The aeroplane that saved the world: an extract from Adapt
In 1931, the British Air Ministry sent out a demanding new specification for a fighter aircraft. It was a remarkable document for two reasons. The first was that throughout its existence the Royal Air Force had been dismissive of fighters. The conventional wisdom was that bombers could not be stopped. Instead, foreshadowing the nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the correct use of air power was widely presumed to be to build the largest possible fleet of bombers and strike any enemy with overwhelming force. The second reason was that the specification’s demands seemed almost impossible to meet. Rather than rely on known technology, the bureaucrats wanted aviation engineers to abandon their orthodoxies and produce something completely new.The immediate response was disappointing: three designs were selected for prototyping, and none of them proved to be much use. The Air Ministry briefly went so far as to consider ordering aircraft from Poland.Even more remarkable than the initial specification was the response of the ministry to this awkward failure. One of the competing firms, Supermarine, had delivered its prototype late and well below specification. But when Supermarine approached the ministry with a radical new design, an enterprising civil servant by the name of Air Commodore Henry Cave-Browne-Cave decided to bypass the regular commissioning process and order the new plane as “a most interesting experiment.” The plane was the Supermarine Spitfire.