When the Fleet Air Arm formed in 1924, the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-quarter of the world’s population at the time. The cornerstone of this imperial superpower was its navy, and the Royal Navy’s air force was the Fleet Air Arm. The Fleet Air Arm, which became fully independent from the RAF in 1939, has since fought across the globe. From the epic battles of World War II to 21st century pirate hunting, it has been equipped with some of the most exciting aircraft types in history. A small minority of these aircraft were superb, many (perhaps even most) were terrible — but regardless the FAA has proven itself time and time again. The following aircraft were vital to the FAA, this list is certainly not exhaustive and is intended to provoke a discussion rather than end one. As ever, reality does not conform to a ‘top 10’ format, but we have chosen 16 types that were important in historical significance, longevity or as technological achievements.
Thanks to the Fleet Air Museum for their assistance in creating this article.
Note from Matt Willis from navalairhistory.com
A word on the subject: ‘best’ or ‘top’ is always a difficult concept to pin down in this context. Because of the situation in which the Fleet Air Arm found itself for much of its history – at a low priority, under-resourced, under-manned and suffering from years of doctrinal misconceptions – some of the aircraft with which it made the biggest impact, could not be said to be the best of their type. Low-performance machines such as the Blackburn Skua inflicted serious damage on German forces during the 1940 Norwegian campaign, and as for the Swordfish…
Then, aircraft that had an excellent performance in the air were objectively bad as naval aircraft – the Seafire was seriously unsuited to carrier operations. Ultimately, throughout history, the Fleet Air Arm has proven itself able to extract maximum value from whatever compromised machinery it has been issued with, mainly due to the quality of its personnel.
16. Hawker Sea Hawk (1953-1960 in frontline FAA service)
The UK aircraft industry produced a string of turbine-powered carrier fighters and attack aircraft in the early Cold War period, none of which were world-beaters.
The Sydney Camm-designed Hawker Sea Hawk, however, was an exception: combat-proven, export-winning and able to incorporate successive improvements.
Perhaps most importantly, it struck a balance between performance, capability and handling – making it an ideal mount for the Royal Navy aircraft carriers of the period. (Flattops like HMS Victorious were World War II-era designs, with limited-size air groups, and not all were converted with the angled decks required for safe jet operations).
Flying from smaller carriers, British naval fighters needed to combine compact dimensions with docile flying qualities. The Sea Hawk was the best of the lot, a conventional design with a single Rolls-Royce Nene engine in the centre fuselage fed by wing root intakes and exhausting via a bifurcated jet pipe at the trailing edge of the wing roots. Unlike the Attacker that preceded it, the Sea Hawk utilised nosewheel undercarriage.
The Sea Hawk was progressively improved, maturing from a simple day fighter before emerging as a more versatile fighter-bomber with a range of underwing ordnance and finally introducing a more powerful engine. With a production total of 520, more Sea Hawks were built than Buccaneers, Scimitars and Sea Vixens combined.
In the ground-attack role, six squadrons of Sea Hawks saw service during the Suez fiasco and the type later went to battle in Indian hands during the Indo-Pakistani conflicts of 1965 and 1971. Dutch Sea Hawks were perhaps the best equipped, carrying a pair of infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. The other export operator was West Germany, which flew the type into the mid-1960s. In Indian hands, the Sea Hawk soldiered on in service until 1983, when finally replaced by the Sea Harrier – another British naval fighter with design input from Sydney Camm.
15. Hawker Sea Fury (1945-53)
The Sea Fury was the pinnacle of Hawker’s illustrious prop fighter line, it was also probably the best prop fighter that ever flew. The Sea Fury had everything a great fighter needs: it was tough, well-armed, fast and agile. Despite its enormous size and 2,480 horsepower grunt, it had delightful handling qualities (pilots were particularly impressed with how spin-resistant it was). We spoke to Sea Fury pilot Dave Eagles who gave it it ‘top marks for agility’. The Sea Fury held the fort while carrier jets were still immature, and was much safer and easier to operate around the ‘deck’. It kept the FAA competitive in the interim period between the end of World War II and the jet age – and was the best piston-engined carrier fighter/fighter-bomber of the period. The Sea Fury was sent to war in Korea, where it proved it could do more than merely survive in the jet age, notably downing a MiG-15 jet fighter in 1952.
