Reginald Mitchell, the aeronautical designer and father of the Spitfire, was born in Staffordshire in 1895.
The early years
Mitchell underwent schooling in Stoke and when he left in 1911 he began an apprenticeship in the drawing office of a locomotive company. He furthered his studies at night focusing on engineering but also mathematics and mechanics.
Employment at Supermarine
In 1917, Mitchell moved to Southampton to join the Supermarine Aviation Works (founded in 1913). Mitchell showed an immediate flair for aircraft design and quickly rose to the rank of Chief Designer by 1919. A promotion to Chief Engineer followed in 1920.
By 1927, Mitchell had been promoted to Technical Director in charge of the factory. Supermarine were bought out by Vickers-Armstrongs in 1928. They wanted Mitchell to stay on in the company, and wrote a clause in the contract of sale which stated he must stay on for a period of 5 years.
Mitchell’s aircraft designs became world famous after his Supermarine S5, S6 and S6B won the Schneider Trophy air race for three consecutive years in the early 1930’s.
The Spitfire takes shape
In 1931 Supermarine were commissioned by the Air Ministry to build a new fighter plane. Mitchell began work on the Supermarine Type 224. The design, although very different with its gull-wings prominent, was not the success Mitchell had hoped and performed poorly. In fact, the Air Ministry chose the Gloster Gladiator bi-plane over the Type 224.
Luckily, the Air Ministry remained open to private designs submitted from around the country. This led Mitchell to start developing his greatest aircraft – the Spitfire. What many people do not know is that Mitchell had a team of incredible engineers, each contributing their own part to the famous plane from the elliptical wings designed by Beverley Shenstone to the monocoque technique used for construction. Mitchell used his incredible experience from his Schneider Trophy years to bring all these elements together into arguably the most famous plane ever made.
Unfortunately, Mitchell was not a well man. After almost losing his life during abdominal cancer surgery in 1933, he struggled with his health for the rest of his life. Even though his health continued to decline at an incredible rate, Mitchell was never far from his drawing board, working constantly on his new design.
Mitchell did see the Spitfire prototype, the K5054, fly on 5 March 1936 in Southampton. On the advice of test pilot Mutt Summers, a few small changes were made to the Spitfire, but the design was near perfect.
Mitchell’s health continued to deteriorate. In 1937 he gave up work after been told he only had around 3 months to live as his cancer had returned. Mitchell died on 11 June 1937, aged just 42. Although he saw his Spitfire fly, he never knew the profound impact it would have in World War II and still has to this day.
Little Known Mitchell Facts
- Mitchell was a pilot. He gained his licence in 1934.
- He was not a fan of the name Spitfire which was chosen by the Air Ministry. In fact he was quoted as saying “Spitfire was just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose.”
- Mitchell’s life was chronicled in the movie “Last of the Few”, released in 1942.
Many landmarks around Britain are named after Mitchell including a school.