2009 Articles

NOV 05 2009
Royal Navy Historic Flight - Hangar Tour

We’re walking the relatively short distance from the Naval Flying Standards Flight (Fixed Wing) building to visit the RNHF at RNAS Yeovilton and Lt Ian Sloan is telling us just how fortunate he’s been to get involved with flying one of the iconic aircraft that lives in the hangar we are about to enter.

It doesn’t look much from the outside, a fairly non-descript green hangar identical to many others on this large station but, having first dropped in to the room where the team of volunteer maintainers are taking a break, you can’t help but feel impressed when you enter the hangar itself. The reason for Lt Ian Sloan’s pride as a naval pilot becomes very clear.

To our left is the RNHF’s immaculate de Havilland Chipmunk T.10 WK608. Used to train pilots on the Flight and give them vital tailwheel experience before moving on to the Sea Fury and Swordfish, the Chipmunk is also used throughout the year for continuation training and is not displayed on the airshow circuit. Chipmunks always evoke fond memories of flying with the Air Training Corps for me, as they do for Ian it turns out, and he hopes for sign-off as a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) on the Chipmunk shortly.

Immediately in front of us is the Fairey Swordfish MK.II LS326, larger than I imagined having never before been fortunate enough to see her at such close range, but looking rather forlorn in the engineless state which has kept her hangar-bound for the 2009 airshow season. The positive news is that her engine will soon be arriving at Yeovilton and the team can begin the work of fitting the power-plant and getting her back in the air where she belongs. The Swordfish is a true icon in terms of naval aviation and defied those who said the aircraft was obsolete at the beginning of World War II by serving throughout the conflict and beyond, eventually retiring as the last British biplane to see active service. Tucked away in the far corner is the Flight’s second Swordfish, Mk.1 W5856, an airframe that will also benefit from the new engine’s arrival as it will hopefully be rotated between both airframes, allowing them to share display duties.

Just behind the Swordfish Mk.I, towering above us on a set of jacks, is the imposing and beautiful Sea Fury FB.11, VR930. She too is awaiting a new engine and has also been safely tucked away throughout the Fly Navy 100 year, like the Swordfish, unserviceable. I think it’s fair to say that Ian Sloan is a big fan and, when questioned, he doesn’t hesitate to admit that this is one aircraft he would love to fly given the opportunity. Faultless is the only way to describe the Sea Fury and it’s incredible to think that the aircraft we’re going to have the closest look at was designed along exactly the same lines – except with a jet engine.

A few weeks back we published a feature on the Sea Hawk as Ian had been good enough to devote some time to GAR at the Southport Airshow, location for his first public displays in the aircraft. Having done so, it’s nice to be able to take a closer look at the jet with the man itself. With the ejection seat (taken from a Hunter) removed for an overhaul, we head straight up the adjacent platform to take a look inside the cockpit, it’s only a short climb for the aircraft sits surprisingly low to the ground.

“Ergonomics hadn’t been invented when they designed cockpits back then,” Ian says smiling.

The Sea Hawk cockpit looks just as you would expect a cockpit from that era to look, busy might be the word, and Ian goes on to point out one or two of the idiosyncrasies.

"The best example is the engine RPM and Exhaust Gas Temperature gauges” he explains.

“If you look on the left hand side of the main panel you can see the engine RPM gauge and, particularly at start up and take-off, that and the Exhaust Gas Temperature are the most important things for me to keep my eyes on – except that temp gauge is hidden away on the opposite side of the cockpit,” he laughs, swinging his head from one side to the other in obviously well-practised fashion.

The cockpit also looks quite roomy, even allowing for the absence of an ejection seat and Ian confirms that while the seating position is quite low in the cockpit the forward view is actually not too bad.

“Seats on the modern aircraft I’ve flown such as the Harrier have a button which will move the seat up or down very easily but it’s not so simple with the seat fitted to the Sea Hawk. There is a device, a bit like the handbrake on a car, but it’s not easy to use and the rudder pedals are also tricky to adjust.