— Joe Coles, Hush-Kit
14. Blackburn Skua (1938-1941)
Highly successful as a dive-bomber when the FAA was most limited, far more successful as a fighter in Norway and the Mediterranean than anyone had a right to expect. The Skua did far better than anyone could have predicted for such a mediocre design, simply because it had to. Skuas fought bitterly hard when Britain was closest to defeat.
Skuas were for a while credited with the first confirmed kill by British aircraft during the Second World War, as three Skuas (from 803, on Ark Royal) shot down a Dornier Do 18 over the North Sea on 26 September 1939, but it later transpired a RAF Battle had actually staked this historical claim a full six days earlier in France.
On 10 April 1940, 16 Skuas led by Lieutenant Commander William Lucy, sank the German cruiser Königsberg at Bergen harbour during the German invasion of Norway. Königsberg was the first major warship ever sunk in combat by air attack and the first to be sunk by dive-bombing.
13. de Havilland Sea Hornet (1946-56)
For two decades the Fleet Air Arm had to rely on second-hand or inadequate designs, and then after a series of reports from RAE Farnborough, they got it right. In 1947, it all came together in the de Havilland Sea Hornet.
The Sea Hornet was available in three sub-variants – fleet day fighter; photo-reconnaissance aircraft and night fighter. All three shared the same attributes: a robust airframe married to two late-model 2000 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engines giving speed; counter-turning airscrew to prevent take-off swing; good low-speed handling; slotted flaps; the pilot at the front with all-round visibility, especially of the flight deck at every stage of the landing – but just too late to see war service.
It is possible to describe the Sea Hornet as the fighter version of the Mosquito that should have been developed three years before. It married the 1,500 miles range of two engines and big wing tanks with the ability to climb to height (20,000 ft) in just four minutes with the punch of four 20mm cannon.
The first naval air squadron to receive the Sea Hornet was 801 at RNAS Ford on 1 June 1947 and 809 took the night fighter variant to sea in HMS Vengeance later in the year. A single prototype was even modified to carry two of Barnes Wallis’ Highball bouncing bombs.
Don’t just take my word for it. Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown described it as his favourite aeroplane of all time; “sheer bliss” he told me.
— Paul Beaver FRSA FRAeS VR
12. Blackburn Buccaneer (1962-1978)
Blackburn Aircraft Limited produced some of the worst aeroplanes ever made. From the TB of 1915 (an engine start set the float on fire), the Sidecar of 1919 (sold at Harrods, but couldn’t fly), the Roc (a fighter of 1938, that was slower than any bomber), and the pathetic Botha (underpowered, impossible to see out of in rain), through to the shameful Firebrand (late, extremely dangerous to pilots- but scandalously pushed into service with a hush-up that resulted in many deaths) – their track record was pretty appalling, so it is all the more impressive that they went on to make the wonderful ‘Bucc’, a masterpiece from 1958.
The Buccaneer was designed to counter the Soviet fleet, with particular emphasis on the Sverdlov-class cruisers. It was prepared in great secrecy, as a fast, low-level maritime attack aircraft capable of using nuclear weapons.
The S. Mk.1 was underpowered, as test pilot Dave Eagles quipped in his Hush-Kit interview it “relied on the curvature of the earth to get airborne ”. This was solved when the S.Mk 2 was introduced in 1962, powered by the Spey. The result was a superb low-level aircraft with a long-range (longer even than the Tornado), of virtually indestructible construction with a rock-steady low-level ride. It was a world class attack aircraft with a formidable weapon-load. Later in its life its relatively austere avionics would let it down, but had it been fitted with the same systems as the US A-6 it would have undoubtedly been the best maritime attack aircraft in the world, bar none. In fact, a version superior even to this had been proposed; the Buccaneer 2 would have had systems inherited from two extremely advanced projects the P.1154 (a proposed supersonic Harrier in the F-4 weight class) and the TSR.2 super bomber (the advanced Buccaneer would have used its extremely advanced terrain-following radar). It was not to be, however.
