To mark the 100th anniversary of the UK establishing the Royal Air Force as the first independent service of its kind, our cutaway choice for this Farnborough air show preview issue features two of the most significant types flown during its first century of operations.
Some 65 years separated the service entries of the Supermarine Spitfire and Eurofighter Typhoon, but a series of commemorative displays planned throughout this summer will see both types airborne simultaneously. Despite the generations which separate them, both models are today based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, respectively assigned to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) and several frontline combat squadrons.
First flown as a prototype in March 1936, the Spitfire entered service with the RAF's 19 Sqn in August 1938, in the Mk 1 guise. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, this would be the version to secure its iconic status through involvement in the Battle of Britain, which ran from late July through October 1940.
In a pre-war Britain where new aircraft were emerging in rapid succession, the near- and long-term significance of the Reginald (R J) Mitchell-designed fighter was not immediately evident. Indeed, in a brief report after the type's emergence, published in July 1936, Flight noted almost in passing its status as "the fastest military aeroplane in the world", before commenting: "It would appear from the comparatively small radiator employed on the Spitfire that a high-temperature coolant is used."
Late the same year, Flight reported that "The machine… has been ordered in quantity by the Air Ministry, and is of exceptionally clean design, experience gained in the pioneer work done by the Supermarine Company in the design and construction of Schneider Trophy seaplanes having been utilised."
Referring to the all-metal aircraft's low-wing monoplane configuration with a retractable undercarriage and wing flaps, this also pointed to its "perfectly smooth" skin as "a point of importance when speeds of over 300 m.p.h. are concerned". Combined with its eight, elliptical wing-contained Browning 0.303in machine guns, this performance would prove critical in the battle to defend the UK from the Luftwaffe, and help to establish its status as the RAF's most iconic fighter.
In his book The Last Enemy, RAF pilot Richard Hillary wrote of his first impression on seeing the fighter up-close. "The dull grey-brown of the camouflage could not conceal the clear-cut beauty, the wicked simplicity of their lines."
Legendary test pilot Royal Navy Capt Eric "Winkle" Brown – who flew a record 487 types during his career – assessed multiple versions of the Spitfire, in addition to Supermarine's carrier-based Seafire derivative.
In his introduction to Paul Beaver's Spitfire People, Brown remarked: "I grew to love the later marks with their uprated Merlin engines or thunderous [R-R] Griffons. I tested the fighters against the then enemy's machines as well as those of our allies. Each time, Mitchell's machine showed its worth."
The aircraft's designer died in 1937, before Supermarine's first production example took to the air.
Writing in his autobiography Wings On My Sleeve, Brown recalled flying an adapted Spitfire XI, which would be placed into a sharp dive after attaining 40,000ft at full speed. "You would hold on in this screaming plunge until the Machmeter read 0.83. Then a gentle shaking started on the tail, and the machine started to nose down into a steeper dive without any pushing by the pilot. The dive angle steepened rapidly and the Spitfire started shaking really badly and rolling from side to side. At [Mach] 0.86 the pilot had to pull the equivalent of 60lb to stop the dive from steepening any further. Closing the throttle (if the pilot dared to take one hand off the control column) made little difference to the dive speed as this was almost totally due to the gravity effect."
On one occasion, his flight commander reached M0.92 in the dive before attempting to recover, at which point the over-speeding propeller became detached, making the fighter tail-heavy. "It zoomed almost vertically upwards, blacking out the pilot under a force of 11g. On regaining his vision at about 40,000ft, the pilot observed his straight-winged aeroplane now having acquired a slightly swept-back look." Brown concluded: "It speaks volumes for the pilot and Spitfire that he somehow managed to land back at Farnborough on its wheels."
"Produced in greater numbers than any other British combat aircraft before or since the War, 20,341 Spitfires were built in 22 different variants (excluding the navalised Seafire) and the aircraft remained in production for 12 years," the RAF notes. Its operational use of the type concluded in 1954, with a final flight of a PR19 photo-reconnaissance example – a Griffon-engined model with a a five-blade airscrew – used during the Malaya Emergency. Spanning just over 15 years, the Spitfire's combat life came to an end as the jet era rendered its once record-breaking speed performance obsolete.