“It is fortunate that Chris Gotke (Chris is also qualified to fly the Sea Hawk for the RNHF) and I are of a similar shape and size, which means the seat and rudders can be left in the same position through the season!”

Dominating the cockpit are some panels which are quite obviously modern day technology, clearly not part of the original fit.

“At the top of the panel we have a GPS which is actually quite old now, not quite as user friendly as some more recent types with a moving map type presentation. It can be quite fiddly to use,” Ian explains.

“On the right hand side you can see a digital display, originally designed for an F1 car. Many years ago the aircraft suffered severe heat damage and was grounded for seven years while undergoing a complete refurbishment. The decision was taken to constantly monitor temperatures at various points inside the fuselage and the small box on the left hand cockpit coaming flashes if any of the sensors reach their programmed maximum temperature, with the digital panel displaying a read-out to tell the pilot exactly what is happening.”

Problems with cracks inside the exhausts were common for Sea Hawks and it is somewhat ironic when the jet’s ‘plane captain’, Mick Jennings, joins us to show Ian just one such example. This was noted on her return from Liverpool Airport, where she had in turn been stranded for a few weeks awaiting a replacement cable which had broken before returning home after Ian’s successful debut airshow weekend. Such is life when dealing with historic aircraft.

The crack itself is barely visible to the naked eye, despite Karl crawling around with Mick’s torch and peering up the relatively small exhaust system. Instead, Mick drags out the unit which had been fitted to the aircraft at the time she was damaged and it’s extraordinary to see the weld repairing a crack which has essentially travelled around the majority of the exhaust rim.

“You might not want to look at this,” says Mick as Ian turns away in mock horror!

Fortunately the currently installed ‘newer’ exhaust sections, along with the digital monitoring system, should see any such significant damage avoided. The small crack which has developed will be welded and Mick’s back-up is to use heat-tape to keep an even closer eye on any areas prone to over-heating.

Walking around the aircraft it’s apparent that while she isn’t particularly large, she looks solid and built like only a first or second generation jet would be, with the split engine exhaust perhaps her most memorable feature.

“You just would not design an aircraft like this these days,” says Ian.

To have a single engine which utilises wing-root intakes and short, bifurcated (forked) jet exhausts might seem like a strange thing to have done, but it all goes back to Sydney Camm wanting to build a jet engine version of the Sea Fury.

The arrestor hook is a reassuringly strong looking piece of construction which extends beyond the back of the aircraft and one that Ian loves to show-off when flying the dirty pass during his Sea Hawk display – true testament to her previous life as a carrier borne fighter bomber.

The sense of history has not passed Ian by for one moment. As a Harrier pilot with the Naval Strike Wing, Ian has flown missions over Afghanistan and whenever he flies the Sea Hawk his mind is drawn back to the Fleet Air Arm pilots who operated the Sea Hawk in combat over Suez.

“It’s actually quite straight-forward these days with the technology available to us. We can see where the bomb is going to drop and it has a laser to guide it very precisely. There is no shortage of information telling us how to find the ship at the end of the mission. The guys who flew this were firing rockets and their cannons using the most basic of sights and then landing back on the carrier at the end of the sortie – pretty remarkable stuff.”

As we squeeze through the partially opened hangar doors to leave, heading outside in to yet another November shower for the walk back to the Standards Flight, it’s like leaving one era for another. Tucked away in that RNHF hangar is a small but priceless collection of aircraft, representing the very best of our Royal Navy’s aviation heritage. The RNHF relies not only on sponsorship and donations for its existence but the work of men like Mick Jennings who bring incredible knowledge and expertise to keep these aircraft in the air, and of course pilots like Lt Ian Sloan who appreciate the history, tradition and heritage of the Royal Navy and want to keep flying them. Long may it continue.

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