Thursday, 5 April 2012

Spitfire v Hurricane

The question of which is the better aircraft is one that has been bandied about ever since the two were designed in the late 1930s.  Before the reader consigns this blog to the unread pile thinking 'More of the same' I will dispense with any further preamble and state that, rather than immediately state a preference, I think the wrong question is being asked.  Wrong in the sense that one side of the discussion seem to be answering one question, whilst the opposing side are providing answers to what seems to be a different question.  Therefore before I go any further I'd like to clarify both questions and attempt to answer them.

At this juncture I would also like to advise the reader that I am 41, a fulltime wheelchair user, and have never piloted an aircraft in my life.  I am not a professional historian, thus the source material I base the following statements and conclusions on are the works of those who are professional historians, such as Leo McKinstry, Len Deighton, Patrick Bishop as well as those who actually flew the aircraft; Peter Townsend, Pierre Clostermann, Paul Richey et al.  I will not be smothering the following in references for one simple reason; If the reader has got this far (to a degree if they have been interested enough to click on the link to this blog) I am assuming they have a similar knowledge base to myself - if not greater.  They will therefore be familiar with all the literature on the subject, and indeed may have authored some themselves.  I do however have a lifelong interest in aviation, and history, the two marrying quite successfully in my resulting interest in aviation history and therefore the RAF operations in WWII.  My profession is in IT and I hope to bring the logic and analysis I have gleaned from that field to the discussion.

Now to specifics:  The first question 'Which is the better aircraft?' would seem to be simple to answer, assuming we judge 'better' in terms of aesthetics, performance, easy of handling etc.  In those terms we can quite simply compare the Spitfire and Hurricane's performance and say the former is 30 mph faster than the latter, it has cleaner lines and pilots who flew it say it was a dream to fly.  Detractors will point to issues such as the difficulty in taxying due to the long nose necessitating 'fishtailing' the aircraft on the ground as the immediate view ahead was obscured.  However this is not a flying issue, and we are talking about an aircraft.  Thus we could from this conclude that the Spitfire is the better aircraft.  Incidentally throughout this blog I will be using the present tense as flying examples of both aircraft still exist, past tense obviously when referring to wartime events.

In many discussions I have read it seems to me that Spitfire pilots are answering this question.

We now come to the second question, the one which I believe the Hurricane pilots are answering, and to answer this I will be going into the issues in much greater depth.  This question is 'Which was the better warplane?'

I would first like to look at the designers of each in brief.  At the outset I will state categorically that both R J Mitchell and Sidney Camm were among the best of their generation, and alongside the likes of Roy Chadwick, Barnes Wallis et al formed the bedrock of British engineering which helped see us to victory in the war.  Therefore no slight of any kind is intended towards either in the following, and if any is inferred by the reader it is accidental and I offer now my apologies.

Let us start by looking at the problem they were set.  Specification F.7/36 produced by the Air Ministry.  Without any actual knowledge I am going to suggest what seems logical given the subject, that this was Fighter specification no. 7 produced in 1936.  A minor point it may seem but one which may become relevant as you will see.  The outline of the brief was to produce a monoplane single seat aircraft 'capable of carrying eight machineguns and a top speed in excess of 300mph'.

R J Mitchell's pedigree was in high performance aircraft - most notably the Supermarine seaplanes which won the Schneider Cup trophy three times in a row for Great Britain thus allowing us to keep the trophy.  Upon release of the above specification he set to work and ultimately produced the Spitfire.  I mention his pedigree in design as it is germane to the discussion, and I think it is logical that he may have brought all his experience to bear producing a high performance aircraft which could carry guns.  Therefore the design emphasis was on performance.

Sidney Camm's design heritage stretched back to WWI in having a hand in designing some of Britain's first fighter aircraft which served in the RFC.  In the inter-war years he continued in this vein.  Thus when specification F.7/36 was released he set upon it bringing all his experience to bear.  However in his case in contrast to R J Mitchell, I think it is likely he prioritised in a different manner, seeing it as a question of 'How do I fly eight machineguns at 300+ mph on a single seater aircraft to the target?'

