It is appearances, characteristics and performance that make a man love an airplane, and they are what put emotion into one. You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn’t any woman and there isn’t any horse, nor any before nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane, and men who love them are faithful to them even though they leave them for others. A man has only one virginity to lose in fighters, and if it is a lovely plane he loses it to, there his heart will ever be.
– Ernest Hemingway
This month marks the 85th anniversary of the first flights of the Supermarine Spitfire, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most beautiful of all World War II aircraft. On March 5, 1936, an unpainted prototype, K5054, first took to the air with a fixed-pitch wooden propeller driven by the then-new 1,030 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, and piloted by Vickers’ chief test pilot J. “Mutt” Summers.
The Spitfire was the thoroughbred that captured the public’s imagination and the hearts of its pilots.
Its designer, Reginald J. Mitchell, stood on the ground of Eastleigh Airport in Hampshire, England, and had the satisfaction of seeing it perform exactly as he had designed it to do. Mitchell had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone surgery in 1933, and might have lived years longer had he retired and devoted his remaining strength to fighting the disease. Instead he had driven himself to finish the design and development of the prototype and first production-standard aircraft, certain that it would be needed soon. He was right, but he would also be dead within a year, never having the chance to witness the part his brainchild played in saving England and the free world.
His aircraft, (he detested the name “Spitfire,” perhaps because it had been carried over from an earlier, failed, design) delivered a rude shock to the formerly all-conquering Luftwaffe, and in the popular imagination was and remains the victor of the Battle of Britain. Of course the truth was more prosaic. Sir Sydney Camm’s Hawker Hurricane, a halfway house aircraft with one foot in the biplane era and one foot in the future, was far more numerous than the Spitfire during the days of 1940, shot down more German aircraft, was easier to repair, could take more punishment, and made up the bulk of Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons during the battle. But while the Hurricane was the sturdy, reliable dray horse, the Spitfire was the thoroughbred that captured the public’s imagination and the hearts of its pilots. It also became for many, and has remained, a symbol of Great Britain.
You will be shocked by how small and delicate a Spitfire seems.
Willy Messerschmitt’s rival Bf 109 had a purposeful and deadly look, all straight lines, squared corners, and a claustrophobic cockpit situated behind the big Daimler Benz inverted-V engine, with a 20 mm cannon lying between the cylinder blocks and firing through the propeller hub. It was a flying weapon, efficient but ugly. The Spitfire, in contrast, was the epitome of a uniquely British sensibility in aircraft design – a graceful mix of compound curves and streamlining, from its closely cowled Merlin engine to its elliptical wings and gently curving empennage. Even its cannon, when it finally received them, were gracefully faired over, in contrast to the ugly black snouts of the cannon projecting from a Messerschmitt’s or Focke Wulf’s wings.
It was also, in a uniquely British way, thoroughly practical. While K5054 was completely flush-riveted, this was impractical on a production aircraft at the time. So Vickers engineers cemented dried split peas to each of the many thousands of rivets on the aircraft. The first flight after this was done showed a speed loss of more than 20 miles per hour, so the engineers systematically scraped split peas off of different vital sections of the wings and fuselage until it was determined which rivets had to lie flush against the aluminum skin in order to maintain performance and which ones could be of the normal variety.
“Men came from every corner of the free world to fly and fight in Spitfires,” wrote Air Vice Marshal “Johnnie” Johnson in his foreword to John Vader’s book Spitfire. “Men from countries where freedom had a meaning in their minds. A Babel of tongues chattered in her cockpit, and all came to love her for her thoroughbred qualities,”
“As a defensive fighter it was unanimously agreed, by fighter pilots of many nationalities, that Reginald Mitchell’s immortal Spitfire was superior to any other Allied or enemy fighter,” wrote Johnson, a 34-victory ace and Spitfire veteran who knew air combat as well as anyone.
It also became for many, and has remained, a symbol of Great Britain.
“You ‘broke’ into a steep, tight turn to face the attack and asked your Spitfire for everything. For maneuverability to out-turn your enemies. For power to try and gain precious height, or to make your escape. For reliable guns and cannon to fight back. Rarely did she fail you.”
As an indication of how right Mitchell’s basic design was, Spitfires remained in continuous production, continuously improved, throughout World War II and beyond. From the 5,819-pound K5054 that flew with a 1,030-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin II in 1936, to the final 10,300-pound Seafire 47, with a 2,350-horsepower Rolls-Royce Griffon 88 engine, the Spitfire and its variants could either outrun or out-maneuver any contemporary fighter.
Perhaps most importantly, the Spitfire’s elegance, performance, and deadliness symbolized what a democracy could produce to defend itself, and at that time, the free world, because in August 1940, Britain stood alone.
Few Spitfires survive today, but if you are very lucky, you might be able to see and touch one at an air show. You will be shocked by how small and delicate a Spitfire seems; as small and vulnerable as Britain must have seemed to Hitler, before a few hundred young pilots in Spitfires and Hurricanes fought to the death for the freedom and principles we all believe in.