April 26, 2014

Spirit of Spitfire lives on

David Ellis

EIGHTY years ago on an icy February morning in 1934, a small group of British aircraft chiefs and engineers huddled at the-then Eastleigh Aerodrome (now Southampton Airport,) to watch the first test flight of a new fighter aircraft they hoped would ensure Britain's military superiority in the air for decades to come.

That aircraft was the Supermarine 224, and those on the ground shook their heads in dismay and disappointment as it failed dismally to come up to expectations.
As they trudged downcast off the aerodrome, the most-heavy in heart was chief designer, RJ 'Reg' Mitchell who, while shattered at the results of the test flight, headed back to his drawing board determined he would not be beaten.
And beaten he was not, within two years creating arguably the most important aircraft for Britain in WWII, and one of the most famous fighter planes the world has ever known.

It was ultimately named the Spitfire, and while Reg Mitchell and his team had successfully turned failure into triumph, Mitchell would sadly not live to see the success of his "baby" – dying of cancer in June 1937, three years before the 1940 Battle of Britain in which the Spitfire was credited with changing the course of World War II.
The first actual Spitfire to take to the air after Reg Mitchell re-worked his Supermarine 224 from the failure of 1934, did so on March the 5th 1936. Powered by a massive Rolls Royce Merlin engine, and able to fly at more than 700km/hr, and with four deadly machine guns in each wing, it was deemed far ahead of its time.

The test pilot Captain Joseph 'Mutt' Summers, was absolutely ecstatic after the flight. "Don't change anything," he almost yelled in jubilation to the aeronautical engineers anxiously awaiting his appraisal. "It's perfect!"
And so delighted were the Royal Air Force high brass who had also watched the flight, that the RAF immediately ordered 310 of the aircraft, with a giant factory being created in the Southampton suburb of Woolston to build them.
The name Spitfire was chosen by Board members of Supermarine Aviation, the company that employed Reg Mitchell, being taken from a 16th century word meaning a quick-tempered or highly excitable person.
But Reg Mitchell was anything than impressed with their choice, telling a friend: "Spitfire – just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose."
And by the time WWII broke out in 1939, the Germans were already very well aware of the massive threat the Spitfire posed – so much so that in two carefully-planned daylight bombing raids in September 1940, they totally destroyed the Woolston Spitfire factory, killing 110 people inside in the process.
Lord Beaverbrook, at the time Minister for Aircraft Procurement, visited Southampton and ordered that rather than one central factory, components for the Spitfire should be made at scattered locations. 
And bizarrely within days thousands of mostly unskilled workers, mainly youths not old enough to join the armed forces, and women, were turning up at everything from laundrettes and bus stations, to motor garages and school halls to keep production of the Spitfire moving, the parts and sections they worked on being taken to remote airfields for assembly into Spitfires and test flown from these remote and often secret fields.
By the end of the war 20,351 Spitfires had been built in Britain, amazingly nearly half from parts from these improvised "factories" in the suburbs of Southampton.
The Solent Sky Museum – the Solent the waterway on which Southampton sits – draws thousands of tourists every year interested in this historic hub of aviation, and where at times no less than 26 companies were engaged in WWII aircraft construction.
And not only Spitfires. Among other famous planes was the Short Sunderland flying boat, used as a patrol aircraft and bomber before being renamed after the war the Sandringham, and converted by some airlines into a luxury civilian plane.
Visitors to the Solent Sky Museum can check-out today how the rich and famous who could afford to fly in the late 1940s did so, with a restored luxury-for-its-time  Sandringham at the museum open to walk through.
FLIGHT NOTE: SOUTHAMPTON's local rugby league team is called the Southampton Spitfires, their Player of the Year receiving, appropriately, the RJ Mitchell Memorial Medal.



[] PROTOTYPE Spitfire before first flight in 1936. (Spitfire.com)
[] SPITFIRES XIIs of 41 Squadron in formation over England in April 1944. (Panavia)
[] A RESTORED Spitfire in flight today. (Wikipedia)
[] SANDRINGHAM flying boat converted from a Short Sunderland built in Southampton during WWII, and operated in Australia by Ansett Airways before its collapse in 2001. (Wikimedia)
[] REG Mitchell and plaque displayed today on the house he lived in in Southampton when he designed the Spitfire. (Wikimedia)

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