The Science Behind the Spitfire – Part 1: Wonderful Wings

Today marks the start of British Science Week AND is the 85th anniversary of the first Spitfire flight in 1936. This is the first of a series of blogs on the Science Behind the Spitfire.  The aeroplane is renowned for its performance and the important role it played during the Second World War. We will peel back the panels and discover some of the science behind the Spitfire’s success.

Wonderful Wings

Wings are probably one of the most important parts of an aeroplane. Trust me, you won’t get far without them! The wings of the Spitfire are one of its most recognisable features, but it’s no accident that they are shaped the way they are.

Supermarine Spitfire Vb ‘AB910’ in flight, showing the distinctive Spitfire wing shape. Photo by Alan Wilson & reproduced under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0.

Lots of Lift

Air moves around the wings when an aeroplane travels forwards. The air pushes more on the bottom of the wing than the top. If you generate enough pressure underneath the wing it will counteract the weight of the aeroplane and it will lift into the air. This force is known as lift.

The elliptical wings of the Spitfire are strong and light, and have a big surface area. This is great for generating lift and makes Spitfires very manoeuvrable and able to climb to higher altitudes more quickly.

The large surface area was also handy for fitting in the weapons, originally four machine guns in each wing, and later cannons.

Spitfire wing plan showing the positions for gun installations. Note the large surface area.

Ditching the Drag

Another force that acts upon aeroplanes is drag. The air moving around the aeroplane slows it down. Imagine trying to run into a strong wind.

The Spitfire wings were incredibly thin. They presented much less resistance to the air than a thicker wing. Additionally, a ‘cantilever design’ was used for the wings. This means they were self-supported and that all of the structure and supports were inside the wing. Earlier aeroplanes often had lots of cables and braces to strengthen the wings, which all produce dreaded drag!

Spitfire blue print showing the wings in both plan and section view. Note the thin wing section, especially at the tips.

Early Warnings

The Spitfire wings had another special feature. When aeroplanes undertake very tight turns the pressure on the wings increases. At a certain point they can no longer support the weight. When this occurs the wings ‘stall’ and the aeroplane loses control for a few moments.

In the Spitfire, the inner wing would stall before the outer wing, producing a juddering, shaking feeling for the pilots. The shaking was a helpful warning the aeroplane was reaching its limits and skilled pilots could use this to their advantage without losing control.

Changing Wings

A Spitfire Mk.V with clipped wings in action over North Africa.

The Spitfire wing shape was adapted to suit different jobs. The City’s Spitfire was ‘clipped wings’ which are shorter, with reduced surface area. This was for flying at lower altitudes and sacrificed some lift for greater manoeuvrability such as a faster roll-rate. Other Spitfires had the opposite: extended wing tips. They gave even more lift and improved flight at higher altitudes.

So there you have it, the Wonderful Wings of the Spitfire! Join us for our next blog when we examine the Spitfire’s special, all-metal body.

Written by Joe Perry (Curator, Local History)

2 thoughts on “The Science Behind the Spitfire – Part 1: Wonderful Wings”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *