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Who Created the Immortal Spitfire?

‘Don’t touch anything’: artwork by Basel Hammond

It has been so long past the point of its invention, you would be forgiven for not knowing. It is said the best come but once in a lifetime, and never the like are seen again. And in the context of British aeronautical engineering, nobody has. Reginald Joseph Mitchell was someone  who didn’t let the fact that they were working for an untrusted company deter them from revolutionising such a specialist industry. He was someone who tragically died refusing to take rest from his work to battle his cancer. Mitchell’s ‘work’ was something that this country needed so badly on the dawn of the Second World War and an aeroplane that would forever be cemented to the hearts of the British people – the Spitfire.

The Supermarine Aviation Works were almost considered a third rate aircraft firm throughout the 1930s-40s – its reputation sealed by their inability to produce quality specified aircraft within guaranteed time frames. That ended when Mitchell was recruited. His work ethic and refusal to be bound by convention was perhaps best described by his own words:  It is not good enough to follow up on conventional methods of design. It is essential to break new grounds and invent and involve new ideas’. From this ethos arose his revolutionary “Type 300” (serial no. K5054), mated with the legendary powerplant that would play such an enormous role throughout the Second World War – the Rolls Royce Merlin. It was a strikingly beautiful and unusually curvacious machine, resembling more of a racer than a fighter, and was a demonstration of Mitchell carrying forward what he’d learned from his Supermarine ‘S’ series of race winning seaplanes. In this day and age, test flights for new aeroplanes are several hours long, and then this is followed by years of certification before service. But it only took Supermarine test pilot Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers a mere eight minutes to decide that the Type 300 was perfect. ‘Don’t touch anything’ he demanded upon his return.

The British Air Ministry was immediately convinced that the new all-metal fighter was two years ahead of its competitors – some of which were still wood and canvas biplanes. They had decided this would be their frontline fighter, but were yet to conceive a name for it. ‘Shew’ and ‘Shrike’ were popular, since Supermarine believed the name should begin with an ‘S’ and sound venomous. But the name Spitfire had somehow also slipped through, and would be formally adopted. 310 were ordered and Supermarine had gone from a lower class aircraft manufacturer to producing what would be the mainstay of Great Britain’s air defence.

Mitchell could only just process this thought before he became ill. His bowel cancer was taking its toll on him, until he lost his battle altogether. His determination to see the Spitfire off the drawing board, as well as his refusal to rest, hastened his end. Mitchell would never live to see his creation go into RAF service. More tragically, he would never live to see what his fledgling would become to the nation – not just through its illustrious service during the Battle of Britain and the rest of the Second World War, but also nearly a century later. Even today, the Spitfire still holds the maximum speed (Mach 0.96) and altitude (51000ft) records ever to have been achieved with a propeller-driven aircraft – over 70 years ago. The Spitfire went on to develop into 24 different variants through ten years of production – the very last being over 100 miles per hour faster, climbing 80 per cent better and weighing twice as much as the first. It started with a two-blade propeller, going through two, three, four, five, and even six. The famous elliptical wing envisaged by Mitchell would remain almost entirely to the last variant – there was simply no better alternative. It only adds to the testament of Mitchell’s brilliant design, which he worked against his health to perfect. His legacy lives on, with the Spitfire enshrined as a household name, more often than not greeted with a smile of understanding.

‘Conceiving a sprinter’: Mitchell oversees the final modifications on the Supermarine S6B prior to its 3rd Schneider Trophy Victory in 1931. The success of this aircraft transformed Supermarine into experts of high speed flight by the time they began work on the Spitfire. Artwork by Basel Hammond.

Parallels can be drawn between individuals like Alan Turing and Mitchell. It would be natural to expect them to become household names for their work, but they are only regular thoughts in the minds of enthusiasts. Today, in the light of various political movements, people are likely to wonder if there is anything or anyone from the past to be proud of. We have all heard of the ‘Few’, but Mitchell was the first to exude that spirit and determination of the aircrew who succeeded him in the Battle of Britain and beyond. It is almost unfair that he was never decorated by the British government, or even remembered or recognised by people today. In an age of confusion and lack of direction for the future, I feel it is compulsory that people learn about the single aircraft designer who gave his tomorrow for our today.