Best known for designing the iconic Supermarine Spitfire, British Aeronautical Engineer Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE, FRAeS, was born 20 May 1895. In 1917 he joined the Supermarine Aviation Works at Southampton. Advancing quickly within the company, Mitchell was appointed Chief Designer in 1919. He was made Chief Engineer in 1920 and Technical Director in 1927. He was so highly regarded that, when Vickers took over Supermarine in 1928, one of the conditions was that Mitchell stay as a designer for the next five years. Between 1920 and 1936, Mitchell designed 24 aircraft including light aircraft, fighters and bombers. As Supermarine was primarily a seaplane manufacturer, this included a number of flying boats such as the Supermarine Sea Eagle, the Supermarine Sea King, the Supermarine Walrus and Supermarine Stranraer. However, he is best remembered for his work on a series of racing aircraft, which culminated in the Supermarine S.6B, and the famous Supermarine Spitfire short range Interceptor/fighter.
The S.6B was a British racing seaplane developed by Mitchell for the Supermarine company to take part in the Schneider Trophy competition of 1931. The S.6B marked the culmination of Mitchell’s quest to “perfect the design of the racing seaplane” and was the last in the line of racing seaplanes developed by Supermarine that followed the S.4, S.5 and the Supermarine S.6.The S.6B won the Trophy in 1931 and later broke the world air speed record. Mitchell was awarded the CBE in 1932 for his contribution to high-speed flight.
In 1931 the Air Ministry issued specification F7/30 for a fighter aircraft to replace the Gloster Gauntlet. Mitchell’s proposed design, the Type 224 was one of three designs for which the Air Ministry ordered prototypes. The Supermarine Spitfire prototype, K5054, first flew on 19 February 1934, but was eventually rejected by the RAF because of its unsatisfactory performance. While the 224 was being built, Mitchell was authorised by Supermarine in 1933 to proceed with a new design, the Type 300, an all-metal monoplane that would become the Supermarine Spitfire. This was originally a private venture by Supermarine, but the RAF quickly became interested and the Air Ministry financed a prototype. The first prototype Spitfire, serial K5054, flew for the first time on 5 March 1936 at Eastleigh, Hampshire. In later tests, it reached 349 mph, consequently, before the prototype had completed its official trials, the RAF ordered 310 production Spitfires.
The Spitfire was built in many variants, using several wing configurations, and was produced in greater numbers than any other British aircraft. It was also the only British fighter to be in continuous production throughout the war. During the Battle of Britain (July–October 1940), the Spitfire was perceived by the public to be the RAF fighter, though the more numerous Hawker Hurricane shouldered a greater proportion of the burden against the Luftwaffe. However, because of its higher performance, Spitfire units had a lower attrition rate and a higher victory-to-loss ratio than those flying Hurricanes.
After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire superseded the Hurricane to become the backbone of RAF Fighter Command, and saw action in the European, Mediterranean, Pacific and the South-East Asian theatres. Much loved by its pilots, the Spitfire served in several roles, including interceptor, photo-reconnaissance, fighter-bomber and trainer, and it continued to serve in these roles until the 1950s. The Seafire was a carrier-based adaptation of the Spitfire which served in the Fleet Air Arm from 1942 through to the mid-1950s. Although the original airframe was designed to be powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine producing 1,030 hp (768 kW), it was strong enough and adaptable enough to use increasingly powerful Merlin and, in later marks, Rolls-Royce Griffon engines producing up to 2,340 hp (1,745 kW); as a consequence of this the Spitfire’s performance and capabilities improved, sometimes dramatically, over the course of its life.
In August 1933, Mitchell underwent a colostomy to treat rectal cancer. Despite this, he continued to work, not only on the Spitfire, but also on a four-engined bomber, the Type 317. Unusually for an aircraft designer in those days, he took flying lessons and got his pilot’s licence in July 1934. In 1936 cancer was diagnosed again, and subsequently, in early 1937, Mitchell gave up work, although he was often seen watching the Spitfire being tested. Mitchell went to the American Foundation in Vienna for a month, but died on 11 June 1937 at age 42. His ashes were interred at South Stoneham Cemetery, Hampshire four days later. He was succeeded as Chief Designer at Supermarine by Joseph Smith, who took over as chief designer and was responsible for the further development of the Spitfire. Nevertheless, Mitchell’s design was so sound that the Spitfire was continually improved throughout the Second World War. Over 22,000 Spitfires and derivatives were built. Mitchell’s career was depicted in the film The First of the Few and The Spitfire continues to be popular with approximately 53 Spitfires being airworthy, while many more are static exhibits in aviation museums all over the world.