The Spitfire’s first ever flight

Went the day well?

Miles Falcon Six G-ADTD touched down at Eastleigh on March 5, 1936 on a flight from Martlesham Heath. It was piloted by Jeffrey Quill and with him was his boss, Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, who had had an appointment with a sleek, powerful aircraft that was waiting outside the Supermarine factory – the Type 300, K5054.

The Supermarine Type 300 ready for Mutt Summers, at Eastleigh, March 1936.

Vickers had acquired Supermarine in November 1928, but the Southampton-based company continued to keep its name. As chief test pilot for Vickers, Summers held responsibility for the products of the parent organisation at Brooklands and at Eastleigh, although both sites had ‘resident’ test pilots: George Pickering looked after production testing for the flying-boats and amphibians. Jeffrey Quill had not long been appointed by Summers as his No.2, across both airfields, although the new fighter was destined to dominate his flying career.

His team faced an increasingly busy time in 1936. Already on Summers’ mind was an important project at Brooklands; in 103 day’s time he would test fly B92/32 K4049, the nascent Wellington bomber.

The rest of the group had probably arrived from the Supermarine factory at Woolston, on the Solent, in the car used as the backdrop for the quintet. This was a Riley Nine, owned by Reginald Joseph Mitchell, the man who had designed the new prototype. Inevitably nicknamed ‘Agony’, H J Payn was technical assistant to Mitchell and also a pilot. Stuart Scott-Hall had become a fixture at the drawing office and on the factory floor; he was the Air Ministry’s resident technical officer, keeping an eye on the progress of the new fighter project.

Hand-built, the Type 300 was unpainted and without covers to its main undercarriage legs – the gear would stay locked down for the maiden flight. A small crowd of onlookers had assembled; it was an important day for Supermarine and was to turn out to be an incredible day for aviation history. Summers took K5054 into the air and, typical of his inaugural flights, was back in 15 minutes. Clearly well pleased, he is reported as telling the ground crew: “Don’t touch anything” – he was that happy with its performance.

Informal gathering at Eastleigh after the first flight of the Spitfire prototype, March 5, 1936. Left to right: ‘Mutt’ Summers, H J ‘Agony’ Payn, R J Mitchell, Stuart Scott-Hall and Jeffrey Quill. KEC

Short circuit

Joseph Summers was 32 when he flew the Type 300. He joined the RAF in 1924 and went on to fly with 29 Squadron from Duxford on Sopwith Snipes and later Gloster Grebes. His skills were so good that he was soon posted to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath.

With the death of Vickers chief test pilot ‘Tiny’ Scholefield in May 1929, Summers asked for release to take over at Brooklands, and this was granted. Over the next 22 years Summers took his tally of prototypes to 29, his portfolio running from biplanes, flying-boats, the Spitfire and Wellington to the turboprop Viscount airliner and the Valiant V-bomber.

Maiden flights were almost exclusively short, a classic Summers quick ‘circuit’. Summers believed that inaugural sorties should be just so, proving that the type could aviate; the detailed, exacting test schedule was for the following days and months. He was a great at lifting everyone’s morale with the success of a ‘first’; leaving any damning analysis to another day.

With responsibilities across both Supermarine and Vickers products, Summers conducted first flights and initial trials on the final flying-boats from the Woolston stable. The last of the line was the Southampton V which had its debut in July 1934 and was renamed Stranraer in August 1935.

The Type 300 at A&AEE Martlesham Heath circa July 1938.

It was the Seagull V pusher amphibian for the Royal Australian Air Force, which Summers took on its maiden flight in June 1933, that had been the most important Supermarine programme until the Spitfire changed everything. Summers made enquiries with Mitchell about the strength of the Seagull V’s airframe and then surprised everyone – including its designer – by looping the prototype at the Hendon airshow, four days after the maiden flight! The RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) adopted the type from April 1935 and named it Walrus.

From the first flight of the Wellington, on June 15, 1936, the demands of two expanding programmes meant that Summers turned almost exclusively to all things Brooklands, leaving Quill to take on the considerable challenge of developing what was to become the Spitfire ‘family’. Barnes Wallis was the design supremo at Brooklands and his fertile mind was focused on special weapons, including the famous ‘Bouncing Bombs’ for the Dams raid of May 1943. In the run-up to this, Summers was heavily involved in development of the Upkeep ‘mine’ and the later Highball anti-shipping weapon, at first in Wellingtons and later in Avro Lancasters.

The prototype Wellington, K4049, at Brooklands, 1936.
Vickers-Armstrongs-KEC

With the age of radio allowing for increased communication between test pilot and the anxious design staff, Summers devised a code to convey his thoughts and to throw anyone ‘eavesdropping’ off the scent. He often reported “swithering” which sounded dire, but actually meant that all was well.

Soon after captaining the maiden flight of the prototype four-jet Valiant V-bomber on May 18, 1951 – for a near traditional 18 minutes – Summers handed over to his deputy, Jock Bryce. At that point he had over 5,000 hours in an astonishing 366 types. Mutt Summers CBE died following a stomach operation on March 16, 1954 – six days after his 50th birthday.

