Clipped Spitfire Wings – why did some Spitfires have them?

A thing of beauty – so why spoil it?

Clipped Spitfire Wings are often questioned from an aesthetic perspective. The classic elliptical wing of the Spitfire is regarded by many as the key to its beauty and itself the most identifiable symbol of Britain’s stand against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

So why would you even think about ‘ruining’ its beauty?

From early 1941, well after the Battle of Britain had been fought and won, there suddenly appeared a new shape in the skies over occupied Europe. Early reports of a new Luftwaffe fighter were initially met with derision, but losses soon began to mount and the realisation was that this latest adversary had a significant advantage with its incredible rate of roll and maneuverability. Something had to be done.

Did they actually cut the wings?

To increase the roll rate of the Spitfire and improve its combat fighting qualities, the wingspan needed to be made shorter. Fortunately, ever since the first Spitfires, the wingtips were a separate piece constructed from wood with an aluminum skin, often by Rolls-Royce coachbuilding firms such as Freestone and Webb. They were attached with two bolts and a number of small screws to hold a covering strip where the wing and the tip joined, so naturally, it was an obvious idea to unmount them and fit a simple fairing in its place. All you needed to do was remove the two bolts, undo the screws, remove the tip, remembering to disconnect the wingtip light and replace it with a simple cover fairing, which was held in place by the same screws. With the light reconnected the job was done. Simple, and effective – but just how effective?

Comparative trials

A test flight was arranged by the Air Fighting Development Unit at RAF Duxford, comparing a standard wing Spitfire Mk V with the new modified version at various heights up to 25,000 feet. It was discovered that the clipped Spitfire wing made the aircraft 5mph faster at 10,000 feet and slightly faster at 25,000 feet, but with better acceleration across the board. In a dive, the clipped wing aircraft could pull away from the standard version and in a dogfight, the improved roll rate meant it could shake off the pursuing unmodified Spitfire. Climb performance wasn’t affected much and there was no noticeable change to the take-off and landing performance.

Better view

The Spitfire wing is quite large and actually blocks out a lot of the ground from the pilot’s perspective, which could potentially hide an enemy aircraft, but the removal of the wingtips, shaves over four feet from each side. Clipped Spitfire wings improve the downward view considerably. From a combat perspective, a downward view becomes a sideways view at large angles of bank.

Late war

Having improved the performance of the Spitfire Mk V, in conjunction with supercharger modifications (although losses were still heavy against the FW190s), the latter stages of the war saw the clipped wing configuration became a very common, almost standard specification on Mk 9 and Mk16 Spitfires, as high altitude sorties became fewer and low altitude missions such as ground strafing became a priority.

Modern times

Today, purists, from aircraft enthusiasts to Spitfire owners prefer the full-span classic wing shape, as it has the glorious looks, even if their particular aircraft would have had clipped wings in period, however in a crowded hangar, clipped wings are very convenient as they free up a great deal of space – four and a half feet per aircraft – handy when space is at a premium!

To find out just how beautiful a Spitfire wing is from the cockpit, contact us to book a Sit in a Spit – or even a Spitfire flight!