A Brief History
On March 5, 1936, the fighter airplane that has been called the most beautiful plane of all time made its first flight. The Supermarine Spitfire British single engine single seat fighter would go on to be refined in time for World War II where constant updates allowed it to reign supreme, as quite possibly the finest fighter plane of World War II.
Introduced into active service in 1938, Spitfires served until 1961 with the Irish Air Corps, after having served not only the British RAF, but also 35 other air forces, including the United States Army Air Corps and United States Army Air Force. Designed by R.J. Mitchell, Joseph Smith took up the chief engineer and design reins when Mitchell died in 1937. With its pointy nose, smooth airframe, and low mounted elliptical wings, the Spitfire was easily identified in the sky, and it looked beautiful! As the saying about airplanes goes (according to aviation legend Bill Lear), “If it looks good, it’ll fly good.”
The first British all metal monoplane fighter, the Spitfire was equipped with the superb Rolls-Royce Merlin piston gasoline powered engine, a liquid cooled V-12 motor that originally produced only 1045 horsepower in the Spitfire prototype, but later versions bumped the output up to a whopping 1760 supercharged horsepower. This increase in power allowed an increase in top speed from around 350 mph in the early models to 404 mph for the last Merlin powered models. The follow-on engine used was the Rolls-Royce Griffon, producing over 2100 horsepower and a top speed of 454 mph, just about the limit for a piston powered fighter.
As fast as the fastest enemy fighters and capable of superb maneuverability thanks to its big elliptical wings and smooth stressed aluminum skin, the Spitfire was originally well armed with 8 X .303 caliber machine guns, 4 in each wing with 350 rounds per gun. This gun package was later upgraded to 4 X 20mm cannons, 2 in each wing, with 150 rounds in each outboard cannon and 175 rounds in each inboard cannon. Other armament suites in between included 2 X 20mm cannon with 4 X .303 caliber machine guns, or 2 X 20mm cannon with 2 X .50 caliber machine guns, or even 2 X 20mm cannons with 2 X .50 caliber and 2 X .303 caliber machine guns. Any of these combinations was lethal. Different models of the Spitfire could also carry bombs, with either a single 500 pound bomb, 2 X 250 and 1 X 500 pound bombs, or ultimately 3 X 500 pound bombs.
While the performance and armament of the Spitfire kept up with the cutting edge of performance during World War II, the main limiting factor on this fighter was its range. Designed as a short range interceptor with rapid climbing, high speed, maneuverability and firepower, it was not expected to be pressed into bomber escort missions. Aviation strategists of the time thought well-armed bombers could protect themselves, and this idea was quickly proven wrong. Keeping the fuel tanks small and a light fuel load allowed the Spitfire greater performance, but without the range to go long distances. The combat range of the various models went from around 400 miles to just under 500 miles, with a ferry range carrying drop tanks of close to 1000 miles (compared to 1650 miles for the P-51D Mustang).
Over 20,000 of these pretty fighters were built, and they served as the backbone of the British fighter corps throughout World War II. During the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire earned a reputation as a war winner, having a lower attrition rate and higher kill rate than its stablemate, the Hawker Hurricane. In fact, when the German commander of fighters was asked what he needed to win the Battle of Britain, he answered “Spitfires!” (Note: The exact quote by Adolf Galland is often found in various forms.)
The Spitfire was also produced in a sea going version, the Seafire, but it was not superior to the powerful Corsairs and Hellcats of the US Navy. The Spitfire was also used in high speed diving tests to study compressibility as aircraft approached supersonic speed, and it achieved a max speed in a dive of 606 mph.
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The featured image in this article, a photograph of K9795, the 9th production Mk I, with 19 Squadron in 1938, is photograph CH 27 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1971; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1971.