Mr. Mitchell, Designer of the Spitfire – In Memory of a Brilliant Mind

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Mr. Mitchell, Designer of the Spitfire

In Memory of a Brilliant Mind

“If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can’t understand it, take it from me: it’s all ...
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Reginald Joseph Mitchell was born on the 20th May 1895 at 115 Congleton Road, Butt Lane, Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries area of England, famous for its ceramics. His parents were both teachers, although his father later started his own printing business.

R.J. had three brothers and two sisters. At school he showed a flair for both maths and art. His youngest brother, George William Mitchell “Billy”, was a very accomplished artist, founding a ceramic transfer company in Stoke on Trent, designing patterns and various imagery for Royal Crown Derby, Minton, Spode, and lots of other top companies. However, the young Reginald’s true love turned out to be engineering. In 1911 he was apprenticed to a firm of railway locomotive makers in Stoke-on-Trent. As part of his apprenticeship he attended night school where his flair for mathematics was particularly evident.

Stoke-on-Trent, the home town of the Mitchell family. View of Church Street ca. 1900.

Joining Supermarine

In 1917, the 18-year old youngster made the bold move to Supermarine in Southampton.

The following year he married Florence Dayson, who was some 11 years older than he and had the well paid and responsible job of Headmistress of an Infant’s school back in the Potteries. One can only wonder what qualities the young R.J. Mitchell must have had for Florence to give up her job and marry a man only a year out of his apprenticeship.

Supermarine had been founded by Noel Pemberton Billing in 1913 with the aim of building seaplanes that were “boats that flew” rather than “aircraft that floated”. Southampton was a natural choice of location for this venture. The largest city on the south coast of England, Southampton has always been strongly connected with maritime developments. In late 19th century it became the most important ocean liner port with railway connection to London. It was frequented by all luxury ships of the era – the RMS Titanic sailed from here for her notorious maiden voyage. Its vast merchant harbour with its docks and yards had become the source of city’s prosperity.

1920s postcard showing the famous Southampton docks. Up until the jet age, the docks remained the main departure point for anyone crossing the Atlantic. Visible are the two large liners RMS Olympic (sister ship of the Titanic, recognizable by its four stacks) and SS Leviathan. The aircraft heading towards them is the Supermarine Southampton.

The young R.J. seems to have impressed his superiors and by 1920, at the age of just 25, he was nominated as the firm’s Chief Designer. The family’s living standard rapidly¬†improved. In time they moved into a house in Russell Place in the suburb of Highfield near the Southampton university.

It is an astonishing fact that between 1920 and 1936, Mitchell designed twenty four different aircraft ranging from light aircraft and fighters to huge flying boats and bombers. This remarkable output in only 16 years is what sets him apart from other aircraft designers. Part of Mitchell’s genius was his ability to get an aircraft to a certain point in development and then hand responsibility to others, it was only in this way that he achieved his prodigious output. Under Mitchell’s guidance, Supermarine was one of the few British aircraft companies able to run at a profit during the lean years of the stock-market crash and the following economic depression. They did this despite employing a higher proportion of skilled men than their competitors.

When Supermarine was taken over as part of Vickers Ltd in 1928 it was written into the contract that Mitchell should stay with the company for at least 5 years, such was his reputation. At first, Vickers tried to get Mitchell to co-operate with one of their “own” top designers. Mitchell had other ideas and would always walk out of the room when the other designer walked in. Soon Vickers relented and let the Supermarine design team carry on working as before, and their own designer went back to Vickers proper. His name was Barnes Wallis, the same Wallis who later gained fame by the construction of the Wellington bomber and the invention of the bouncing “Dam Buster” bomb…

Mitchell had a mixture of qualities. With people he did not know he often appeared shy. A slight stammer added to this impression and seemed to have caused him real distress when called upon to give speeches. However, on his own ground within Supermarine, and with people he knew, he was a supremely able and confident manager who would not suffer fools gladly. He was a very good listener, who would let even the most junior draughtsman have their say in the complex job of designing aircraft. He would always take full responsibility for the project as a whole, never letting his staff be criticised by anyone but himself. Over and again people said he was a man who could take a long time thinking over a problem (people soon learnt not to interrupt him when he was doint that) but who would then be galvanised into action once he had come up with a solution to any design problem.

