Formed in 1912, Supermarine began business by producing
sea-going aircraft. The company became famous for its successes in the
Schneider Trophy, especially the three wins in a row of 1927, 1929 and
In 1928 Vickers Aviation took over Supermarine. In 1938 Supermarine and
Vickers were taken over by Vickers-Armstrong.
The first Supermarine landplane to go into production was the famous
Spitfire, which proved to be a successful design and, along with the
Hawker Hurricane, entered into legend after its role in the Battle of
Other well-known planes from World War II were the Seafire (a naval
version of the Spitfire, the Spiteful (successor of the Seafire) and the
flying boat Supermarine Walrus.
Many people say that the
Spitfire Story really started back in 1912, and in some respects it does.
It all began with Mr Noel Pemberton-Billing, who lived on the River Itchen
in his three-masted schooner, buying a disused coal wharf in which he was
going to build his boat that would fly, and so the base from which the
Spitfire was to appear was formed.
Pemberton-Billing registered his telegraphic address as "supermarine" and
set about building his flying boat. The aircraft, named the P.B.1, was
completed in 1914 and put on display in Olympia, London. This was just
before the start of the First World War and the aircraft was put to one
side and forgotten and in fact it never even flew.
On the first Monday of the war Pemberton-Billing gathered his staff
together and informed them that his company must produce a scout aircraft
for the Royal Flying Corps. Out of all the designs came the Supermarine
P.B.9, aircraft being so basic in those days that by the following Monday
the aircraft was built and ready to fly.
Leaving Mr. Hubert Scott-Paine with the day-to-day running of Supermarine,
Pemberton-Billing left to join the Royal Navy. Scott-Paine and his staff
carried on with other fighter aircraft designs, but in 1915 interest
switched to an unconventional four-winged Zeppelin interceptor named the
Nighthawk. This aircraft was also a failure but the company remained
interested in fighter aircraft and flying boats.
In 1917 Supermarine took on a young R.J. Mitchell who was to change the
fortunes of the company. Mitchell and Supermarine set about building an
aircraft devised by the Royal Navy to be called the Navyplane.
After the First World War, in 1919, Supermarine entered the Schneider
Trophy air race with their single engined Sea-lion flying boat. Sadly the
aircraft hit an obstruction in the water and crashed during take-off.
The Mitchell/Supermarine partnership then set about redesigning the 1919
entrant and in 1922 the Sea-lion II emerged from the Woolston factory. The
aircraft won the air race that year at an average speed of 145.7 mph, but
the next year saw the American team beat the Sea-lion III. Supermarine
maintained their interest in high speed flying machines but looked more
towards building moderately sized flying boats.
"R.J." was already aware that to increase the aircraft speed he needed to
decrease the drag created by so many obstacles such as rigging lines,
struts and the general shape of the aircraft. Mitchell's final set of
drawings showed a revolutionary monoplane that took him a while to
convince the management that this was the way to go to improve top speed
of the aircraft. In 1925 the Supermarine S.4 rolled out for its first test
During the test flights pilot Henri Baird reached a new world record of
226.75 mph, however the day before the race the S.4 crashed into the sea.
Mitchell carried on with the S.4 design and improved it so much that a new
aircraft was built, named the S.5. The race this year was held in Venice
and Flight Lieutenant S.N.Webster won the race at an average speed of
In 1928, with Supermarine showing itself to be an aircraft company to be
reckoned with, but with some financial difficulties, an offer was made by
Vickers (aviation) Ltd to partner Supermarine in the development of high
speed flight. Consequently the company became Vickers Supermarine Ltd. of
With the new Rolls-Royce 'R' engine put into a redesigned S.5 aircraft a
new plane was built and called the S.6. On the 7th September 1929, at
Calshot, at least a million people saw the S.6 win the Schneider Trophy
race for the second time in a row for Britain. One more win and the trophy
would be Britain's to keep.
After problems with the government withdrawing their support for the air
race followed by the society of British Aircraft Constructors it looked
like Supermarine would not have the financial backing required to build a
contender for the 1931 Schneider contest. Fortunately the highly
patriotic, very flamboyant and, more importantly, rich Lady Houston
stepped in with a cheque for £100,000 for the British contender. This was
very important not only for the Schneider Trophy but also for
Supermarine's and Mitchell's study on high speed fighters for the Royal
With less than six months to go to the next round of the races Mitchell
redesigned the S.6 twice and the end result was a more powerful, much
lighter S.6.b. Nobody knows why but England was the only country to enter
the event in 1931 and the S.6.b went on to complete the course at an
average speed of 340.08 mph and win the trophy outright for Britain.
When in October 1931 the aircraft industry was requested to provide a new
fighter aircraft for the RAF, capable of over 200 mph and carrying four
machine guns, Supermarine set about design of such an aircraft. Mitchell
used the knowledge gained with the S.4, 5 and 6 and came up with the
Supermarine Type 224. This aircraft had an unconventional gull-wing and
incorporated two machine guns in the wheel fairings. The aircraft could
only manage a mere 228 mph and did not fly until February 1934. It was
quite obvious that it would not fit the bill for the RAF and in fact
Mitchell was also disappointed with the performance of the aircraft.
All this time "R.J." was also designing another fighter but he did not
make this public until the failure of the Type 224 was plain to see.
Supermarine decided to build this aircraft as a private venture under the
Air Ministry Specification F37/34. The Spitfire was born.