With recent commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Dave Tudor's visit to Stoke on Trent-based Supermarine Aero Engineering – a company specialising in the manufacture of Spitfire parts – couldn't have been better timed.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” These of course were the now immortal words uttered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 20th August 1940, referring to the efforts of the Royal Air Force crews who were at the time fighting the Battle of Britain, the pivotal air battle with the Luftwaffe with Britain expecting an imminent German invasion.
In July 1940 things looked bleak for Britain. The Luftwaffe had 2,600 planes against the RAF's 640 but by October Britain's manufacturing output had ramped up to the point where the RAF actually had more planes than its German opponents. 20,351 Spitfires and Seafires (the naval version of the Spitfire adapted for operation from aircraft carriers) were made in total between 1936 and 1948.
Indelibly carved into WWII folklore and a name as synonymous with the British Bulldog spirit as Churchill himself is the Supermarine Spitfire. Designed by Reginald J. Mitchell the first model flew on 5th March 1936. Testament to its iconic longevity is the fact that there are still 67 (restored) planes in existence today – largely owned by classic aircraft collectors and enthusiasts – and that's where Supermarine Aero Engineering has found its niche – manufacturing parts to keep those planes in the air and the dream alive. Albeit on a lesser scale, it also if required can manufacture parts for and other historic aircraft including the Hawker Hurricane and Avro Lancaster.
Fuelled by passion
Supermarine is owned by managing director/chief engineer Mark Harris and this certainly is no ordinary company. There's not a CNC machine tool in sight and each part is lovingly manufactured with accuracy, quality and authenticity in mind using many of the manual processes adopted in the production of the original aircraft. The passion that is central to the company's success is abundantly obvious – at heart these are diehard Spitfire enthusiasts that have the enviable luxury of being able to make a living doing something they love.
“The overriding challenge with making parts for Spitfires is that there are no comprehensive build, specification or modification records in existence and no-one alive with the memory of what was done the first time around,” says Supermarine's general manager Andy Nicklin. “When you consider that there are more than 20,000 parts (excluding the engine and prop) in a Spitfire and there were 24 variants manufactured it's a pretty monumental task making parts to support those variations. If for example you manufacture a standard component for a MK I, you may have to make a variation of it to fit a MK V or a MK IX.
“It's also important to remember that this was wartime,” he adds. “Modifications were being made to Spitfires constantly in response to German aircraft evolving and that's why there's so much variation. Confusingly, the ‘Mark' numbers are not always sequential. The MK VIII for example appeared after the Mark IX. The last Spitfire to be manufactured – the Seafire 47 – was 100mph faster than the original MK I, had twice the power and twice the weight.”
According to Mr Nicklin there's not an airworthy Spitfire anywhere in the world that doesn't carry parts manufactured by Supermarine Aero Engineering. Its global client base is far reaching, spanning the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Germany, France and the US. The restoration market is relatively healthy, buoyant and growing but it remains a challenge for companies like Supermarine.
“If you're a singleton restorer with a Spitfire restoration project sitting in your own hangar, you can solve the problems of restoring the plane on your own,” he states. “Often enthusiasts are aviation engineers so they can make their own parts, fit them together, get CAA approval and fly the plane.
“The issue comes, as we've seen on the recent Battle of Britain flypasts, that some companies support several Spitfires and if each one is a ‘one-off' that makes the task of manufacturing parts for each practically impossible. What we offer Spitfire owners is the provision of standardised parts – from wing spars, braking systems and undercarriage assemblies through to much smaller but vitally important parts like rubber seals.
“The Spitfire, at the end of the day was a factory built aircraft made from standard production parts but restoration enthusiasts effectively made each plane a one-off item. Prior to us setting up in business this is how it was – each plane was different and parts were non-transferrable. Through painstaking research and attention to detail we've been able to standardise the industry.”
Routes to market
Supermarine's business comprises two main elements: the restoration of aircraft and servicing – keeping the planes in the air. “Now the airshow season is nearly over things will get pretty manic for us,” Mr Nicklin affirms. “During the winter months when the planes are grounded is when all the overhauls and repairs take place. Every bolt, hinge pin, rubber, seal and gasket has to be inspected and possibly replaced so we're given long shopping lists, but because we've done all the groundwork and research, customers can be assured that when they order a part from us, it'll be identical to any previously ordered.”
