Journey to the Spitfire

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Reginald Mitchell (2nd from right) inspects a flying boat

Reginald Joseph Mitchell was one of the leading aeroplane designers of his generation. He was born in Butt Lane, Kidsgrove in 1895 and raised and educated in Stoke-on-Trent. He designed 24 different aeroplanes during his prolific career, before his death in 1937 aged only 42.

Mitchell’s designs ranged from commercial flying boats, made from wood and fabric, to advanced, trophy-winning, all-metal seaplanes. In 1936, Mitchell produced one of his last and most renowned designs: the Supermarine Spitfire.

Journey to the Spitfire

Early Years

Young Reginald Mitchell (far left) poses with the school Cricket Team

Shortly after Reginald’s birth, the Mitchell family moved to Longton. He and his brother Eric were encouraged to make their own toys. They spent hours building model aircraft. His school friends commented that he was already, “mad about aeroplanes”. Reginald left school aged 16 and was apprenticed at Kerr, Stuart & Co., a steam locomotive works in Fenton.

Mitchell attended Queensbury Road Elementary School, Longton, and then Hanley High School. After leaving high school, he kept in touch, and contributed articles to the school magazine The Hanliensian. The Mitchell family later donated several objects to the high school to commemorate his attendance.

A Career Begins

Advertisement for Kerr Stuart & Co. Locomotive Works, where Mitchell served an apprenticeship.

The grime of the Kerr Stuart workshops was a shock for Reginald, but his father wouldn’t let him quit. He liked the job better when he moved into the drawing offices. After work, the apprentices took classes in engineering and mathematics.

In 1916, Reginald followed his passion for aeroplanes and applied for a job at the Pemberton Billing Aviation Works, Southampton, soon to be renamed ‘Supermarine’.

Mitchell had tried enlisting in the armed forces during the First World War but his job was considered too important. His brother Eric was allowed to serve and the two wrote to each other regularly. In 1918, Mitchell wrote, “I have very little news and have hardly any time for anything but aeroplanes, aeroplanes all the time”. Mitchell’s talents in mathematics, design and technical drawing meant he rapidly progressed at Supermarine.

Success

Supermarine S.5 at the 1927 Schneider Trophy Content, Venice

It didn’t take Reginald long to become chief designer. He was a good leader who valued the opinions of his team, though he could have a temper if his concentration was interrupted or if work was not up to his high standards.

Supermarine competed in the Schneider Trophy: an international contest for the fastest seaplanes. The Supermarine S.6B won a third consecutive victory for Britain in 1931, claiming the trophy outright.

Mitchell was awarded the CBE for his contributions to the Schneider Trophy. In interviews he stressed the importance of his whole team. As the speed of aeroplanes increased, so did Mitchell’s concern for his pilots. He was tense and anxious during high speed flights. But his designs weren’t limited to high-speed aircraft. His main output consisted of slower commercial and military flying boats and ‘amphibians’ – aeroplanes that could operate on water or land.

Illness

Reginald Mitchell and with wife Florence at their garden in Southampton, shortly before Mitchell passed away.

In 1933, Reginald was diagnosed with cancer and underwent an operation. It left him having to use a colostomy bag. Naturally, he improved its design.

The illness returned but Reginald continued with his work for as long as he was able – including the development of the Spitfire. Mitchell lived long enough to see the first Spitfire flight and to produce a design for a long-range bomber. He could appear shy to those who didn’t know him, and he had never sought the spotlight of fame. However, his achievements in aeroplane design, and the wartime impact of the Spitfire, ensured his legacy was not forgotten.

He died in 1937, aged 42. Reginald had always credited his team with Supermarine’s success, and requested they be given first place at his funeral.

The Spitfire

The Supermarine Type 224 – the unsuccessful forerunner of the Spitfire

In 1931, the Air Ministry released a specification for a new fighter aeroplane. Supermarine’s first design, the Type 224, proved disappointing. It was an innovative aircraft but it encountered serious problems with the engine cooling system.

The Air Ministry were not enthusiastic about continuing its development. Supermarine and Rolls-Royce launched a private venture to design a better fighter. The second attempt was more successful and the prototype Spitfire first flew in May 1936. The new ‘Spitfire’ quickly attracted the Air Ministry’s interest. It was the most advanced fighter available to the RAF and the Air Ministry placed an order for 310. Mitchell did not live long enough to see the Spitfire perform its wartime role.

Mitchell disapproved of the name, commenting that it was, “just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it”.

Discover More

More information about the life and career of Reginald Mitchell

Journey to the Spitfire

Journey to the Spitfire

Animation exploring the evolution of aeroplane design, and the emergence of the Spitfire (Youtube)
RJ Mitchell

RJ Mitchell

The life and career of Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE (PDF)

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