Happy Birthday Spitfire special!

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Photos: Paul Godfrey

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes manuscript is now with the editor and it’s the Spitfire’s 85th birthday! Let’s talk Spitfires!

After flying Harrier and Typhoons for the Royal Air Force, fighter pilot Paul Godfrey took the equally enviable task of flying Spitfires for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. We spoke to him to find out more. 

Of the Spitfire variants you have flown which is your favourite and why?

“An easy answer.  The BBMF Mk V, AB910.  I guess this is because this was the first Spitfire that I flew that really felt like a Spitfire.  It sounds strange, but MK356, the Mk IX, was the first I flew (AB was the second), but MK, although amazing (she was painted silver at the time and you really never get over seeing the classic elliptical wing out of the window) she didn’t feel overly different to the Hurricane.  However, I got into AB and you could immediately feel the difference in balance on the controls – they were so light!  As soon as I throttled up, the tail lifted (she is light) and we shot off.  Unbelievably manoeuvrable, I displayed at 500 feet and then 100 feet and she flew like a dream.

However, as I came into land on the short cross-runway at Coningsby, I forced the tail down to try and get her slowing down and this caused an unexpected leap to the right (apparently, she went right on landing anyway).  Before I knew it, the left wing had lifted and I arced majestically off the runway and almost hit the windsock!  I eventually got her under control and made it back to the runway.

We had an understanding after that and I always gave her a kiss before we went flying.  She never treated me badly again.

There was also a personal connection with a good friend of the flight and mine, Tony Cooper.  Tony had flown Spitfires in WWII and had actually flown AB when she was at Hibbaldstow at the end of the war.  I have never seen anything like it, when Tony came into the hangar and was reunited with her for the first time in 70 years.”

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How would you rate the cockpit for the following:

Erogomics

“I like the cockpit.  Lots of room and a fantastic view with that canopy around you – much better than the Hurricane which feels like you are sat inside a greenhouse!  The sitting position is comfortable and it is easy to reach the stick and pedals (the pedals are adjustable).”

Pilot’s view

“Very good.  It feels like you have strapped the aircraft to yourself (rather than sat inside it).  The bubble canopy on the BBMF Mk XVI TE311 reminded me of the view in the F-16!”

Comfort

“Very comfortable.  Although it does get warm in the cockpit (clearly you can open the canopy for max air-con).  The sitting position is good and the stick sits naturally in your hand.  The spade grip is very comfortable and the controls are balanced differently depending on the mark and the individual aircraft!”

Instrumentation

“Standard instrumentation you would expect in a warbird.  A large Altimeter, Attitude Indicator, Turn and Slip and Airspeed Indicator as the main instruments, with smaller engine, fuel and oxygen gauges.  The BBMF aircraft are relatively authentic, although none have working gunsights.  They do all have modern radio and IFF fits, with a small GPS built into the radio.  They also carry FLARM for collision avoidance.”

You have flown both the Typhoon and Spitfire: Imagining a situation where a guns-only fighter between a Eurofighter Typhoon and a cannon-armed Spitfire took place — which aircraft would have the advantage and why?

“Unsurprisingly the Typhoon – by a country mile.  The context is important, but everything in the Typhoon is geared to give you situational awareness.  Your radar and various sensors tell you what is around you (imagine how much they would have wanted a datalink with the air picture transmitted to them in WWII) and you have vital information and weapons solutions displayed in the visor in front of your eyes.  WWII pilots were reliant on fighter controllers (over the UK) and their own eyes – Typhoon has a huge advantage in finding the enemy.  This gives you a huge advantage.

The Typhoon pilot would know exactly where to find the Spitfire in our imaginary flight to ‘the merge’ (where the two come together and start fighting).  I will assume that the ‘guns only’ point means that Typhoon would not shoot the Spitfire down at range, but it would have the advantage entering the fight.  The pilot could fly the intercept to make use of environmental conditions to arrive behind the Spitfire unseen.

The radar on the Typhoon gives a highly accurate gun sight (it is constantly updating range aspect closure etc), so the pilot would just have to put ‘the pipper’ on and pull the trigger.  No deflection shooting – aiming off as the pilots had to in WWII because their gunsights were fixed and the cannon ‘zeroed’ at a point about 150 yards away where the bullets would converge.