When the Royal Navy got rid of its carrier some ‘Bucc’s ended up with the Royal Air Force. The type proved its worth in Desert Storm, and remained to the end of its life a potent weapon.
— Joe Coles, Hush-Kit
Interview with British Phantom pilot here.
11. Westland Wessex (1962-1982)
In the late 1950s Westland acquired a Sikorsky S-58 for use as a pattern aircraft, after playing around with it for a bit they removed the weighty Wright Cyclone piston engine and replaced it with one of the up and coming gas turbines everyone was talking about. A weight saving was not the only improvement, the vibration level in the aircraft also reduced to a level where you could read the instruments thanks to the much smoother running of the Napier Gazelle engine. An order from the Royal Navy soon followed for the first of over 200 Wessex for that service alone.
The original HAS 1 came with a dipping sonar and was soon embarked at sea hunting for the ever-increasing number of Soviet submarines. At the same time the Commando 1 version was produced by removing the submarine hunting equipment and putting in some seats for 16 Royal Marines. These Commando Wessex were soon hard at work in the jungles of Borneo during the confrontation with Indonesia. Such was their success that the squadrons involved have been known as Junglies ever since, despite spending most of their time in famously jungle free Norway, or the deserts of the Middle East.
By 1962 it was realised that one engine was half as good as two. So, Westlands crammed a pair of Rolls-Royce Gnomes into the nose of the Wessex HU5 for the Junglies. This almost doubled the installed power and made an engine failure much less worrying for the pilot as there was a spare.
Not to be outdone the ASW Pingers gained the improved HAS 3 which featured a radar and uprated sonar. It did not however feature an extra engine, so performance was marginal with the added weight.
The swan song for the Wessex in the Royal Navy came during the 1982 Falklands Conflict. Fifty-Five HU5s deployed along with 2 HAS 3s. On the night of 21st April Humphrey, the HAS 3 of HMS Antrim’s flight, guided two HU5s from RFA Tidespring to Fortuna Glacier on South Georgia as part of the operation to retake the island. With poor weather hampering them the SBS team deployed on the glacier requested evacuation. Unfortunately, the two HU5 crashed due to the poor weather, leaving the underpowered HAS3 to return and successfully recover the troops and the crew from both aircraft. Not satisfied with this Humphrey subsequently spotted the ANA Santa Fe, one in a series of ex-USN ships to be attacked during the conflict, and attacked her with depth charges, possibly the only such attack to take place post WW2. After surviving gunfire from attacking fast jets Humphrey retired to the Fleet Air Arm museum shortly after the conflict ended.
The Wessex was a mainstay of the Fleet Air Arm through the cold war, operating from carriers, destroyers, and ashore, as an ASW platform, a troop carrier, and a Search and Rescue aircraft. The type remained in service with the RAF until 2003, 42 years after it entered service, testimony to its robustness and utility.
— Bing Chandler
10. Sea Harrier (1978-2006)
The Royal Navy gave up its large aircraft carriers in the 1970s, but was reluctant to give up fixed-wing air power. One solution was to use Harriers, an aircraft capable of taking-off and landing like a helicopter from smaller ships. The USMC had been doing this successfully since the early ’70s with a lightly adapted version of the RAF’s GR.1, known as the AV-8A. The Royal Navy sought a more radical solution, adding a redesigned forward fuselage with a raised cockpit giving an improved view for the pilot and athe addition of basic radar (additionally some parts were changed to make the aircraft more resistant to salt water).
