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The way we were

Posted by Richard Sunday, March 05, 2006

This day, exactly seventy years ago, at 4.35 pm on 5 March 1936, the first ever Spitfire lifted from the grass strip at Eastleigh Airport, home of Supermarine Aircraft, on its maiden flight.

In the hands of Captain "Mutt" Summers, the flight lasted just eight minutes. Afterwards, he stepped from the aircraft and tersely conveyed to the assembled crew that he had found no problems - then he added "I don't want anything touched" - and so the first official Spitfire was born, the cost of development to that date amounting to the sum of £14,637.

This was the aircraft, alongside the Hawker Hurricane, which was to play a pivotal part in winning the Battle of Britain in 1940. Back in 1936, so impressed was the Air Ministry with it that, even before the full test programme had been completed they issued a contract for 310 Spitfires on 3 June 1936.

The aircraft alone, however – superb though it was – would never have performed without the parallel development of the 12-cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin engine. But there were two other developments which gave it the edge over the Messerschmitt bf 109 – one British, the other American.

The first was the three-bladed, variable-pitch propellor, manufactured by Rotol, and the other was leaded petrol. A consignment of the vital tetra-ethyl lead was rushed over to the UK, just before the Battle of Britain. With it, Roll Royce were able to increase the power of their Merlins, which gave the aircraft those extra few knots that made all the difference.

Behind the fighters, of course, there was that other British invention, the chain of early-warning radars, linked in with a then unique system of fighter control, which enabled the embattled Royal Air Force to prevail against the greater might of the hitherto unbeaten Luftwaffe.

Interestingly, seventy years later, the Spitfire has come in the top three in the Design Museum contest for greatest British design since 1900, the other two being Harry Beck's 1931 London Underground map and, perversely, the Anglo-French Concorde.

In a hundred years time, if the Design Museum runs another contest, this one for the greatest British design since 2000, you can almost guarantee that there will not be a Spitfire-equivalent. In this era of European "co-operation", the days when we built our own war machines have long gone.

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