De Havilland’s ‘Foxy’ Fleet Fighter
It is looking highly likely that October 2015 is going to be remembered as a significant month in the history of British aviation, as we prepare for the retirement of perhaps the most distinctive aircraft to ever display on the UK Airshow circuit. Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558 has become something of an aviation phenomenon, since she returned to the UK Airshow circuit in October 2007 and is probably responsible, in no small part, for re-invigorating Airshow attendance figures, at a time when aircraft retirements and financial constraints were beginning to have a significant impact. When XH558 lands back at Doncaster Airport following its final display of the year, she will begin a new career as the centrepiece of an aviation education initiative, where young people can become inspired by all aspects of the aviation industry. After eight stunning years on the Airshow circuit, Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558 can definitely claim to have left her mark on the British public, who will miss her displays dearly, in the years to come.
With the retirement of the Vulcan now looming large, what do UK Airshow enthusiasts have to look forward to in the years to come? In the latest installment of our Aerodrome blog, we will look at a unique jet aircraft, based in the UK, which might just be capable of easing the pain of losing our beloved Vulcan – the stunning De Havilland Sea Vixen.
Defending the Fleet
The end of the Second World War was to herald a period of rapid technological development in the world of aviation, as the jet engine was quickly becoming the power plant of choice. As these engines became more reliable and capable of producing much more power, aviation designers were forced to overcome significant stability difficulties, as their aircraft were now approaching the speed of sound and were experiencing strange handling characteristics. The culmination of this work would lead to aircraft design taking on a very different appearance to the piston engined machines of WWII and Britain was very much at the forefront of this race.
The fear of war breaking out in Europe again, combined with the fear that your potential adversaries may have more advanced aircraft designs than your own, resulted in something of an aviation arms race in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with new aircraft designs taking to the sky on an almost weekly basis. With both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy keen to ensure they had the most capable aircraft at their disposal, British manufacturing companies had something of a captive audience as they produced new and advanced aeroplanes, with the annual Farnborough Airshow being a high profile event for them to showcase their talents.
Following discussions between the Admiralty and de Havilland Aviation in 1946, the company began work on a new all-weather jet fighter, which was given the designation DH.110. As they had a highly successful jet fighter design in the Vampire, the new aircraft adopted the familiar twin-boom arrangement of its predecessor, but would feature swept wings and would be powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon engines, which provided ample power for supersonic performance. Indeed, the DH.110 would become the first British two seat combat aircraft to achieve supersonic speed. A 1947 Air Ministry requirement for a highly capable jet night-fighter for use by both the RAF and Fleet Air Arm, led to an order for nine prototype de Havilland DH.110 aircraft for the RAF (where it would compete with the Gloster Javelin) and a further four for the Navy, but as can often be the case, these requirements would be changed before the aircraft could be completed. In 1949, the Royal Navy decided to drop their immediate interest in the project and select the de Havilland Sea Venom instead – the need to replace their piston engined Sea Hornets was just too pressing and adopting this existing de Havilland would both fulfil this requirement and save them money. At the same time, the RAF also reduced their order to just two prototype aircraft, but despite these significant setbacks, de Havilland continued to develop the new aircraft.
Farnborough disaster for DH.110 prototype WG236
DH.110 prototype aircraft WG236
The first DH.110 prototype took off from the de Havilland aerodrome at Hatfield on 26th September 1951 and immediately showed great promise. Over the next few months, the aircraft would regularly fly at speeds in excess of the speed of sound and continued to exceed all performance expectations, to the delight of the de-Havilland design team. The aircraft was set to become one of the star items at the 1952 Farnborough Airshow, but tragically, it was involved in a terrible accident. Under glorious blue skies and in front of around 100,000 people, test pilot John Derry and his flight engineer Tony Richards had just demonstrated the aircraft’s ability to break the sound barrier. As they performed a high-speed turn to return to the airfield, the aircraft suffered a catastrophic structural failure and disintegrated in the sky. The cockpit and engines became detached from the fuselage and significant debris landed amongst the crowd, causing a terrible scene of devastation. Sadly, thirty-one people were to lose their lives on that day and the authorities immediately acted to impose strict safety regulations on the staging of future Airshows.