Only 111 Sea Harriers were built but the type is assured a place in Royal Navy for its performance in the Falklands War of 1982. Flying in abysmal weather, the type performed air defence and ground attack missions. In the former, the Sea Harrier shot down 20 Argentine aircraft with no air-to-air losses, although two Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire and four to accidents. One particular Sea Harrier, flown by RAF Flight Lieutenant David Morgan, shot down three A-4 Skyhawks on one mission. The Sea Harrier’s performance earned it comprehensive upgrade. FA.2 standard added the excellent Blue Vixen radar in a new bulbous nose, AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles (making it the first none US-designed aircraft to carry the then formidable weapon), a data-link, a fuselage plug for extra fuel, a semi ‘glass’ cockpit including HOTAS, improved radar warning receiver and various aerodynamic enhancements including a kinked leading-edge. The FA.2 served in both the Yugoslavian Civil War and the 1999 campaign against Yugoslavia. Over to Pete Sandeman from Save the Royal Navy:
“It is a recurring theme for the Fleet Air Arm, being equipped with what are perceived as poor aircraft but achieving great success. The Sea Harrier epitomised this, as the last all-British designed fighter aircraft it secured its place in aviation history as a war-winning weapon.
Having evolved from the RAF ground attack variant many, many, even in the RN, initially underestimated the capabilities of the subsonic Sea Harrier and assumed it had little value beyond intercepting high flying reconnaissance aircraft. Those involved in the test and development of the aircraft knew better. The ‘SHAR’ had already outperformed the mighty F-15 and other NATO fighters while conducting Dissimilar Combat Air Training (DACT) exercises, particularly in within visual range dogfights.
The SHAR deployed to the Falklands war, just 30 months after the first production aircraft had been delivered. The Blue Fox multimode radar and the hastily acquired AIM-9L version of the Sidewinder were critical to its success. Combined with the aggression and confidence of the RN pilots, the Harrier achieved 20 kills without a single loss in air-air combat. The outstanding performance in the Falklands cemented the ‘SHAR’s iconic status and place in the public affection.
In 1993 the original Sea Harrier FRS1 was replaced by the substantially modified Sea Harrier FA2. Most notably, an enlarged nose cone housed a new pulse doppler radar giving the ability to launch the AIM-120. This gave the SHAR arguably the best BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air-air combat capability in the world for a period.
During the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s SHARs flew from RN carriers in the Adriatic proving a rapid response for both ground support and to keep Yugosalv MiGs grounded. In 1994 a SHAR from HMS Ark Royal was shot down by a Serbian Igla-1 SAM, the pilot ejected but was quickly recovered.
The controversial and premature retirement of the Sea Harrier in 2006 saw the RN give up its organic naval fighters and control of fixed-wing combat aircraft in exchange for the Harrier GR7s and GR9s, under the unsatisfactory ‘Joint Force Harrier’ arrangement. The Indian navy was the only export customer for the SHAR which they finally retired in 2016.”
9. Westland Lynx (1981-2017)
Developed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the Lynx is a rare example of a multi-national programme where the French didn’t insist on design leadership, Sud Aviation only having a 30 percent share. This probably explains why the main rotor spins in the correct direction. The AH.1 entered service with the Army Air Corps in 1979, while the Fleet Air Arm’s HAS.2 followed in 1981, on account of having radars and other technical features beyond the Army’s understanding.
The bugs in the Lynx HAS Mk2 were still being worked out when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands and 14 were deployed on the task force’s frigates and destroyers. On the night of third May the Lynx carried out its most notable action of the conflict. A Sea King of 826 Naval Air Squadron had discovered the ARA Alférez Sobral, and after being shot at, identified it as hostile. Retreating to a safe distance the Sea King then vectored the Lynx from HMS Coventry and Glasgow which conducted an attack with Sea Skua missiles, severely damaging the Argentinian vessel and taking it out of action for the duration of the war.
