirement with ease.
With a speed that is staggering Mitchell and his team designed and produced the prototype plane ready for its first test on March 5 1936. So well had they done their work that after the first eight minute test flight by Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers he famously told mechanics “Don’t touch anything,” as he alighted from the plane.
Long before official testing had been completed, and with the report on the plane a long way off, the Air Ministry placed a contract for 310 of the new planes, signed on June 3 1936. Mitchell died of cancer, aged 42, in June 1937, so he did not live to see the first production model come off the line in 1938.
Mitchell always had the name ‘Shrew’ in mind for his brainchild, but this seemed remarkably at odds with the sleek and speedy new craft: Sir Robert Maclean, one of the directors of Vickers-Armstrongs, suggested the name Spitfire – he called his daughter Ann by that rather Shakespearean name in jest. His suggestion stuck.
More than 20,000 Spitfires were produced between 1938 and 1948, and they remained in service until 1959, when they flew during the Malaya emergency. But it is with the Battle of Britain that they will forever be associated, their unmistakable silhouette against the clouds a morale boosting sight for the beleaguered British.
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