The Supermarine Spitfire was one of the legendary aircraft of all time. If you are lucky enough to see one standing still, let alone flying you can’t help but admire it’s sexy lines and sleek shape. The problem is that shape was expensive and could, if circumstance been different, cost Britain dearly.
The problem is separating the legend from the reality. This is especially true when the legend has been created a strongly as the Spitfire has. A legend that pushed almost before the Battle Of Britain ended. A legend that continues today.
I apologize for the Russian speech over the movie. Youtube deletes English versions.
The Spitfire story has a huge History behind it.
You fight a war with what you have and in 1940, the Spitfires and Hurricanes were what Britain had. The problem was that both planes were the result of mid 1930’s thinking about production and technologies. The 1930’s were, for aviation, period of great change in technologies that started with planes of wire and canvas and ended with aircraft fabricated using techniques that are more or less still used today. The problem was that in the 1930’s the manufacturing skills required to create the thousands of aircraft that would be required for war were not needed. Even in the US the numbers of any aircraft required was very low.
The Aircraft business in the 1930’s was very small. The numbers of aircraft sold was not large to the militaries of most of the world during the peace of the 1930’s and commercial aircraft were just getting started.
For instance the DC3. a very popular transport aircraft only had 600 odd produced before the war. The initial production run was 20 aircraft for TWA. This was typical for aircraft before the war. Fighters were typically bought to fill ten squadrons or less.
Now the Spitfire was designed by R.J . Mitchell following his successful Schneider Cup racers. Now the racers were built for performance and in very low numbers. Each racer was hand built and building hundreds of them just wasn’t anything that anybody thought of. What was important for a racing aircraft was lowering drag as much as possible and squeezing as much horsepower as possible. This sort of thinking drives the design. You do things differently when you are designing for ones or tens than you do when are designing for thousands.
Here’s a Spitfire flying alongside a P51. I’m going to use this as a comparison to expand upon the argument
Now the P51 was about the same size as the Spitfire, shared the same power plant for most of the war and didn’t have greatly different performance characteristics. The p51 did have one huge advantage. It was much easier to fabricate than the Spitfire. Especially when taking mass production methods into account.
Here’s a link to a site that has drawings of the Spitfire.
And here’s a couple of pics from Spitfire, The History, an exhaustive book about the Spitfire.
I don’t have as good a reference on the P51, but this link has pretty much everything covered.
Let’s compare assembly lines.
Now both of these pictures were taken in 1944, yet the plants look like they were 20 years apart. The Spitfire plant looks like it was out of the 1930’s, which it was and the P51 plant looks like it could start building F18’s as soon as they finish the P51’s. Some of that is just the American way of doing things, but far more of it has to do with the fact that the P51 was designed for large scale production from the beginning. Note how chunky the P51 is compared to the Spitfire. The P51’s design relied on standard shapes and fittings as much as possible. The P51 was design to prototype in 100 days as opposed to the years it took to design the Spitfire. The P51’s designers were also able make massive changes to the airframe and fabrication very quickly in response to wartime requirements. Perhaps most importantly, the time required to fabricate a P51 dropped throughout the war.
The Spitfire was rather different. Looking a stuff from this site, it doesn’t appear that the methods used to create the Spitfire changed much at all during the war. and production numbers remained an issue.
The technology of the Battle Of Britain It’s important to remember that the fighters that Britain deployed were only part of the technologies and operations used in the Battle of Britain. As important as the fighters were, the fact that the British were able to get them on target was easily as important
A Spitfire documentary.
And a P51 documentary.
Packard builds the Merlin
A blog written by somebody who’s creating CAD models of WW2 aircraft including the Spitfire and P51.
As was pointed out in this post, war is the ultimate disposable economy. In a war, live and treasure are expended, sometime for no real gain at all. In war only one thing matters in the end and that’s having the resources at the right place at the right time to win. It’s doesn’t matter how superior your technology and tools are if they aren’t available where and when you need them. The British came far too close to learning that the hard way in the Battle of Britain. The fact is that in 1940 they needed not 900 or so slowly built up Spitfires, but 2000 aircraft that could be built in numbers that could sustain the defense of Britain. The aircraft that were not built cost Britain temporary loss of air superiority and many lives in London and other cities. That was the true cost of the Spitfire.
In peacetime, militaries tend to get mired in programs rather than production. Weapon systems get ever more expensive as the numbers built get lower an each system becomes a jobs retention program for defense contractors. Because those systems are so expensive they get larded up with ever more requirements until you get bombers so expensive that the loss of an aircraft creates a significant injury to the defense budget, fighter aircraft so supersophisticated that they are too expensive to fly, destroyers the size of battleships and aircraft carriers that cost more than the GDP of several countries. The problem with this is that all these things are now too expensive to risk or expend and risk and expenditure are how you win.