Flat top fliers
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
Is it just me, or is this horrendous weather leaving anyone else feel like the 2020 Airshow season is still a million miles away? To take our minds off seemingly endless storm warnings, rain and now snow, we are going to have to use a little imagination, but with the help of a varied selection of aviation images, we will almost be able to feel the sun on our backs and hear the next display aircraft about to blast into the circuit. Ok, that might be a tad optimistic, however, we certainly do have a little aviation related distraction available in this edition, one which will hopefully help to take your minds off weather matters for just a few minutes.
We are going to be trying something a little different in this latest edition of Aerodrome, as we attempt to walk through the history of British naval aviation, through the eyes of the Airshow enthusiast. Over the years, the Airshow display scene has ebbed and flowed and we all know that you can take nothing for granted as far as aviation is concerned. Service aircraft are introduced and retired, historic aircraft are bought, displayed, then sold and indeed once popular Airshow venues are now nothing but a distant memory. Despite this, aviation continues to be a fascination for millions of people and whilst ever rising costs and event regulations will ultimately win the day, Airshows are still here for now and we should enjoy as many as we possibly can.
This latest blog will take us on a journey through some of the magnificent fixed wing Naval aircraft which thrill, or have thrilled Airshow crowds over the years and whilst certainly not an exhaustive list, we do hope that we have managed to include one or two of your own favourites. If not and you would like to offer your own suggestions, please send pictures and a short description of the aircraft concerned to our usual contact e-mail address and we may produce a special ‘Readers Edition’ on the subject a little later in the year.
Tribute to a flying Great War grandfather
The realm of the aviation enthusiast is an unusual one and whilst we tend to regularly congregate with thousands of like-minded people at shows up and down the country, each one of us will probably have a different area of interest, favourite aircraft or preferred era of flight. Despite these differences, one area of aviation which seems to unite us more than most is naval aviation and the operation of aircraft at sea. For most people, being able to pilot any aircraft would be a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled, but the ability to operate a military aircraft from the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean is something we can hardly comprehend – this must take a very special breed of airman and some extremely rugged aeroplanes.
Our overwhelming admiration for naval aviators often ensures that any Airshow aircraft which possesses naval heritage can be assured of star billing and over the years, there have been some absolute stunners. We begin this feature by looking back to the birth of naval aviation and an aircraft which was built in honour of a Great War aviator.
Marking the birth of Royal Navy carrier operations, the Bristol Scout is the forerunner of such famous Fleet Air Arm aircraft as the Hawker Sea Hurricane and the BAe Sea Harrier
Although British naval aviation can trace its origins back to 1909, just six years after the Wright Brothers had successfully conducted their first manned, powered flight, the first operation of a wheeled, fixed wing aircraft from the deck of a Royal Navy carrier at sea did not occur until six years later. On 3rd November 1915, a single engined Bristol Scout Type C left the deck of HMS Vindex and took its place in aviation history, highlighting the potential of wheeled aircraft operating from ships at sea and becoming the first of many famous naval aeroplanes.
As young boys, brothers David and Rick Bremner enjoyed nothing more than listening to their grandfather regaling them with tales of his exploits as a pilot during the First World War, flying from airfields at Imbros and Thassos during the Gallipoli campaign. During his time there, Flight Sub Lieutenant FDH Bremner’s favourite aircraft to fly was Bristol Scout serial number 1264, a real speedster at the time and one which could always be relied on to bring him home.
Years later and following the death of their grandfather, the brothers found several interesting artefacts in their grandfather’s old workshop, a stick, rudder bar and magneto, items they thought must have come from Bristol Scout 1264 and ones which would go on to form the basis of a fascinating aviation story. With encouragement from friends and family, the Bremner brothers managed to source original plans and drawings for the aircraft and began the task of trying to rebuild a Bristol Scout around the original parts they had – significantly, this would not be the reproduction of an individual Scout, but the one their grandfather had flown back in 1916.
The subject of such a fascinating aviation story, when the Bristol Scout is on public view at any event, it is always assured of attracting plenty of attention
Construction of the Scout project started in 2008 and by 2015, the aircraft was ready to make its maiden flight, almost exactly 100 years since the original Scout 1264 had taken to the air. Central to the entire project was the intention to take the aircraft back to the Greek Island of Thassos and to fly it from the airfield where their grandfather had undertaken patrols during 1916 and in a blaze of publicity both at home and in Greece, that is exactly what they achieved. Exactly 100 years since Flight Sub Lieutenant FDH Bremner had been flying Bristol Scout No.1264 operationally over the Island of Thassos, the restored aircraft did the same, a unique and moving tribute to a much loved and much missed granddad and Great War airman.