Nine years later the Lynx was again in action, this time in the warmer waters of the Persian Gulf. Aircraft from HMS Manchester, Gloucester, Southampton and London teamed up with US Navy Seahawks to neutralise the Iraqi Navy threat to the allied task force. The Seahawks superior sensors were used to detect the numerous small patrol craft the Iraqis deployed to the cluttered waters off Kuwait. They would then vector the Lynx who had an effective anti-ship weapon, this teaming proved highly effective sinking ten vessels and damaging a further three.
After the Gulf War the Royal Navy’s Lynx would continue to serve until 2017. Modifications included a 360-degree radome, although without the upgrade to the radar to take advantage of it, a tail rotor that spun in the right direction to improve its effectiveness, and a central tactical system to save the Observer doing real-time scale-drawing to keep track of where everything was. Deployed around the globe the Lynx’s tasks included anti-drug operations, disaster relief, search and rescue, and most importantly collecting the ship’s mail for almost 40 years.
Not only was the Lynx the Royal Navy’s most successful Maritime Attack Helicopter, it was also the best anti-submarine aircraft the British Army ever operated.
— Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student. He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.
8. Chance Vought F4U Corsair (1943-1954)
Though famous for its role in the Pacific with US Navy, the Corsair’s first carrier combat action came in the North Sea with the British Fleet Air Arm. On 2 April 1944, Corsairs provided fighter cover for an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz. British Corsairs spent the bulk of their wartime service in the Pacific and Indian oceans. They supported strikes against Japanese targets in Burma and Sumatra, then in 1945 they fought in the final attacks on Japan. British Corsairs intercepted Kamikaze attacks as the British Pacific Fleet attacked the Sakishima Islands, before spending the end of the war making attacking on the Tokyo.
Interview with a British F-35B Lightning II pilot here
It wasn’t until the Sea Fury arrived, that an indigenous naval fighter surpassed the Corsair’s fearsome effectiveness. The Royal Navy received 2,012 Corsairs.
7. Grumman Avenger (1944-1955)
When the Royal Navy took on the Grumman Avenger, the intention was that it would supplement, and if possible, replace the Swordfish in the anti-submarine role aboard escort carriers. The American aircraft was big, heavy, rather unwieldy in the air and could not carry the British aerial torpedo. This made it something of a second choice in the strike role next to the manoeuvrable Fairey Barracuda, which was designed for – and good at – dive-bombing and torpedo attack. The Avenger’s first job in the Fleet Air Arm, therefore, was in action against U-boats, a task at which it excelled, thanks to its loitering ability and vast stores carriage. It could carry a useful load of depth charges in conditions when the venerable Swordfish could not, and had the advantage that it could be launched with the catapult fitted to US-built lend-lease escort carriers. If there had been enough Avengers available, they would undoubtedly have replaced the ‘Stringbag’ in the anti-submarine rule. When the Barracuda went to the Far East, however, and experienced much hotter conditions, the shortage of power from its Rolls-Royce Merlin 32 became acute, while its endurance was even more problematic during raids in the East Indies. As a possible solution, two anti-submarine Avenger squadrons in theatre were hastily trained in strike and sent on a bombing raid in place of the Barracudas. The experiment was a success, and the Admiralty immediately began replacing Barracuda squadrons in the Far East with Avenger units. Several Avenger units, meanwhile, had distinguished themselves in anti-submarine/surface vessel operations over the English Channel during Operation ‘Overlord’, and were quickly packed off East as soon as the war in Europe began to reach its conclusion.
The Avenger might, therefore, have replaced the Swordfish and almost did replace the Barracuda. While the Barras in theatre in mid-1944 had been replaced by Avengers, more were on their way out East when the war ended, so it’s not quite true to say that the Avenger replaced the Barracuda. It is unquestionable, however, that the Avenger was the FAA’s main strike aircraft at the climax of the war in the Pacific, where once again its prodigious range and payload meant it acquitted itself admirably.
Matthew Willis is a writer and journalist with a particular focus on naval aviation, which you can read more about at his website navalairhistory.com. He is the author of a feature in the May issue of Aeroplane about the FAA’s Swordfish and Avenger squadrons on D-Day.
