The iconic Supermarine Spitfire prototype, with the serial number K5054, had its maiden flight in 1936 on this day — 5th March — and on landing, the pilot, Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, apparently said: “don’t touch a thing.”
The prototype, called K5054, took off from Eastleigh Aerodrome in Hampshire and lasted eight minutes. It was given a certificate of flight worthiness on April 2, 1936.
Designed by Reginald J. Mitchell, creator of the magnificent Supermarine seaplanes that took part in the Schneider Trophy. The Spitfire has a sleek, graceful fuselage with a domed canopy and small, angular fin and the Type 224 was a gull-winged monoplane with a fixed “trousered” undercarriage, powered by a 600-h.p. Rolls-Royce engine.
Mitchell was dissatisfied with it even before it flew. He then designed a new aircraft as a private venture and the conception was revised twice, to incorporate the new P.V.12 (Merlin) engine and an eight-gun battery.
The initial flights of K5054 produced a top speed of 330 mph. In later trial flights, K5054 was fitted with a better-shaped propeller and this pushed its top speed to 348 mph.
This set the standard for fighter interceptors of the day and after a series of trials the aircraft had a top speed of 349 mph at 16,800 feet. Its rate of climb was 2,400 feet a minute; and the K5054 took just under six minutes to get to 15,000 feet and with a maximum ceiling of 35,400 feet.
The final design was accepted by the Air Ministry, in January 1935, and the first prototype flew, aforementioned, on 5th March, 1936.
The naming of the new aeroplane was done by the directors of Supermarine. For a time, they were thinking of calling it the “Shrew”. However, in the end they decided to keep the name given originally to the Type 224, the Spitfire.
The first order for 310 machines was placed three months later, followed by a further 200 the following year shortly before the tragic death of its designer Reginald Mitchell from cancer at the age of 42 on the 11th June 1937.
A new milestone was reached in the history of the Royal Air Force. It marked the extinction of the trusty and well-tried biplane fighter and opened up fresh developments in aerial warfare.
Between August and December 1938 No. 19 Squadron at Duxford was equipped with the Spitfire (Mark One) Mk.1. By the outbreak of war nine squadrons were fully equipped and two others were in the process of conversion. A total of 1,583 Spitfire Mk1s were built.
Deliveries of the Mk II (basically a Mk 1 powered by a 1,175-h.p. Merlin XII) began in June 1940, but widespread re-equipment with the new version did not commence until the following winter, and it was the Mk 1 which bore the brunt of the fighting during the Battle of Britain; by July 7th nineteen Fighter Command Squadrons were operational with the type. The photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mk IV was followed in March 1941 by the excellent Spitfire MkV (of which 6,479 were produced) with 1074-kW (1,440hp) Merlin 45; the Spitfire Mk VC fighter bomber could carry one 227kg (500lb) or two 113kg (250lb) bombs. The Spitfire Mk VB remained the mainstay of Fighter Command between mid-1941 and mid-1942 when the Spitfire Mk IX, with 1238kW (1,660hp) Merlin 61 with two-stage, two-speed supercharge joined the RAF. The Spitfire Mk VI and Spitfire Mk VII were high-altitude fighters with extended wingtips, but the definitive Spitfire Mk VIII fighter and fighter-bomber was used principally in the Mediterranean and Far East, being fully tropicalised.
The Spitfire Mk X and Spitfire MkXI were unarmed photo-reconnaissance versions and the Spitfire Mk XVI, with a top speed of 652km/h (405mph) was produced in fighter and fighter-bomber versions. All the foregoing (of which 18,298 were built) were powered by the Rolls Royce or Packard Merlin, and the first with 1294kW (1,735hp) Griffon IV was the Spitfire MK XII, introduced in 1943 to counter the FW190 fighter-bomber. It was followed by the 1529kW (2,050hp) Griffon 65-powered Spitfire Mk XIV fighter and fighter-bomber. The fighter-reconnaissance Spitfire MK XVIII was joining the RAF at the end of the war and had a top speed of 712km/h (442mph). In the Fleet Air Arm Seafire variants also served in large numbers with both Merlin and Griffon engines.
The Spitfire was the only British fighter aircraft to be in continuous production before, during and after the Second World War. Total production of the Spitfire was 20,351, plus 2,334 Seafires. About 54 remain airworthy, and many more are static exhibits in aviation museums throughout the world.
‘She was so smooth and held no surprises in any way,’ recalled U.S. pilot Lee Gover. ‘I often marvelled at how this plane could be so easy to fly and yet how it could be such an effective fighter, able to hold its own with any plane in the world.’
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