Formed in 1957, the BBMF today maintains a remarkable fleet of wartime-era aircraft, comprising six Spitfires, two Hawker Hurricanes and an Avro Lancaster bomber.
The RAF describes the flight's mission as "to maintain the priceless artefacts of our national heritage in airworthy condition in order to commemorate those who have fallen in the service of this country, to promote the modern-day air force and to inspire the future generations".
Scrolling forward almost a full half-century from the Spitfire's retirement from frontline use with the RAF, the service's current flagship – the Eurofighter Typhoon – entered limited use in December 2003 at BAE Systems' Warton site in Lancashire, under an industry support model dubbed Case White.
A move to the Typhoon force's main operating base at RAF Coningsby followed in 2005, with an operational evaluation unit followed by its 29 Sqn operational conversion unit – depicted in our cutaway in FGR4 guise.
Flight International was given the opportunity to fly in a 29 Sqn Typhoon in 2007, by which time the RAF had two frontline squadrons equipped with the type.
"The aircraft is currently capable of a level speed of M1.65 and of maintaining supersonic flight without using afterburners – so-called "supercruise" performance," we wrote. "Normal operating ceiling for the Typhoon is 55,000ft, but this is set to increase over the type's introduction to service."
Also in our report, Air Vice Marshal David Walker – then air officer commanding the RAF's 1 Group – had no doubts about the new fighter's importance. "The aeroplane was conceived in the Cold War against a requirement that allowed it to be brought to the frontline, but it has massive, across the spectrum capability," he said. "Having two Eurojet EJ200 engines opens up a new way of fighting which puts the Typhoon into a unique corner of the combat envelope. I don't think the RAF has had access to an aeroplane of such potential ever. I think we have got an absolute world-beater, and we have sovereign rights over it."
Since entering use, the Typhoon has been involved in combat operations over Libya, and more recently Iraq and Syria, while simultaneously ensuring the territorial protection of the mainland UK and Falkland Islands, by providing quick reaction alert cover. Overseas deployments have also included providing air policing services for the Baltic states from bases in Estonia and Lithuania, and supporting Romania's similar requirements from a base on the Black Sea coast.
Additional responsibilities will also soon be heading the type's way, with a series of capability updates – embodied in an activity dubbed Project Centurion – to equip it for further duties as the service's remaining Panavia Tornado GR4s head for retirement by April 2019. Key elements of this will include the multi-role platform's ability to deploy MBDA Brimstone air-to-surface missiles and Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
The Typhoon can trace its origins to a multinational programme conceived in the early 1980s. Key technologies were proven using the British Aerospace experimental aircraft programme (EAP) technology demonstrator, first flown in 1986 and powered by the Tornado's Turbo-Union RB199s.
In its report about the EAP's roll-out, Flight International described the product as "a canard/delta of slightly hunched form". "It is hoped that the lessons learnt through EAP, Britain's first pure fighter for nearly 30 years, will be more than a little relevant to Eurofighter," it noted.
Advanced manufacturing techniques brought into use with the Eurofighter – such as the laser alignment of major structures – also were to provide benefit for later programmes, most notably the Lockheed Martin F-35.
The first prototype of the Eurofighter – developed for the air forces of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – made its delayed flight debut in March 1994, with development aircraft DA1 getting airborne from Manching, Germany.
"The first flight has served to prove that the Eurofighter is more than a farrago of technical and political foul-ups," our report about the milestone read. "In part, however, it has merely cleared the way for a new round of four-nation politicking, at both national and industrial levels, to act as a stumbling block to the programme's smooth progress."
A production order was signed during 1998, covering plans for an eventual joint procurement of 620 examples, through three tranches. Eurofighter partner companies Airbus Defence & Space, BAE and Leonardo have now delivered more than 500 of the type, also including examples produced for Austria, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and others are on order for Kuwait and Qatar.
Some of the latest Tranche 3 production examples are now in use, with a further package of enhancements planned – including the introduction of an active electronically scanned array radar.
With the RAF now having six frontline squadrons equipped with Typhoons – also counting units based at its Lossiemouth base in Scotland – and operations with the type planned to continue until at least 2040, its importance to the defence of the UK is only likely to increase in the coming years.
Like the Spitfire and multiple other types that served between them, the Typhoon provides a critical capability – and as with the Supermarine model, the significance of its contribution may not be fully appreciated until much later in its operating life.