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The Man Behind the Spitfire

Posted on Tue 21 November 2017 in Members' Views by John Kendall
The Man Behind the Spitfire

Who was R.J. Mitchell and how can we properly assess his contribution to aviation? These were just some of the questions that Master Coachmaker Tony Edwards set out to answer in his lecture, “R. J. Mitchell, the Spitfire and the Battle of Britain,” staged, appropriately, at the RAF Club in Piccadilly on 13th November. There wasn’t a spare seat in the house – filled with an equal mix of young students and Coachmakers.

The answer to some of those questions you can answer for yourself the next time you board a passenger aircraft. It is most likely to be a stressed skin, low wing monoplane design, just like the Spitfire, Mitchell’s outstanding contribution to aviation design, which flew for the first time 81 years ago.

As the Master explained, Mitchell began his engineering career with an apprenticeship in steam locomotive design in his native Stoke-on-Trent, seemingly at the opposite end of the engineering spectrum from aircraft. Born in 1895, Mitchell witnessed the dawn of powered flight which fired his enthusiasm to forge a career in this new engineering discipline. He found work designing aircraft for the small aircraft company Supermarine Aviation in 1917, based in Southampton and remained there until his untimely death in 1937.

The Spitfire was the culmination of many years work on high speed aircraft for Mitchell and his team at Supermarine. Mitchell’s drawing board was the birthplace of many aircraft designs of all types, but it was his work on the UK’s Schneider Trophy race winners – Supermarine S4 to S6b, that paved the way to the Spitfire from the mid-1920s.

Mitchell had to overcome resistance from an Air Ministry that was rooted in the aircraft of WWI – biplanes with low power and low performance. Mitchell and Supermarine’s dogged determination to show the need for speed and manoeuvrability eventually helped to re-write the rule book and the Spitfire arrived only just in time for the Battle of Britain in which it played such a decisive part.

Mitchell had a broad spectrum of engineering issues to overcome: How to produce a piston engine that could deliver the high power needed for such an aircraft and ensure durability and reliability? How to improve aerodynamics, minimise weight and provide the high-speed manoeuvrability needed to gain air superiority? All this took place at a time when materials technology and high-powered engine design were fairly rudimentary.

The Master’s talk came alive through his extensive knowledge and interest in the aerospace sector. He began his own career as a Rolls-Royce apprenticed engineer before later running a number of engineering-based companies in the UK, USA, Canada and Denmark. He could count WWII fighter aces and test pilots such as Alex Henshaw, chief test pilot for Vickers Supermarine at Castle Bromwich, where many Spitfires were built, among his friends. His R.J. Mitchell lecture benefits from many interviews that he has conducted over 25 years with those who helped develop the Spitfire and flew it in battle.

Mitchell’s untimely death robbed us of much detail about his career and it is Tony Edwards’ painstaking work that is helping to ensure that the man and his extraordinary genius for aircraft design is properly recognised. 

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