Utmost security

H J Payn was commissioned into the Royal Engineers by 1915, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. By February 1917 he was serving on the Western Front with 29 Squadron, flying Airco DH.2s alongside James McCudden. On February 23, 1916 Payn was on the receiving end of the guns of an Albatros piloted by Werner Voss – Payn escaped with damage to his DH.2. Payn left the RAF in 1923 as a squadron leader and joined the staff of Vickers.

With an excellent background in engineering, Payn was appointed as technical assistant to Vickers chief designer Rex Pierson at Brooklands. He was also involved in flight testing whenever his services were required.

When Vickers bought Supermarine, Payn was seconded to Woolston and by 1930 was an executive with the company, acting as R J Mitchell’s technical assistant. When Mitchell died in June 1937, Rex Pierson was given overall charge of the design offices at both Brooklands and Woolston. Payn was appointed as manager of the design department of Supermarine.

In his exceptional Spitfire - A Test Pilot’s Story, Quill describes a disturbing facet of Britain’s increasing worry about security, particularly on a vital programme such as the Spitfire. “Payn came under investigation by the security services as a result of a divorce and re-marriage to a lady of foreign origin. The immediate and direct result was that the Air Ministry withdrew their approval for Payn to hold his position of high responsibility in an area where security was obviously of the utmost importance.” Payn was dismissed and his considerable skills were denied to the war effort.

Transforming genius

The strains of getting an advanced prototype ready for its maiden flight certainly contributed towards Mitchell’s grey complexion on March 5, 1936, but there was another reason for the pallor. Three years before, the 41-year-old had been diagnosed with a cancer that medical knowledge was then ill-equipped to combat. He took this with a degree of stoicism, all the while working his customary long hours.

Close friends and colleagues were allowed to call him ‘RJ’ and by the time the Type 300 flew, Mitchell’s skills had transformed the prospects of Supermarine. Born in 1885 at Talke, a village near Stoke-on-Trent, he left school at 16 and was apprenticed to Kerr, Stuart and Company. Learning at the workbench and in the drawing office, he was laying the foundations of his double mastery of the theory and practice of engineering.

Official Supermarine portrait of R J Mitchell. KEC

Aviation fascinated Mitchell; he was determined to join this new industry. In 1916, his opportunity came; he was taken on as a draughtsman at Supermarine. Three years later chief designer F J Hargreaves, resigned. Supermarine appointed RJ in his place – this was a bold move as he was only 24, but it was obvious to all around him how talented and conscientious he was. In 1920, the company’s faith in him was cemented when he was promoted to chief engineer, and in 1927 he was made a director.

It would take a book to chronicle each and every one of Mitchell’s creations. Winning Streak on page 16 deals with the stuff of legend that was the Schneider Trophy story. This entire venture was much more than ‘flag-waving’; it gave Mitchell the leap of technology that was to make the Spitfire possible.

The military Seagull biplane amphibian series began in 1922 helping to break the small company out of the hand-to-mouth existence of previous years. Up until 1924, Supermarine had concentrated on single-engined marine aircraft, but in that year it created its first twin-engined type, the commercial Swan amphibian. This paved the way for the Southampton flying-boat ‘family’ from 1925, to be followed by the Scapa and the Stranraer. The last amphibian that Mitchell worked on was intended to succeed the Walrus; the Sea Otter had its maiden flight in 1938 but it was not until 1943 that it entered limited production.

Official Supermarine portrait of R J Mitchell. KEC

Supermarine and Mitchell had little experience of monoplanes but through the Schneider competitions each had gained command of advanced aerodynamics and construction techniques. This meant that Specification F7/30 for a single-seat day fighter, ideally powered by a Rolls-Royce Goshawk with evaporative cooling, was well within the grasp of the company.

The gull-winged, faired undercarriage, open cockpit, Type 224 first flew in February 1934 and proved disappointing from the very start. None of the bidders for F7/30 were successful and in the end the requirement was re-written as F14/35 and won by the Gloster Gladiator, destined to be the RAF’s last biplane fighter.

Lasting legacy

Perhaps the F7/30 gave RJ the determination to plough his own furrow. The Type 300 was the accumulation of all that he and his design, structures, aerodynamics and engineering teams had learned.

After the first flight of the Spitfire Mitchell was buoyed up by the plaudits of both company test pilots and from the ‘customers’ at Martlesham Heath. All the while, his health was deteriorating, but there was much to do...
In September 1936 he created the Supermarine response to Specification B12/36 for a long-range strategic bomber. It featured elliptical wings and, as might be expected, it was a good-looking aeroplane. The two prototypes were destroyed in the devastating air raid on the Itchen Works at Southampton on September 26, 1940.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE died on June 11, 1937. Up to the last he had been poring over calculations and layouts to put cannons into the wing of the Spitfire. His passing was a devastating blow to the creative team at Supermarine. RJ had always praised those around him and his quiet, industrious manner engendered great loyalty. His deputy, Joseph ‘Joe’ Smith stepped into the breech and from his ingenious mind and thorough adherence to the Mitchell design philosophy, all of the Spitfire variants sprang.

