October is the iconic month for the vehicle here at self-evolution, and I couldn’t help but not mention the Spitfire. Yes, it’s a British plane, but its importance for D-Day is undeniable. It is also one of the best planes built in the last century, in 20,334 copies and in several versions.
In 1931, the Air Ministry called for a high-performance fighter plane. The response given by Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers) Ltd came in 1934 in the form of the Type 224. It was a total disappointment. Its 600 hp Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine was far from efficient. Her open cockpit was also something aviators didn’t like. But then Supermarine got another chance to fix things.
The British company’s chief designer, RJ Mitchell, didn’t have time to start from scratch and was inspired by the Supermarine S6B seaplane, which won the Schneider Trophy air race by breaking all records in 1931 in the Type 300, but this was also rejected.
You know what they say, “the third time is the charm”, and that’s what happened next. In November 1934, Supermarine submitted the third project. This time, with the cabin closed, thinner elliptical fenders, and a more powerful Rolls-Royce engine – and the project took off. On March 5, 1936, the K5054 prototype made its maiden flight from Eastleigh Airfield, with Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers at the helm.
The final test took place five days later, with different propellers and retraction of the landing gear. Legend has it that on that day, during a dive, the speedometer reached 500 mph (804 km / h), but this was not confirmed and the dial could not display more than that. Sunders was so confident in the plane that he handed the K5054 prototype to his assistants, Jeffrey Quill and George Pickering. A week later, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 aircraft. But that was just the start.
Unfortunately, RJ Mitchell, the father of this superb machine, suffered from cancer. His illness was severe, but he never stopped working on his final creation. Sadly, he passed away in June 1937, but his legacy saved the UK and conquered European skies. His effort was portrayed in the 1942 Hollywood film “The first of the few.”
Several problems affected the production of aircraft. One of them was the stubbornness of Vickers-Armstrong, the parent company of Supermarine, in handing over the plans to other contractors. Eventually, the Air Ministry intervened and threatened the company to transfer production to Bristol-Beaufighter, the producer of the Bristol-Blenheim bomber. This convinced Vickers to cooperate with various subcontractors across the UK and ultimately saved the plane.
After the bombings on Southampton and Portsmouth, the assembly lines were badly damaged. Vickers had another factory in Birmingham, at Castle Bromwich Works, which was plagued by mismanagement and unskilled workers. Still, they managed to fly the first Spitfire in 1940, before the Southampton factory was bombed. By this time, Rolls-Royce PV-12 (Merlin) was powering the aircraft, and its 1,030 horsepower, along with a two-stage compressor, made the aircraft a fierce fighter in the British skies.
Its 36’10 “(11.2 meters) wingspan and 29’11” (9.1 meters) long were a small target for the Luftwaffe. Its superiority exceeded 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) above sea level, so German airmen were tasked with fighting at lower altitudes. But the Spitfires were better at diving attacks, almost turning the Bf-109s into sitting ducks during the Battle of Britain.
While the Spitfire was surpassed in number of victories by its partner aircraft, the Hawker-Hurricane, it was also built in smaller numbers. Additionally, Hurricanes were used to attack bombers, which were slower but heavily armed.
After the war with Britain ended, Supermarine upgraded the Spitfire. The three-bladed propeller has been replaced by a four-bladed version. In the weapons department, Vickers replaced the eight old 0.303-inch (7.69 mm) machine guns with four 0.8-inch (20 mm) guns. Thus, their projectiles were fewer in number but did much more damage, especially to bombers. Its Rolls-Royce Merlin engines were upgraded and delivered up to 1,760 horsepower, making them even more powerful compared to upgraded German planes such as the FW-190.
The Bf-109, which was built in large numbers, did not measure up to the improved Spitfire at any altitude and speed. They still matched them in terms of handling. Yet since the best Luftwaffe pilots were shot down in the Battle of Britain, they were no longer much of a threat.
Spitfire played a key role and ensured air superiority in the Battle of Malta in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. They also paved the way for D-Day in Normandy. An important version was a reconnaissance aircraft, which was unarmed. His only weapon was a camera, which provided valuable information. In addition, this plane could fly higher than most other planes and faster than anyone else in the sky.
In 1943, Supermarine installed the newly developed Rolls-Royce Griffon engines, which delivered 2,050 hp, almost twice as much as the original Merlin V12 engine. Its frame, with elliptical wings, handled excessive force with grace. This version could fly at 40,000 feet (12,200 m) and reach 440 mph (710 km / h). Its only real competitor was the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, which appeared too late to change the tide of the war in April 1944.
Of the 24 versions of the Spitfire produced, the most important were the MKV and MKIX, which accounted for half of the total production. Vickers exported the aircraft in small numbers to Portugal, Turkey and the Soviet Union. Some of them were sold to a few European countries after WWII.
Production of this British aircraft symbol ended in 1947. Yet it remained in active service until 1954 as a photographic reconnaissance aircraft. Only about ten percent (over 2,000 units) of them were powered by the powerful Griffon engine. Now, there are less than 100 aircraft that are airworthy, and they appear on various air shows. Some planes are restored to perfection and offered for sale at prices above £ 4.2million ($ 6.8million at the current exchange rate).