Tuesday, 28 March 2017

R. J. Mitchell – no Flash in the Pan

The slightest reflection would suggest that the design of the Spitfire had been preceded by considerable experience of high speed flight and the winning of the Schneider Trophy four times. However, a listing of his most significant contributions to aviation reveals promise even as early as the 1920s: 

·      his Commercial Amphibian of 1920 won an enhanced award at the Air Ministry competition for commercial, amphibian, flying-boats. This aircraft was his first independent design and, although it came second to the Vickers Viking, the second prize of £4000 was doubled in recognition of the promise that the aircraft had shown;
·      his modification and up-rating of an earlier company machine, the Sea Lion II, won the Schneider Trophy competition for Britain in 1922;
·      his small fleet of Sea Eagle flying-boats constituted the first British scheduled flying-boat service, operating between Southampton and the Channel Isles between 1923 and 1928;
·      his Swan (1924), a larger scale development of the Commercial Amphibian and which joined the Sea Eagle fleet, was claimed by Supermarine to be the world’s first multi-engined amphibian passenger-carrying machine;
·      the above flying-boat service was incorporated into the newly formed Imperial Airways Ltd. in 1924;
·      his Scarab (also 1924) equipped the Royal Spanish Air Force with an aircraft which, for its time, represented a formidable amphibious bomber gun-ship. This order represented a significant step towards establishing Supermarine as a prosperous aircraft company;
·      in 1925, his Southampton flying-boat, a military development of the Swan, was ordered (unusually)  straight off the drawing-board and became the standard RAF coastal reconnaissance aircraft, replacing the less satisfactory machines of World War I.  Pilots reported that they were trouble free and ‘a joy to fly’ and Jane’s described the design as ‘one of the most notable successes in post-war design’. A total of twenty-four Mk.Is were built and marked real stability and prosperity for Supermarine. Its trend-setting upswept rear hull attracted the comment that it had ‘certainly the most beautiful hull ever built; 
·      in the same year, Mitchell also produced his S.4 Schneider Trophy racer which revolutionized the design of virtually all successive competition entries: he moved, in one bold step, from wire braced biplanes  to a cantilever monoplane. Compared with the top speed of 175 mph claimed for his Sea Lion in 1923, the S.4 gained the World Speed Record for Seaplanes and the outright British Speed Record for all types with 226.75 mph two years later;
·      in 1926 Mitchell appointed one of the first metallurgists to the aircraft industry and his metal-hulled Southampton II led the way towards all-metal aircraft construction. A total of 79 metal-hulled machines were produced as well as numerous hulls for retro-fitting to the wooden-hulled Mark I, even further enhancing the prosperity and status of Supermarine;
·      the increased efficiency of the Mk.II Southampton led the RAF to create a special Far East Flight of four machines which completed a 27,000 mile cruise between October 1927 and February 1928 to Singapore and around Australia (which had only been visited by aircraft on four previous occasions and only circumnavigated by one earlier machine). The 62 time-tabled stages were completed by all the aircraft – as Supermarine publicity said, ‘108,000 machine miles giving no trouble of any consequence’ and as The Daily Mail said: the flight will rank as one of the greatest feats in the history of aviation’;
·      In 1930, Supermarine were awarded a contract (later cancelled for economic reasons by the Government) to build the largest flying-boat in the world – with a greater wingspan than the famous Dornier Do.X and only to be surpassed by the Hughes H-4 Hercules of 1947;
·      by this time, Mitchell had designed his next two Schneider Trophy racers, the S.5 and S.6 which, respectively, won the 1927 and 1929 contests. In the following event of 1931, his uprated S.6B won the trophy outright and later went on the set a new Absolute Air Speed Record of 407.5 mph. This last machine was now of entirely metal, stressed skin, construction.
     Mitchell was now described in Supermarine publicity as ‘one of the leading flying-boat, amphibian and high-speed seaplane designers in the country, had been invited to give a talk on the B.B.C., had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and awarded the C.B.E. (aged 36);
·      in 1934, the last of his medium-sized amphibians, the Walrus, was ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force and, in the following year, by the Royal Air Force; eventually a total of 746 were built. It became the standard fleet-spotter  and provided the armed forces with their slowest aircraft  –as well as the fastest which, of course, was the Spitfire;

·    The prototype Spitfire of 1936 marked a dramatic increase of over 100 mph over the most recent RAF fighter in service and Supermarine received an even more dramatic initial order of 310, three months later. Mitchell died, aged 42, without seeing the fighter go into squadron service and without knowing that nearly 23,000 examples were built and in a multitude of main variants.

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For details of the aircraft mentioned, see my other blogposts.

For reference sources, see my Blogpost: “Source Material and References" – an extended bibliography is included in my R.J.Mitchell at Supermarine; Schneider Trophy to Spitfire which also provides material for wider reading, grouped according to specific areas of interest. 

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