Royal Air Force History

Supermarine Spitfire - History of a Legend

By Brett R Palfrey and Christopher Whitehead


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Page 9 Specifications


Part 1 - Inception and Development

The Spitfire came into being as a result of a new Air Ministry requirement for an interceptor fighter to respond to the growing threat of a modern Luftwaffe. The RAF interceptors of the day having a top speed of around 220mph, and a speed of 300 mph was considered vital to ensure interception of the new Luftwaffe aircraft under development.

The Type 224, open 
cockpit, gull wing, steam cooled, fixed gear and a poor performer, a far cry from the advanced Spitfire designR J Mitchell, Chief Designer at Supermarine had a reputation for designing high speed airplanes, having been the designer of the successful Schneider Trophy Seaplanes in the late 20's and early 30's. Mitchell's first attempt at a fighter was the Type 224 in 1933, driven by a Rolls Royce Goshawk steam cooled engine. This engine never realised its' full potential due to extreme unreliability of the steam cooling system. The 224 was both slow and underpowered, and was therefore never seriously considered as an interceptor by the Royal Air Force.

The prototype, K5054. 
Note the two-bladed fixed pitch Watts propeller, lack of undercarriage doors, single piece windscreen and flat sided 
canopyMitchell then went back to the drawing board to design a better fighter using revolutionary techniques in airframe construction. He also had consultations with Henry Royce of Rolls Royce, who himself had ideas for a new V12 engine, which Rolls developed as a private venture, as the PV12, later called the Merlin. This powerful engine, of nearly 1000 hp in its' initial form, coupled with a state-of-the-art airframe promised much, and Mitchell worked on the design through the second half of 1935. The prototype at this stage, was simply called the F37/34, and first flew at Eastleigh airfield, near Southampton, on 5th March 1936. The chief test pilot of Vickers/Supermarine, Mutt Summers, took it up on its' first flight and allegedly said on landing "I don't want anything touched". Most people took this to mean that he believed the aircraft was perfect, although in reality he probably simply did not want any settings changed at that time. The aircraft however, even at that early stage, showed much promise as a fighter. Mitchell had calculated the top speed to be 350 mph, whereas trials showed its' top speed at 349 mph - Mitchell is said to have been satisfied with this!

The prototype seen the 
day after its first flight, sporting an all light blue schemeDevelopment went on during the rest of 1936 with Mitchell often turning up to watch his new creation fly, even though by this time he was very ill with cancer - which he succumbed to in June 1937 at the young age of 42. Subsequently, Joseph Smith became Chief Designer at Supermarine, and presided over the development of the prototype into a production airplane, by now called Spitfire, a name coined originally for the Type 224 by Sir Robert MacLean, MD of Vickers. It is said that prior to his death Mitchell expressed his dislike of the name, saying "It's just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose", and it was very nearly named the Shrew. Fortunately for posterity this view did not prevail.

Armament for the new fighter was originally set at four machine guns, set in the wings, but this was later increased to eight machine guns, to ensure a lethal weight of fire in a typical three second burst. The new type of construction employed in the Spitfire caused Supermarine numerous problems in mass production, especially the revolutionary new type of wing construction. Production of the rival Hurricane fighter was far greater due to its' simpler structure, and it was mid 1938 before the aircraft was starting to be produced in quantity for deliveries to the Royal Air Force.

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Date Last Updated : Thursday, January 22, 2009 3:29 PM


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