If the Spitfire did manage to get into a turning fight, the Typhoon would likely make the most of its enormous power advantage and use the vertical rather than turn.  The Typhoon pilot would point straight up, light the burners, keep an eye on the Spitfire (probably the hardest thing so far given that the radar won’t be pointing at it) and look to come back down in a position of advantage (hopefully out of the sun to avoid a visual pick up).

If I was in the Spitfire, I would try and point at the Typhoon to close the range as quickly as possibly, but would be aware of the fact that if I pulled hard to turn, I would bleed a lot of my speed off and would probably have to point downhill to get it back…the Typhoon could roll in behind easily.”

Which set-ups and altitudes would the Spitfire favour?

“If I was flying the Spitfire, I would take this down to ground level (at least treetop) and try to force the Typhoon pilot into a mistake or fool the radar.  If I was ‘bounced’ at medium altitude, I would try and use clouds (although note that the radar is still going to see me).”

How would the Spitfire pilot fight?

“Turning towards the Typhoon and then using altitude below me to get speed back up (to allow me to turn).”

Who would you put your money on? 

“The Typhoon.”

— which qualities do the Typhoon and Spitfire share? 

“A great view out of the cockpit.  Very nice handling.  A responsive engine(s).”

What is the best thing about the Spitfire?

“Compared to the other fighters of the day, it was the turn performance and its ability to climb to altitude relatively quickly.  The advantage of altitude (view, potential energy, fuel efficiency) cannot be overstated.”

.…and the worst? 

” Aircon.  The cockpits would have been roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter.”

Which of the Spitfire variants you have flown is the best in the following categories: 

Instantaneous turn rates 

“The Mk II and V because they were lighter.”

Sustained turn rates

“The Mk XIX because it Is so powerful.”

Weapons platform (informed guess)

“Later marks because they engines had more power, therefore they could carry more/better calibres.”

Acceleration

“Early mark Spitfires, although the MkXIX is ridiculously powerful (but heavier). ”

Top speed

“Mk XIX.”

Take-off characteristics

“Mk IX – not too powerful (where you need a large rudder to counter the gyro effect) and not too light which can be ‘skittish’.”

Landing characteristics

“Mk IX.  Certainly the BBMF Mk IX (MK356) was very docile on landing.”

Climb rate

“Mk XIX – the 1945 equivalent of the Typhoon.”

Range

“Mk XIX.  Designed for long range high altitude flight.”

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What’s the biggest myth about flying the Spitfire?

“That you need to be a very experienced pilot to do it.  It is just like flying any other aircraft.  In 1939 and through the war, 18-20 year olds would fly it.  The issue today is the cost of repairing should something go wrong…so it is better to use more experienced pilots.  It was a war of national survival in 1939 and you could replace a pilot or aircraft.”

What should I have asked you?

“Have I ever said ‘dagga dagga dagga’ whilst pretending to shoot down another aircraft?  Clearly the answer is yes!”

Describe your most memorable flight in a Spitfire? 

“A tricky question as so many spring to mind.  You never forget the first time you take off and see the legendary elliptical wing through the canopy, however I think the one that I talk about the most (and have mentioned on @pilotepisodepod) is flying from Goodwood on 16 Sep 2012.  I’d been at Goodwood for the weekend, the first time I had visited the Revival.  I had flown MK356 (the BBMF Mk IX) in on the Friday evening.  I had last landed at Goodwood in 1989 on a solo cross country in a Cessna whilst 17 and doing my PPL) and so to land there in a Spitfire on a Friday evening, where you could see the blue flames in the exhaust stacks was a dream come true.  On the Sunday I was tasked with a flypast of Westminster Abbey for the annual Battle of Britain Service and I was also flying my favourite aircraft AB910.

I took off out of Goodwood and the weather was amazing (the visibility was so good you could see the back of your head!) and headed up to the east end of London where I was due to meet Andy Millikin in the Hurricane.  Unfortunately, he had a brake issue and so it was just me on my own.  I could see the London eye and set off on time.  Flypasts can be tricky to get the route and timing right and even Westminster Abbey is difficult to spot, but I knew if I could make it to the Eye, then I wold be ok.  As I approached central London, I was ‘on track on time’ and began to relax and really take in the sights.  I could actually see the people in the London Eye as I flew past clearly wondering what on earth a Spitfire was doing there.  I found the Abbey and did a large wingover to change direction (a flypast wasn’t allowed) and could see the assembled masses, including many of the surviving Battle of Britain veterans down there watching.  It honestly brought a lump to my throat.”

