Spitfires, Beauty and Effectiveness

spitfire1I have always been interested in planes. The flying kind. Not the carpentry kind.

I have passed this onto my elder son. Ten fold.

I have never done the geek thing about anything. When I was a guitarist, it was Gibson for the sound and Marshall for the amplification. I didn’t really care about the relative pros and cons of the 1967 Sunburst Les Paul vs the 1968 Gold Top…

I am not really a true geek-level enthusiast about anything. That’s why when my elder son asks me if I’d like an Aston Martin I say “yeah” and when he asks me which one I don’t have an answer.

So when I get trapped in a conversation with a real enthusiast about most things they quickly see me as a complete lightweight. A hobbyist.

I was at Fairford on Saturday for the Air Tattoo where there are a fair few enthusiasts.

There was a Spitfire there. Flying.

I am in love with the image of the Spitfire.  

It’s the elliptical wings. Elegant beauty. This is what makes the Spitfire so fabulous.

But I have noticed from time to time that some Spitfires do not in fact have this elliptical wing. They have the clipped wing, like this:

spitfire2And I have never loved them quite as much. Or in fact at all if I was to be honest.

The elliptical winged ones are superior in every way.

With one slight problem.

They simply just weren’t.

The elliptical winged Spitfires were the early ones and they were, in fact, a bit rubbish. The clipped wingtips were better.  

The beauty of the early Spitfires did not begat performance. In fact, the opposite.  

I know this because my son, who is an enthusiast like I’m not, and knows his Spitfire Mark I from his Mark II etc etc., told me. 

It turns out, I am informed, that most Spitfires had clipped wingtips. Just not the ones in the Commando books. Or the movies.  

If I had been the chief designer of the Spitfire I would have found it hard to clip the wingtips. If I was a bombastic, stubborn kinda guy, I might have insisted they remain unclipped.  

Just because I liked them the way they were. Not because they were good. I may have remained stuck in the delusion that it was the beauty that yielded the performance, when it didn’t. I may have been a hindrance to the war effort. Like alcohol. And pacifists. And Germans.  

I was looking upon the Spitfire as a work of art. But it is a tool, not a sculpture.

So as I go about my day today I shall make a supreme effort to be aware of the choices I make and I shall be asking myself if I’m doing what I do because I like doing these things or because they are the most effective things I could be doing.   

4 Responses to Spitfires, Beauty and Effectiveness

  1. Keith Plumb July 22, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    One definition of engineering is “The art of making science work for humankind”. If it does not work at all or not very well, it is just art.

    Concord(e) versus the Boeing 747 is a good example. The Concords were beautiful planes but an engineering failure largely because they did not work for humankind. 747’s are reasonable impressive but much better engineering because they worked much better for humankind. The Concord team should have found out whether it was ever going to work for humankind well, before they went too far with the design.

    Elliptical winged Spitfires were obviously more art than engineering. Concord versus the 747 may have been a better example for your blog.

    • Mark Nugent July 22, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

      You can be my editor!

      The pay’s not good I’m afraid. In fact, there isn’t any.

      You could be my intern!

  2. Richard Dawson July 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    The noise of the Merlin v12 ah yes

    • Mark Nugent July 22, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

      Four Merlins are better – a la Lancaster.

      The Lancaster from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight landed about 30 yards from where I was standing. I had a lump in my throat.

      I love the fact that all the Spits, Lancs and their engines and in fact everything we threw at the enemy (apart from maybe battleships) were all made by women who previously had been limited to the nursery and the kitchen.

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