Up until the early 1930’s most fighter aircraft designs were still based on almost ancient technology. Biplanes were the order of the day, and although the performance of these aircraft improved as engines became more powerful, little had changed in aircraft design since the First World War. The one thing in a biplanes favour was its agility, a precious commodity in a dogfight. It had little other value, however.
Monoplane fighters had been in operation since the First World War with the Fokker Eindekker the first to see action in 1915. Britain itself built a monoplane fighter during this period. The Bristol M.1 did see action, but towards the end of the war.
Supermarine Type 224
By 1931, the world was changing. The Air Ministry now decided that a fast, all-metal fighter was needed to bolster its ranks. Mitchell submitted a monoplane design, the Supermarine Type 224, and this became one of three that the Air Ministry approved. Only one would be chosen for active duty. Production of a Type 224 prototype began soon after.
The Type 224 was a relatively unique design. It featured an open cockpit, fixed landing gear and a gull-wing configuration. It was powered by the Rolls-Royce Goshawk II engine, the preferred option of the Air Ministry. Mitchell knew the gull-wing might cause drag problems and, therefore, shortened the undercarriage of the plane. Extensive wind-tunnel testing did show some problems with stability, but Mitchell and his team knew how to overcome this. He enlarged the tail fin of the aircraft and this brought stability.
The unique Goshawk II engine featured an evaporative cooling system that had been used in other biplane designs where important components of the systems were mounted in the top wing of the aircraft. In the Type 224, this system was placed in the fairings of the undercarriage, and water pumps often failed, causing lower engine performance.
On 19 February 1934, piloted by test pilot Mutt Summers, the Type 224 took to the air for the first time. Unfortunately, it performed poorly. It could only reach a top speed of 228mph while its climbing rate, an important consideration for fighters, was horrendous. It took 9 and a half minutes to reach 15 000ft. The Air Ministry wanted the new fighter to be able to do it in just under 7 minutes.
Mitchell knew that he could improve the Type 224, but the Air Ministry remained unconvinced. They chose another biplane, the Gloster Gladiator as their next fighter. The Air Ministry, however, would consider other private designs in future, allowing Mitchell to begin to work on a new project.
Supermarine requested that the name “Spitfire” be reserved for this project.
The Spitfire Is Born
And so Mitchell now began work on his next project, the Supermarine Type 300. This would evolve into the Spitfire. Mitchell knew that he would have to improve on the ill-fated Type 224 in every respect.
He had many brilliant engineers working with him, each with their own unique pieces to add to the Type 300 puzzle. The famous elliptical wings were in fact designed by a Beverley Shenstone, an aerodynamicist from Canada. They remain the trademark of the Spitfire design to this day. It was the genius of Mitchell that help to bring all these little elements that each of his team contributed, together.
The aircraft would also feature an enclosed cockpit, retractable landing gear, machine guns and was to be powered by the new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The Air Ministry liked what they saw and approved the production of a prototype that was to be given the designation – K5054.
Construction on K5054 started at the end of December 1934, and it would be a full 16 months before she undertook her first flight. On 5 March 1936 with Mutt Summers at the controls, K5054 gently rolled down the grass runway at Eastleigh Aerodrome, lifted off into the sky and climbed away into the clouds. Her first flight lasted 8 minutes.
Over the course of the next months, K5054 undertook numerous other test flights, each time providing Mitchell and his engineers with feedback and ideas. Of course, Summers played a major part in transferring all his experience while flying the aircraft into practical changes that would help to improve it. K5054 would receive more firepower as well. Each wing, instead of housing two .303 Vickers machine guns would now hold four .303 Browning machine guns. Other significant improvements included a new propeller that helped to increase its top speed.
All those involved with the K5054 knew they had something unique on their hands. The Air Ministry was so impressed with the flight trials that on 3 June 1936, it placed an order for 300 machines even before the trials were concluded! This order would cost £1,395,000.
The Supermarine Spitfire MkI was now officially in production, but that was not the end of K5054. It would partake in numerous other trials providing more valuable data that allow Supermarine to continue to make changes that eventually would result in the Mk II and Mk III Spitfire.
Unfortunately, K5054 crashed on 4 September 1939, a day after England had declared war on Germany. It had nosed over on landing, and its pilot, Flight Lieutenant White succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the crash. K5045 was irreparable.
As for Mitchell, he unfortunately never saw his creation come off the production line. He had developed cancer in 1933 and died on 11 June 1937. He was succeeded by Joseph Smith, who now became the chief designer at Supermarine. He had also been heavily involved the development of the Spitfire.
Although production was meant to start as soon as the Air Ministry order was placed in 1936, numerous problems arose, so much so that it took till the middle of 1938 for the first Spitfire to roll off the line. This was designated the serial number, K9787.
The most pressing reason why the Spitfire production was slowed was due to the fact that the Supermarine factory at Woolston, where the aircraft would be produced, was already at full capacity making flying boats. Another issue was the fact that Vickers-Armstrong, the parent company of Supermarine were reluctant to release blueprints of plane components, although it was agreed that these would be manufactured by outside concerns.
The Air Ministry were unhappy, and would not order more than their initial first 300 planes. Sense prevailed, however, and Spitfire production quickly increased. The Air Ministry then ordered a further 200 aircraft in March 1938.