For most of us the name “Spitfire” conjures up images of the Battle of Britain, with these beautiful, elliptical winged fighter aircraft defending the sky over the White Cliffs of Dover in 1940. But that is only a small part of the story of the most legendary of all aircraft.
What is less known is that the Spitfire was actually in service with a total of thirty six different air forces around the world between 1938 and 1961 and its role in the Battle of Britain, although decisive, was secondary to the older and more conventionally designed Hawker Hurricane. But the Spitfire was and still is instantly recognisable, in whatever colours it may be painted.
Reginald Mitchell, who was renowned for designing Supermarine’s racing seaplanes in the late 1920’s and 1930’s created the Spitfire in response to the Air Ministry’s need for an updated fighter aircraft, as the political tension in Europe increased. He witnessed the first test flight of the Spitfire in March 1936, but died the following year, so he was never to know the impact on history that was made by his genius.
The Spitfire was without a doubt a masterpiece of aerodynamic engineering. Renowned for its speed, agility and fire power – continually improved upon during and after the war – it was also designed with a view to pilot safety, and very many pilots survived crash landings after their planes had been shot to pieces. This became very important because the production lines were producing aircraft faster than pilots could be trained or replaced in the summer of 1940.
Of 22,000 Spitfires built, there are now around 50 in airworthy condition around the world, with more being restored. I recently had the privilege to visit the Heritage Hangar at Biggin Hill, where this very specialist work is taking place. It takes an average of four years to fully restore a Spitfire, depending on the condition in which it is found.
An even greater privilege was to fly over Kent in MJ627, a Spitfire formerly of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which had seen active service during the war ( one ME109 shot down in 1944), and was subsequently converted to a two seater. Having completed my safety briefing and strapping myself in to a parachute in case we needed to bail out, we took to the air. My captain, Jeremy, allowed me to take the controls for a while, before he performed a couple of ‘victory rolls’. Battle of Britain veterans loved the Spitfire for its responsiveness and manoeuvrability and I can understand that now; but sitting in a Spitfire on a pleasure flight it is impossible to try to imagine the experiences of those brave young men who flew this aircraft in combat.
David with Capt. Jeremy after the flight in MJ627 Recently restored Spitfire, Biggin Hill hangar.
There can of course be no comparison between the Spitfire and modern state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, but it is the ultimate symbol of Britain’s salvation in the nation’s darkest hour and hence its fame will endure for many generations to come.