Here is one of the lesser-known pictures out of a well-known series showing a flight of the first production Spitfires Mk. I introduced into service by No. 19 Squadron in Duxford. The featureless background comes from an overexposed shot against a white cloud, but otherwise this photo offers a number of interesting details.
No. 19 Squadron was the first in the RAF to receive the Spitfire. The choice of the unit and place was no coincidence. Initially, the Air Ministry contemplated assigning this role to No. 41 Squadron at Catterick, who at the time were flying Hawker Furies Mk. II. However, the introduction of the Hawker Hurricane in other units at the beginning of 1938 resulted in several landing accidents, which lead to concern that the new monoplane fighters required larger airfields for safer pilot training due to their high landing speed and relatively poor visibility from the cockpit. Catterick was a notoriously small airfield, unlike Duxford, which was large for its day. Additionally, No. 19 Squadron had previous experience of being the first to introduce Gloster Gauntlet into service in 1935, and its CO, Sqn/Ldr Henry Cozens was a qualified aeronautical engineer.
The experiences of No. 19 Squadron were instrumental in bringing the Spitfire into operational readiness, and there were dozens of changes. One of the visible results of the pilots’ feedback was the introduction of the bulged cockpit hood to provide more headroom, another was the introduction of engine-driven rather than hand-operated pump for undercarriage retraction. Most of the improvements were processed through close cooperation between Sqn/Ldr Cozens, Jeffrey Quill and Joseph Smith, who after the death of Reginald J. Mitchell on 11 June 1937 took the responsibility for Spitfire design and development. Indeed, Simth’s first task as Chief Designer at Supermarine was resolving the many teething troubles of the new aircraft.
Notably, the photo shows the aircraft in their earliest configuration, with wooden two-blade propellers, tall radio antenna masts and unarmoured. Note how the low-profile (also referred to as “straight”) canopies were often kept open in flight for the simple reason of obstructing the pilots’ head movement – and possibly also for the sake of old habits.
[San Diego Aerospace Museum coll.]