6. Grumman Martlet/Wildcat (1941-1945)
“I would still assess the Wildcat as the outstanding naval fighter of the early years of World War II … I can vouch as a matter of personal experience, this Grumman fighter was one of the finest shipboard aeroplanes ever created.”
Between them, the British authorities and the industry failed to provide the Fleet Air Arm with the fighter it really needed from 1941. Fortunately, the US Navy did not suffer from the same temporary insanity that its British equivalent fell prey to in the 1930s, in the abandonment of single-seat fighters, nor the Admiralty’s permanent pathological insistence that every aircraft be capable of doing every job going. The upshot was that the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation was able to produce the kind of fighter that a naval air arm could actually use.
The USN’s F4F, and its G-36 export version, was moderately fast, manoeuvrable, tough, long-legged, well-armed and had excellent deck-landing characteristics. With each of the British equivalents in late 1941-early 1942, you’d be lucky to get any two of those characteristics. The worst thing about the Grumman Martlet (renamed Wildcat in 1944) for the Royal Navy was that the USN wanted it too, and had priority.
For that reason, there were never enough Martlets/Wildcats to go around, and after the first few squadrons were formed on them, it became clear that the FAA was only going to have enough aircraft to maintain these units rather than form new ones. The Martlet immediately proved itself with a convoy to Gibraltar on HMS Audacity with 802 Squadron in September, including one ‘Winkle’ Brown in its personnel, shooting down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, followed by four more on the next cruise. The FAA’s Martlets/Wildcats saw action in the Mediterranean, with the Allied landings at Madagascar and North Africa, and in Arctic convoys, where composite squadrons of fighters and anti-submarine aircraft made their presence felt against U-boats. The Martlet/Wildcat with its 0.50in machine guns was particularly useful for strafing any U-boat that decided to stay on the surface and fight it out. Moreover, the development of the type with more powerful engines and other improvements, kept it competitive until the end of the war. If the FAA had had enough of the compact Grumman fighter, it would not have been necessary to rely on hurriedly lashed-up naval single seaters like the Sea Hurricane and Seafire for so long, if at all. Sadly, the relative shortage means that while the Martlet/Wildcat was undoubtedly one of the best aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm in World War II, it could have had a much greater impact than it did.
— Matthew Willis
5. Fairey Fulmar (1940-1945)
As World War II approached the Admiralty was desperate for anything that could be described as a modern fighter. Thus specification O.8/38 was issued for a monoplane fleet fighter and observation aircraft, this was rapidly filled by a modified light dive-bomber originally intended for a cancelled RAF requirement. The resulting Fulmar shared the Merlin engine, and eight 0.303” guns, with the Spitfire and Hurricane, there though the similarity ended. With a maximum speed of 247mph and a service ceiling of 16,000’ it was several years behind its contemporaries in terms of performance. More worryingly it was also 30mph slower than the Heinkel He 111 it would face in the Mediterranean. Fair to say as a fighter it made an adequate cancelled dive-bomber.
Where it excelled though was in endurance, it could happily stay airborne for over four hours, and amount of ammunition (having 1000 rounds per gun compared to a Spitfire’s 250). This allowed the Fulmar to hold a standing CAP with minimal interruption to the carrier’s progress to launch and recover aircraft. On its own this wouldn’t have tipped the balance in the Fulmar’s favour, however action off the coast of Norway in 1940 had given the RN the beginnings of a Fighter Direction capability. Which initially involved radar information being relayed from the carrier’s escort via semaphore to the carrier for onward transmission to the CAP. The escort not having the necessary radios and Ark Royal not having a radar. This crude arrangement allowed even the Skua to conduct successful intercepts before the Battle of Britain showed its potential to the world.