Thus by having two entirely different ethos' as their basis both designers came up with solutions which, while superficially similar, were in concept markedly different.  I think this is encapsulated in the view of one pilot who said 'The Spitfire was a racing car, the Hurricane was a tank, and I know which I'd prefer to go to war in'.  The pilot in question was, as you may have guessed, a Hurricane pilot.  However I think the point is made quite succinctly.

In terms of 'fitness for purpose' there can be no disagreement that both aircraft performed their function superlatively well, no better illustration can be seen of this than the Battle of Britain in 1940.  Some may argue that the Hurricane shot down more German aircraft, however I think I am right in saying that if you factor in the numbers of each type in service at the time, the number of victories was proportionally almost identical (I think about 60% of fighters were Hurricanes, and that's about the same proportion of victories attributed to them).

Another factor is in the more mundane, yet vital, area of maintenance.  The Spitfire was (and is) a more advanced and complicated aircraft to build, thus expending more of the scarce resources available to wartime Britain.  This however gave it the edge in performance versus the Hurricane.  However once constructed it is self-evident they would need maintenance, not least of which would involve refuelling and re-arming between sorties.  In this I submit that the Hurricane had the edge not least in two basic areas; to rearm the guns of a Spitfire involved four panels on each wing, these being on the top and bottom taking valuable time.  The Hurricane by contrast only required one panel per wing to be opened, on the underside of the wing.  As it transpired in the heady days of 1940 this would come to be a vital issue.  At some point of course aircraft would need to be transported to an external base for repair, this of course being carried out by road.  With the Spitfire this necessitated transporting the wings and fuselage on lorries to the repair establishment.  In the case of the Hurricane it was a different matter entirely.  The Spitfire's undercarriage was mounted on the wings, a consequence of which was that removal of the wings meant the fuselage had to be transported as a static weight.  By contrast the Hurricane's undercarriage was mounted on the fuselage and therefore the wings could be removed and placed on a lorry, and then the fuselage with undercarriage deployed could simply be towed behind it, a much simpler and faster process.

A brief segue is, I think due at this point.  The Russians requested assistance from Britain in the form of Spitfires, yet what the British supplied was a squadron of Hurricanes.  Initially disappointed by this, when Spitfires later became available to be supplied to them, the Russians apparently responded that they would actually like more Hurricanes.  The thought occurs that this may be due to the simplicity of the Hurricane mirroring the Russian design philosophy which dictated - and to an extent still does - function over form.  They prized capacity to fulfil the function higher than aesthetics.  Also it is likely that the more rugged Hurricane fared better in the harsh Russian climate than the Spitfire would have.  That would seem to bear out the maintenance issue.  Added to that the preference of Hurricanes in the, albeit brief, Norwegian campaign with their greater rough airfield capability and the Hawker aircraft seems to edge ahead on ruggedness.

Survivability is a key component of a fighter aircraft.  The WWII ace Peter Townsend has said 'The Hurricane was composed almost entirely of non-essential components.. I know because I've had all of them shot off'.  This suggests that the Hurricane, due to its' simpler and more rugged construction, was better able to soak up battle damage than the Spitfire.

I mentioned earlier that the Spitfire clearly wins on performance, however in the context of combat flying that is not entirely true.  In the era of propeller driven aircraft, combat between aircraft was not the modern concept of 'Fire and Forget' missiles, but the much harder to master machine-guns.  In this the aircraft had to be pointed at the target whilst firing the guns and crucially stay on target for the duration of the burst.  Obviously when I say 'on target' I mean 'in a position where the burst of fire will hit the target' which in terms of deflection meant shooting slightly ahead of the target.  One failing of the Spitfire in this was the positioning of the machine guns on the wings.  On the Hurricane wing they were evenly spaced in a lock of four on each wing; however on the Spitfire they were unevenly spaced, and this combined with the thinner wing gave rise to a wider spread of bullets, itself coining the phrase 'a spray of bullets' or 'spraying the target.

