Brilliant but flawed

The Spitfire is a mirror in which we see our national character

Driving out west from London on the A40, I know the point where I am most likely to prang my latest Jag. Out of the sun - the road runs due west - a Spitfire Mk Ia in Battle of Britain camouflage appears to burst over the roof of an Art Deco factory. This Spitfire is no more than a full-scale replica bolted on top of a tower. But, real or not, the profile of a Spitfire never fails to stir. At the weekend, two dozen of the Second World War fighters gathered at Duxford aerodrome, Cambridgeshire, to celebrate the plane's 60th anniversary.

The Spitfire remains one of the most beautiful machines ever made. And it is as glorious to fly as its shape, and history, suggests. I am prejudiced - Spitfires are in my blood. My late father, my Uncle Jack and others of my family fought in the RAF during the Second World War. Flying a Spitfire is like skiing, but in the clouds rather than the snow. Those elliptical wings, beaten expensively and time-consumingly from aluminium, enable the plane to pirouette in the air as gracefully as Darcy Bussell on stage.

Flying a Spitfire today is an experience laced with a heady mix of nostalgia, whimsy and sadness. The nostalgia is for an England gone by. This is not nostalgia for a heritage land of leather-on-willow, warm beer and sunlit uplands, the nonsense that politicians trot out when Britain is, as far as the pilot's eye can see, a land of superstores, fast-food joints, leisure centres and executive cul-de-sacs.

The Spitfire is moving not simply because it is beautiful. It marks the 20th century high point for a specifically British spirit. This machine is a mirror, albeit a romantic one. In it we see ourselves and our history: brilliant but flawed. The creation of the Spitfire was one of the high points of British design, engineering and manufacturing; a time when British manpower and technology was directed to building a better Europe. The Spitfire wheeling in the sky spelt liberation to those in the Nazi occupied streets and fields below. The plane was Britain's standard bearer, leading it into a bigger and, hopefully, brighter world. How different we are being encouraged to feel about Europe today.

The plane was the apotheosis of the British make-and-do spirit. This country has long been good at creating lovingly crafted, hand-forged beauty shoes and shirts, furniture and sports cars. The Spitfire came, in part, from this tradition. And, yet, because British design so often is the stuff of gnarled craftsmen and misunderstood enthusiasts, lonely and eccentric spirits, it lacks the modern industrial drive needed to keep our industry (or, what's left of it) at the cutting edge of the global market.

The Spitfire was, as its critics enjoy pointing out, expensive (because time-consuming) to manufacture and repair. The shape that endowed it with timeless beauty was complex for factories to produce at the rate demanded during the war. (Spitfires, in various guises, were made throughout the war and continued to fly in Malaysia in front-line service with the RAF until 1954).

By contrast, the Hawker Hurricane, the workhorse of the wartime RAF, was easy to build (from timber and canvas), simple to maintain, and though slower and less agile than the Spitfire it was more able to keep flying when ripped up by German shells. For the record, Hurricane pilots shot down more of the enemy over Kent in the summer of 1940 than the Spitfire boys.

Yet it was the spirit of the Spitfire that endured - individualistic, wilful, glamorous, romantic - in such post-war products as the Jaguar cars of Sir William Lyons and Malcolm Sayers (even in their shapes and the configurations of their lusty engines), in such quixotic designs as the TSR2 fighter-bomber (scrapped in development by the 1964-70 Labour government of Harold Wilson) and, of course, Concorde. The spirit of the Spitfire is deeply embedded in our culture, a machine that somehow speaks of cricket, the sonnets of Keats, freedom from entrapment and, most of all, a desire to do things our own way.

The closest thing to a Spitfire these days is some makes of Jaguar. The Jaguar competes with BMW and Mercedes Benz. Much of the character of that commercial battle can be divined from the earlier contest between the Spitfire and its deadliest rivals, the Messerschmitt 109 and the Focke-Wulf Fw190.

Magnificently engineered, easy to make and maintain the German planes were technologically superior to British rivals which had been cobbled together on a shoestring. Yes, the Germans lost the Second World War, despite their Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts, but the industrial spirit that informed these machines helped Germany win the economic battles that followed Hitler's fall.

The Spitfire's other rivals, friend and foe, were also products of industrial systems and economies that were to make Britain look poor 20 years after her success in battle. That success had owed far more to the highly organised industrial might of the United States than to any act of individual bravery by Spitfire pilots. The Spitfire helped fight the propaganda battle, but the war would have been lost without the influx of such brilliant mass- produced planes as the North American Mustang.