Greatest testament to RJ is the Spitfire, but it cannot be emphasized too much that the regime in the engineering and design offices was such that after the mourning, they got straight down to work. Mitchell’s management style was inspirational, not dictatorial. He and the rest of his team had come up with a fighter that would help defeat dictatorship and inspire generations into the 21st century.

The prototype Spitfire crashed fatally at Farnborough on September 4, 1939 – the day after Britain declared war on Germany.

Every variant

While Mutt Summers took the accolade of the first flight of the Type 300, there are two names that will be forever linked with the development and mass manufacture of the Spitfire – Jeffery Quill and Alex Henshaw respectively. Jeffrey took on the bulk of the trials flying and he created and managed the large production test organisation required to meet the output.

On November 1, 1935, Flt Lt Quill flew an Armstrong Whitworth Siskin to Brooklands to have a word with Summers about a job with Vickers. He had joined the RAF in 1931 and in 1934 became the commanding officer of the RAF Meteorological Flight at Duxford. After another, more formal, meeting at Brooklands, Quill accepted the post of assistant to Summers.

At Brooklands there were Vildebeests and Vincents to test, and Wellesleys would start to come off the production line in the spring of 1937. On February 5, 1936 Quill was at Woodley where he carried out an acceptance flight on Falcon Six G-ADTD which was the new ‘taxi’, particularly for flying down to Eastleigh where the Spitfire was being readied. Twenty-one days after Summers carried out the maiden flight of K5054, Quill piloted the gleaming prototype – this was the start of a unique association, he went on to fly every Spitfire and Seafire variant.

Promoted as chief test pilot for Supermarine in May 1938, on the 14th Quill conducted the maiden flight of K9787, the second Spitfire. Getting production flowing was a traumatic experience and it was the Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory that was to transform the creation of Spitfires.

After the bombing of the Woolston factory in September 1940 a dispersed production system was introduced. At the same time, Worthy Down was taken over as the main centre for development and production testing. Quill arranged for ‘sample’ aircraft from other factories to be brought to Worthy Down to check on quality.

Thousands of hours of testing delivered many dramatic moments, but only one sortie ended in a write-off. Flying the interim Mk.21 prototype DP851 on May 13, 1943, the starboard undercarriage failed on landing at Boscombe Down; the aircraft whipped around, removing the port leg in the process. Travelling on its belly backwards, the Mk.21 was beyond repair when it came to stop; Quill was unhurt.

Jeffrey Quill piloting K8054 during night flying trials, 1936.

‘Hands on’

Trained as a fighter pilot, Quill first served with 17 Squadron, flying Bristol Bulldog IIs, at Upavon in September 1932. He put great pressure on the RAF to be allowed to join an operational Spitfire squadron so he could appreciate how he could help make the fighter exactly what its pilots were looking for. The logic of his request was eventually recognised, and on August 5, 1940 – at the height of the Battle of Britain – Flt Lt Quill was attached to 65 Squadron at Hornchurch. He made it clear he was not just an observer. On the 16th he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109E and two days later shared in the downing of a Heinkel He 111. Quill returned to Eastleigh on August 24.

This ‘hands-on’ attitude extended to the FAA in early 1944. Other than a couple of landings on HMS Indomitable, Quill had little experience of aircraft carriers, yet he was testing a fighter designed to do just that. He was appointed as a supernumerary Lieutenant Commander and by the spring of 1944 was at Easthaven to experience the delights of aerodrome dummy deck landings. Quill went on to spend an intensive time with the FAA, flying Seafire IIs with 879 and 886 Squadrons, from HMS Attacker and Ravager and the trials carrier Pretoria Castle.

A line-up to celebrate the Seafire XVII entering service, September 1945. Fourth from the left is Supermarine chief designer Joseph Smith; sixth from the left is Jeffrey Quill. Vickers-Armstrongs-KEC

Biplane to Tornado

Joe Smith’s ultimate development of the Spitfire was so much of a transformation that it was renamed: Spiteful for the RAF and Seafang for the FAA. The Spiteful provided the means for Supermarine, and Quill, to make the transition to jets in the form of the Attacker naval fighter.

By marrying the Spiteful wing and undercarriage to a new fuselage, the first operational Royal Navy jet fighter, the Attacker, was born. Jeffrey conducted the debut of TS409 from Boscombe Down on July 27, 1946. Having inaugurated the jet age for Supermarine, the following year Quill handed over the chief test pilot post to his friend and colleague Mike Lithgow.

Jeffrey Quill OBE AFC went on to an impressive career with Vickers and, from 1960, the British Aircraft Corporation, concluding as Director of Marketing at Panavia: during his working life he had evolved from Bulldog biplanes to swing-wing Tornados.

At one stage in the war, the press called him ‘Hell-Diver Quill’ which the quiet, modest pilot must have hated. After his death on February 20, 1996 at the age of 83, Jeffery Quill was universally referred to as ‘Mr Spitfire’ with deep respect and affection.