Friday, August 7, 2009

Airplane of the Week: The Supermarine Spitfire

It's time to introduce a new segment. Every Friday I hope to write one of these up. Those who know me are aware that I have a deep love of flying machines, from the Wright Flyer to the F-35 Lightning II. What I'd like to do is highlight some of my favourite airplanes, ones I find to be historically significant or just plain awesome. Not everyone will agree with me, but I think on this first one, I'm going to be okay:

The Supermarine Spitfire

The tale of the Supermarine Spitfire is one of heroism, one of torment, and one of pure-awesome asskicking. The Spitfire was the brainchild of one man - R.J. Mitchell. Mitchell was the lead designer for the small seaplane company "Supermarine", a company known for its record-setting seaplane racers. Using that experience, Mitchell designed an airplane to meet a Royal Air Force requirement for a new fighter.

It was a contentious time in aircraft design. Biplanes were on the way out, but (as is the case with most thing military), the brass were reluctant to change. After all, biplanes had worked so well in the Great War. As a result, the Spitfire was ordered in bulk with two other airplanes - the Hawker Hurricane and the Gloster Gladiator. The Hurricane would be the Spitfire's twin sister in the combat to come; the Gladiator was the last biplane to be ordered by the RAF.

Of course, the RAF wasn't alone. Hitler's super-secret Luftwaffe had originally armed with biplanes; the Russians, Italians, and Czechs were rearming with new biplane types. The USA was using a series of two-winged craft on their aircraft carriers. So it made sense to the RAF to have a backup plan, in case those new-fangled monoplanes didn't work out.

By 1938, the writing was obviously on the wall for the biplane, and the English were starting to receive their Spitfires. The Germans had demonstrated the deadly impressive Bf-109 by Willy Messerschmitt, the Russians had shown off the Polikarpov I-16, and even the Americans were getting ready to debut a series of utterly ordinary monoplanes (the P-39, P-40, and F4F). Some planes had been given a bit of a test run in Spain; but the real test was about to begin.

So, why was the Spitfire awesome? In itself, it wasn't really a huge leap forward in aircraft design. Everything that made the Spitfire the biggest ass-kicking motherfucker in airplane history had been invented by someone else. The elliptical wing, for instance, was likely stolen from a German prototype dive bomber. The monocoque fuselage was being used in other fighters being designed at the same time (including the previously mentioned I-16 and the Bf-109). The engine was the beautiful and classic Rolls-Royce Merlin. The sleek design led to an airplane that was easy to handle and turn, and the wide elliptical wings gave a good stable gun platform.

The early Spits had their problems. They couldn't enter a steep dive, because the negative-g would stop the fuel from flowing into the Merlin (a problem eventually corrected by 1943); the outside guns tended to freeze and jam; and the armament (8 Browning .303s) was actually inadequate to knock a Bf-109 or a He-111 out of the air. That said, the Spitfire could hold its own in a dogfight better than any plane of its era, and pilots racked up 10, 15, 20 kills quite quickly during the Battle of Britain. The engagement rules in that battle were simple: Hurricanes pursued the enemy bombers, while the Spitfires engaged the fighters.

The Spitfire probably didn't come off the best in all the engagements with the Bf-109. But here's what really set it apart. Unlike the Bf-109, a fighter that was approaching obsolescence by the end of World War II, the Spitfire handled every task that was asked of it. It took new guns, new engines, and new roles. The RAF was using Spitfires on the last day of the war, as modern, front-line fighters. It was only the advent of the jet era that caused the major powers to set aside these beautiful piston-engined monoplanes.

Now, let's talk about some of the Spitfire pilots for a bit. One of the leading aces in the Battle of Britain was Adolph "Sailor" Malan, a South African in the RAF. First of all, this guy's name was fucking Sailor. Who knows why he was called that, but he was badass. He used to take the "new guy" out on patrol, shoot down a fighter for them, and give them the credit so they felt good about themselves. After making Station Commander, he would ignore orders and go out hunting Germans as much as possible. He used the Spitfire like a rapier. 27 kills.

The other guy I want to talk about is Douglas Bader. See this face:

That is the face of someone who is better than you. Let's talk about this guy. He was an ace with 22 kills in both Hurricanes and Spitfires, and he had no legs.

He had no fucking legs.

And he shot down 22 more Germans than you did. He was shot down over France and taken prisoner, and kept trying to escape. The Spitfire made this man into a lethal weapon that the Germans ended up so afraid of they had to lock him up with other chief escapees. The man was fucking awesome.

20,531 Spitfires were built, and they ruled the skies in Europe for five years. A beautiful airplane, a great airplane, a lethal weapon, and the Rolls-Royce of the skies. There'll never be another like her.

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day…

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