Mitchell was particularly interested in safety and all his machines were above all safe to fly and to land. Only two exceptions come to mind. The wing flutter of the Supermarine S4 which would have been impossible to predict with the design tools available then, and the Supermarine Air Yacht which was somewhat underpowered. This safety record is particularly striking if you compare it with many other aircraft companies of the time developing similar “cutting-edge” aircraft – Messerschmitt in particular had an awful safety record over the same period. Mitchell was one of the few aircraft designers of the day who actually learnt to fly himself, albeit late in his life.

A development of the Supermarine Swan, the Southampton became one of one of the most successful flying boats of the between-war period.
[Crown Copyright]

The most commercially successful of Mitchell’s designs in the 20’s and early ’30s were the big Southampton and Stranraer flying boats for the RAF. It was these designs that kept the Supermarine company going through the economic depression.

The Supermarine Stranraer was to become the last biplane flying-of the Royal Air Force. The last Stranraer was delivered in April 1939, once the Spitfire production was already at the full swing.
[Crown Copyright]

Mitchell was responsible for the Schneider Trophy-winning seaplanes developed by Supermarine up until 1931. His S4 design of 1925 was years ahead of its time – perhaps a little too advanced! His later S5 and S6 racers were a little less radical (having wire bracing for the wings). As one of Britain’s premiere seaplane builders, it was only natural that Supermarine should have competed in the contest but the lessons learnt were hard to apply to civil aviation projects. This turned the Supermarine towards producing tenders and designs for the Air Ministry Specifications for fighters for the Royal Air Force. Speed is a prime considerations in any fighter and Mitchell’s experience with high speed floatplanes made him well placed to meet the requirements of the RAF.

Supermarine S.6B, the famous winner of the 1931 Schneider Trophy race, represented a pinnacle of Mitchell’s racing designs. It also broke the world air speed record reaching 407.5 mph (655.67 km/h). It is worth remembering that its development took place at the nadir of worldwide economic depression. The success of previous S.5 and S.6 aircraft helped Supermarine to secure private funds for the development and racing of the S.6B, once the government funding was withdrawn for the 1931 race.
[Crown Copyright]

Supermarine Type 224

In 1930 the Air Ministry issued the specification F7/30 calling for a new fighter armed with four machine guns. In response Mitchell designed the type 224, a strange looking aircraft with a fixed undercarriage housed in “trouser” fairings, mounted on an inverted gull monoplane wing. The type 224 had a modern metal stressed skin construction but it lacked flaps or an enclosed canopy. It was powered by a 660-horsepower Goshawk engine giving a top speed of 228 mph. The gull wing layout was an essential element of the design, steam from the steam-cooled Goshawk engine would condense in the wing leading edge and the water would then be collected in tanks in the undercarriage “trousers”.

The design, built in one prototype, showed no advantage in performance over the more traditional offerings of other companies, and without the benefit of flaps it must have had a high landing speed, a handicap in an aircraft that had to be able to be landed safely at night (F7/30 called for an aircraft that could function as both a day and night fighter). The RAF ended up choosing the Gladiator from the Glosters, the last biplane fighter ordered for the service.

Over the years, a lot of rubbish has been written about the failure of the Supermarine Type 224 being due to the Air Ministry specifying the Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine. There was never any such requirement, only a suggestion that the most modern type of aircraft engines should be used to gain the maximum performance advantage. The winning Gloster design used a Bristol Mercury engine, as did the most outstanding design produced for the requirement, the Bristol Type 133, which would probably have won if the prototype had not been lost in an accident.

The Sickness

A medical check-up before a family holiday led to Mitchell being diagnosed to have cancer of the rectum and in August 1933 he had a colostomy. In the 1930’s this operation, with its unpleasant side-effects would normally leave people house-bound. Mitchell could probably have simply retired at this point, or arranged to work from home, but that was not the sort of person he was. He went back to work with his colostomy bag strapped to his side. If anything it seems to have galvanised Mitchell into even greater efforts at work and at play.

He started his flying lessons in December 1933 and got his Pilot’s Licence in July 1934. Mitchell is remembered as the designer of the Spitfire, but he also deserves to be remembered as a shining example to cancer sufferers of how you can carry on without fear of embarrassment or indignity.

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By Raymond Thomas  |  2016-12-11 at 19:07  |  permalink


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