On completing their detailed investigations into the tragedy that occurred at Farnborough on that fateful day, authorities found that a flawed design to the end sections of the main spar resulted in the outer wing sections shearing off, during the high speed turn manoeuvre – this in turn caused the aircraft to lurch violently, creating massive G-forces and resulting in the structural disintegration. Following the investigation, modifications were immediately made to the second DH.110 prototype airframe, but the aircraft would not be flown again until July 1954. By this time, the RAF had decided to abandon their interest in the DH.110 altogether and proceed with the Gloster Javelin fighter instead – luckily for de Havilland, the Fleet Air Arm had by this time, resurrected their interest, as they had a need to replace their ageing Sea Venoms.
In the summer of 1955, a semi-navalised prototype aircraft was produced, which incorporated changes to the wing leading edge profile and significant strengthening to the wing itself. The following year, the aircraft made its first successful deck landing on HMS Ark Royal, instantly becoming one of the largest and heaviest aircraft to land on Britain’s most famous aircraft carrier. The Navy were extremely impressed with their aggressive looking new fighter, but it would be a further two years before their much anticipated new aircraft, now called Sea Vixen FAW.1 (fighter all-weather) would enter service with No.892 NAS, at Yeovilton (HMS Heron).
The unique appearance of the De Havilland Sea Vixen
The Sea Vixen was a large and extremely powerful aircraft, which possessed many of the design characteristics found on the earlier de Havilland fighter aircraft. Significantly larger than either the Vampire, or the Venom, the Sea Vixen was to become the first British fighter aircraft to be armed solely with missiles, as the cannon armament option was removed once the RAF withdrew their interest in the project. With a main armament of four de Havilland Firestreak air-to-air missiles, the Sea Vixen could also carry two Microcell unguided rocket packs, each containing 32 projectiles and either four 500Ib, or two 1,000Ib bombs, at speeds of 690 mph at sea level.
Profile artwork featuring the de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2
One of the most distinctive features of the Sea Vixen design was the cockpit and canopy placement, which was offset from the centreline of the aircraft, allowing for the addition of a radar observer's position within the fuselage. Known colloquially as the ‘coal hole’, this position was located deep in the fuselage of the aircraft, below and to the right of the pilot and must have been a horrendous place in which to ply your trade. Surrounded by banks of electronic equipment, the radar observer had an extremely restricted view of the outside world and certainly was not a career for anyone suffering from claustrophobia.
To try and give some idea of what it was like to serve in the ‘coal hole’, once seated, the radar observer faced a large bank of electronic screens, switches and dials, directly in front of him, which incorporated the twin radar scopes, so important to his role. Looking forward and slightly above and to the left, the observer could see the nose steering wheel and the pilots leg – this could be useful if he needed to attract his attention in an emergency situation. Tight on his left shoulder was a solid metal bulkhead, which contained more electronic dials and switches. Natural light was at a premium and was restricted to a small, rectangular window on his right shoulder, with a further small window above his head. This window could be blacked out, to allow the observer a clearer view of the radar scopes, which really must have made this a particularly unfriendly environment – it is no wonder why it was known as the ‘coal hole’.
The radar observer’s hatch was much larger on the FAW.2
Operationally, the radar observer had a particularly challenging job to do. Using his twin radar screens, he had to quickly assess where the potential target was and direct his pilot towards an interception. The radar itself was quite limited and its ‘look-down’ detection performance was almost non-existent, which dictated that the aircraft would have to be flown below any potential target, to effectively detect it. If the target was approaching at low level, this would have made detection almost impossible.
For ground attack missions, the crew would effectively reverse roles, with the pilot taking over much of the work and the observer simply keeping him informed of their current speed and altitude, as he would be glued to his gunsight. If a pilot needed to be warned that he might be flying a little low for the observers liking, he could expect a sharp jab in his right leg as a painful reminder!
When you consider the environment in which he had to work, a Sea Vixen observer was clearly a very special type of person. His job was extremely demanding and he was forced to carry it out in what must have been quite frightening surroundings – he would definitely have to have total faith in the capabilities of his pilot. I don’t think that this would have been a job for me.
