Aircraft of the Month
In 1934 the Air Ministry issued its requirement for an eight-gunned fighter aircraft to replace the RAF’s aging fighter fleet. Supermarine’s R J Mitchell was working on a design at the time, and in November 1934 Vickers gave the go-ahead for a company-funded prototype. On 5th March 1936, the result, designated K5054, took to the air for the first time from Eastleigh Airport, Southampton with Mutt Summers at the controls. Service trials followed shortly thereafter and, on 3rd June, the RAF placed an order for 310 machines. So emerged what has become accepted universally as one of (if not the) greatest fighters of all time, a classic flying machine now part of the folklore of this country – the Spitfire.
Whether it was the Spitfire’s unique elliptical wing or the sound of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the aircraft was soon seen as something very special, and so it proved. The Spitfire Mk1 entered RAF service with No 19 Squadron at Duxford with the first aircraft, K9789, arriving in August 1938. By the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, 2,160 aircraft were already on order and nine squadrons were already equipped. The first 77 machines were fitted with a two-bladed fixed-pitched propeller but this soon gave way to a Rotol three-bladed two-position version. Other early improvements to the basic design were the replacement of the original flat canopy by a bulged one and some 73 lbs of armour protection for the pilot. The standard armament comprised eight .303 Browning machine guns with 300 rounds of ammunition.
At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, on 10th July 1940, Fighter Command had 19 Spitfire squadrons to supplement 32 squadrons of Hurricanes. It was during this Battle that the aircraft gained its spurs, proving a daunting foe for the Luftwaffe. At the same time, air-to-air combat indicated the need for improved armament and No 19 Squadron’s Mk 2 aircraft were equipped with two Hispano 20mm cannon; thereafter, it was soon recognised that two cannon and four .303 Browning machine guns provided the optimum mix.
As the war progressed, the Spitfire experienced considerable development to upgrade its performance, the introduction of the Griffon engine being but one enhancement amongst many. The final version, the Mk24, was 35% faster than the Mk1 in level flight, had an 80% faster rate of climb and had some 5 times the firepower. A total of some 40 variants were eventually produced.
The Spitfire served in every operational theatre, was employed in the fighter, fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles and as a carrier-borne fighter with the Royal Navy. The last machine left the production line on 20th February 1948, by which time some 22, 600 had been built. In addition to its service in the RAF, over 30 other air forces operated the aircraft.
Replica Spitfire prototype K5054 was gifted to the Museum by the Spitfire Society.