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The Story of the High Speed Spitfire

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During the 1920s and 30s countries across the world vied for the air speed record and during 1935 Britain decided to try and win back the record which it last held in 1931 and was currently held by Italy. To do this they would use a converted version of the Royal Air Force's most modern fighter, this would be known as the High Speed Spitfire. But with war looking ever more likely and production delays with the Spitfire, things wouldn't go to plan.


On the 10th April 1933 Italian Francesco Agello flying a Macchi M.C. 72 seaplane broke the air speed record by reaching 423.82 mph. He then repeated the feat the following year, flying the Macchi M.C. 72 seaplane again, on the 23rd October 1934 when he achieved a speed of 440.68 mph setting a new air speed record. These had beaten the record set by Britain on the 29th September 1931 by Flight Lieutenant George Staniforth of 407.49 mph whilst flying a Supermarine S.6B seaplane.

There were some within the Air Ministry who wanted to win the record back. This would see Specification F.35/35 issued during December 1935 calling for a 'High Speed Aircraft (Experimental)'. A number of aircraft manufacturers Airspeed, Bristol, General Aircraft and Hawker all considered the proposal but no submissions were made. Supermarine showed no interest and it looked like the project would go no further.

The Air Ministry's Director of Technical Development Air Commodore Reynell Henry Verney, who had been appointed to this role on the 17th September 1934, was undeterred. On the 7th September 1937 he met up with Supermarine's chief designer Joseph Smith, who took up this role after the death of Reginald Joseph Mitchell on the 11th June 1937, and people from Rolls-Royce and de Havilland. The aim of this meeting was to see if it was feasible for a High Speed Spitfire to be produced. The idea was considered practical and a Spitfire from the initial 310 that the Air Ministry had ordered on the 3rd June 1936 would be used.

On the 9th November 1937 a further meeting was held to discuss the current progress of the project. A sense of urgency would be given to the project only two days later when on the 11th November 1937 Hermann Wurster reached a speed of 379.63 mph in a Messerschmitt Bf 109 V13. Although not a new record, around 60 mph slower than the speed set by Francesco Agello in 1934, it was a record for a landplane and it signalled Germany's intent to try and break the record.

Another meeting was held on the 25th November 1937 to discuss the project, but at this time the only Spitfire currently flying was the prototype and it wouldn't be until the following year, May 14th 1938, when the first production example would fly. This was followed the next month on the 5th June 1938 when Ernest Udet flying a Heinkel He 100 V2 reached a speed of 394.20 mph for Germany, it was around 25 mph faster than the speed set seven months earlier by Hermann Wurster in the Bf 109 V13.

Spitfire Mk I (K9834) Becomes the High Speed Spitfire

Technical Details
2,160-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin 3M
Top Speed
422 mph (estimated)
33 ft 8 in
29 ft 11 in
5,490 lb (fully loaded)

The aircraft chosen to become the High Speed Spitfire was the 48th Mk I built (K9843) and this would be given the designation Type 323. To get the aircraft ready for its record attempt a number of modifications were made. The engine intended to power the aircraft was the 2,100-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin II Special 2, but this was still under development so the 2,160-hp Merlin 3M would be installed, which would necessitate a larger radiator, driving a Watts four-bladed fixed pitch wooden propeller. Other changes included shorter, rounded wing tips, the tail wheel replaced by a skid, flushed rivets instead of dome rivets and a more streamlined cockpit canopy.

On the 11th November 1938, and now registered as Spitfire N.17 and for Class B racing, Supermarine test pilot Captain Joseph Summers took the aircraft up on its first flight. Now resplendent in its blue and silver colour scheme the 14th December 1938 saw Jeffrey Quill perform level speed trials with the aircraft using a three bladed propeller. Further testing of the High Speed Spitfire followed over the next few months. March 1939 saw the aircraft grounded whilst it had a cooling system installed. However two events in the space of a month would halt the project in its tracks.

High Speed Spitfire
Spitfire N.17 in its High Speed Spitfire colour scheme.

Germany Sets New Records

Air Speed Records (1934 - 1939)
23rd October 1934
Francesco Agello - Macchi M.C. 72 - 440.68 mph
30th March 1939
Hans Dieterie - He 100 V8 - 463.91 mph
26th April 1939
Friedrich Wendel - Me 209 V1 - 469.22 mph

On the 30th March 1939 a Heinkel He 100 V8 flown by Hans Dieterie reached a speed of 463.91 mph setting a new air speed record by around 23 mph, breaking the nearly five year old record. April 1939 saw the High Speed Spitfire back in the air and it reached a speed of 407 mph with an estimated top speed of 422 mph. This was still 28 mph less than the 450 mph they had hoped to get the High Speed Spitfire to achieve and 41 mph behind the new air speed record. Before the month was out on the 26th April 1939 Germany raised the bar again when Friedrich Wendel flying a Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 achieved a speed of 469.22 mph increasing the air speed record by 6 mph.

The Project is Cancelled

With the High Speed Spitfire unlikely to challenge the new air speed record set by Germany further development work on the aircraft was cancelled. Although the ultimate goal of setting a new air speed record was never attempted vital knowledge about high speed flight was gained.

July 1939 saw the aircraft, minus its under-wing radiator so no intelligence could be gained from it, appear on static display in Brussels, Belgium at the 2nd International Salon of Aeronautics. Just two months later the Second World War (1939 – 1945) had started and the High Speed Spitfire was needed by the Royal Air Force.

Conversion back to Spitfire (K9834)

Now back in RAF service the aircraft was converted to a photo reconnaissance Spitfire, first a PR Mk I then a PR Mk III, and on the 24th November 1940 joined No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. During August 1942 the aircraft suffered a landing accident necessitating repairs and returned to No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit on the 4th September 1942. Spitfire (K9834) Royal Air Force career ended on the 21st August 1946 when it was struck off charge.

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