Based on the Spitfire, the Mustang developed into a furiously fast, agile aerial gun-platform; later the roles were reversed and Spitfires were shaped around the P51-D Mustang. What the American war machine brought to bear on the war with Germany and Japan was Henry Ford's conveyor belts and an ability to run a war machine as no nation had done before. In the Fifties, the US economy benefited enormously from this productive power.

The mainstay of Japanese imperial air power was the Mitsubishi Zero, the carrier-borne fighter that entered Allied vocabulary after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Based on American prototypes the Zero was a sturdy, reliable plane that displayed the Japanese brilliance at copying and developing foreign products to their own advantage. Today, Mitsubishi is the world's biggest manufacturing corporation and Supermarine, makers of the Spitfire, is history.

And yet ... as one surfs the clouds in a Spitfire, sending the balletic machine twisting and growling, only the intoxication and dazzling beauty matter. You cannot fly a desk. We are in awe of this plane because it asks us a question about ourselves that we do not know the answer to. It is a question we ask ourselves now, again, in relation to Europe. Perhaps we are flawed, not made for the modern age; but it is only our independence of spirit that is capable of inspiring.

Spitfire Mk IX

Manufacturer: Supermarine, Southampton

Engine: Rolls-Royce Merlin 61

Top Speed (at operational height): 408 mph

Operational Weight: 7500lbs

Ceiling (feet): 42,500

Armament: two 20mm cannons, four .303 machine-guns, 1,000lb external bomb load.

Range: 660 miles

The Mk IX was hastily assembled with the new Merlin 61 engine to counter the threat of the superior Focke-Wulf 190. The Battle of Britain elevated the Spitfire into a legend. On paper it was less formidable than its record suggested, but British and Commonwealth pilots loved the plane, often comparing it to a perfectly-fitting piece of clothing. It did not have the Messerschmitt's manoeuvrability but its wing shape proved decisive in allowing pilots to roll their way out of danger.

ME Bf109G

Manufacturer: Messerschmitt, Augsburg

Engine: Daimler Benz 601 or 605 series

Top Speed (at operational height): 387mph

Operational Weight: 7500lbs

Ceiling (feet): 38,500

Armament: Two 13mm machine-guns, three 20mm cannon. Later equipped to carry bombs and mortars.

Range: 425 miles

The defeat of the earlier model 109E at the Battle of Britain may have come about because the plane had to fight at the end of its range. Germany's flying aces stuck with the 109 even after superior models were introduced. The plane was difficult at take-off and landing because of its narrow- track undercarriage, leading to a high casualty rate among trainee pilots. It was adapted in response to American daylight bombing, providing top cover while the heavier FW190s attacked the bombers.

A6M2 Zeke ('Zero')

Manufacturer: Mitsubishi

Engine: Nakajima Sakae ("Prosperity") 12

Top Speed: (at operational height) 316 mph

Operational Weight: 5,313lbs

Ceiling (feet): 33,790

Armament: two 20mm cannon, two 7.7mm machine-guns, 264lbs bomb load.

Range: 1940 miles

The Zero shocked allied pilots and commanders when it first appeared in 1941. It was light enough to outmanoeuvre any allied plane, as Jiro Horikoshi's design dispensed with such details as pilot armour and self- sealing fuel tanks. However, by 1943 it had been outclassed. But the overstretched Japanese kept the Zero in use to the end of the war, and the planes that brought victory at Pearl Harbour became fit for little more than smashing Kamikaze pilots into the decks of US warships.

P51D Mustang

Manufacturer: North American Inc, Los Angeles

Engine: Packard Merlin V-1650

Top Speed (at operational height): 437mph

Operational Weight: 11,600lbs

Ceiling (feet): 41,900

Armament: six 50-calibre, wing-mounted machine-guns. External bomb load 2,000lbs.

Range: 1,300 miles

The North American P51 was built in co-operation with Britain. The Mk1,brought into use by mid-1942, was well-suited to low-altitude flying. The P51D, "the Cadillac of the skies", was an adaptation that filled the need for a high-altitude escort fighter. It was heavy and had a good range compared with other models. It was the foremost aircraft from mid-1944 until the end of the war. North Korean gun emplacements in the Fifties proved that the Mustang had finally had its day. Research by Ben Summers

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