March 5, 1936 was a special day in aviation history. On an airfield in Eastleigh, Hampshire, Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers, chief test pilot for Vickers, stepped into an unpainted prototype known simply as K5054 and started up its Merlin C 990hp engine.
The airfield would later become Southampton Airport. And the plane would soon be known the world over as the Supermarine Spitfire.
The maiden flight lasted just eight minutes and, upon landing, Summers told the ground crew that, “I don’t want anything touched!” This has caused some confusion over the years, with many assuming that he thought the plane was flawless. What he actually meant was that he didn’t want any of the aircraft’s settings altered until he had spoken with R.J. Mitchell, the Spitfire’s chief designer.
The prototype was delivered to RAF Martlesham Heath on May 26 of that year and created quite a stir, with even the cooks downing their pots and pans to come out and witness its arrival.
It entered service two years later and over 20,000 Spitfires were subsequently built. At around £12,600 each – £680,000 in today’s money – they were certainly not cheap. But the cost pales in comparison with a modern Typhoon aircraft’s price tag of around £110 million.
The Spitfire remained a stalwart of the RAF until 1955 and a model of the original K5054 forms the centrepiece of a memorial sculpture at the entrance to Southampton Airport, where the Spitfire first took to the skies. It was unveiled by R.J. Mitchell’s son, Dr Gordon Mitchell, in 2004.
Happy 85th Birthday, Spitfire.