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The first flight of the Spitfire

Without any doubt, the Spitfire is the most famous British fighter aircraft in history. In use shortly before the Second World War, it became the main RAF fighter aircraft from 1941 onward, and remained with fighter squadrons until the early 1950s.

Spitfires in formation

Let me take you back to the origins of the Spitfire. It is well known that the Supermarine racing seaplanes which participated in the Schneider race were an inspiration for the Spitfire. Designed by Reginald J Mitchell, the Supermarine S.6B was an all-metal and aerodynamically clean design, allowing it to reach the impressive speed of 407 mph (656 km/h).

Reginald Joseph Mitchell standing in front of a seaplane with Air Cdre Augustus Henry Orlebar, circa 1929

RJ Mitchell designed the seaplane racers which vied for the Schneider Trophy.

Only 18 days following the 1934 S6B’s Schneider triumph, the British Air Ministry issued Specification F7/30, which called for a modern all-metal land-based fighter aircraft. Mitchell responded with the Model 224, a monoplane with a fixed landing gear. Its complicated cooling system did not function properly, and the Air Ministry ordered the Gloster Gladiator biplane instead.

Model 224

The Supermarine Model 224 had a fixed landing gear. The wing had an inverted gull configuration, meaning that it had a sharp bend downward. This was to make the fixed landing gear shorter. It also had evaporative cooling at the wing leading edges. The idea turned out to be impractical. The Model 224 was slower than the Gloster Gladiator biplane.

Mitchell and his team continued to work on the design, introducing a new Rolls Royce Merlin engine, a retractable landing gear, an enclosed cockpit and a new elliptical wing. Much has been written about this wing design, but the true value of the elliptical wing shape was that it allowed the wing to be as thin as possible, thereby reducing drag.

On 5 March 1936, Spitfire K5054 took off for its maiden flight. At the controls was Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, chief test pilot for Vickers, who is quoted as saying ‘Don’t touch anything’ on landing. This had often been interpreted as stating the Spitfire was perfect, but the reality was more prosaic: he wanted to report his observations before any modifications were made.

There she is ! The very first Spitfire. This is prototype K5054, photographed in 1936. The two-bladed propeller and conventional cockpit hood indicate this is an early version.

The streamlined features of the first Spitfire are obvious.

Only few changes were made; one of which was a new propeller which dramatically increased the maximum speed to 348 mph (557 km/h), making it the faster than the newest Hawker Hurricane fighter which, around that time, was entering production. The armament was doubled from four to eight Browning machine guns.

On 3 June 1936, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 Spitfires, an impressive number for its time. However, the Spitfire and especially its wings proved to be difficult to produce. The Spitfire’s stressed-skin construction required precision engineering skills and techniques which were rare in the aviation industry.

Supermarine had only a small factory which meant production had to be given to several subcontractors as well as the building a new factory at Castle Bromwich. However, this handover was badly managed, resulting in further delays. Because of these delays, the Air Ministry initially planned to stop production after the initial order for 310 with the Spitfire production going over to other designs, such as the new Hawker Typhoon. Luckily for the RAF, production of the Spitfire ramped up, as the Typhoon ran into great development issues, delaying its entry into service until late 1941.

Spitfire production
The first Spitfire Mk. I to enter service with the RAF did so with No. 19 Squadron on 4 August 1938. The pilots immediately fell in love with the aircraft, which flew as wonderful as it looked. They recognised it as a thoroughbred combining a perfection of design with superb handling characteristics.

More changes were gradually introduced such as a three-bladed metal propeller and a new cockpit hood, finally giving the Spitfire its now-recognisable look. By the outbreak of the Second World War, there were 306 Spitfires in service with the RAF, 71 in reserve and 2,000 on order. Initially, most Spitfires were held back in Britain, with the Hawker Hurricane and Gloster Gladiator doing most of the fighting against the German Luftwaffe in Norway, Belgium and France.

The Spitfire came to the fore during the evacuation of Dunkirk, and of course, the Battle of Britain. After 1940 the Spitfire gradually replaced the Hurricane in Fighter Command and remained the main fighter aircraft until the end of the war.

Spitfires in the Battle of Britain

The cockpit of the Supermarine Spitfire Mk I at the RAF Museum Cosford

About the Author

Kris Hendrix: Researcher

As researcher at the RAF Museum I feel privileged to be allowed to explore the Museum’s archives and find information for public and media enquiries, exhibitions, blogs and vlogs. I love the stories of a 100 years of RAF history and I am passionate about sharing these inspiring stories to a wider audience.