Saturday, 5 March 2011

Happy 75th Birthday Supermarine Spitfire


On 5 March 1936, test pilot Joeph "Mutt"* Summers took K5054 up for her first flight. "Don't touch a thing," he is reported to have told Chief Designer R J Mitchell and the small gathering of Supermarine staff after he landed. Twenty-two thousand more Spitfires and Seafires were built and, even though Hurricanes shot down more German aircraft, it won the Battle of Britain in the hearts of the British People, which is what really counted. The Spitfire is probably the most "right-looking" ever aeroplane, even knocking Concorde into second-place, so it is therefore the best ever aeroplane according to the first law of aircraft.
The Spitfire was Mitchell's second attempt at fulfilling a specification for an interceptor fighter. He was unhappy with his first, the Supermarine 224, an unwieldy obsolescent donkey of an aircraft, and persuaded the Supermarine Board to let him have another try. This produced the Spitfire.

I may have mythologised the actualite slightly and leant too heavily on The First Of The Few as an unimpeachable source, but that's the gist of things.
Ideally, production of the Spitfire would have ceased with the MkIX and replaced with licence-built Merlin Mustangs able to escort Bomber Command on daylight raids and help the fighters of US 8th and 9th AF beat the Luftwaffe fighter force more quickly. But hindsight is always 20/20.
The greatest gift to the RAF and Britain was that Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo was not Secretary of State for Air in the mid 1930s. Otherwise, Fighter Command would have been equipped (or not) with 95% new SE5as each costing as much as a destroyer to keep aircraft factories open.** Whereas the Westland Wapiti rehash of the De Havilland DH-9A was good enough against tribal troublemakers, against the Messerschmitt Bf-109E and combat-hardened Experten nothing less than a thoroughbred would do.

Thank you RJ Mitchell, thank you Supermarine, thank you Spitfire and happy birthday. I hope to hear the spine-tingling sound of Merlins and Griffons and look up to see that beautiful elliptical wing for many more years.

*"Mutt" Summers was so called, not because of the comic-strip character "Mutt" of "Mutt and Jeff" or because he was deaf, but because of his habit of taking a pre-flight leak against the tailwheel like a dog or mutt. A full bladder is potentially fatal in a crash.

** the Nimrod MRA4 development contract was signed by this accomplished presenter of tv train programmes in 1996. I accept that the obsolescent Whitley and Battle were produced long after they were needed, but they did enable a massively increased workforce to be trained to build better aircraft. 

9 comments:

Jim Baxter said...

What about the Schneider trophy?

Brian said...

Jim, If I do the Schneider Trophy I might as well link to The First of The Few. But yes, the S.5, S6 and S.6B produced vital data for Mitchell and Rolls-Royce.
What about his preceding design (discounting the Stranraer), the Walrus? Mitchell had the honour of designing the fastest and slowest RAF aircraft in service.

Jim Baxter said...

Brian,

Scope there for another post, might I suggest? As long as you don't become a scope-dope, of course, Speaking of which, I once had a discussion with Old Rightie, himself a former scope-dope -

http://oldrightie.blogspot.com/

- in which OR told of his time in air-traffic control in the 70s. As I remember it, a Lufthansa pilot was on the approach from the east to Birmingham. He came over the RT asking for confirmation of the name of a city he could see below. OR's colleague replied, 'That's Coventry. You ought to know.'

Brian said...

Jim, I shall leave the scoping to Dr Alfred Price and Jeffrey Quill, both of whose books on the Lady I heartily recommend. and I ought to have mentioned Alec Henshaw, production TP at Castle-Bromwich who flew more Spitfires than anyone else and especially the ladies of the ATA who delivered them in all weathers. And Carolyn Grace.
Is Old Rightie really Dave Gunson?
Here's my favourite German ATC joke:

Allegedly, a Pan Am 727 flight waiting for start clearance in Munich overheard the following:
Lufthansa (in German): "Ground, what is our start clearance time?"
Ground (in English): "If you want an answer you must speak in English."
Lufthansa (in English): "I am a German, flying a German airplane, in Germany. Why must I speak English?"
Unknown voice from another plane (in a beautiful British accent): "Because you lost the bloody war."

Michael J McCormick said...

You could also have mentioned my Dad, he was a production controller at the Spit shadow factory at Castle Bromwich. I can remember him taking me out to watch the factory's first Spit doing aerobatics over Birmingham on a fine sunny Sunday morning.

Brian said...

@Michael: Apologies for not mentioning your father and indeed the countless thousands who made The Few possible. Getting Spitfires into full-scale production at Castle Bromwich was one of the triumphs of the war years because the Spitfire was essentially hand-built by Supermarines, a company that had hitherto only built dozens of a type at most. It was the skills and sheer hard work of people like your father that helped increase the production efficiency of the aeroplane.
Many thanks for sharing your memories.

Thud said...

A great post.

Brian said...

Thanks Thud. I reckon the brilliant comments helped it.

Brian said...

Thanks Thud. I reckon the brilliant comments helped it.