The only airworthy Bristol Scout in the world, 1264 was spotted at Old Warden last year, where she was clearly receiving a little TLC from its owners. With such a personal restoration story behind it, the Scout is rarely without a crowd of admirers around it and if you are hoping to get a clear picture of Bristol Scout 1264, you could be in for a long wait.
Staying with biplane designs, but moving on to the Second World War, it could be argued that above all other aircraft types, the Fairey Swordfish represents Britain’s effective use of air power at sea, taking an aircraft which was dismissed as obsolete before the start of the war and using it to devastating effect throughout the conflict. Flown by heroes, the Swordfish would be used in actions against some of the worlds most advanced warships and despite its ageing appearance, would become Britain’s most effective naval strike aircraft of WWII, causing the destruction of more Axis shipping tonnage than any other Allied aircraft.
Although it may have looked like an aircraft from a previous era, the Fairey Swordfish was a devastatingly effective attack aircraft and one which would continue in service throughout the Second World War
A deceptively large aeroplane, the Swordfish was ideally suited to the rigours of operation at sea, being rugged and reliable and relatively forgiving for pilots to fly
The Fairey Swordfish would see operational service throughout the Second World War and had the distinction of being the last British biplane to see active service - it would also outlast the more modern aircraft which were introduced to replace it. In the picture above, Fairey Swordfish Mk.I W5856 is positioned in a hangar at RNAS Yeovilton astride a rather impressive looking air-launched torpedo, a weapon with which the aircraft would inflict so much damage. This aircraft is significant as she is the oldest surviving Swordfish in the world and a fitting tribute to Britain’s naval aviation heritage. W5856 is displayed here with many of her panels removed, which was an interesting opportunity for modelling enthusiasts. Enjoying such close access to this magnificent aeroplane, it certainly leaves you with a lasting admiration for the bravery of the men who took these aircraft into combat during the Second World War.
Hawker Sea Hurricane
One of the most historic airworthy aircraft in the UK today, Shuttleworth’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IB may be a regular at Old Warden Airshows, but is the only airworthy example of the type in the world
Always in the shadow of the famous Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane entered Royal Air Force service just eight months before its illustrious fighting stablemate, but by the start of the Second World War, was arguably Britain’s most important aircraft. Accounting for more enemy aircraft destroyed during the Battle of Britain than all of the countries other defences combined, the Hurricane proved to be the right aircraft at the right time, with its combination of speed, firepower and ease of manufacture and maintenance keeping it fighting in the air, as opposed to being fixed in the hangar. More than a match for anything the Luftwaffe had in service at that time, the Hurricane would see service throughout the war, with the final aircraft only coming off the production lines in July 1944.
Just as the Hurricane answered the nation’s call during the Battle of Britain, it was also required to fight an even more crucial battle in the weeks and months which followed it, one which was fought at sea. As an island nation, Britain’s survival during WWII was almost totally dependent on maintaining supplies of goods, food and materials from across the Atlantic, but with the fall of France, the Germans now possessed the ability to fly long-range maritime missions from bases on the Atlantic coast and take a heavy toll of British merchant shipping. Lacking suitable escort carriers, Britain came up with a radical solution and converted a number of merchant freighters to carry a deck mounted catapult and a single Hurricane fighter. The Hurricane would be launched from the catapult rail using a powerful rocket pack for additional thrust, a procedure which relied heavily on the strength of the Hurricane’s design – this was, however, a single use option and the pilot would have to ditch his aircraft in the sea following combat.
Aviation brothers in arms, the Hawker Sea Hurricane Mk.IB is joined in the Old Warden circuit by a Merlin powered Supermarine Seafire
As more dedicated aircraft carriers became available, the Hurricane would once again prove its versatility, with a number of former RAF fighters being send for ‘navalisation’ and future service from the decks of Britain’s relatively small carriers. Designated Hurricane Mk.IB, these fighters may have been equipped with arrester hooks, but the lack of folding wings dictated that they would have to be stored on the decks of their parent ship, with no respite from the Atlantic weather.
The only airworthy example of a Hawker Sea Hurricane IB resides at Old Warden, as part of the famous Shuttleworth Collection, where it is a much loved performer at their regular Airshow events. When Z7015 made its first post restoration flight in September 1995, as well as being unique in the world of aviation, its provenance was further enhanced by the fact that it was powered by the only operational Rolls Royce Merlin III engine in the world. She is just one of many aviation reasons why UK based enthusiasts must consider ourselves amongst the most fortunate in the world.
