Is there a more iconic fighter plane in military history than Britain’s beloved Supermarine Spitfire? Speedy, agile and equipped with plenty of firepower, the aircraft played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain, duking it out with the Luftwaffe and earning its status as a symbol of the country’s spirited airborne resistance.
Here are 10 facts about the Spitfire.
1. It was a short-range, high-performance plane
Designed by R. J. Mitchell, chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton, the Spitfire’s specifications lent themselves to its initial role as an interceptor aircraft.
2. It was named after the daughter of the manufacturer’s chairman
The Spitfire’s name is often assumed to derive from its ferocious firing capabilities. But it likely owes just as much to Sir Robert McLean’s pet name for his young daughter, Ann, who he called “the little spitfire”.
After the chairman of Vickers Aviation is thought to have proposed the name with Ann in mind, a clearly unimpressed R. J. Mitchell is quoted as saying it was “the sort of bloody silly name they would give it”. Mitchell’s preferred names apparently included “The Shrew” or “The Scarab”.
3. The Spitfire’s maiden flight was on 5 March 1936
It entered service two years later and remained in service with the RAF until 1955.
4. 20,351 Spitfires were built in total
Of these, 238 survive today across the globe, with 111 in the UK. Fifty-four of the surviving Spitfires are said to be airworthy, including 30 of those in the UK.
5. The Spitfire featured innovative semi-elliptical wings
This aerodynamically efficient Beverley Shenstone design was perhaps the Spitfire’s most distinctive feature. Not only did it deliver induced drag, but it was also thin enough to avoid excessive drag, while still able to accommodate the retractable undercarriage, armament and ammunition.
6. Its wings evolved to take on more firepower…
As the war progressed, the firepower housed in the Spitfire’s wings increased. The Spitfire I was equipped with the so-called “A” wing, which accommodated eight .303in Browning machine guns – each with 300 rounds. The “C” wing, which was introduced in October 1941, could take eight .303in machine guns, four 20mm cannon or two 20mm cannon and four machine guns.
7. …and even beer kegs
Eager to help thirsty D-Day troops, resourceful Spitfire MK IX pilots modified the plane’s bomb-carrying wings in order that they could carry beer kegs. These “beer bombs” ensured a welcome supply of altitude-chilled beer to the Allied troops in Normandy.
8. It was one of the first planes to feature retractable landing gear
This novel design feature initially caught several pilots out, however. Used to ever-present landing gear, some forgot to put it down and ended up crash landing.
9. Each Spitfire cost £12,604 to build in 1939
That’s around £681,000 in today’s money. Compared to the astronomical cost of modern fighter aircraft, this seems like a snip. The cost of a British-produced F-35 fighter jet is said to be more than £100 million!