On 21 February 1945, the first Hawker Sea Fury flew, marking a new chapter in what would become an illustrious career, highly successful in combat and the pinnacle of piston-engined aircraft design. An offshoot of this design tree would also become the fastest Hawker piston-engined aircraft.
As WW2 entered its final years, Hawker’s genius chief designer Sydney Camm understandably felt he was being swamped with requests for designs of fighter aircraft with different engines and variations of layout. “In view of the large number of test-beds we are committed to and the necessity for getting the maximum number of machines to squadrons, we are scarcely able to keep pace with the prototype demand”, he said in 1944. This included Tempest prototypes in no fewer than five engine configurations and the Tempest ‘light fighter’ (later named the Fury) in a further two configurations. Tempests and Furies were required with the Napier Sabre, Bristol Centaurus and Rolls-Royce Griffon in various marks and with beard, wing-root and annular radiator layouts. It is no small testament to Hawker’s abilities that they delivered so many prototypes without trouble or delay. It was one of these programmes that would lead to the fastest Fury.
Sea Fury prototype SR661
In 1942-3 the Air Ministry found itself with a need to continue fighter development. The industry was not short of ideas and designs but the manufacturers responsible for the vast majority of the RAF’s fighters – mainly Hawker and Supermarine – were extremely busy developing existing designs, while alternative manufacturers were unproven. Camm had in many ways jumped the queue with the Tempest, a considerably modified Typhoon that he offered to the Air Ministry in 1941 and which flew in prototype form the following year.
Camm’s true skill as a designer came to the fore in this period. The demands on a wartime industry generally militate against developing new designs that would harm output levels. Camm’s ability to provide large boosts in performance with relatively limited evolutions of existing designs – the introduction of a new wing and stretched fuselage on the Typhoon to create the Tempest, and then the modification of the wing mated to a developed fuselage to form the Fury – balanced the use of existing jigs, tools and sections of sub-assembly production with improvements in the end product. At the same time, Hawker’s experience meant that its performance and production estimates could be trusted a lot better than other companies offering designs that looked good on paper. There were now parallel specifications for a naval and a land-based fighter that Camm felt could be met with substantially the same aircraft.
Contrary to popular belief, the Fury was neither a copy of the Focke-Wulf Fw190 nor designed specifically with the Bristol Centaurus radial in mind more than any other engine. In fact, a scheme with a Napier Sabre engine was completed in November 1942, a month before the layout with the Centaurus.
The first prototype to fly, NX798, did however fly with a Centaurus radial. It took to the air on 1 September 1944 and displayed a significant improvement over the Tempest in terms of performance and handling. Hawker had been developing ‘spring tab’ controlled flying surfaces since the Typhoon, to modify feel and power throughout the speed range, and on the Fury they had reached near-perfection. Camm modestly noted “It seems like we have achieved something”. The first (partially) navalised Fury, SR661, first flew in February the following year.
The serial LA610 was originally allocated as a Tempest MkIII prototype. However, as the Griffon IIB was thought not to offer a sufficiently big improvement over current types, the serial was re-allocated to a Griffon testbed of the new Fury design.
The rather unattractive first incarnation of LA610, with Rolls Royce Griffon and contra-rotating propellers
When LA610 emerged from the Hawker factory in November 1944, it is fair to say it did not boast the well-proportioned lines that the Centaurus-engined Sea Fury enjoyed. The aircraft also bore little resemblance to the Tempest MkIII from which it received its serial. The new design was for a ‘horse collar’ radiator (similar to that used on the Fairey Barracuda MkV and Avro Lincoln) powering a six-bladed contra-rotating propeller.
The airframe had been redesigned with a Griffon 85 mounted in a near-cylindrical cowling, with a circular beard radiator gaping behind a bristling six blade contra-rotating airscrew. The aircraft was intended primarily to test the benefits of contra-rotating airscrew, which was a popular concept with the Air Ministry at the time, not least because of the Folland Fo.117. It was never intended that production Furies would use this engine or layout, and it seems that LA610 did not fly extensively with the Griffon 85. Certainly there is a dearth of information on how the Fury performed in this configuration. Some possible indications are available in the shape of the Fairey Firefly MkIII which used a similar radiator layout, proving far less satisfactory than the wing-root radiators that were adopted for the MkIV. Rolls-Royce had also done some work with the horse-collar radiator and concluded that it offered no benefit over other existing layouts.
The waning interest in the Griffon 85 Fury was confirmed when LA610 was rebuilt, first with a Centaurus, and then with a Napier Sabre VII. The Sabre VII was a remarkable engine, capable of producing over 3,500hp and also compatible with low-drag wing root radiators. When LA610 was rebuilt with this engine its transformation from ugly duckling into beautiful swan was complete. With its neatly faired engine and wing-root radiators leading to a remarkably clean appearance, it is to this day thought by many to be one of the prettiest of Hawker’s many attractive designs. It was also a thoroughbred performer, the fastest piston powered Hawker aircraft of all time at its top speed of 484mph. This was 30mph faster than the same type powered by a Centaurus, and fully 50mph faster than the Tempest MkV. It also had a rate of climb from sea level at 5,420ft/min compared to 4,400ft/min for the Centaurus Fury. A second Sabre VII prototype, VP207, joined LA610 in 1947. It was painted in overall silver with a red or blue cheatline, similar to the Centaurus Fury demonstrator, and appeared at that year’s SBAC show at Radlett. The Sabre VII Fury was so impressive it looked set fair to equip Fighter Command in some numbers – in 1944, Hawker received a contract for 200 Sabre VII-powered ‘Fury I’ aircraft. Unfortunately, as with the Martin-Baker MB5 and Commonwealth CA-15 Kangaroo, by the time the Sabre VII Fury had proven its phenomenal performance, the onset of the jet engine had made piston-powered fighters all but obsolete.
LA610 with Napier Sabre and wing-root radiators
LA610 in flight
In late 1945, Hawker was asked to explore the possibility of making the Fury I capable of ground-attack and close-support. By February 1946, it was apparent that the Air Ministry now considered this the Fury’s main role. The number on order for the RAF was reduced several times and then cancelled altogether in August 1946. Meanwhile, the Gloster and de Havilland designs that would take Fighter Command into the jet age were already arriving.
It wasn’t quite the end for the piston-engined fighter in RAF service, and the Spitfire and Tempest carried on into the 1950s, mostly overseas and in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The Centaurus Fury, meanwhile, enjoyed a distinguished career in the form of the naval Sea Fury fighter bomber. The land-based export Fury was really a de-navalised Sea Fury. Hawker’s svelte ‘hot rod’ with the awesomely powerful Sabre VII was destined to fly in prototype form only, little but a footnote in the illustrious history of Hawker types.