Hawker Sea Fury
Representing the absolute pinnacle of piston powered aircraft technology, the Hawker Sea Fury was a thoroughbred aeroplane in every sense of the word. Introduced just too late to see active service during the Second World War, the Sea Fury was a marriage of the latest lightweight aircraft production techniques with the most powerful engine available at that time. Even though the resultant aircraft was a muscular brute of a machine, the Hawker design team managed to combine the power of a Bristol Centaurus 18 cylinder radial engine with a sleek and attractive airframe, making the Sea Fury one of the most aesthetically pleasing aircraft ever to take to the skies.
The Hawker Sea Fury was an extremely potent aircraft and handling this powerful machine from the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier at sea must have required nerves of steel. The first deck landing trials would commence during the winter of 1946 and it would not be long before the Royal Navy had their ultimate piston fighter - despite the advent of the jet engine, the Sea Fury would remain as the Fleet Air Arm’s principle single seat fighter until 1953, when it would be replaced by the jet powered Hawker Sea Hawk. The aircraft would also go on to see service with several overseas air arms and in a variety of operational roles, including strike fighter, trainer and high speed target tug.
An aviation thing of beauty, the Hawker Sea Fury also happens to be one of the most potent piston engined fighter aircraft ever to take to the skies, the very pinnacle of piston powered aviation technology
The beautiful aircraft pictured here is Hawker Sea Fury FB.11 VR930, which is presented the original 110/Q markings she wore when first allocated to No.802 Naval Air Squadron at RNAS Eglinton, Northern Ireland. The aircraft would later embark on HMS Vengeance and with the advent of jet power, the unit’s plots knew they could be called upon to operate against the world’s latest jet fighters if required – that would have been no problem for this piston powered beast.
Hawker/Armstrong Whitworth Sea Hawk
There must have been something in the water at the Hawker design offices during the 1940s, as they produced some of the most attractive aeroplanes ever to take to Britain’s skies during this period. If the Sea Fury is regarded as one of the most handsome piston powered aircraft ever produced, its jet powered equivalent is surely the Sea Hawk, and aircraft which followed it into service less than eight years later and one which was a real looker.
The Hawker Sea Hawk has the historic significance of being this famous company’s first jet design and one which incorporated all of the latest technological advances of the day. A truly beautiful aeroplane, the sleek appearance of the Sea Hawk certainly resembles the body of a fast flying bird, which I don’t suppose is a bad thing when designing an aeroplane, however, in spite of its dashing good looks, the aircraft proved to be a rugged and reliable performer and one which was built in some numbers. It would also serve as something of a design test bed for the next Hawker jet design, an aircraft which would go on to become one of the most successful jet aircraft ever produced by the British aviation industry – the Hawker Hunter.
Although the Sea Hawk was very much a Hawker design, the potential offered by the Hunter and its intended role as the RAF’s main interceptor fighter saw this new aircraft awarded ‘Super Priority’ status, which placed a strain on Hawker’s manufacturing capacity. As a result, all remaining Sea Hawk production for the Fleet Air Arm was transferred to a new factory at Coventry, to be run by Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, a company which was part of the Hawker group. In Royal Navy service, the Sea Hawk would see significant action during the Suez Crisis, where it would be called upon to provide the main support for British ground forces, often carrying out their attack runs in the face of heavy defensive fire. Ultimately, the inability to carry an effective payload dictated that larger aircraft would supersede the Sea Hawk in Fleet Air Arm service.
Displaying its sea wings at the 2009 Leuchars Airshow, the Armstrong Whitworth Sea Hawk is undoubtedly one of the most graceful looking aircraft produced by the British aviation industry. Historically, it was also one of the first fighter/strike jets to operate from a British aircraft carrier operationally
One of the most attractive aircraft to ever take its place on the UK Airshow circuit, Armstrong Whitworth Sea Hawk FGA.6 WV908 was once the pride of the Royal Navy Historic Flight and represented the genesis of jet powered aviation for the force. As graceful in the air as it is attractive on the ground, the aircraft pictured is wearing the markings of a No.806 Naval Air Squadron ‘Ace of Diamonds’ machine, in addition to the striking colour scheme which makes Fleet Air Arm so popular. Despite being one of Britain’s most important historic aircraft, the last flying Sea Hawk was beset with persistent engine issues and over recent years and it has not been seen at an Airshow for some time now. The pictures featured here were taken at the 2009 Leuchars Airshow, which was the last time I was lucky enough to see this aircraft fly.