Consequently, when the Fulmar made its first operational deployment with HMS Illustrious it soon proved itself by downing shadowing reconnaissance aircraft and then breaking up any follow up raids. Loitering at altitude the Fighter Directors would vector them towards the attackers and once sighted the dive bomber heritage would come into play as they dived on their prey to gain a speed advantage. Okay speed parity.
The Fulmar was not a great fighter, and it was relegated to second line and night fighting duties by mid-1942. However, by being at the birth of shipborne fighter control it helped shape the techniques that continue in use to this day and became the Royal Navy’s highest scoring fighter with 116 kills for only 16 losses in air-to-air combat. Which is more than you can say for the Seafire.
 These figures vary by source! But between 112 and 122 for kills.
— Bing Chandler
4. Westland Sea King (1969-2018)
With the limitations of the Wessex helicopter becoming apparent if you wanted to hunt submarines and carry weapons at the same time the RN would need something new. The obvious solution was to follow the same route as the USN with the Sea King. For political reasons a UK produced version was chosen, which thanks to a generous licence from Sikorsky, allowed Westlands to greatly modify the aircraft and ultimately sell more than the original manufacturer. It must be assumed that unlike the Wessex the original name was kept because it wasn’t as daft as the Sea Bat moniker used for the H-34.
Although externally similar to the SH-3D, even the early HAS1 Sea Kings differed greatly from the original. With a different operating philosophy the RN added a radar, on the tail to provide excellent coverage in every direction except forwards, along with a range of British avionics and an Observer in the cabin to act as the tactical co-ordinator for the aircraft and any other assets that might be needed to hunt submarines and surface vessels.
Like the Wessex the Sea King was also modified to carry troops, in the process losing the undercarriage sponsons, it being felt best not to let the Junglies have retractable gear. This was taken even further when they were given surplus Mk6 aircraft in the 2000s and the retraction system was disabled just to be on the safe side.
The Sea King’s baptism of fire was the Falklands Conflict where 60 aircraft deployed, predominantly in the ASW role protecting the fleet from Argentine submarines, whales, and anything under water that looked a bit suspect. Such was the RN’s concern over the under-water threat. At the same time 846 Squadron with HC4s was deployed with aircraft operating from various platforms in support of the troops. One even found its way to the Argentine/Chile border where, after much effort on the part of the crew, it burst into flames.
The Sea King also took over the Search and Rescue role, the grey and orange aircraft becoming the public face of the RN in their local areas. She also gained a role that even her illustrious forebear had lacked when a Searchwater radar was strapped to the side to make the world’s first rotary wing AEW aircraft. This role would see the Sea King remain in service until 2018 some 49 years after the first example had been delivered to the RN.
The Sea King operated around the World afloat and ashore, including service in the Falklands, Kosovo, Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan. For a few decades RN carrier flight decks seemed to be awash with them, while some brave souls even embarked them on the later Type 22 Frigates which made for a tight landing spot. Truly a great aircraft her replacement the Merlin has big shoes to fill.
The name coming from their original role of observing the fall of shot for the big guns. The RAF originally had Observers as well but to speed up training in WW2 introduced the Navigator with a smaller skill set. This was obviously the point at which the rot set in to that once great institution.
