Celebrating the Spitfire

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Elliptical wing designs provided a low thickness-to-chord ratio, as well as allowing a retractable undercarriage and an increased number of mounted weapons.

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July 14, 2008 The Supermarine Spitfire is a WWII icon – a testament to Allied engineering and innovation during one of the most important periods of aviation history. Bonham and Goodman is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Spitfire becoming operational by offering a 1945 Supermarine Spitfire MK XVI at their inaugural sale of Collector’s Motor Cars and Aircraft, in New Zealand on September 14. There are roughly 44 airworthy Spitfires in existence today, and it’s rare indeed for the general public to be given the opportunity to purchase such an important piece of history.

The story of the Spitfire begins with the story of Reginald Joseph Mitchell, an aeronautical engineer with Supermarine Aviation Works. Famous for his industrious work ethic and no-nonsense demeanor, (he was once heard to remark “If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can't understand it, take it from me: it's all balls.”), Mitchell designed 24 different aircraft between 1920 and 1936. Without his furious output during the Great Depression, it’s likely that Supermarine, and the Spitfire, would not have taken such a prominent role in the aerial dogfights of WWII. The Spitfire was originally designed as the Supermarine Type 300 fighter, a private venture design the company was kicking around in 1934. The plane impressed the Air Ministry, which solicited it in 1935, and gave it the snappier name of “Spitfire”, after the irascible daughter of Vickers-Armstrong director Sir Robert MacLean. The name could just as easily have referred to its designer, Mitchell, who in typical fashion commented that it was “just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose.”

It’s something of a tragedy that Mitchell died from cancer in 1937, before the Spitfire earned its legacy in the Battle of Britain. While the Hawker Hurricane originally outnumbered the Spitfire, the latter was the only Allied fighter produced from the outbreak of war to its conclusion. The success of the model was due to Mitchell’s unique design choices, including the distinctive curved wings. Elliptical wing designs provided a low thickness-to-chord ratio, as well as allowing a retractable undercarriage and an increased number of mounted weapons. By 1935, the design held four .303 Brownings on each wing, double the original estimate. The iconic wing structure was also a result of improving engine technology. It was originally designed to be used as a condenser tank for Merlin engines, but as they switched to all-liquid systems it became unnecessary, leaving the Spitfire with an extremely strong but hollow wing structure. The Spitfire was one of the first aircraft to use a monocoque fuselage, giving it an interior unobstructed by bracing struts and wires. This advantage made it useful as a surveillance craft in the 1950s, as cameras could be incorporated into the empty space.

The Spitfire caught national attention facing off against its German doppelganger, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, in the Battle of Britain. The Bf 109 also featured a monocoque fuselage, but its priority on performance over safety and stability gave the edge to the Spitfire. While the Bf 109 could accomplish greater aerial feats, the pilots were often reluctant to push the plane to its limits, due to the lack of a warning system. Despite the slight differences, the planes had similar capabilities when it came to speed and manoeuvrability. Still, despite mounting a larger bombing campaign than any before it, the Germans were unable to best the Spitfires and break the British air defense in what is called the first campaign to be fought entirely with air forces.

Given its history, it’s no surprise that Bonham and Goodman’s sale is generating interest amongst enthusiasts. Tim Goodman said, “We are greatly honoured to be asked to sell such a distinguished and historic aircraft. As Bonhams is the last of the great international fine art auction houses to remain under British management, the sale of an aircraft so linked to the history and very survival of Great Britain has enormous significance for us here at Bonhams and Goodman.”

If you don’t fancy your chances in the auction room, there are other recourses. The popularity of the Spitfire has created a replica industry that can provide plane buffs with the next best thing. Supermarine Aircraft has 80-90% scale Mk 26 Spitfires available for purchase. The planes arrive in kits and are suitable for first time pilots.

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