Spitfire: The soaring beauty of a design classic

The plane is a hero of World War II − but what is it about the design that singles it out? Jonathan Glancey salutes an icon.

At first, it’s the sound – that sound – that catches the attention. As eyes crane skywards, ears prick up to the insistent and gloriously rhythmic beat of what is surely the finest piston engine that ever lifted an aircraft skyward, the Rolls-Royce Merlin, spelling sheer mechanical sorcery.

A sudden darting over the line of trees, and a lithe and exquisitely beautiful fighter plane follows, fusing with that searing sound as it scythes overhead. As it turns and climbs away, revealing the artistry of its distinctive elliptical wings, the crackle of its exhaust and whistle of its supercharger can only belong to one aeroplane, the Supermarine Spitfire, one of the finest of all heavier-than-air-machines and one of the most feted and effective of all combat aircraft.

Today, this sight and sound remain on offer to crowds thrilling to air displays around the world. At any one time, there are several dozen airworthy Spitfires ready for action, although today – unlike seventy years ago – all their flight paths spell peace. People of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities remain in thrall to this all but perfect aeroplane into the second decade of the 21st Century as they will for generations to come.

What is it about the Spitfire that singles it out from so many fine aircraft designs? First is the simple matter of the Spitfire’s beauty. From the moment Reginald Mitchell’s prototype monoplane fighter vaulted into a bright blue sky above Eastleigh in southern England on 5 March 1936, it was clear that here was an aircraft that rivalled birds of prey for sheer grace and style. And, as Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, the first Spitfire pilot, discovered in his eight-minute test flight that day, the aircraft identified by the legend K5054 was very good indeed.

Fast and furious

Remarkably few tweaks were needed before the RAF tested the Spitfire in May 1936 when orders for 310 were placed with the Supermarine factory in Southampton. At the end of June, an awed and delighted public watched K5054 being put through its balletic paces over north London at the RAF Pageant at Hendon. Here was a British fighter taking its pilots and an enthusiastic public into new realms of flight. That July, Squadron Leader unpHunHumphrey Edwardes-Jones, the RAF’s first Spitfire pilot, gave himself a fright when he soared up to 34,700 ft − higher than he had ever flown before (as high as jet airliner cruises today) − and saw vapour trails streaming back from the Merlin’s exhaust pipes, an experience wholly new to him.

Pilots soon found themselves blacking out in turns tighter than they had ever imagined possible: the Spitfire was quite capable of pulling 10g in turns, an astonishing feat for 1940. Imagine what this meant: a 10 stone pilot pulling 10g would find his body weighing 100 stone, and this in age long before pressure suits. The Spitfire was also very fast. In April 1944, A Mk XI reconnaissance version flown by Flight Lieutenant ‘Marty’ Martindale reached 606mph in a 45-degree dive. This was just under Mach 0.9: the Spitfire was on its way to breaking the sound barrier before the propeller broke into pieces. Cool as a cucumber, Martindale lost height progressively in a controlled 20m glide, landing safely at Farnborough.

The physical beauty and prowess of the Spitfire was matched by its mechanical and aerodynamic artistry. It was and remains an absolute joy to fly: fast, lithe, forgiving, a machine that as every Spitfire pilot says very quickly becomes a part of you as you become one with the aeroplane.

Freedom fighter

You might call the Spitfire’s beauty accidental. Its principal designer, Reginald Mitchell, a man not given to superlatives, had no time for talk of artistry and style: the Spitfire and its elliptical wings, developed by Beverly Shenstone, his equally brilliant young Canadian aerodynamicist, were a result of optimum functional requirements, nothing more or less.

Beyond the beauty and supreme airworthiness of the aircraft are other key reasons the Spitfire is so admired and truly loved. There is something deeply touching in the story of its development. Working against time, Mitchell saw K5054 into the air and the aircraft’s acceptance by the RAF shortly before succumbing to cancer. He was just 42. Mitchell was well aware that Hitler was on the march. In an extraordinarily short time, and working with a small and brilliant staff, he gave his country an aircraft that Luftwaffe pilots would soon learn to admire; famously, when asked by Hermann Goering what he wanted most to fight the RAF at the time of the Battle of Britain, Adolf Galland, the Luftwaffe ace, asked for Spitfires.

And, this brings us, rightly and inevitably, to the Spitfire’s distinguished record not just in the Battle of Britain, but throughout World War II. Ever since, the Spitfire has been held up as a champion in the fight against Nazism and for freedom. Of course, many other types of aircraft did their bit to wear down Hitler and his allies. Yet the Spitfire proved to be the mechanical embodiment – and ultimately the aerial apotheosis – of that necessary fight against aggression.

The Spitfire’s effectiveness throughout World War II was due in large part to the fact that its basic design could be developed continuously, unlike, for example, its fellow Battle of Britain counterpart, the sturdy Hawker Hurricane. Under the untiring guidance of Joseph Smith, Mitchell’s chief draughtsman, and like the Six Million Dollar Man, the Spitfire grew “better… stronger… faster”. In fact, development continued beyond the war. More Spitfires were built – over 22,000 between 1936 and 1947 – than any other British fighter. There were at least forty-six variations of the Spitfire and Seafire (its Royal Navy sibling], and the last, although the same overall size, weighed twice as much when fully armed that those flown in the Battle of Britain. They were more than twice as powerful, much faster and carried punchier guns as well as underwing-mounted rockets.

Spitfires were in combat against communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency of 1951, while Seafires were on duty aboard the carrier HMS Triumph in the early stages of the jet age Korean War. Mitchell’s fighter designed to keep skies safe over Britain had become a global warrior.

Spitfires also flew in service with other air forces, notably for the Russians during World War II. Since then, tales of secret stashes of RAF Spitfires buried in Burma in teak boxes at the end of the war with Japan have captured the public imagination. While these far-eastern Spitfires are probably nothing more than ghosts, they are powerful ghosts nonetheless, spirits of that terrible, six-year long fight.

Since 1945, the Spitfire has lived on. In books, comics and magazines, in scale-models, music, films on big and small screens and, above all, in air shows where these peerless machines can be seen in action – guns forever sealed – thrilling new generations with their shape, sound and legendary place in the sadly necessary fight for human freedom.

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