— Bing Chandler
3. Hawker Sea Hurricane
The Hawker Sea Hurricane was not the fastest naval fighter in the Fleet Air Arm’s inventory in 1941-2, nor was it the best at deck landing. It certainly wasn’t the best armed or longest-legged. It was a pain to operate from the newer fleet carriers, and with its non-folding wings, took up a lot of space when it could be struck down into a hangar. But for a service trying to expand to an offensive footing after being led down doctrinal blind alleys, put to the back of the queue for equipment, and unable to obtain enough of the American fighters that could have solved all its problems, the Sea Hurricane was a godsend. There was probably no other fighter that could have stepped into the breach so quickly and effectively. Even before the two-seat Fairey Fulmar was in service, the Admiralty had realised that its decision to eschew single-seat, high-performance fighters was, to put it delicately, stupid. The Fulmars had their benefits and achieved a lot, but the Fleet Air Arm needed fighters with the performance to tackle fast German and Italian bombers and even fighters. Suddenly, the compromises the Admiralty had been unwilling to accept – short range, no navigator in the back, fixed wings – did not seem like deal-breakers any more. Fortunately, the Hurricane was easy to convert for carrier operation, so relatively large numbers (still small beer by RAF standards) of existing Hurricanes could be afloat relatively quickly. (Indeed, it was possible to ‘navalise’ Hurricanes in the field, so straightforward was the process – an unserviceable RAF Mk IIb was turned into a Sea Hurricane aboard HMS Indomitable during 1942 with spares held by the carrier). When the decision was taken to turn the Hurricane into a fleet fighter, the Fleet Air Arm rapidly had a vital supply of fighters with the kind of performance it needed. It was not before time. The first Sea Hurricanes afloat immediately made their mark against Luftwaffe prowlers on Arctic convoys, but it was during the vital Malta convoys in the summer of 1942 that the Sea Hurricane proved its worth. As the most numerous fighter on those operations, it saw to it that enough supplies reached the battered island that it could survive and keep threatening the Axis supply routes to North Africa. As such, the Sea Hurricane probably saved the entire Eastern Mediterranean theatre. Not bad for a hastily cobbled-together fleet fighter.
— Matt Willis
2. Fairey Barracuda (1943-55)
The Fairey Barracuda. Unloved – derided even. Unattractive, certainly. Subject of more derogatory songs than any other aircraft. “You must remember this… A Barra’s poor as piss…” But the Barracuda doesn’t need your sympathy. It may have looked like an accident that had just happened… early on, too many accidents did happen… but the Barracuda hit the enemy like few other types. Historian Norman Polmar called the Barracuda ‘almost useless as an attack aircraft’. Yet this ‘almost useless’ aircraft sunk 40,000 tons of shipping in 10 months, crippled Germany’s most powerful battleship, and equipped 26 front-line squadrons over a 10-year career.
The Albacore and Swordfish were obsolete as strike aircraft by 1943, so the Barracuda became available none too soon. The Mediterranean war ended as the Barra arrived, but in Northern latitudes it was just the aircraft needed. Barracudas carried out devastating attacks on German convoys and put the Tirpitz out of the war for months by pinpoint dive bombing. In the Far East it was almost the right aircraft… asthmatic in the hot climate, it still achieved success against targets in the East Indies. It then served quietly, but well into the 1950s. The Barracuda deserves your respect.
— Matt Willis, @navalairhistory
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
1. Fairey Swordfish (1938-1945)
The Fairey Swordfish, colloquially known as the ‘Stringbag’ could be charitably seen as the ultimate development of the carrier-borne biplane torpedo bomber — or rather less charitably as simply outdated on its introduction. To give context, its maiden flight was less than two years before that of the Spitfire. Despite this, or possibly because of it, the Stringbag went on to become one of the most beloved of Britain’s naval faring aircraft.
A distinguished wartime career certainly helped cement its place in our history. The highlights being the Taranto Raid and its part in sinking the Bismarck. The former was a daring night time operation in 1940 that took out half of Italy’s capital ships in one fell swoop, and possibly more importantly, inspired the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 that caused the USA to directly enter the conflict. The latter saw this venerable aircraft strike the telling blow that allowed Bismarck to slip into the Royal Navy’s vengeful clutches. Ironically, the aircraft’s lumbering top speed may have helped with the Bismarck as legend has it that the anti-aircraft guns were geared to traverse whilst trained on much faster aircraft and consequently didn’t have the sensitivity to deal with a maximum target speed of a mere 143mph.
To see the Royal Navy’s example fly is a treat, seemingly hanging in the air as her Bristol Pegasus gently thrums, pulling the crew of three through the air. She was a relic that came good, beloved of her crew and held with great affection by the public. A noble old warrior that has truly earned her place in the Fleet Air Arm hall of fame.
— Pete Sandeman, Save the Royal Navy
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