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I departed London to the South West, overflying Wimbledon Centre Court and then down to Goodwood and landed during a gap in the motor racing.  As I taxied the Spitfire to a halt in the replica Battle of Britain dispersal, at a Battle of Britain airfield having flown over central London and seen Battle of Britain veterans looking up at me, I realised what a special trip that had been.  I joined the RAF because I saw a Spitfire and Hurricane at the Kenley Airshow in 1978 as a 6 year old and became fascinated by the aircraft and pilots.  To be able to honour them in that way 34 years later was truly amazing and made me realise how lucky I am.”

ONE DAY ONLY: Support the Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes and pre-order here. Use SPITFIRE20 on March 5th for a 20% discount

What is the biggest myth about the Typhoon?
“Cost. It can be more cost-effective to own, maintain and operate than pretty
much anything else in its class. The comparison data is in the public domain if
you look in the right places.”

Where? “The data is out there in the public domain.  No further comment from Klax here.”

What should I have asked you? “What is like to wear a business suit instead of a flying suit? But that’s a whole new interview.”

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“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

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Spitfire versus Messerschmitt Bf 109: A comparison of the Spitfire and the Bf 109 in the early years of World War II

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This is a question that often comes up in discussions on airpower in World War II: how did the two iconic fighters of the War—The British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109—compare? Was either machine demonstrably better? In the following article, I evaluate the two on the basis of six rectally extracted parameters that I think are important in fighter-versus-fighter comparisons. The scope of the assessment has been limited to the period between 1939 and 1941, when these aircraft fought each other on roughly even terms. So we shall mostly stick to the variants that were in service in this timeframe: the Spitfire 1A/B and Spitfire V; the Bf 109E and F.

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KINEMATIC PERFORMANCE

“…the Me 109F has a slightly superior performance to the Spitfire V”

– Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, September 1941.

“I also thought the Bf 109F was slightly superior to the Spitfire V”,

– Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, circa 1941.

The Bf 109, in its initial avatars, was generally regarded as marginally superior to contemporaneous variants of the Spitfire. At low to medium altitudes, where much of the air combat in the early war occurred, the Bf 109 had the upper hand. However, the Spitfire was superior at higher altitudes. This was chiefly because its Rolls Royce Merlin engine had a higher critical altitude (the altitude at which the supercharger is operating at full capacity, and beyond which engine power rapidly decreases) than the Messerschmitt’s Daimler-Benz DB 601.

The Bf 109 employed several advanced technologies that gave it an edge. For instance, its DB 601 engine was equipped with an automatic variable-speed supercharger that ensured better power delivery from the engine. The Bf 109E-3’s supercharger, for instance, gave it a 200 hp advantage over the Spitfire 1A at low altitude. The engine also utilised fuel-injection technology, which allowed the aircraft to pitch forward into a dive; the Merlin’s carburettor would stall the engine if this were attempted in a Spitfire. The Spitfire therefore had to roll over and dive, which cost precious seconds in combat. Yet another example would be automatic leading-edge slats that prevented the Bf 109 from going into a stall at low speeds or in high-G turns.

The Spitfire’s advantages were its tighter turning circle and faster turn rate, which allowed it to outmanoeuvre the Bf 109 in the horizontal plane. But the Bf 109, owing to its higher climb rate, could sustain climbing turns that the Spitfire was unable to keep up with. This gave German pilots more freedom to engage and disengage from dogfights with British fighters. Two quotes illustrate this advantage rather well:

“When it comes to fighter vs. fighter and the struggle for the altitude gauge, we must expect for the time being to be at a disadvantage as compared with the improved Me-109 [this is the Bf 109F, being compared to the Spitfire V] we are now meeting”

– Memo to Air Marshal Sholto Douglas, AOC-in-C Fighter Command, from the Senior Staff Air Officer, April 1941.

“I preferred the 109F because it flew well at any altitude, was fast as most . . . had a superior rate of climb and could dive very well. Most of all, it instilled confidence in its pilot.”

– Franz Stigler, date unknown.