An additional part of Supermarine's business however is contract work – a notable example being supporting the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (RAFBBMF) which administratively is part of the Royal Air Force No 1 Group and operates from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
Its aircraft are regularly seen at events commemorating WWII, at British State occasions, notably the Trooping the Colour and at air displays throughout the UK and Europe. For eight years, Supermarine has, under contract, manufactured parts for the aircraft under the RAFBBMF's remit comprising Chipmunks, Dakotas, Lancasters, Hurricanes and of course Spitfires.
The office at Supermarine Aero Engineering is a veritable Aladdin's cave of drawings, specifications and manuals and it's this aspect that makes the company unique. “The Spitfire came out of service in 1952 and for all intents and purposes effectively became obsolete from that date,” Mr Nicklin explains. “Drawing-wise there are massive holes in historical records: around 60% of the original drawings have vanished from the face of the earth and many manuals and specifications are virtually non-existent.
“We're like magpies – over the years we've accumulated a wealth of original documentation – drawings, photographs, specifications and schematics – but it's an endless quest. Some of the materials used in the original manufacture of a part may now be obsolete so we have to source an alternative. We have to manufacture our own jigs and fixtures; we have to source patterns and castings.
“Practically every part we make involves a full R&D exercise with the ultimate objective of ‘productionising'everything so it can be made again and again,” he adds. “We keep around 9,000 parts in stock, and, bearing in mind the industry we're in, full traceability, from the material mill certificate through manufacturing and test is a prerequisite. Our record keeping at the moment is largely manual but it's very comprehensive. We're currently involved in a major project to computerise all our records.”
One saving grace for Supermarine from a research perspective is that Spitfires used a specific part numbering system. A Spitfire MK I for example is a Type 300 so a part number 300-49 is a cooling system component for a MK I Spitfire. This particular part may have stopped at the MK I but it could have been used on subsequent models so for Supermarine the part number is sacrosanct. However not everyone can provide a part number and that's the company's extensive research and exemplary record keeping comes into play. The ‘bible' as far as Spitfire documentation is concerned is apparently the ‘legendary' Swedish Parts Catalogue.
“At the end of the war the RAF sold a squadron of Spitfire PR19 photo reconnaissance aircraft to the Swedish Air Force,” Mr Nicklin advises. “On receipt the Swedish engineers engaged in much head scratching regarding how they would maintain and service these machines so they stripped one down and produced a catalogue.
“Incredibly this remains the de facto reference document today; we have a copy here and it's invaluable in establishing the identity of parts and assemblies even though the PR19 was a later model with a Griffon engine rather than the more commonly known Merlin. There are many differences between this model and others but it provides an essential starting point.”
System synergy It's inevitable at some point that Supermarine would consider computerising at least some of its vast archives of data and for that monumental task the company has selected Surrey-based Tricorn Systems via its Production Plus (Assemblies version) software.
Used to its fullest capacity, Tricorn: Production can efficiently manage all aspects of a business from quotations through to production, stock control and invoicing. The Assemblies version purchased by Supermarine as the name suggests, features additional functionality relating to assemblies and sub-assemblies for both in-house manufactured components and bought-in parts. It has also purchased the Time Recording module for job costing purposes.
“It's early days with Tricorn but the plan is to use it to integrate all elements of our business,” Mr Nicklin says. “At the moment we're wrestling with the colossal task of inputting data but as many of our processes – even things like completing job cards and producing purchase orders – are still manual, the main objective is to automate these processes via a searchable central database so that our systems can communicate with each other.
“What's required is a software platform to bring everything together. Tricorn have been excellent because they've had to accommodate a lot of change requests from us just to make the software ‘fit' our business. Because of the nature of our work, Certificates of Conformity for example need to conform to aviation standards so the software needed to be modified to accommodate these additional requirements. We hope to have the system up and running in about six months,” Mr Nicklin concludes.
There really aren't too many companies like Supermarine Aero Engineering around. Its manufacturing methods are distinctly low-tech and somewhat labour intensive but the output is of the highest quality, integrity and authenticity. This is proper engineering; the end product is part of something that has real soul and heritage, adored and revered the world over.
The original Spitfires were essentially handmade and keeping with tradition is of paramount importance here. What makes Supermarine truly unique however is its almost obsessive attention to detail and the unbridled passion that underpins everything the company does.
Supermarine Aero Engineering