The Brilliant Design of the Elliptical Wing On the RAF Spitfire

 

Supermarine_Spitfire_Mk_XVI_NR

Supermarine Spitfire XVI at Duxford, September 2006.

 

This photograph gives a good view of the unusual ellipitical wing design of the Supermarine Spitfire. The wing was the idea of the Spitfire’s chief designer, R. J. Mitchell, and gave the aircraft many of its high performance features. R. J. Mitchell was a prodigy, being made Chief Designer of the Supermarine Aviation Works in 1919 when he was 24 years old.

g_youngmitchell_lrg

Reginald Joseph Mitchell in his younger years

(photo courtesy http://www.rjmitchell-spitfire.co.uk)

 

His wing design allowed, among other things, a turning radius smaller than that of the Spitfire’s main foe, the ME 109 also known as the BF 109. Thus, if an ME 109 was on your tail if your were flying a Spitfire, and you saw it, which pilots often did not, you could make a very tight turn with your Spitfire which the 109 could not match. Once you went into a turn the ME 109 could not get back on your tail since the ME 109 could not get inside your turning radius.

Because of the elliptical shape of the wing and Mitchell’s obsession with speed, the Spitfire was very fast for the time and once equipped with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, became the mythic weapon of the Battle of Britain. Author Stephen Bungay in The Most Dangerous Enemy sees the Spitfire in the Battle of Britain as analogous to Excalibur, the mythic sword given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake which enabled King Arthur to be always victorious  on the field of battle.

R.J. Mitchell died of cancer on 11 June 1937, age 42. He did not live to see the Spitfire fly in combat. While he was not present at the Battle of Britain, he is certainly counted among “the few” for it was his weapon which played such a major role in the British victory over the Luftwaffe. He shunned the limelight but Clio, the muse of history, has brought Reginald Mitchell to the center stage of the aviation history of World War Two.

More than 20,334 Spitfires were built before, during and for several years after the war. They cost the British government less than £5,000 per plane.

 

cockpit of Spitfire

The instrument panel and flying controls of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk II. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

 

You can read more about the life of R.J. Mitchell, the brilliant designer of 24 aircraft including the Supermarine Spitfire here:

http://www.rjmitchell-spitfire.co.uk/aboutrjmitchell/biography.asp?sectionID=1

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/