Spitfire: 75 Years on From Inaugural Flight

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Last weekend marked the 75th Anniversary of the Spitfire. On 5 March 1936, the yet unnamed prototype of Mitchell’s elegant new fighter took off ...

Last weekend marked the 75th Anniversary of the Spitfire. On 5 March 1936, the yet unnamed prototype of Mitchell’s elegant new fighter took off for the first time from the Eastleigh aerodrome. At the Supermarine design office, it was known as Type 300. Air Ministry officials preferred to call it Supermarine F. 37/34, after the specification number to which it was designed.

At the controls of the prototype was Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers, chief test pilot for Vickers (Aviation) Ltd. Considering the power and torque of the 1000-horsepower Merlin engine, “Mutt” opted to take off 35 degrees across wind, expecting a strong tendency to swing to port. As the aircraft gained speed, he noted that although the aircraft indeed wanted to swing, this was easily checked by the application of the opposite rudder.

Driven by a fine-pitch propeller which was specially installed for the first flight to give the pilot more power on take-off, the aircraft drifted into the air. Summers found that the flight itself was effortless, even with the undercarriage down. After eight minutes, he turned downwind for landing and put the aircraft gently back on the grass runway. The time was 4:43 p.m.

As “Matt” stepped down from the aircraft after landing, he informed the ground personnel:

“I don’t want anything touched.”

This statement later came to be widely misinterpreted as a test pilot’s acknowledgement of the excellent flying qualities of the Spitfire. In fact, Summers’ intention was rather more matter-of-factly – he simply stated that the aircraft needed no re-trimming or adjustment before the following test flight. Much more flying time and alterations lay ahead before full assessment of the Spitfire’s flying qualities could be made; but this was a good beginning.

K5054 was fitted with a normal-pitch propeller and Summers flew the aircraft on 10 March; during this flight he retracted the undercarriage for the first time. That flight lasted 23 minutes. Over the next days a further two flights took place, all piloted by “Mutt”, lasting 31 minutes and 50 minutes during which time he tested the aircraft with a variety of stalls and steep turns to explore its flight envelope.

Reginald Mitchell was turning up on these occasions to watch his new creation fly, even though by this time he was seemingly ill. It was during the same winter that Mitchell received a diagnose of recurring cancer. Although his health was rapidly deteriorating and he was fully aware of the short time left to him, he was still very much in charge of the project, even to the point of getting angry when he heard that the Vickers board of directors under Sir Robert MacLean proposed the name “Spitfire” for the aircraft. That name had already been used to promote Supermarine’s ungainly and unsuccessful Type 224 fighter prototype of 1934. Mitchell could see every reason not to link the new aircraft with the failure of its predecessor. He bitterly remarked:

“Just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it”.

After the fourth flight a new engine was fitted, and Summers left the test-flying to his assistants, Jeffrey Quill and George Pickering. They soon discovered that the Spitfire, although a very good aircraft, was not perfect. The rudder was over-sensitive and the top speed was just 330 mph (528 km/h), little faster than Sydney Camm’s new Merlin-powered Hurricane which began its flight tests eight months previously. It came as a serious disappointment to the Supermarine team, because speed was one of the Spitfire’s top design objectives.

It was soon identified that the fault lay with the efficiency of the aircraft’s propeller. Other readily available propellers were frantically tried and – for the most part – rejected. Finally, one of them allowed the Spitfire to reached 348 mph (557 km/h) in level flight in mid-May. Summers flew K5054 to RAF Martlesham Heath and handed the aircraft over to Squadron Leader Anderson of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE).

Here, Flight Lieutenant Humphrey Edwardes-Jones took over the prototype for the RAF, with the order to fly the aircraft and then to make his report to the Air Ministry as soon as he landed. The main concern of the officialdom at that point was if an average pilot would be able to pilot and land the RAF’s most advanced aircraft ever.

Edwardes-Jones made a positive report; his only request was that the Spitfire be equipped with an undercarriage position indicator. A week later, on 3 June 1936, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 Spitfires, still before any formal report had been issued by the A&AEE.

The British public first saw the Spitfire at the RAF Hendon air-display on Saturday 27 June 1936. Word spread quickly that the new plane – praised by the press as the “fastest fighter in the World” – was something special.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Further reading about the Spitfire prototype, together with colour profiles, can be found in our archive. And if you love learning about history like this, accredited online colleges have aviation classes.

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