The Sea Vixen in to Service
As the first Sea Vixen FAW.1 (Fighter All Weather) aircraft began to arrive in British aircraft carriers in March 1960, they must have made for an impressive sight. These large and powerful fighters were being operated from carriers that were really quite small, which must have been a significant challenge for both air and ground crews alike. There will have been little margin for error in simply launching and recovering these mighty fighters from an aircraft carrier, let alone the complexities of completing your assigned mission.
The main role of the Sea Vixen was that of a ‘Cold War’ fleet defender, which was a task that needed to be completed in all weathers, day, or night. Using the latest air intercept radar of the day, the system utilised an A (Azimuth) scope in conjunction with a B (Elevation) scope, which very much explains why the observer was positioned in the gloomy surroundings of the ‘coal-hole’. A successful interception would involve the close co-ordination between a large number of people. The Sea Vixen crew would be vectored to an intercept by either its home carrier, radar control ship or by an AEW Gannet aircraft on patrol. On acquiring their target, the observer would take control of the intercept, barking out positional instructions to his pilot, to allow him to get in position for a missile kill.
First in service – the de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.1
Interceptions were constantly practiced at various altitudes, from 45,000ft, down to 500ft – these sorties would take place over the sea, by day, or night and in all weather conditions. To make things even more challenging, they would need to be successfully achieved without obtaining visual contact, with the pilot flying blind and totally relying on his instruments – this was a highly advanced procedure for that time.
A secondary role for the Royal Navy Sea Vixen was that of ground attack and it was capable of delivering a devastatingly effective blow. Armed with four multi-rocket pods, each containing 32 high explosive rocket projectiles, they could be fired in a fast delivery burst in less than two seconds, for maximum impact. For dive bombing attacks, the Sea Vixen could carry 500lb and 1000lb bombs, which could be armed with either contact, or proximity fuses.
Night Attack (Glow worm)
The ability for the Navy to attack enemy ships by day, or night in defence of the fleet was a critical requirement in Sea Vixen operations. A team of four Sea Vixens would execute these attacks, which were referred to as ‘Glow worm’ attacks and proved to be particularly hazardous for the crews. Flying at low level over the sea, one of the Sea Vixens would illuminate the target, using ‘glow worm’ illuminating flare rockets. Once illuminated, the other aircraft would dive in to attack the target one after the other, forming something of an aerial race track and pulling out of their dive only feet above the ocean and pulling significant g forces. After all this adrenalin fuelled action, the pilots would have to recover to their home carrier in the dead of night – most definitely not a career for the faint-hearted!
Sea Vixen upgraded to FAW.2 Standard
Image: Andrew Rodgers dorsettrooper A FAW.2 Sea Vixen coming in to land at Yeovilton
This significant upgrade to the original Sea Vixen configuration not only added to the capabilities of the aircraft, but also changed its appearance somewhat. The FAW.2 could now carry the new ‘Red Top’ air-to-air missile, as well as the original ‘Firestreak’, in the fleet defence role. It was also now able to carry four SNEB rocket pods and the air-to-ground ‘Bullpup’ missile. An enlarged tail boom and pinion extensions above and protruding forward from the wing leading edge, provided the Sea Vixen with additional fuel carrying capacity and space for more effective electronic countermeasures equipment. There were also some welcome improvements made to the escape system for the poor radar observer, but these all affected the flight characteristics of the aircraft and meant that it could no longer carry the 1000lb bombs. The FAW.2 version of the Sea Vixen entered RN service in 1964, with 29 aircraft being constructed. Importantly, a further 67 FAW.1 Sea Vixens were also upgraded to FAW.2 standard.
Fleet Defender – A most challenging role
The de Havilland Sea Vixen proved to be a significant aircraft for Britain’s Royal Navy, at a time when potential threats were becoming much more capable. It was required to perform a particularly demanding mission profile in the world of aviation, using what has to be regarded as still quite basic jet engine technology and operating from small British aircraft carriers. Operating this large, twin engine jet fighter from a small deck, in all weathers, day, or night, must have required very special aviators, but despite their high degree of professional expertise, Navy Sea Vixen crews were to suffer a high accident rate during their service career. Night attack ‘Glow worm’ operations proved to be particularly hazardous as crews were subjected to high G-forces and extremely hostile operating environments. It operated as a front-line fleet fighter from 1959 to 1972 and during this time, there were no fewer than fifty-five major accidents, which resulted in the loss of an aircraft. Sadly, of these accidents, thirty proved fatal and twenty-one of them claimed the lives of both aircrew. During the operating service life of the de Havilland Sea Vixen, fifty-one Royal Naval aircrew were to sadly lose their lives, whilst carrying out their flying duties.
