Icons of Aviation History: Spitfire

Perhaps the most famous fighter plane of the Second World War, the Spitfire was produced in numerous versions throughout the entire conflict and saw service in every theater.

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Spitfire Mark I, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

In 1931, the Supermarine S6-B racing seaplane was able to reach the then unheard-of speed of 407mph, faster than any other aircraft had ever gone, and twice as fast as most of the biplane military fighters then in service. It had been designed by Reginald Mitchell.

Later, as another world war seemed to be looming, the Royal Air Force needed a new fighter that could outclass the designs that were appearing in Germany. Mitchell in turn designed a low-wing all-metal mono-plane that was based on the S6-B seaplane and used the new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. It became the Spitfire. Work began on a prototype in 1935 and it first flew a year later.

Mitchell himself died of cancer in 1937. But the plane he had birthed was revolutionary. Rather than bracing wires, the internal frame was made from laminated pieces of aluminum and covered with stressed skin. The distinctive elliptical wings carried eight .303 machine guns, and the plane had a thin airfoil and a supercharged engine for superb high-altitude performance. With its heavy military equipment, the Spitfire could only manage 360mph, not the 400 of its record-breaking seaplane progenitor, but it was still one of the fastest fighters in the sky.

The British, however, decided that the Hurricane, though less advanced than the Supermarine design, could be produced more rapidly and less expensively, and placed an order to procure 600 Hurricanes. But they also saw the promise in the Spitfire, and ordered 310, then 200 more a year later despite technical delays in the program. In 1938, deliveries of frontline fighters finally began, and, with war clouds gathering, the RAF asked for 1,000 Spitfires, then a thousand more. By the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the British had equipped nine fighter squadrons with Spits and were in the process of re-equipping two more. Although it was not a difficult airplane to fly, the Spitfire handled differently than the older biplanes, and about ten percent of prewar Spits were destroyed in training accidents.

After overrunning Poland, Germany turned to France, knocking her out of the war in the summer of 1940. And then Hitler faced England. For several months, the RAF and the Luftwaffe fought daily air duels as the Germans sought the air superiority which would allow them to launch a cross-Channel invasion.

In many ways, the Spitfire and the Me-109 were evenly matched, with each having advantages over the other, but the English were outnumbered two to one, and the RAF’s losses were heavy. The Germans, however, were hampered by their short range, which allowed them to engage in combat for only a short period before they had to turn back to their bases in France. The British also had the huge advantage of a sophisticated early-warning radar system, which allowed them to deploy their scarce fighters where they could be most effective. In the end, it was enough to fend off the Nazis. Hitler turned towards Russia instead.

The Spitfire was constantly being upgraded and remodeled, as well as adapted for different tasks. Some versions were stripped of their guns and armor to lighten them as much as possible, turning them into high-speed photoreconnaissance craft. Others were fitted with underwing bomb racks and used as ground-attack fighter bombers. Late-war models were fitted with Rolls-Royce Griffon engines with 2,000 horsepower. In the Atlantic and Pacific, carrier versions were known as Seafires. A few Spits were sent to Russia on Lend-Lease, but the Soviets were engaged mostly in low-altitude air combat, and that was a role that the Spitfire was not very good at. Some Americans in the 4th Fighter Group, based in England, also flew Spitfires for a while, until they were replaced with P-47s.

After the war, the Spitfire continued in production until 1948. The following year, it was adopted by the newborn Israeli Air Force. It also continued in service with the RAF and was occasionally used as a trainer and a ground-attack fighter in the Korean War.

In total, the UK  manufactured over 20,300 Spitfires of various models. It was the only Allied fighter to be in continuous production from the beginning of the war till its end. Today, about 100 remain in private hands or in various museums around the world, with about half being airworthy. The oldest of these is a Mark I on display at Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, manufactured in 1939. The only still-flying survivor that fought in the Battle of Britain is a Mark Ia owned by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight in the UK.

In the US, the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia has a Mark IX that flew 95 missions in Italy, and the Commemorative Air Force flies a Mark XIV that was based in India during the war. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago exhibits a Mark Ia that flew in the Battle of Britain but is now a static display, and the US Air Force Museum in Dayton displays a Mark V that originally flew in Australia and is now in USAF markings. The Pima Air and Space Museum exhibits a Mark XIV.

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