 Top 10 fighters of World War II here

The Bf 109F-3 and F-4 models, introduced around mid-1941, improved on the E models with the help of the more powerful DB-601E engine. The new engine gave the aircraft a 30 km/h speed advantage over the Spitfire V. They also featured improved high-altitude performance; their critical altitude was 1,000 feet higher than that of the Bf 109Es.

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RANGE

Combat ranges were comparable. Both designs were initially designed to defend airbases against enemy bombing, and that was reflected in their range figures on internal fuel—680 km for the Spitfire I A/B and about 660 km for the Bf 109E.

The Bf 109 was the first to be forced into an offensive role: first as a fighter that would provide top cover to an advancing German Army, and later as an escort for Luftwaffe bombers attacking Britain. The lack of range proved to be a major constraint in the second instance. It is well known by now that a Bf 109 taking off from Northern France had about 10 minutes of flying time over London, not nearly enough to battle it out with RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes. What isn’t so well known is that this was when the planes undertook independent fighter sweeps. When tasked with as bomber escorts, the need to fly at sub-optimal altitudes and speeds often increased fuel consumption to the point where the 109s were forced to return to France before the bombers had reached their objectives.

Spitfires tasked to carry out offensive fighter sweeps and raids over Northern France in 1941 faced the same issue. The reason Fighter Command didn’t suffer very heavy losses was that the Luftwaffe was by then fighting over Russia. The few fighters left to defend the western front seldom rose up to meet the RAF’s challenges.

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ARMAMENT

Armament-wise, neither aircraft ever had a clear advantage over the other. But it is still useful to study how the initial designs started off, and how the rapidly changing requirements of a modern air war forced changes to the weapon fit.

Both machines where primarily designed with aerodynamic performance in mind, with armament being a secondary consideration. They therefore made use of thin, tapering wings. These were excellent for speed and turning performance, but bad for firepower. There simply wasn’t any space to mount machine guns (leave alone cannon) in the wings.

The Supermarine Type-300 (an early prototype of what would become the Spitfire) was initially designed to be armed with only two machine guns. The Bf 109 wasn’t very different. The German the aviation ministry (RLM) specified two rifle-calibre (7.92 mm) machine-guns that the biplanes of the mid-30s carried. These were easy enough to concentrate in the nose. Willy Messerschmitt always wanted his fighter to be “a true application of light construction principles”. By mounting the guns in the nose and attaching the cantilever undercarriage to the fuselage rather than the wings, he could make use of a small, simple, low-drag wing that could be detached easily for maintenance and road transport.

However, this relevance on a mere two machine-guns was to change. The RAF’s requirements branch came to believe that two machine guns were inadequate to shoot down modern metal-skinned fighters, and in 1935, the RAF specified that it wanted eight machine guns on all new fighters. It was also asserted that this was an interim requirement. Follow-on designs would have to be armed with cannon. This was easy enough to accommodate in the Hurricane’s thick wings. But the Type-300’s thin, tapering wings had to be abandoned in favour of elliptical wings to house the increased armament. The Germans reached similar conclusions in combat over Spain. The Bf 109 would require cannon armament to damage metal airframes.

But this was easier said than done. The requirement for increased firepower led to persistent teething troubles with the armament of both aircraft well into their service lives. The Spitfire’s machine guns tended to freeze solid from the cold at high altitudes (this issue also affected Hurricanes). Initially, Fighter Command had Spitfires take off with adhesive tape covering the gunports in order to prevent the condensation from entering and icing the gun barrels. This did not always work. Later, a portion of the engine exhaust was ducted into the wing to heat the guns. This system proved to be mechanically complex and unreliable. It wasn’t until electric heating was introduced that the issue was fully resolved. Integrating 20mm cannon was also a great challenge. The belt that fed rounds to the weapon would frequently jam. The technical issues plaguing the Spitfire 1B proved so problematic that the type was withdrawn from service and replaced by the 1A.

Following feedback from pilots of the Condor Legion, Messerschmitt also modified the Bf 109 prototypes with a 20 mm cannon mounted between the engine cylinder banks, firing through the propeller hub. However, the vibration from the cannon was so severe that it proved to be unworkable. This problem was resolved much later in the war. In the meantime, several alternatives were trialled. The Bf 109B utilised an engine-mounted machine gun in place of the cannon. This, too, proved to be problematic. The Bf 109C featured a redesigned wing to accommodate two 7.92 mm machine guns, with ammunition boxes stored in the fuselage. The system worked in tests, but failed under the strain of air combat. The Bf 109D carried four guns – two in the nose and two under the wings. Bf 109E-1s carried the same armament. The E-3 models, though, were equipped with a 20 mm cannon under each wing, installed in two streamlined blisters along with a 60-round ammunition drum. Finally, the issues with the engine-mounted cannon were resolved in the F-4 model, which flew with a 20mm cannon that proved to be very accurate.

