The Hawker Sea Fury and HMS Illustrious

My thanks are again due to Dave Bull for sharing his collection of classic photographs with Naval Air History. These photographs date from the immediate postwar period when the battered and war-weary HMS Illustrious proved her usefulness yet again with a period as a trials and training carrier.

Today’s blog shows landing exercises with the powerful Hawker Sea Fury, the ultimate piston-engined fighter used by the Fleet Air Arm. The Sea Fury was the ultimate fighter in more than one respect – it was not only the last but the fastest, most powerful and effective propeller fighter in Royal Navy service.

The initial F Mk.10 variant was soon supplanted by the FB Mk.11. The ‘fighter-bomber’ designation of the improved Sea Fury has sometimes been misinterpreted as downgrading to ground-attack status while the Seafire FR Mk.47 took on the air defence role. This is incorrect – the Mk.11 could do everything the Mk.10 could, but could also carry ground attack munitions such as bombs and rockets. It was also faster than the Seafire and had a much greater range. The Sea Fury remained the main air-defence and air-superiority fighter in RN service, equipping 14 front line and four RNVR squadrons compared with a mere two front line units, and one RNVR, equipped with the Seafire Mk.47, and the Sea Fury outlasted the Seafire in frontline service by two years, and served on the frontline for much of the Korean War, while the Seafire was only involved for the first few months.

The Sea Fury made a significant contribution to the British air involvement in the Korean War, beginning when HMS Theseus relieved HMS Triumph in September 1950. Her Sea Fury aircraft proved able to operate in a wide range of conditions in the severe winter of 1950-51. Theseus was replaced in turn by HMS Glory, then HMAS Sydney. A lot has been made of Sea Furies from 802 NAS (Glory air group) shooting down a MiG 15 in August 1952, but the greatest contribution of the aircraft was undoubtedly in the air-to-ground role, continuing a tradition of ship-to-shore strikes that began in WW1.

Lieutenant-Commander Ian Sloan, former Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Historic Flight described the Sea Fury as ‘the last word in piston fighters, and really a fantastic aeroplane’ during an interview with Naval Air History in 2012. ‘Much better than a Seafire, as the Seafire was really skittish on the deck. Across the Navy, more Seafires were lost in deck landing accidents than were lost to enemy action.’

He continued: ‘The Navy, by 1944-45 are doing some pretty spectacular things with piston fighters off big carriers out in the Pacific. The Far East Fleet was doing 250-aircraft raids from three carriers to go in and hit the Japanese refineries. Really amazing stuff.

‘So really the Sea Fury came in to replace the Seafires, Corsairs, all the sort of fighters that had built up a legacy during the war period, obviously too late to see action during the war which was a real shame because this, frankly could have kicked ass. It just would have been amazing. The engine produces two-and-a-half thousand horsepower. When you consider that the BBMF ‘baby Spit’ [Mk.IIa P7350] is about a thousand horsepower, the Sea Fury is just a monster. When you hear it start, it’s not got a purr like the Merlin, it’s got growl. It’s a bulldog just wanting to go. The power, five blades there, thirteen foot diameter prop, that is the biggest gyroscope you’ll ever see.
‘And that’s the trick. Getting pilots into this is a trick. Because it takes a bit of experience of big piston aircraft.’

This was what the Fleet Air Arm found in the late 1940s. While, for its size and performance, the Sea Fury was an extremely fine-handling aeroplane, with much better undercarriage layout than the Seafire, its sheer power and responsiveness meant preparing pilots for front line service had considerable challenges. In particular, deck-landing took a lot of skill, so HMS Illustrious during her spell as deck-landing training carrier was well-used by Sea Fury squadrons working up.

This Sea Fury, of 738 Naval Air Squadron, on detachment to HMS Illustrious from RNAS Culdrose, demonstrates the pitfalls of landing high-performance aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier. Unfortunately, neither the identity of the aircraft nor the cause of the incident are known, though one possibility is that it caught a wire badly off-centre or suffered an undercarriage leg collapsing on impact. The impact has ripped the nose and starboard wing off, but the Sea Fury has evidently not travelled as far as the crash barriers which are level with the ship’s island. The aircraft has ended up pointing aft, its port wing hanging over the starboard edge of the deck. Fortunately, it has remained upright, and the pilot was probably unharmed.


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The short life of Hawker Sea Fury VX650 demonstrated this fact. The aircraft was delivered to the Navy in September 1949 and written off in this landing accident a mere three months later. The aircraft was carrying out deck landing training with 767 Naval Air Squadron, based at HMS Heron (RNAS Yeovilton), on detachment to HMS Illustrious. The aircraft has evidently struck Illustrious’ crash barrier, as the cables are visible in the lower-left part of the first photograph. The fuselage has broken off aft of the cockpit and come to rest upside down beneath the forward fuselage. The exact date of the incident is not known, but VX650 was was struck off charge on 16 December.

No767 Squadron was engaged not in training pilots, but Deck Landing Control Officer ‘batsmen’. It was known as a ‘clockwork mouse’ squadron, reflecting the repetitive nature of the endless take-offs and landings under the guidance of trainee DLCOs.

A further dramatic-looking incident is pictured, involving Hawker Sea Fury VR491 ‘098’, possibly from 703 NAS while based at RNAS Ford between 1950-55.

The aircraft (which evidently has been fitted with the cowling from another aircraft, given the different demarcation line of the camouflage) has struck the first barrier and is about to hit the second. Somehow, the Sea Fury flipped inverted (possibly as a result of the torque of the airscrew hitting the deck) between the first and second barriers, spilling fuel when the Bristol Centaurus ‘power egg’ broke away, which quickly caught fire.

The figure visible just to the left of the flames braved the inferno to rescue the pilot and won an award for gallantry.

Remarkably, in view of the violence of the crash, the successfully extracted pilot appears completely unharmed, and is seen making his escape in the third image from the sequence as the rescue and fire crews close in.

Hawker Sea Fury VX651 ‘132’ of 736 Naval Air Squadron experienced a slightly different kind of accident in September 1950, in that it started well before the landing. The aircraft was taking part in a mock dive-bombing attack when part of the lower cowling came adrift and struck the wing. The pilot managed to fly back to HMS Illustrious, despite the damage, but missed all the arrestor wires on landing and hit the crash barrier.

Unlike the aircraft in the previous sequence, VX651 pitched end-over-end when it hit the barrier, evidently at some considerable speed. The nose broke away with similarly fiery results. Again, remarkably, the pilot was unharmed, although the aircraft was written off.

These incidents show that while the Sea Fury was not the most straightforward aircraft for trainees to land, even serious crashes were eminently survivable. The strength of the airframe and features such as the ‘roll over’ pylon behind the pilot’s head did a great deal to keep pilots safe even when things went wrong.

Thanks to Dave Bull for use of his photographs
The comments from Lieutenant Commander Sloan were taken from unused material from an interview conducted for Flypast in 2012

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