They Put Water Floats on a Spitfire? It Wasn't as Silly as it Sounds

Do any of you remember the meme from a few years ago where everyone pretended to be shocked someone did surgery on a grape? Well, here's a similar sentiment, "They put floats on a Spitfire?!" Same vibe, different scenario entirely.
Spitfire on Floats 11 photos
Photo: Royal Air Force Archives
Supermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on FloatsSupermarine Spitfire on Floats
The idea to take the iconic Second World War Supermarine Spitfire fighter and stick a couple of pontoons where the landing gear should be is very strange indeed. One can't help but think two ungainly pontoons sticking out several feet in front of a fighter plane won't lend well to important things like drag or power to weight figures. But please, withhold your quips and jests until you hear the full story.

Does the Spitfire really need any introduction? Well, we'll give it one regardless. Anyone who knows anything about Great Britain during the war knows its exploits. But it'd also be wholly inaccurate to say the old British warbird didn't evolve throughout the conflict. If anything, the type underwent more changes, modifications, and fine tweaks than some entire airplane companies ever produced in their entire existence.

So to say, the platform was adaptable to several different scenarios. Usually revolving around short-range air-to-air home defense, most famously during the Battle of Britain. But it was while prepping for the impending battle over Great Britain that the idea for a Spitfire floatplane first appeared. Not in response to that particular battle, but instead, the German invasion and occupation of Norway occurred at very nearly the same time.

Supermarine Spitfire on Floats
Photo: Royal Air Force
It was thought that by taking off and landing from Norweigian ice fjords, the RAF would be spared from constructing expensive forward air bases in the region. If a dramatic final battle between Great Britain and the Germans was to take place, these sea-bound Spitfires could take off from waters close to British warships, defend them from airborne attacks, and land back home beside the very same ships they'd just defended.

The first example of a Spitfire fitted with floats for this purpose was an early Mk I variant. It was fitted with the same landing gear pontoons as a Royal Navy Blackburn Roc single-engine attack plane. With an added ventral fin for more stability in the water, it was hoped these modifications wouldn't put too much of a hamper on performance. Alas, flight testing on the first floating Spitfire showed the added weight and drag of the floats left the plane hitting with all the force of a wet noodle.

When Norway decisively fell to the Germans in June 1940, the program was halted indefinitely. Safe to say, a fjord hopping fighter plane with no fjords is just about useless. But this wouldn't be the end of the story for Spitfire seaplanes. If anything, it was only a brief intermission. With the attack on Pearl Harbor's Naval base in December 1941, it was clear that Great Britain would soon join their new American allies on the high seas of the Pacific.

Supermarine Spitfire on Floats
Photo: Royal Air Force
As American forces advanced slowly across the Pacific Ocean in a systematic island hopping campaign, Navy and Marine personnel found that sea-fairing variants of Imperial Japanese fighters were proving remarkably effective in combat. In particular, the Nakajima A6M2-N, a floatplane variant of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, gave American pilots and seamen all the hell they could handle. This information was relayed to the UK's Air Ministry.

In response to findings by the Americans in the Pacific, the British revived their plans for a Spitfire floatplane with the newly upgraded Mk VB. On this occasion, the Folland Aircraft Company was tasked with performing the conversion. The airplane's 1,100 horsepower Rolls Royce Merlin 45 V12 had its standard three-blade propeller replaced with a more efficient four-bladed unit to give a top speed of 324 mph (521.42 kph). For a floatplane from 1942, that was pretty darn fast.

Taking to the sky from the water for the first time on October 12th, the flight proved more fruitful than the last attempt at something similar. Test pilots raved about the machine's surprising and uncanny speed, agility, and maneuverability. So much so that two further prototypes were ordered with the same specifications as the first.

Supermarine Spitfire on Floats
Photo: Large Scale Planes
This time, with fully custom water floats as opposed to spare stock from other, lesser British airplanes. The three floatplanes were intended to help the British with an island hopping campaign of their own, this time in the Greek islands of the South West Aegean Sea.

But once again, changes in plans kept the three planes stuck in Egypt until the end of the war. But not before one last attempt to mount floats on one last Spitfire Mk IX. With 1,720 horsepower on tap, this final sea-faring Spitfire maxed out at 377 mph (606.7 kph) and reached altitudes of 38,000 ft, if only at a range of 406 miles (653.4 km). In terms of piston-engine powered seaplanes go, the final Mk IX Spitfire floatplane may very well have been the zenith of its performance.

Just like all previous Spitfire seaplanes, the ultimate version found itself de-prioritized in the face of more pressing aeronautical projects. It was struck from the RAF record in November 1945. Officially bringing the tale of the RAF's Spitfire floatplanes to an end for good.

Check back soon for more from Sea Month here on autoevolution.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram X (Twitter)

Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories