In its time, the Spitfire was possibly the best known fighter aircraft in the world. Together with the Hawker Hurricane, it flew into history in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Its existence is owed to Supermarine’s experience in designing and building Schneider Trophy racing seaplanes in the late 1920s, a highly successful collaboration with Rolls-Royce, and its talented designer, Reginald Mitchell.
Despite the Spitfire’s legendary reputation, there was no mystery about Mitchell’s design. It was a straightforward merger of all technical knowledge of the time into one airplane. In an era when airplane designs had to be checked by trial and error, everything came out right in the Merlin-powered Spitfire. The Spitfire prototype first flew in March 1937, which led to the introduction of production aircraft into Royal Air Force squadrons in August 1938, and construction of more than 22,000 Spitfires of 52 different MK variants before production ended in 1946.
At the time of its arrival in operational service, the Spitfire MK I was faster at its design altitude than its German adversary, the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, although inferior in rate of climb and speed above that altitude. The Bf 109E also had the advantage of heavier armament, and a fuel injected engine, which allowed inverted flight and negative “Gs”, not possible with the carburetor used on the Merlin engine. By the time the Battle of Britain reached its fury in July and August 1940, many improvements had been incorporated in the Spitfire MK I, and as a result, it was successful in repulsing the Luftwaffe attempt to achieve air supremacy over England – most notably by its ability to out-turn the Bf 109 at all speeds and to out-maneuver it at high speeds. Improvements in the Spitfire continued throughout WWII to match or exceed the ever increasing capabilities of the Bf 109, as well as the formidable Focke-Wulf 190 when it began to appear in large numbers in late 1941. Aerodynamic and engine improvements enabled the Spitfire to increase maximum speed from 355 mph to 454 mph and service ceiling from 34,000 ft to 43,000 ft.
The acquisition of the Museum’s Spitfire in April 1989, was due principally to the efforts of the Eagle Squadrons Association – those American pilots who flew for England before America entered WWII – and it is displayed in their honor.