Prototypes and trials, HMS Illustrious

Naval Air History is very lucky to have been given access to Dave Bull’s wonderful collection of photographs of aircraft on HMS Illustrious in the late 1940s-early 1950s.

The first set features prototypes and aircraft undergoing carrier trials. After the Second World War the veteran carrier Illustrious enjoyed a new lease of life as a trials and training carrier. For that reason, the carrier hosted most new naval types or research aircraft during that period.

This is one of the Supermarine Attacker prototypes or early series aircraft – probably third prototype TS416, during deck landing trials for the aircraft in the early 1950s. The Attacker was powered by the Rolls Royce Nene, and was the first operational jet fighter operated by the Fleet Air Arm. Its tailwheel layout was somewhat idiosyncratic by 1950, but derived from the fact that the wing had been designed for the piston-powered Spiteful. This aircraft demonstrates the early fin design, without the large dorsal strake later added to improve directional stability at low speeds. No cannon are fitted.

This rare image shows the Blackburn B-54 first prototype WB781 during deck landing trials which commenced in February 1950. The Blackburn was a competitor to the Fairey Gannet anti-submarine aircraft, which eventually beat the Blackburn aircraft to the contract after competitive trials. The B-54 was derived from the B-48 ‘Firecrest’ strike fighter, via design studies to convert the B-48 to turboprop power. The B-54, though, initially had to make do with a Rolls Royce Griffon piston engine, as the Napier Naiad coupled twin turboprop planned for the Blackburn design was cancelled. The third prototype eventually flew with the same Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba engine that the Gannet had used from the outset. WB781 was effectively a prototype for the prototype ‘definitive’ B-88, the Double-Mamba powered version. By 1957, WB781 was derelict and engineless in the scrap yard to the NW of RAE Farnborough, where it probably ended its days.

As the Gloster Meteor had proved to be a success as the RAF’s first jet fighter, it was natural that thoughts would turn to assessing it for its practicality and performance on an aircraft carrier. In April 1948, two Meteor Mk.IIIs were adapted with uprated engines, strengthened undercarriage and arrestor hooks. This is the second of those navalised aircraft, EE387, aboard HMS Illustrious. The carrier trials were somewhat successful, largely in terms of developing a new landing style more suitable to jets. The inherent lack of acceleration in early jet engines, together with the relatively large size and high weight of the Meteor, meant that the aircraft remained unsuitable for naval use but a lot had been learned from the exercise.

The Blackburn Firebrand strike fighter was an experimental aircraft for much of its life. It first flew in 1942 and did not enter front line service until late 1945. Deck landing such a large, heavy and powerful aircraft was a challenge from the outset, and the sheer size of the Firebrand is well demonstrated in this image of a TF Mk.5, landing aboard Illustrious. This is possibly one of 813 Naval Air Squadron’s aircraft, from its lengthy working up period which included a spell of deck-landing training aboard Illustrious in 1947.

For more information about the Firebrand’s development, see The Worst Specification Ever?

The de Havilland Vampire was the first jet aircraft to be landed on an aircraft carrier, a feat achieved by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown in 1946. Being a relatively small and light aircraft, the Vampire was arguably more suitable for deck use than the Meteor. The RN evidently saw it that way, as twenty Vampire fighters were built to Sea Vampire Mk.20 standard, with arrestor hooks and strengthened undercarriage, as seen here. Two officers of the Carrier Trials Unit made over 200 deck landings during Exercise ‘Sunrise’ in 1948. Though the Vampires did not enter front line service, they were invaluable in preparing the Fleet Air Arm’s pilots for the switch to jet fighters.

Footage of deck landings with Sea Vampires, possibly including this very aircraft, can be seen in this film from the British Pathé website

While jet aircraft were superseding piston fighters, another new development was rendering other types of naval aircraft such as the air-sea rescue flying boat obsolete. The introduction of the helicopter meant that this aircraft, the Supermarine Seagull ASR.1 did not proceed beyond the prototype stage having already been delayed by several years. The Seagull was a successor to the venerable Walrus and Sea Otter, and a much-modernised concept in many ways. It was a monoplane, with an ingenious variable incidence wing, as well as contra-rotating propellers and greatly cleaned-up aerodynamics. However, the helicopter was simply much more practical for carrier-borne ASR work. This is the second Seagull prototype, WS147, seen in its slightly later form with triple tail fins, during its deck landing trials aboard Illustrious.

Many thanks to Dave Bull for the use of his fascinating photograph collection

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