Spitfire F.24 – the last of the line
Tags: 20mm cannon, 60lb rocket projectiles, aircraft, Aviation, Duxford, England, fighter-bomber, Great Britain, Griffon 61 engine, Hispano Mk V, Hong Kong, Imperial War Museum, museum, Museums, No 80 Squadron RAF, RAF, RAF Kai Tak, Rolls-Royce, Royal Air Force, Second World War, Spitfire F.24, Supermarine Type 356, warbird, WW2
Reginald Mitchell wrought better than he knew. His basic design for what became the Spitfire, fleshed out even as he was dying from cancer, proved capable of being upgraded and improved continuously, right through the Second World War and beyond. The aircraft you can see before you bears little resemblance to those Spitfire Mk I, built to Specification F.37/34, and delivered to No. 19 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at RAF Duxford, near Cambridge, back in June, 1938. Those aircraft had wooden, fixed-pitch, two-bladed Watts propellers, driven by a first generation Rolls-Royce Merlin producing about 1,030 hp, which gave the Spitfire a maximum speed of around 355 mph. The only armament option? Eight .303″ Browning machineguns. There were tremendous problems to be solved when it came to delivering enough Spitfires to the waiting RAF squadrons. The thin elliptical wing proved difficult to produce in quantity, and the Merlin engines suffered from cracked cylinder heads in the earliest models. Fortunately, just enough Spitfires were produced to join with their stablemate, the Hawker Hurricane, and turn the tide in the pivotal Battle of Britain, when they were opposed by the almost overwhelming might of the German Luftwaffe. Many fine airmen paid the ultimate price, as did thousands of civilians. The main Supermarine Works was heavily bombed, and this forced the company to rush through dispersed construction, as well as the establishment of ‘shadow factories’ to produce the fighter.
As with all weapons of war, the Spitfire was continuously improved and developed. A process that was accelarated greatly in response to both enemy developments and the tactical and strategic needs of the various theaters of war. There were undoubtedly some set-backs along the way. The first attempt to use 20 mm Hispano cannon in a Spitfire (the Mk Ib), was a disaster. The instances of cannon jamming in combat were so bad that No. 19 Squadron, who had been selected as the unit to introduce cannon-armed Spitfire into service, pleaded with the authorities to let them have their Browning-armed aircraft back! The early Spitfires only had a tactical radius of about 200 miles, and attempts to increase the fighter’s range included ungainly ‘slipper tanks’ under the centre fuselage, and even, in one version – the Mk II (LR) – a 30 gallon fixed tank fitted assymetrically under the port wing, with adverse results to its performance and manoeuverability. Underwing drop tanks seem not to have been thought of, and extra fuel tanks in the rear fuselage were rejected at this stage of the war. The fairly fragile nature of the Spitfire’s undercarriage betrayed it when a navalised version was developed; the undercarrige of the Seafire was notorious for collapsing during deck landings.
The aircraft you can see above is on display at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. It is one of just 81 Spitfire F.24 that were made (54 new built, 27 converted from F.22s). It is the last of the Spitfire line, although the last Seafire F.47 left the South Marston factory in January, 1949. Powered by the 2,050 hp two-stage supercharged Rolls-Royce Griffon 61 engine, which pushed the fighter along at up to 454 mph, the F.24 had the late generation Spitfire fuselage, a Spiteful-style tail unit, and a new, thinner profile wing with new ailerons and geared trim tabs. Two 33 gallon fuel tanks in the rear fuselage and the ability to carry a centre-line drop-tank meant this version had an 880 mile range. A genuine fighter-bomber, it was armed with 4 x 20 mm Hispano cannon, with a few aircraft (such as VN485, above), being fitted with the short-barrel Hispano Mk V* and could carry up to 2,000 lbs of bombs or zero-point launchers for 60lb or 120lb rocket projectiles.
The F.24 came too late for the war, of course, and this example was delivered to No. 80 Squadron, Royal Air Force, which had used F.24 aircraft as part of the British Air Force of Occupation at Wunsdorf in Germany, until the unit was sent to Hong Kong. This unit was the only regular RAF squadron to use the F.24, and VN485 was delivered to Hong Kong on the 28th August, 1948. Security patrols and armed reconnaissance missions were carried out from what was the Crown Colony until late 1951, when the Spitfires began to be replaced by an even FASTER piston-engine fighter, the de Havilland Hornet! A number of F.24’s were handed over to the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, who operated them from RAF Kai Tak (which later became the international airport for Hong Kong). With the withdrawal of the Spitfires from service, VN485 made its last flight on the 21st March, 1955, and was chosen to be put on public display.
Eventually, it was donated to the Imperial War Museum, and was delivered to their Duxford Airfield, in the United Kingdom, in 1996. In so doing it became one of only three F.24 survivors – all non-flying, and all in museums in the U.K. (the RAF Museum has one at Hendon, and the Solent Sky museum in Southampton has the other). The Imperial War Museum undertook a major restoration exercise on VN485 in 2004, stripping the airframe down to bare metal and removing and renovating many components. It looks beautiful, you must admit, but I shall let you into a little secret. From immediately in front of the cockpit, from the firewall forward, there is – nothing. Well, actually, there is a framework which holds the cowlings and other panels in place, and an internal red-painted tubular support for the spinner and propeller blades – no engine bearers or accessories and no Griffon engine!
Still, this is a very important aircraft in the history of the piston-engine fighter. It is singularly appropriate that this aircraft is on display at Duxford, back where the RAF’s partnership with the Spitfire began. The Spitfire F.24 – last of a great line!