A core requirement of the tactic of keeping the firing point on target was the ability to turn as tight as possible, either to escape an aircraft behind you or to get into the right position to shoot an aircraft turning ahead of you.  It is a known fact that the Hurricane was capable of turning tighter than either the Spitfire or its' main adversary in the initial stages of the war, the Messerschmitt bf109.  Thus in this respect it was more suited to the requirements of the combat flying of the day.  The argument that the Spitfire is 30mph faster in a straight line than the Hurricane becomes a moot point.

There has also been much made of longevity of each type.  By the end of the war the Hurricane had been superseded by the Tempest and the Typhoon, whereas the Spitfire continued on in service into the early 1950s.  Proponents of the Spitfire point to this as proof of its' being superior.  However, there is a counter to this argument.

As we know, regrettably R J Mitchell died before his creation even entered service with the RAF, much less before it saw active service in the war.  In some ways I think it does him a disservice to suggest that in the next almost two decades that he would not have produced better more advanced designs, building on the success of the Spitfire.  Rather than simply produce a stream of modifications to an already extant design, it is my belief that an innovator of the calibre and quality of R J Mitchell would have looked at what other countries - most notably Germany of course - were doing and come up with better ideas of his own.  In his absence however it would appear that nobody designed a complete new airframe being content to continually upgrade the existing design.  A contemporary example of this is Apple; since the death of the driving force behind Apple's innovation, Steve Jobs, they seem to have been content to tinker with existing designs rather than create anything completely new.

At Hawker, Sidney Camm does not seem to have taken the same approach and his course of action is one which I think R J Mitchell would also have taken had he lived to see it through.  While the Spitfire started life as a fighter and - with a minor segue into aerial photographic reconnaissance - ended its' life as a fighter, the Hurricane saw its' path take varying guises; fighter, fighter-bomber, tank-buster, a ground attack role with rockets, and even in use protecting merchant shipping convoys as a catapult launched fighter.  I have excluded 'carrier borne fighter' from both as I am not aware of any instances where either type were specifically borne aboard aircraft carriers for the specific purpose of defending the fleet (The Seafire although derivative being a different aircraft to the Spitfire).  Thus it proved not only more than adequate in its' original role. but uniquely adaptable and versatile for other uses.  However Camm saw what was happening in military aviation and could see when the Hurricane had reached the end of its' life-cycle, at which point he replaced it with the Typhoon and Tempest to keep pace with the enemy's progress.  In Leo McKinstry's excellent 'Hurricane' he points out that Sidney Camm had a hand in the Hawker-Siddley Harrier, and I have little doubt that R J Mitchell would have similarly been at the forefront of aviation innovation for decades to come.

Finally, I do not want this blog to read as though I prefer one aircraft over the other, but as an even-handed appraisal of the two.  In summary I do think the Spitfire is a better aircraft, but for combat purposes - after all was the whole purpose of specification F.7/36 was to design a fighter aircraft - I think the Hurricane edges it.

Lastly this is not related to performance or indeed how good each aircraft type is in a particular context.  It is related to the justification for the Air Ministry initially ordering twice as many Hurricanes as Spitfires.  Britain being an island relied on imports for some materials, while for others supply was very much finite, as was labour.  The Hurricane took 5000 hours to construct, the Spitfire 13000, and in Germany the Messerschmitt bf109 a mere 4000.  Given that in practice the Spitfire and Hurricane were approximately equal in number of aircraft they shot down in their first real test - The Battle of Britain - I do wonder at the thought processes which accepted an aircraft - the Spitfire - which took almost three times as long to build, with a consequential increase in cost and delay in production.  This at a time when both money and resources were at a premium.  Surely cost and simplicity shoud have been part of the brief?  Curious.