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PILOT FRIENDLINESS AND HANDLING

In terms of ease of operation, there were advantages and shortcomings to both designs. The Spitfire’s bubble canopy and large mirrors offered excellent views and better situational awareness to the pilot. The Bf 109s angular canopy with its thick frame fell short. On the other hand, the Bf 109’s Revi gunsight was far ahead of the early Spitfire’s ring-and-bead type sight. It eliminated parallax errors and made deflection shots more accurate. The aircraft’s engine and propeller controls were also more automated, which reduced pilot workload.

On the flip side, the Bf 109’s small size made the cockpit very cramped. Not only was it uncomfortable, it also restricted the force that pilots could apply on the controls, with obvious effects on flight performance. Post-war testing by the RAF revealed that under certain conditions, the force that pilots could exert on the Bf 109’s control column was only 40% of what they could apply in the Spitfire. In an era when hydraulically boosted controls were not available, this was a serious deficiency. The Spitfire’s two-step rudder pedals also allowed the pilot to raise his feet high during high-G manoeuvring, delaying the onset of blackout. The Bf 109 had no such pedals.

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The Bf 109 also suffered from handling challenges, both in the air as well as on the ground. The most critical one was the issue with its undercarriage. There were two major problems with the landing gear design that caused serious losses of Bf 109s on take-off and landing. One was the tendency to ground loop. The Bf 109’s canted undercarriage often caused aircraft on landing runs to suddenly spin around and suffer serious damage if one wheel lost traction. On rough airstrips that were cobbled together in the later stages of the war, this problem was particularly acute.

Secondly, Willy Messerschmitt wanted his aircraft structures to be as light as possible. That structure lacked the strength to endure hard landings. As the Bf 109’s received more powerful engines and armament, it got heavier, which led to increased wing loading and higher landing speeds. That put additional strains on the landing gear. The result was that quite often, even experienced pilots ended up collapsing the undercarriage. In 1939 alone, the Bf 109 fleet suffered 255 landing accidents that resulted in damage to the airframe. The Spitfire, Hurricane, and Fw-190, with their “vertical” landing gear and heavier structures, fared much better.

ABILITY TO UPGRADE

The changing nature of the air war over Europe drove a slew of upgrade programmes for both aircraft. But the Spitfire—with its larger airframe, stronger structure, and superior engine—was better able to support the installation of advanced engines, armour, and heavier armament.

The Spitfire IX, often seen as the ultimate evolution of the type, was able to outclass the Bf 109G as well as the newer Focke-Wulf Fw 190A in combat. Its superlative Merlin 61 engine (powered by 100-octane fuel of US origin) gave it a 110 hp advantage over the DB 605-powered Bf 109G at sea level. But it truly came into its own at high altitude: At 30,000 feet, its two-stage supercharger gave it a whopping 300 hp advantage over its German counterpart. Further, its armament of two 20mm cannon and four 0.303 inch machine guns packed a formidable punch against not just aircraft, but also ground targets.

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The Bf 109’s simplicity and light weight, however, proved to be its Achilles heel. Accommodating a more powerful engine, increased armament, new radios, and armour plate within the Bf-109G’s tiny airframe was a major challenge. The aircraft’s small cowling was inadequate for heat dissipation, which made the DB 605 engine prone to overheating and catching fire. Its firepower was only about half of what the Spitfire IX carried: two nose-mounted 7.92mm machine guns in the G-1 variant (upgraded to 13mm guns in the G-5) and one 20mm cannon firing through the propeller hub.

With the steady increase in weight, the Bf-109G’s handling qualities suffered. As the wing loading increased, so did the demands on brute muscle power to actuate the controls. Capt. Eric Brown, a Royal Navy test pilot who evaluated a captured Bf-109G, commented that “in a dive at 400 mph, the controls felt as though they had seized!” The addition of a water-methanol tank—whose contents were injected into the engine to provide a short burst of additional power—adversely affected the centre-of-gravity and made handing unpredictable in some portions of the flight envelope. The uparmed BF-109G-6, often equipped with 20mm or 30mm underwing cannon to attack Allied bombers, proved so sluggish in combat, that its pilots nicknamed it the Kanonenboot (Gunboat).