Magnificent Airfix Sea Vixen, built by Alan Bottoms (see below)
Statistically, Fleet Air Arm Sea Vixen operations do not make for comfortable reading, although it certainly highlights the difficult environments in which the aircraft was flown. Of the 145 Sea Vixens constructed, 37.93% of these were lost as a result of flying accidents. Tragically, out of this figure, a terrible 54.54% of aircrew were to lose their lives – more than anything else, these numbers illustrate the incredible bravery and fortitude of the Sea Vixen crews of the Royal Navy.
Sea Vixen Display Aircraft
Anyone who has been lucky enough to see a Sea Vixen flying operationally, or at an Airshow event will definitely be left feeling a little awe-struck - this is a BIG aeroplane and is something of an aerial hot-rod. It looks absolutely spectacular, is incredibly noisy and clearly possesses an abundance of power – it really is a thing of aviation beauty. Imagine seeing a number of these impressive aeroplanes being flown in a close formation display!
This demonstration display team of five Sea Vixen FAW.1 aircraft from No.766 Naval Air Squadron, were formed in 1962 and performed a number of displays over a twelve month period. The team leader was Lieutenant Commander Peter (Fred) Reynolds and they flew Sea Vixens XJ493, XJ561, XJ482, XJ513 and XJ565. The aircraft were painted in standard Fleet Air Arm dark sea grey and white colours and were equipped with the ability to deploy coloured smoke, to further enhance the appearance of their spectacular display.
This team from No. 892 NAS at Yeovilton, flew six Sea Vixen FAW.2 aircraft at a large number of air displays during 1968. The leader of this team was Lieutenant Commander Simon Idiens and his aircraft again flew in standard Fleet Air Arm colours of dark sea grey and white, but also carried a yellow and black wolf’s head motif on the tail of the aircraft. An extremely high profile team during the 1968 Airshow season, they adopted a lioness from Longleat House to act as their mascot, which was to star in a number of film reports featuring the team in 1968. It was seen playing with the crews, in front of their Sea Vixen FAW.2 aircraft.
Sea Vixen D.3 XP924 (G-CVIX) ‘Foxy Lady’
A rare bird – Sea Vixen XP924 in her Red Bull days
From an enthusiast's perspective, there is something rather enigmatic about naval aviation and amongst this group of Fleet Air Arm aeroplanes, the mighty Sea Vixen is arguably the most interesting. For that reason, the UK enthusiasts have to count themselves as extremely fortunate, as there is an airworthy example of this magnificent aircraft on the Airshow circuit. All too rarely seen over recent years, 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 its retirement from FAA service, it was transferred to RAF Llanbedr, in mid Wales, where it was converted to carry out D3 Target Drone duties. Whilst operating from Llanbedr, it was painted in a distinctive high visibility red and yellow livery, which helped observers to easily see the aircraft and actually looked rather attractive from an aesthetic point of view. She was flown as a manned drone, or a high speed radar target, in support of the Jindivik target drone project, until she was finally retired in 1991.
XP924 still wearing her distinctive Llanbedr drone colours
As one of the most distinctive aircraft to ever fly in Britain’s skies, there was much interest shown in the ‘Foxy Lady’ following her retirement. She was purchased by a wealthy businessman, who was determined to operate the Sea Vixen on the Airshow circuit. My personal infatuation with this particular aircraft began at the 2001 Cosford Airshow – unusually, I had managed to persuade my family to accompany dad to an Airshow, which did not happen very often, I can tell you. We enjoyed a fantastic day in the Midlands, but there was method in my madness, as I was desperate to see the Sea Vixen that was listed in the display programme. After enjoying ice-creams and seemingly endless rides on the fairground, we made our way towards the crowd line, just in time for the main event – A vision in red and yellow appeared from behind the trees and blasted into the display circuit. It gave the gathered masses an awe-inspiring display of classic British jet power and I am sure that a great many people were hooked from this day – G-CVIX was the consummate Airshow performer.
