Nothing Says Battle of Britain like the Spitfire
On March 5th 1936 at Eastleigh Aerodrome near Southampton, England, the prototype Supermarine Spitfire took to the skies for the first time. One of the most recognizable aircraft ever built and a favorite of warbird fans all over the world, the Spitfire was one of the most important aircraft of World War II. The more than 20,000 Spitfires produced were used by 33 countries- some of them until the late 1950s. Because of its performance, versatility, and reliability the Spitfire was the only British fighter aircraft to be produced continuously before, during, and after the Second World War.
Those Wonderful Wings and Other Things
Supermarine designer R.J. Mitchell and his team applied their knowledge and experience with the Schneider Trophy-winning S5 and S6 seaplanes to create a design built around the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and utilizing an elliptical wing shape. The elliptical wing was a compromise between a thin, low drag wing and the requirement for being able to house weapons, fuel, and landing gear. It also became one of the most iconic wing planforms ever.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
The prototype, K5054, first flew only four months after the prototype Hawker Hurricane first flew. During subsequent test flights it was discovered that a few changes were necessary, which were incorporated into the first production version- the Spitfire Mark 1. Although the Royal Air Force (RAF) had ordered more than 300 Mark 1 Spitfires on June 3rd 1936, it wasn’t until mid-1938 that the first of them (K9787) were delivered.
Overcoming a Slow Start
Production issues caused the delay and similar issues with contractors, production facility availability, and labor would affect production thereafter. Although it took some time to resolve the production problems, the rate of production eventually rose to 320 Spitfires per month. By the time production ended at the primary factory in June of 1945, they had built a total of 12,129 Spitfires (all Marks).
Distribution of Manufacturing
During the Battle of Britain (July 1940 to October 1940), The German Luftwaffe attempted to destroy the main Spitfire manufacturing plants. They eventually succeeded, but by that time the tooling and jigs had been dispersed and building Spitfires became sort of a cottage industry. Components were manufactured in small shops and factories and then trucked to airfields for final assembly and flight testing before the RAF took delivery.
The Spitfire’s calling card, those memorable elliptical wings, had detachable wing tips. It was not a complete wing redesign or factory modification to create the high-altitude fighter or clipped-wing versions of the Spitfire. It was detaching the standard wingtips and replacing them with longer-span tips that gave the wings a more pointed appearance and added lift for improved high-altitude handling. Need a clipped wing Spitfire? Then just remove the standard wingtips and bolt on a fairing.
The wings of the Spitfire were not the only elliptic airfoils employed on the aircraft. The horizontal and vertical stabilizers were elliptic in shape as well. The size of both stabilizers increased as horsepower bolted to the firewall increased, but the distinctive elliptical shape remained throughout.