Magazine article The Spectator

The Bonniest Fighter of Them All

Magazine article The Spectator

The Bonniest Fighter of Them All

Article excerpt

SPITFIRE by Jonathan Glancey Atlantic, £17.99, pp. 320, ISBN 1843545276 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This year is the 70th anniversary of the first flight at Southampton of K5054, the prototype Supermarine Spitfire. It would never have entered the head of its designer R. J. Mitchell, aged 42 and dying of cancer, that his brainchild ('a mere fabrication of aluminium alloy, steel, rubber, Perspex, and a few other things') would become a national icon, or that some 22,000 Spitfires would eventually be built.

This is an elegant and meticulously researched account of the development and history of the world's most famous fighter aircraft, and of those who designed, built, maintained and flew it. It is a book not only for aviation enthusiasts but also for anyone interested in 20thcentury military history, in technical genius or indeed in the heroic and inventive nature of mankind.

The Spitfire is a sheer joy to fly (this comes through repeatedly in Jonathan Glancey's text), a pilot's aeroplane: powerful, yet forgiving; fast and deadly in war, yet safe; easy to maintain, yet for its time technically advanced. One's first solo on a Spitfire is an unforgettable and exhilarating experience, but the Spitfire is surprisingly docile to handle. The beauty of the aircraft in flight is its hallmark, and the unmistakable growl of a Merlin engine can move people to tears of nostalgia: 'all thunder and lightning, a deep pulsing roar overlain with the throaty whistle of the supercharger'.

The editor of Aeroplane magazine thundered in 1939: 'What a menace is a woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly.' Oh dear! As it was, the young women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary successfully delivered Spitfires, and indeed ultimately heavy bombers, to RAF stations throughout the war. Apart from the 'ATA girls', two women in particular are rightly mentioned as playing a key role in the Spitfire story. First, Lady Houston, who provided £100,000 for the struggling Supermarine Schneider Trophy team in the 1930s. Without her, the Spitfire would never have been born. …

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