Lt Cdr Matt Whitfield is a happy man. Not just because he has risen through the ranks of the Royal Navy and flown the Sea Harrier, not even because he is now Commander of the Naval Flying Standards Flight (Fixed Wing); as happy as such achievements undoubtedly make him. The real reason for the joy he is feeling right now is because he is with Sea Vixen XP924 (G-CVIX) at the Kemble airshow and he’s the one flying the display.
His pride was obvious when the aircraft arrived on the Friday evening, a grin from ear to ear as he climbed out and promptly shook hands and introduced himself to nearly everyone who had gathered to welcome him; class.
With Sea Vixen and Vulcan both displaying on this Sunday afternoon at Kemble the comparison between the two projects is obvious, but while the Vulcan grabs most of the headlines it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of this impressive naval fighter.
“It’s a hugely significant aircraft in terms of UK aviation and what de Havilland was doing in the Fifties. This jet was designed in the 1940s by an incredibly talented team of people with slide-rules and pencils and paper, then hand-built in the 1950s. It’s amazing” says Matt.
“It is also significant as it represents the Navy from the days when we had aircraft carriers all around the world and forty six naval air stations. This was our first twin-engine supersonic fighter and the Navy was flying supersonic interceptors with radar and missiles before anyone else in this country.”
Matt is a man very much tuned into the history of the aircraft, that much is immediately apparent, but he also believes the Sea Vixen represents the future.
“What it signifies now is the fact that we have plans for aircraft carriers and supersonic fighters again (F-35) so this aircraft represents what the Navy has done and where it is heading once again.”
What of the Vulcan though I wonder? As stunning a restoration as it has obviously been, you have to consider the impact it may have had on plans to restore other historic aircraft to a flying condition or indeed to maintain those that already are.
“The Vulcan project has demonstrated what you can achieve with someone like Robert Pleming at the helm and everyone has jumped in to support the project, which is absolutely great. We (DHA) are extremely fortunate that we have a very generous owner in Mr Julian Jones and a team of people who are involved purely for the love of it while Julian is prepared to stump up the money that we need to keep the aircraft going. ”
“Traditionally this aircraft has been incredibly serviceable and when Brian Grant flew her they only missed one show out of forty, which was pretty incredible. You could put it down to the way in which the aircraft was manufactured but it is certainly largely due to the work of Paul Kingsbury our chief engineer at De Havilland Aviation. This is his baby as he calls it!”
This year is of course a big one for naval aviation with the Fly Navy 100 commemoration and Matt firmly believes that if a campaign for the Sea Vixen had been run in a similar way to that of the Vulcan, many people would have come forward to support the aircraft.
“What does grate slightly is that all the public awareness has surrounded the Vulcan and that has undoubtedly sponged up the majority of the money. They’ve had the lottery money and support from the likes of the Daily Mail, but the rest of us are largely doing it for love! That might sound controversial but that’s the way it is. Like I said, we are very fortunate.”
Speaking of fortunate, what about the pride and delight he gets from being involved with such an aircraft?
“That’s a given,” he says “and at certain times it really hits home.”
“I meet people who worked on the aircraft, or who flew the aircraft, or even simply saw John Derry’s tragic death when the prototype broke up at Farnborough; these are all people who, for their own reasons, feel a connection with the Sea Vixen and what it represents.”
Sea Vixen of course comes from a time when we had a strong British aviation industry and, as Matt says, were building our own aircraft without joining consortiums of other nations. It makes him proud to be involved with an aircraft from this era.
“The other times are those when I’m on my own, perhaps driving home from a day at work having practised the display and, well, it’s difficult to describe without sounding clichéd but I do pinch myself.”
“I can’t even explain properly to my wife what it means to be doing this!”
What Matt goes on to say is possibly closest to the truth for him. His Sea Vixen displays pay homage to the young men who flew the aircraft in service, unsung heroes, many of whom lost their lives. It’s an area we will revisit later for he does find it difficult to put in to words and the compliments he receives after flying a display mean a great deal to him and bring home the importance of what he is doing. It really does mean so much to so many people.
One thing our perch on top of the aircraft does afford me is a true picture of the Sea Vixen’s size – if you think it looks big when you see it in the air, see if you can get up close, this is a large jet fighter and quite daunting. It’s a huge contrast to the Hawk Matt flies for the Navy and also the Sea Harrier he used to fly.
“I look back every time before I strap in to check the fuel caps and it’s just like the first time I saw her close-up in the hangar at Bournemouth; I was like holy moly, look at the size of that thing!”
“When I first got involved with the Sea Vixen I read a lot of stories about flying the aircraft and Brian Grant, who trained me up, made a few useful comments about her as well, saying that the aircraft was very heavy. She is incredibly heavy in pitch but also very manoeuvrable, not bad considering the fifty foot wingspan when the wings are spread.”
“I take my hat off to the twenty one, twenty two year old crews who used to operate this thing from aircraft carriers – when I did it in Sea Harriers we had the benefit of stopping and then landing – they did it the other way round and I know which one most pilots would go for given the choice!”
It wasn’t just a question of landing this monstrous fighter on the deck Matt explains, you must remember that they had no simulators, they operated in all-weather conditions at both day and night and with everything ‘briefed’, frequently did so in radio silence as well. These pilots, and of course their observers in the dreaded ‘coal hole’ were subjected to Cold War tactics and training and Matt has the upmost respect for them all.
“When I meet retired observers or people like Admiral Sir Mike Layard who was the boss of 899 Sqn (the markings of which the Sea Vixen currently wears) it makes you realise how easy we have it these days with our full-motion simulators and two-seat trainers. You can experience almost everything without leaving the ground. My first trip with Brian Grant I was in the coal hole and it’s not as horrendous as you might think- the Mk.1s remember had no windows, no daylight and no command ejection system. You actually have a pretty good view through the window in this one.”
If the reaction of the audience both during and after the show is anything to go by, Sea Vixen stole the show at Kemble this year, despite the presence of the Vulcan, Typhoon, Red Arrows and a host of other post-War jets, but Matt concedes that she’s an interesting beast to display.
“Sir Mike Layard told me that you can always tell a Sea Vixen display pilot as he’s the one with the massive right arm and a big right shoulder and Brian (Grant) said to me that it can really be a big effort to display, especially on a hot day!”
“I don’t get above 330 knots during the display however and only about 4g which is nothing to write home about.”
The excess of power from those two Rolls Royce Avon’s probably is however............
“I do need to be wary. With most of the pitch-up manoeuvres at full power I have to put the airbrake out else I’ll be in the next county!” he says laughing. “It’s what caught me out the first time I flew it, she has a ridiculous amount of power.”
So, when all is said and done, is this the ultimate for Matt?
“I think so,” he agrees, “though having cut my teeth as a naval fighter pilot on the Sea Harrier I fantasise about the day when we’ve got our new carriers with their F-35s on board!”
While Matt would jump at the chance to fly the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier once again you quite simply can’t ignore the passion he shows for flying and displaying the Sea Vixen. It is a wonderful piece of British aviation heritage and hugely impressive both in the air and on the ground.
As a flying memorial to those aircrews who have represented the Fleet Air Arm over the course of its one hundred year history, and those who will do so in the years in come, it is hard to think of anything more appropriate. Equally, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate pilot than Lt Cdr Matt Whitfield, a man who truly acknowledges the importance of displaying the aircraft and what it means as representation of the past and indeed the future.