The larger, structurally stronger Spitfire IX suffered no such problems. Indeed, the powerful Merlin 61 and four-bladed propeller allowed it to outrun, out-turn, and out-climb the Bf-109G. The ‘quantum leap’ in performance that the Spitfire IX achieved over the Bf-109G was never reversed.

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Ease of manufacture

This is one area where the Bf 109 comes out the clear winner. The Spitfire’s complex design, coupled with Supermarine’s utter lack of experience with modern production line techniques made Spitfire production problematic. Its elliptical wing proved to be difficult to fabricate. Delays in transferring knowledge and drawings to various subcontractors slowed down production. And the fine tolerances demanded by the design team—not something that British industry was used to—led to quality issues. The company faced major schedule slippages in delivering the initial batch of 310 fighters, and the RAF at one point considered cancelling the order outright. The Bf 109’s transition to production, on the other hand, was very smooth. The RLM was able to have it mass-manufactured without much of a hassle.

This disparity is clearly visible when you look at the numbers. In January 1940, it took 15,000 man-hours to build a Spitfire 1A and 9,000 to build a Bf 109E. By 1942, that gap had only widened. The Bf 109F needed only 4,000 man-hours to build whereas the Spitfire Mk V required 13,000.

In a Wehrmacht that had increasingly begun to equip itself with poorly conceived, overly-complicated weapons whose paper performance was never quite realised in the field (*cough* Me-262 *cough*), the Bf 109 stood out as a rare example of German engineering that was cheap, reliable, maintainable, and easy to manufacture—all while delivering superb performance on the battlefield. There’s a reason that more than 34,000 were built despite the Germans’ severe mismanagement of production resources at the strategic level. It remains to this day the third most produced aircraft in the world.

My favourite Spitfire #1 – Spitfire Mk XIV by Paul Beaver

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For some time, I have trying to decide which is my favourite of the 73 variants or sub-variants of that most iconic of fighter aeroplanes, the Spitfire. Now I have the opportunity to put my thoughts on paper and it has been most rewarding.

Like many pilots, the first thought is to the aeroplane of which one has personal experience. That would be the Mk IX with both Merlin 66 and Packard-Merlin 266 engines. But what about the Mk V with floats? As a seaplane pilot, I love the challenge of operating off water in such a powerful machine. Then, my thoughts went to those young men who were the spear tip of the Battle of Britain defence of the country, so the Spitfire Mk IIa. The high flying and super-fast PR Mk XI perhaps whose pilots showed another type of courage to go unarmed deep over enemy territory. There’s event the Seafire FR Mk 47 from the Korean war, surely the ultimate warbird of the whole family.

But in the end, it was the Spitfire Mk XIV which won out. I am not alone in thinking the Griffon-powered, bubble-canopy fighter is a favourite. Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown thought so too. Whenever the Spitfire was mentioned, he would talk about low level trials in the Mk VIII or flying high over France in a Mk IX with the Canadians. I have not had those privileges but I am now sure the Mk XIV is the one and as Eric would say “it was the best fighter of the Second World War”.

Paul Beaver FRAeSAuthor of SPITFIRE PEOPLEThe Men & Women who made the Spitfire the Aviation Icon

My favourite Spitfire #2: Like a Duck to Weightlifting, the Seafire LIII

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The Spitfire wasn’t a natural carrier aircraft, the undercarriage was weak and narrow, and the fuselage was fragile; the endurance made a permanent combat air patrol impossible if the carrier had to be somewhere other than where the wind was coming from. Fortunately, by the time the Mk III was released to service most of these flaws had been addressed…in the same way credit card debt can be addressed by getting more credit cards.  The extra metal of the tail hook, and reinforced fuselage, put the Centre of Gravity right at the aft limit of acceptability. The fix was a 3-lb mass added to the control column that pulled it forwards under g, preventing the pilot pulling too tight a turn (which could make the wings fall off).  But by putting the Merlin 55M into the LIII, Supermarine also created the fastest naval fighter of the war below 10,000 feet – where the majority of naval interceptions took place (presumably because that’s where most of the ships were).  Around 20mph faster than the Hellcat or Corsair at 6000’, both of which were at least 40mph faster than the Zero, it was also the only one that could out-climb the Zero.  In the final days of the war the Seafire LIII flew low level combat air patrols over the fleet as the last layer of defence against the Kamikaze threat, as well as escorting strike missions leading it to claim the last aerial victory of the war over Tokyo Bay.  The Griffon Seafires may have had more power, which caused its own problems, but none would be as iconic as an LIII in British Pacific Fleet markings screaming over the waves at low level.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student.  He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