Unfortunately, the Sea Vixen is a highly complex aircraft and operating her safely is both expensive and challenging for the owners. For these reasons, XP924 ‘Foxy Lady’ has not been seen on the UK Airshow circuit as regularly as enthusiasts would have liked. Many will remember a period when the aircraft was much more visible (quite literally), as she wore the corporate colours of her Red Bull sponsors and enjoyed a successful run of Airshow appearances. No matter what your thoughts were regarding the rather garish colour scheme she was forced to wear, this period allowed the aircraft to be displayed to a much wider audience, many of whom would have become Foxyfied!
The Red Bull sponsorship deal saw XP924 performing at many more shows
Airshow party trick – A Sea Vixen can do this!
Following the end of this successful sponsorship deal, XP924 was repainted in her original and classic No.899 NAS colours, much to the delight of enthusiasts – she looked absolutely spectacular. In these colours, she really was one of the most attractive aircraft on the UK display circuit. Unfortunately, spiralling costs and serviceability issues, mixed with an over-generous helping of bad luck has seen the Sea Vixen displaying only sporadically over recent years, but thankfully, the future is looking much brighter for this enigmatic aircraft and her legions of admirers.
A Very Foxy Future
In September 2014, the aircraft was gifted to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust and was flown to her former home of RNAS Yeovilton, to become a prized asset of this fantastic organisation. Accompanied by a huge collection of spares and equipment, the arrangement was made on the condition that she was kept in airworthy condition for as long as possible and displayed at Airshows around the country. She will serve as a living memorial to the brave Sea Vixen crews who were lost during its service life and to highlight the achievements of the Fleet Air Arm and British naval aviation.
XP924 in classic FAA colours. Image courtesy of Mr Bob Franklin
Importantly, as the much loved Avro Vulcan B.2 finally retires from its illustrious Air Display career, Britain already has a ready made crowd pulling replacement in Sea Vixen D3 XP924. Hopefully, the ‘Foxy Lady’ will now be able to benefit from increased funding and will be able to take her place on many an Airshow programme, where she will undoubtedly captivate anyone lucky enough to see her – the Sea Vixen is destined to become one of the most popular aircraft in Britain. If Airshow organisers want to ensure their event benefits from large crowds and great reviews, they need to make sure that they book the ‘Foxy Lady’ – Britain’s next Airshow star performer!
Airfix and the classic Sea Vixen kit
Airfix box artwork for their magnificent 1/48th scale Sea Vixen FAW.2
Released back in 2011, Airfix delighted the modelling community with their magnificent 1/48th scale version of the de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2, which was developed using their impressive CAD design technology. The kit allowed the modeller a number of configurations in which to finish their Sea Vixen, including the option to have the wings in the folded position and has been the subject of many complimentary reviews – it appears the Sea Vixen is popular in plastic too!
When this 1/48th scale model was originally released, it sold in huge quantities and unfortunately is no longer available in the Airfix catalogue. As a consequence of this, the secondary market is demanding huge premiums for the few models that are advertised as still being available from collectors. Hopefully it will not be too long before this magnificent model is once again available to modellers, particularly as the Sea Vixen seems destined to become a firm Airshow favourite in the years to come.
Beautiful Airfix 1/48th scale Sea Vixen build by Alan Bottoms
I would like to sincerely thank Alan Bottoms of the Harrow Modelling Society for allowing us to use pictures of his beautifully finished 1/48th scale Airfix Sea Vixen model build in this article. The society website, which features more of Alan’s work can be viewed here.
That’s it for another edition of Aerodrome. I do hope that the Sea Vixen can step into the huge void that will be left when the Vulcan retires later this year, as it really is the next best thing and it would be fantastic to see it displayed on a more regular basis. I will be keeping my fingers crossed.
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As usual, thank you very much for reading our latest edition and I look forward to posting here again next week.
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