19 facts about the beautiful Spitfire
- The Supermarine Spitfire was a short-range, high-performance fighter plane designed in the 1930s by Reginald Mitchell, chief designer at the Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton.
2. Mitchell was diagnosed with bowel cancer while doing his best work on the Spitfire.
3. The Spitfire was named after the daughter of the manufacturer’s chairman: Sir Robert McLean’s pet name for his young daughter, Ann, who he called “the little spitfire”.
4. Mitchell didn’t like the name. He was quoted as saying it was “just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it”.
5. The Spitfire’s maiden flight was on 5 March 1936. It entered service two years later and remained in service with the RAF until 1955.
6. A total of 20,351 Spitfires were built.
7. 238 Spitfires survive , with 111 in the UK. Fifty-four of the surviving Spitfires are said to be airworthy, including 30 of those in the UK.
8. The Spitfire featured innovative semi-elliptical wings. This aerodynamically efficient Beverley Shenstone design was perhaps the Spitfire’s most distinctive feature. Not only did it deliver induced drag, but it was also thin enough to avoid excessive drag, while still able to accommodate the retractable undercarriage, armament and ammunition.
9. The Spitfire had a German-designed wing! Beverley Shenstone copied it and brought it back to the UK.
10. As the war progressed, the firepower housed in the Spitfire’s wings increased. The Spitfire I was equipped with the so-called “A” wing, which accommodated eight .303in Browning machine guns – each with 300 rounds. The “C” wing, which was introduced in October 1941, could take eight .303in machine guns, four 20mm cannon or two 20mm cannon and four machine guns.
11. …and even beer kegs. Eager to help thirsty D-Day troops, resourceful Spitfire MK IX pilots modified the plane’s bomb-carrying wings in order that they could carry beer kegs. These “beer bombs” ensured a welcome supply of altitude chilled beer to the Allied troops in Normandy.
12. The Spitfire was one of the first planes to feature retractable landing gear. This novel design feature initially caught several pilots out, however. Used to ever-present landing gear, one pilot forgot to put it down at the aircraft’s first Air Show and ended up crash landing. He was fined £5.
13. Each Spitfire cost £12,604 to build in 1939.That’s around £700,000 in today’s money. Compared to the huge cost of modern fighter aircraft, this seems like a bargain. The cost of one F-35 fighter jet is more than £78 million!
14. The Spitfire didn’t shoot down the most German planes in the Battle of Britain, that was the achievement of the more numerous Hawker Hurricane. The Hurricane was tasked to shoot down the German bombers while the Spitfire held off their fighters.
15. The Rolls-Royce Merlin wasn’t the most powerful Spitfire engine. That was the Rolls-Royce Griffon, fitted in 1943 to the Spitfire Mark XXII, with over 2,000 horsepower.
16. A Spitfire nearly broke the sound barrier. This one takes a bit of explaining, so bear with me! For a propeller driven aircraft to go supersonic the whole propeller would have to be travelling through the air much faster than the speed of sound. And there is a problem with that. The drag on the blades increases hugely as they approach Mach 1, the thrust diminishes, and the noise and shock waves become so destructive that the airframe itself is imperilled. So there was a clear limit to the speed of piston-engined propeller-driven aircraft.
The only way you could approach the speed of sound was if your propeller fell off. And this is exactly what happened to Squadron Leader Anthony Martindale in April 1944. Exploring high speeds for the RAF, he put his Merlin-engined Mark XI Supermarine Spitfire into a dive from high altitude. At something approaching 600 mph the reduction gearbox ripped off, taking the propeller with it.
The Spitfire then reached over 620mph (1,000km/h) – Mach 0.92 – as it plunged towards the ground. With the heavy gearbox and propeller missing, Martindale’s Spitfire was now tail-heavy and so this change in the centre of gravity forced it into a steep climb. Martindale lost consciousness due to positive g, and eventually woke up to find his aircraft flying quietly along at 40,000ft (13,000 m) on its own, without a propeller. It could be argued that this Spitfire had just become a jet fighter as it had a Meredith-effect radiator providing jet thrust, and the Merlin engine had backwards-pointing exhaust stubs that did the same.
A consummate pilot, Martindale glided the Spitfire back to base and got out somewhat shaken. His groundcrew pointed out there was even more damage: the speed of the Spitfire’s dive had bent the wings backwards, giving them a swept shape. It was the shape that aircraft wings need to be to break the sound barrier.
17. Margaret Horton was a WAAF (Fitter Mechanic Airframes) at an RAF airfield on 9 February 1945. Because the conditions were windy Margaret was instructed to assist the pilot of Spitfire AB910 by sitting on the tailplane whilst he taxied to the take-off position. This was to prevent the aircraft “ground looping”. At the end of the runway the pilot, Neil Cox turned into wind and, forgetting Margaret was still on the tail, started his take-off run. Margaret, realising she could not jump off safely, clung on to the Spitfire’s rudder upright. The pilot took to the air but realised there was something wrong with his Spitfire. The control tower, without telling him the reason told him to land immediately. He managed to land safely with Margaret still clinging to the tailplane. She was credited with the airtime in her logbook.
18. Did you know the Spitfire was crowd funded? Lord Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express, unified the British nation around his Spitfire Fund, using the power of the press. He raised £13 million, the purchase price of around 2,600 Spitfires.
He claimed that each aircraft cost only £5,000 but in fact the actual price was £12,604 in 1940, or around £700,00 now. This included the cost of a brand-new Merlin engine (£2,000, now £110,000) and propeller (£350, now £18,600).
One of the oddest donations came from 2,500 British prisoners of war held at Oflag VIB camp near Warburg, who contributed one month’s pay “to charity”, the money being deposited with the German authorities who unwittingly forwarded it to England via the Swedish Red Cross. This paid for one Spitfire which was named Unshackled Spirit!
19. Did you know that you can fly in a Spitfire today? There are two-seater Spitfires that can take you over the White Cliffs of Dover, or even stage a dogfight with another fighter in the same airspace as the Battle of Britain. What are you waiting for??
Want to know about the Rolls-Royce Merlin? You can pre-order “Merlin” on Amazon UK.