My Favourite Spitfire #3 – the Mk.XIV

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Instead of the dainty archetypal Merlin Spitfires, I have always preferred the Griffon powered variants and my favourite is probably the Mk XIV. I love the brutish quality it has when compared to earlier marks with that long, long nose topped off with a five-bladed propeller, the most aesthetically pleasing number of blades. I like its relative obscurity: no Battle of Britain, no Douglas Bader. I love that it was available as a FROG kit complete with a V-1 for it to chase. Like nearly all the most successful Spitfire variants, it was an ad-hoc lash-up, a 2035 hp Griffon 65 bolted onto a barely modified Mk VIII airframe with a potentially dangerous swing on take-off replacing the totally innocuous handling of the Merlin Spitfires. 

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It was an outstanding aircraft. First combat occurred on 7 March 1944, three months before the showoff P-51D, an aircraft offering 600 less horsepower than the Spitfire and unable to best it it in any performance parameter with the sole exception (critically) of range. In RAF comparative trials against a Mustang III, Tempest V, Me 109G and Fw 190, the Mk XIV possessed “the best all-round performance of any present-day fighter”. But the main appeal for me remains aesthetic, I prefer the high-back non-bubble canopy version coupled with the clipped wingtips that seem almost crude in their abruptness. The whole thing exudes a murderous sense of purpose when compared to the early marks, and finally made the Spitfire look like what it is: a weapon.

— Edward Ward

My Favourite Spitfire #4 by The Aviationist’s David Cenciotti

Few things say ‘Britain’ and ‘aviation’ more than the Supermarine Spitfire. This aircraft has become the icon of a time. Its fame has crossed well beyond the borders of the British Isles and Europe reaching people in different continents and times. Nowadays, the aircraft is part of popular culture. ‘Spitfire’ has become a synonym for World War II fighter aircraft in a similar way to that has made Cessna the generic name for every small, single engine piston-powered aircraft, no matter the actual type or manufacturer. I’m pretty sure I can ask my father or my son “have you ever seen a Spitfire?” and get a “yes” as an answer. Indeed, everyone knows the ‘Spit’.

Although I’m not particularly keen on World War II aircraft (to be honest I’m a technology geek and tend to focus on modern fighters from Generation three onwards) the Spitfire is surely the foreign aircraft from World War II that I love the most. Neither the fastest, not even the most manoeuvrable, nor the sturdiest aircraft of the War — the Spitfire is to my eyes one of the most beautiful. Her gentle curves, attractive aerodynamic shape and signature wing have even contributed to her success because, you know, ‘beautiful aircraft fly better’. I can’t exactly remember when I first saw the iconic aircraft. It must have been at an airshow in the UK or at her ‘home’ at Duxford. Still, I’m sure about the last time I saw one — it was not too long ago, when I once again visited the marvellous Italian Air Force Museum in Vigna di Valle near Rome that hosts a restored —and controversial – because of the slightly modified camouflaged colour scheme — Spitfire Mk. IX in the markings of the 5° Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare. What an amazing plane!

David David Cenciotti is the creator of The Aviationist 

My favourite Spitfire #5 – Supermarine Spitfire P.R. Mk. XI

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In World War II, aerial photo reconnaissance was scientific — a rigorous and methodical observation of the enemy’s strength. The Photo Reconnaissance Spitfire became the chief Allied tool of this undertaking, alongside the de Havilland Mosquito. Allied aerial reconnaissance gave the Manhattan Project and Bletchley Park a run for their war-winning money for its scale and cleverness. Within this effort, the Supermarine Spitfire excelled as an intelligence-gathering machine whose pilots had a secretive, heroic job performed alone over enemy territory.

