80 Years Young

This past March 5 marked the 80th anniversary of the first flight of England’s famed Vicker’s Supermarine Spitfire. Early in the morning in 1936, the Spitfire, registration number K5054, flew for the very first time at Eastleigh Aerodrome. Only a very few witnessed the 20 minute flight. One little girl, four years old at the time and now 84 years young, was Judy Mansbridge. Her father, Ernest Mansbridge, worked on the design along with the plane’s designer, R.J. Mitchell. She now has the distinction of being the last survivor to have witnessed that historic flight. (For email readers, please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q60ipcjTfoo to view the video.)

The events of this flight propelled the little girl to follow in the path of her father – into flying and working as a flight test analysist. She would later marry Gordon Monger, a man also intimately connected to the Supermarine Spitfires – he worked as an apprentice during the time the Spitfires rolled out of the factory. Standing on the ramp at Southampton Airport on March 5, 2016, both husband and wife were very moved by the events, by the sounds of the Merlin engine starting and turning up, by their personal connections with the airplane that saved Britain.

On March 5, 1936, Captain Joseph Summers, whose nickname was “Mutt,” took off for the short flight. Just before takeoff, Monger remembers the designer, Mitchell, talking with her father. Captain Summers took off at 4:40 in the morning of that first flight and when he returned, flew overhead and landed. Mitchell, Mansbridge, and others present gathered around the pilot and plane to listen to Summers describe the flight.

The airplane, of course, would go on to play a pivotal role in the salvation of Britain. Without the thousands of fighters turned out by the Supermarine factory in Woolston, Southampton, along with the thousands of young men trained to fly them, Nazi Germany would have probably defeated England at the start of the war.

Of all the airplanes from World War II, the Spitfire is one of the most beautiful. Her lines, combined with the powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin supercharged V12 engine of 1,470 hp, made her one of the best performing fighters of the war. She weighed in at just over 5000 pounds empty with an operational weight of 6022 pounds. With a maximum speed of 321 knots (370 mph), the craft had a combat radius of 410 nm. Climb rate was an exhilarating 2600 feet per minute with a ceiling of 36,500 feet. Armament consisted of eight .303 Browning Mk II machine guns with 2800 rounds (350 per gun).

The first airplane Captain Summers flew at Eastleigh in 1936 never saw combat in the Battle of Britain. The day following the declaration of war, September 4, 1939, Spitfire K5054 crashed killing Flight Lieutenant Gilbert S. White.

Many capable men flew in the Battle of Britain. Too many lost at too young an age. Pilots like John Gillespie Magee, Jr., author of the famous poem, High Flight.

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©2016 J. Clark

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