Arguably the most iconic fighter aircraft of the Second World War, the RAF Spitfire to this day is championed for its prowess, grace and versatility.
Designed in the technologically fervent and innovatory melting pot of the Second World War, the Supermarine Spitfire became the fighter plane of the times.
With its simple lines, elegant frame and superb aerodynamics, the Spitfire was to live on in the minds of generations during the war and for decades to come.
The Spitfire was the brainchild of aeronautical engineer Reginald Mitchell, who led a dedicated and talented team of designers. Originally planned as a short-range air-defence fighter, the Spitfire was built for speed and agility, traits that it was to need in the explosive dogfights it was to partake in as it met enemy fighters and bombers. Building a fighter plane, though, is more complex than listing desirable traits however, and the Spitfire’s construction is a balletic series of compromises between weight, aerodynamics and firepower.
The frame of a spitfire with its elliptical wings is one of its most defining characteristics, casting a distinctive silhouette against the sky. The ellipse shaping was used to minimise drag while having the necessary thickness to accommodate the retracted undercarriages and the guns required for self defence.
A simple compromise that had the resulting benefit of having an incredibly individual shape. In contrast, the airframe – which was influenced by exciting new advances in all metal, low-‘wing plane construction – was a complex and well-balanced amalgamation of a streamlined semi-single piece of aluminium alloy and a fully enclosed cockpit. This allowed unrivalled responsiveness and ease of flight, making the Spitfire a favourite for pilots.
Arguably, the other most defining and success-inducing element of the Spitfire was its engine, which took on the form of the Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon engines. Planned by a board of directors at Rolls-Royce who realised that their current Vee-12 engine was topping out at 700hp and that a more powerful variant would be needed, first the Merlin and later the Griffon engines were designed. The Merlin at first delivered 79ohp, short of the 1,000hp goal set in its design brief, however this was to increase to 975hp in a few years. The Griffon then built upon the success of the Merlin, delivering at the climax of its advancement a whopping 2,035hp. These engines were to prove tantamount to the airframe and wing designs in the dominance of the Spitfire.
Despite its origins lying in short-range home defence, the Spitfire was to prove so versatile and successful that it was quickly adapted for a wide variety of military purposes. Many variants were created, including designs tailored for reconnaissance, bombing runs, high-altitude interception and general fighter-bomber operations. The most notable derivative, however, was the multi-variant Seafire, specially designed for operation on aircraft carriers with the added ability to double-fold its wings for ease of storage.
Considering the place in history that the Spitfire holds – a fighter-bomber aircraft that bridged the gap between the age of the propeller engine to that of the jet – the fact that they are still collected (with an average cost of GBP 1.4 million) and flown today is unsurprising. The Spitfire is a timeless piece of engineering that shows some of the most creative and advanced efforts in military history.