The Spitfire, born as a fighter, roared into this new role with alacrity. Before even the Battle of Britain it was serving the PR mission with aplomb. Cameras, with lenses wider than our heads, displaced guns. This brought extra capacity for missions eventually to Norwegian fjords, radar sites in occupied France, German industrial cities. Never glamorous in appearance, the P.R. Spits wore mostly grey-blue or dull pink paint schemes, like something from our stealthy era.

Pride of the Kriegsmarine, the battleship Bismarck, was spotted readying for her fatal high seas debut by a P.R. Spitfire pilot. The very last Royal Air Force operational flight by a Spitfire utilised a P.R. Version, in 1954! All the milestone editions of the Spitfire included camera-equipped versions. The P.R. Mark XI, in the very middle of the Spitfire line, is a wonderful thing. Look for camera ports, pointy fin and rudder and an enlargement to the underside of the nose for the bigger engine oil tank needed on those long, cold flights that helped win a war.

Stephen Caulfield is a civilian employee of the Salvation Army “stationed” on the frontlines of North American consumer insanity in a modern recycling plant where he finds the occasional Spitfire.

My Favourite Spitfire #6 the Mk.VIII

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Colour photos: Jim Smith 

“My favourite fighter was the Spitfire VIII with clipped wings. It had power and good armament. It could roll quickly and out-turn any enemy fighter we encountered.” 

 —  Robert Bracken, Spitfire, The Canadians

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“The Mk VIII lacks the fame of its relatives.  It did not fight in the Battle of Britain as did the Mk I and II.  It was not built in the greatest numbers; that was the 6,787-fold Mk V.  It did not reset the balance against the Focke-Wulf 190 in 1942; that was the immortal Mk IX’s achievement.  Yet the Mk VIII deserves attention.  As was not uncommon in the tangled Spitfire family, the Mk VIII entered service 13 months after the Mk IX.  It was the intended successor to the (rather out performed) Mk V but necessity prompted the very successful interim option of the Mk IX that remained competitive from its introduction in mid 1942 to the end of the war. 

The Mk VIII was the most advanced Merlin powered Spitfire.  It was designed from the start for the two-stage 60-series engine and had a beefed up fuselage structure to handle the increased weight and power.  It carried more fuel (leading edge tanks) and had the retractable tail wheel (designed for the Mk III) that cut drag and cleaned up the aft lines. 

 Later versions featured the bigger fin and rudder (for lateral stability) with a better proportioned outline that the original, rather minimal design.  In short, it had the performance of the Mk IX and the best looks of any Spitfire, Merlin or Griffon powered.  It was suave, refined and very effective; the finest of the Merlin generation. 

Paul Stoddart served in the Royal Air Force as an aerosystems engineer officer and now works for the Ministry of Defence.  His interests include air power and military aircraft from the 1940s onward.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.  

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How to draw a Spitfire

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One of the hardest aeroplanes to draw well is the Spitfire. We turned to WestlandWyvernophile and aeroplane drawerer par excellence Ted Ward to show us the way.

“Don’t bother, they’re impossibly difficult, that’s my advice.

Actually, although everyone always goes on about the wings, beautiful though they are, they are not an overly complicated shape to render convincingly. The main stumbling block in my opinion is the fin and rudder on the early models. It’s a really odd shape. Griffon marks are easier to draw.The other thing I think that people should take into account is that the Spitfire has a quite pronounced dihedral angle on the wing and there is a tendency amongst some to flatten them. You see it a lot on built model kits. And in the less well-drawn Commando picture libraries. Here’s a good example:

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To be fair virtually everything is wrong with that image but dihedral is one of those things.However one of the Fleetway artists (no idea of name – they never get credited) drew some of the most consistently pleasing Spitfire drawings I have ever seen.

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Perhaps the most useful resource I have for you though is Frank Wootton’s splendid little 1941 volume How to Draw ‘Planes. Scans depict how to draw a Spitfire.

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And ‘Spitfires against Alto-Cirrus’ which is a painting. No idea where this painting might actually be though. Furthermore I contend that it is a lot more difficult to draw alto-cirrus than any aircraft from the 1939-45 period.

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It’s funny, since writing that about the Fleetway artist doing consistently good Spitfires, I have noticed that on the one on the left he (I’m guessing it’s a man, but I’m not sure) has put the tailwheel in completely the wrong place. Huh. He still shits all over the competition though. Apparently he just wanted to fuck and burn!”

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