De Havilland Sea Vixen
Moving on to a period in time where British naval aviation started to get serious, when you look at the impressive stature of the de Havilland Sea Vixen, you have to feel a little bit sorry of the airmen who had to operate these jet powered beasts off the decks of Britain’s diminutive aircraft carriers. Significantly larger than anything that had gone before it, the Sea Vixen’s primary role was that of ‘Fleet Defender’, a task it would have to perform in all weathers and by day or night. Illustrating the dangerous nature of flying the Sea Vixen operationally, of the 145 Sea Vixens constructed, an astonishing 37% would be lost as a result of flying accidents. Even more sobering than this, those accidents would result in the loss of a great many naval aviators, standing testament to the bravery of Royal Navy Sea Vixen crews.
Undoubtedly the most impressive aircraft ever to have been operated on the UK Airshow scene by the Royal Navy Historic Flight, De Havilland Sea Vixen D.3 XP924 (G-CVIX) was originally constructed to FAW.2 standard and served with No.899 NAS on board HMS Eagle and at RNAS Yeovilton. On her retirement from FAA service in the early 1970s, she was transferred to RAF Llanbedr in mid Wales, where she was converted to carry out D3 Target Drone duties. Whilst operating from Llanbedr, the aircraft was painted in a distinctive high visibility red and yellow livery, which was intended to help observers see the aircraft whilst it was working as either a manned drone or a high speed radar target in support of the Jindivik target drone project.
A real powerhouse, the Sea Vixen was one of the largest fleet defenders to operate from the decks of Britain’s diminutive aircraft carriers and with her twin boom design, one of the most distinctive
As the only airworthy Sea Vixen in the world, G-CVIX made her first UK Airshow display appearances during the 2001 season and immediately became a firm favourite with enthusiasts – as the most complex civilian operated jet aircraft in the world at the time, her displays were all about speed and power and how the crowds loved it. A sponsorship deal with Red Bull in 2003 saw the aircraft receive a new paint scheme which featured the logo of this famous energy drinks company and although many people were less than complimentary about it, this period did allow the aircraft to display regularly over the next few years.
During 2008, the aircraft benefitted from another repaint and was this time returned to the colours she wore during her service career with No.899 Naval Air Squadron, enhancing her position as one of the most popular aircraft on the UK display circuit. Crippling operating costs would later see the aircraft coming under the control of Fly Navy Heritage Trust and returning to its former home at RNAS Yeovilton. Unfortunately, following the aircraft’s appearance at the 2017 Duxford Air Festival, she suffered a technical issue which forced the pilot to make a wheels-up landing at Yeovilton, with his airmanship and professionalism resulting in minimal damage to the aircraft. She has been absent from the Airshow scene since that date and a return to airworthy status remains uncertain at this point.
Needing absolutely no introduction, the Blackburn Buccaneer was as tough as old boots and must have given many a Soviet Sverdlov class cruiser captain sleepless nights
As far as large aircraft operating from the decks of a British aircraft carrier are concerned, the Blackburn Buccaneer is a real heavyweight. Developed during the 1950s in response to a huge expansion of the Soviet Navy, the aircraft would be the first of its kind, intended from the outset to operate ‘under radar’ - capable of excellent performance at low altitudes, with the ability to deliver nuclear munitions if required. Clearly, these parameters would place extreme demands on the airframe, not to mention the fact that this new jet would have to operate from one of Britain’s diminutive aircraft carriers – this would have to be a very special aeroplane indeed.
On entering service, the Buccaneer provided the Royal Navy with a devastatingly effective strike weapon, however, its operation depended very much on the expertise of talented airmen and their deck handling crews, men who were not intimidated at the prospect of taming this aviation beast and taking it to sea. In true British fashion, the Royal Navy saw no benefit in producing a dual control training variant of the Buccaneer, so pilots selected to fly the new aircraft would take their first flight in the aircraft as an observer in the rear seat. The first flight as pilot would therefore be their first Buccaneer solo, although they did have the reassurance of a qualified instructor in the seat behind them, providing verbal encouragement as they came to terms with this huge and complicated aircraft.
Aware that this would be the case, the designers at Blackburn produced a roomy cockpit for the pilot and included many automated features intended to reduce his workload. Despite this, operating a Buccaneer from the decks of a British aircraft carrier would challenge the capabilities of even the most proficient pilot and would be a proud boast for anyone with this magnificent aircraft in their log books.
McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1
Pride of the Ulster Aviation Society fleet, McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XT864 is unveiled at their Maze Long Kesh museum site
Despite the fact that it is well over 40 years since a Phantom in Fleet Air Arm colours has been seen flying at a UK Airshow, we had to include this magnificent aircraft in our list simply because it is considered by many as the most exciting aircraft to have ever blasted off the deck of a British Aircraft carrier. An Anglicised variant of one of the most successful post war aircraft types, the Royal Navy were the first overseas operators of the American Phantom, which was procured to replace the De Havilland Sea Vixen in the fleet defence role. The Phantom would eventually serve with both the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force, providing interceptor, reconnaissance and strike support for 22 years during a particularly volatile period in world history.
The aircraft pictured above is McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 XT864, which is now one of the magnificent exhibits cared for by volunteers at the Ulster Aviation Society, however she was previously the much loved gate guardian at the former northern QRA base at RAF Leuchars. When the UAS discovered the RAF were looking to dispose of the aircraft, they immediately registered their interest and were ultimately successful with their bid – all they had to do now was to dismantle their Phantom and transport it to their museum home at Maze Long Kesh, on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Once the aircraft was in Northern Ireland, members of the Ulster Aviation Society worked tirelessly to reassemble the aircraft, before repainting her in stunning No.892 Naval Air Squadron ‘Silver Jubilee’ colours, markings XT864 wore during her service with the unit. The society arranged a high profile event to unveil their new aircraft in 2018, which marked the culmination of an ambitious project to return a British McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 back to Northern Ireland, some 40 years after the last example had passed through No.23 Maintenance Unit at nearby RAF Aldergrove.
BAe Sea Harrier
The consummate Airshow performer, how much have we missed the Sea Harrier thrilling the crowds at UK events?
If we are talking about consummate post war Airshow performers, few will argue that the magnificent BAe Harrier, or in this case the Sea Harrier, should not be placed at the head of this enigmatic group, an aircraft which proved to be a spectacular success for the British aviation industry. Although clearly not a concern during the development of this unique aeroplane, its ability to do things other fixed wing aircraft couldn’t dream of doing made this an instant Airshow hit and one which could put on a show even if the weather conditions kept other aircraft firmly on the ground.
From its first Airshow appearance, the Sea Harrier managed to captivate the public with its unique display of power and control, with this effective fleet defence fighter moving from high speed flight to hovering above the airfield, suspended on four columns of air from the vectored nozzles of the Rolls Royce Pegasus engine. As if that were not enough to completely enthral its audience, having the aircraft pay its own respects to the gathered masses by bowing in a slow and dignified manner in their direction, before applying power and returning to forward flight, created a very personal bond with the British public – how they loved this aircraft.
To mark 25 years of Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier operations, FA.2 ZH809 was given this spectacular blue and white scheme for the 2004 Airshow season and was known as ‘The Admiral’s Barge’
Without doubt, the Sea Harrier’s finest hour came during the Falklands War of 1982, where fighters operated by Fleet Air Arm pilots in the South Atlantic claimed 20 Argentine aircraft destroyed in air to air combat, without an air to air loss to their own number. Later variants of the aircraft would go on to see extensive operational service in the Balkans, Iraq and in Afghanistan.
The magnificent aircraft pictured above is Sea Harrier FA.2 ZH809 of No.899 Naval Air Squadron, a machine which was specially painted in this striking blue and white scheme to mark 25 years of Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier operations. Photographed at the 2004 Waddington International Airshow, ZH809 was a late production Sea Harrier delivered in 1998, but despite only serving the Royal Navy for 8 years, was to be retired with only 1073 flying hours on its airframe. It is somehow fitting that this beautifully presented Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier should bring this naval aviation overview to an end.
The future – Lightning strikes twice
One of the world’s most potent strike aircraft, the Fleet Air Arm may have been without a fixed wing fighter for ten years, but that might be about to change
With the retirement of the Sea Harrier bringing to a close 95 years of Royal Navy fixed wing aircraft operation, it could be argued that Britain’s international military influence was significantly diminished as a consequence, with any future aviation contribution having to be conducted from suitable ground bases. The recent arrival of the UK’s fifth generation F-35 Lightning II fighters and the introduction of Britain’s two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers holds the future prospect that the Fleet Air Arm will eventually return to operating fixed wing strike aircraft at sea once more, continuing the proud heritage of this force.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
In between new editions of our blog, the aviation related conversation continues over on the Airfix Aerodrome Forum and we can also be contacted on either the Airfix or Corgi Facebook pages, in addition to Twitter for both Airfix and Corgi - please do get involved in the discussions and let us know what you think about Aerodrome.
The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 13th March, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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