FEATURE: Behind the Scenes with Navy Wings

Launched in July 2016, ‘Navy Wings’ is a heritage naval aviation organisation that aims to inspire and educate the public in various ways, the most important being by sharing the history and growth of the Fleet Air Arm throughout the 20th Century. Mainly comprised of aircraft from both the ‘Royal Navy Historic Flight’ (RNHF) and ‘Fly Navy Heritage Trust’ (FNHT), Navy Wings’ diverse collection of aircraft clearly illustrates the development of naval aviation from the 1930s with the Fairey Swordfish, right through to the early days of carrier-borne aviation with the mighty de Havilland Sea Vixen.

On the 6th of May 2017, Navy Wings opened up their hangar at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset, UK, to supporters and members of the media, allowing them a unique and exclusive opportunity to get up close to the aircraft. The Sea Fury, Swordfish and Sea Vixen had been scheduled to perform at the event, however due to a combination of aircraft maintenance being behind schedule and the CAA’s late introduction of CAP403 regulations, all three aircraft were unable to display. Nevertheless, the Supporters Day allowed those in attendance to talk to the pilots and engineers who keep these warbirds and Cold War era types airworthy.

Arguably the star of the Navy Wings collection, the de Havilland Sea Vixen FAW2 is perhaps the most prestigious and formidable naval fighter to have flown. Owned and operated by the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, XP924 – or ‘Foxy Lady’ – is the only remaining airworthy Sea Vixen in the world and currently wears 899 Naval Air Squadron colours from HMS Eagle. The Vixen holds the legacy of being the first British aircraft to be armed with guided missiles, rockets and bombs, and in 1967 was involved in the sinking of SS Torrey Canyon which ran aground off the Cornish coastline. The RNHF also currently own another classic jet in the shape of a Sea Hawk FGA.6; the 1950s carrier-based fighter ground attack aircraft is known for having performed well during the Suez Crisis in 1956. WV908, which last flew in 2010, is currently in dry storage at RAF Shawbury whilst the Historic Flight focuses their attention on the Swordfish and Sea Fury FB.11.

Navy Wings currently care for 2 examples of the Hawker Sea Fury – a single-seat FB.11 and dual-seat T.20. The FB.11 is a fighter-bomber which served with the Royal Navy, as well as the Royal Australian and Canadian Navy. The RNHF’s FB.11, VR930, was delivered to the Royal Navy in March 1948, and is one of over 600 to have been built. Although it was great to see the aircraft out of the hangar at the Navy Wings event, unfortunately it is not yet airworthy. Meanwhile the T.20 two-seat trainer variant is currently at North Weald, being restored to a state of airworthiness following a forced landing at RNAS Culdrose Air Day in 2014. All being well, the T.20 should be performing engine runs very soon.

Inside the hangar on the day were numerous aircraft, including a Swordfish Mk.I and Mk.II, dwarfing David Bremner’s Bristol Scout which sat beside them. The Mk.1, W5856, evolved from the Fairey TSR.II prototype and is the oldest remaining airworthy Swordfish in the world, having first flown in October 1941. Bought by the RNHF in 2012, she returned to the display circuit in 2015 and is expected to have another successful season in 2017, once maintenance is complete.  Located just beside W5856 was the collection’s Mk.II variant, LS326, which is currently undergoing an engine rebuild. The Mk.II had to be modified in order to carry rockets to fulfil its role of destroying German U-boats during the Second World War; these modifications included replacing the fabric on the underside of the aircraft with a less flammable material. This exact Swordfish even appeared in ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ – a 1960s film inspired by the true story portraying the Swordfish’s crucial role in the sinking of the German battleship. Many enthusiasts may be unaware that the RNHF currently own a third example of the Swordfish in addition to W5856 and LS326 – packed away in a steel container inside the Navy Wings hangar is a Mk.III variant, which was capable of carrying an ASV (Air-to-Surface) radar, mounted between the landing gear.

Navy Wings’ collection also includes associate aircraft, including a Seafire Mk.XVII, AD4 Skyraider, and T-6 Texan. The latter of these was flown on the day by Lt. Cdr. Chris Götke, alongside John Beattie in his Portuguese-marked de Havilland Chipmunk.  Other associate aircraft in attendance on the day included the Bristol Scout, and the ‘Gazelle Squadron’s HT.2, XX436. Nicknamed ‘Gordon’, the Gazelle wears 705NAS colours, as well as the markings it once wore when part of the Royal Navy ‘Sharks’ display team. As previously mentioned, the much rarer Bristol Scout was tucked away inside the hangar on the day. The aircraft, owned and operated by David Bremner, first flew in 1915 when his grandfather Flt. Sub. Lt. F.D.H ‘Bunny’ Bremner, flew an example from the Greek island of Thasos during the Dardanelles Campaign. It wasn’t until 1983 that David and his brother Rick discovered the control column, rudder bar and magneto from the aircraft, that the pair set themselves the ambitious project of rebuilding the replica Scout. At present, 1264 is the only airworthy Bristol Scout in the world, and contains the only authentic Scout airframe components so far discovered; for more information on this project, and to keep updated with the day-to-day operation of this aircraft, you can follow David’s blog here.

The Navy Wings Supporters event clearly highlighted the marvelous effort made by all those involved with Navy Wings, in keeping these magnificent naval aircraft in the skies. However, the organisation is heavily reliant on public donations in order to fund the necessary maintenance required to keep them airworthy. Without generous public donations, many of the aircraft would most likely be sold abroad or end up as static exhibits in museums. As we know, historic warbirds and classic jets are costly to maintain and operate, for example a single rivet for the Sea Hawk would cost 75p, and an overhaul for the Swordfish’s Pegasus engine would cost around £100,000. These costly implications are just a small fraction of what Navy Wings are sadly faced with. If you would like to donate, or become a supporter of Navy Wings, then please visit their website here.

STOP PRESS: On Saturday 27th May, Cdr. Simon Hargreaves was forced to make an emergency landing in the Fly Navy Heritage Trust’s Sea Vixen at RNAS Yeovilton on return from its 2017 debut display at Duxford Air Festival. The aircraft’s landing gear failed to deploy upon its return to base, forcing the pilot to perform a controlled wheels-up landing. The airfield’s emergency services reached the aircraft within seconds, and Cdr. Hargreaves was seen walking from the aircraft unassisted. The extent of the damage has yet to be fully assessed, and it is not known for how long the aircraft will be grounded. Cdr. Hargreaves has been praised for his commendable efforts in bringing the classic jet down as smoothly as possible, in which he showed a huge amount of skill and expertise. A full inspection on the aircraft is currently being carried, out and we await further updates from Navy Wings on the full extent of the damage.

James Connolly is a student and aviation enthusiast whose future ambitions lie in journalism. He is based in the UK and attends several airshows each year.