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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.