There have been many great British aviation manufacturers. Then there’s Supermarine, the poor man’s Blackburn, who produced a string of fair to average flying boats, one half decent piston fighter, and then a string of below par jets before being absorbed into BAC. The jets in particular started poorly with the Attacker, which for no obvious reason was a straight winged taildragger whose overall appearance screamed ‘we had one good design don’t make us change it’. This was followed by the Swift ordered as an insurance in case the Hunter didn’t perform as expected. For this Supermarine took their one ‘good’ jet design and added swept wings and a sensible undercarriage. Then we come to the Scimitar, a beast of an aircraft powered by two Avons producing around 22,000lbs of thrust while resolutely remaining subsonic. Admittedly this wasn’t completely Supermarine’s fault, although they didn’t have to listen to the Admiralty’s requirement for the aircraft to be able to conduct a free take-off from a carrier deck. As well as blown flaps this also required a much thicker wing section than was ideal for high speed flight, especially at high level where the critical Mach number made manoeuvring ‘difficult’.
Popular imagination has it that the Scimitar was also burdened with so many issues it needed 1000 maintenance man hours per flying hour. This almost sounds plausible when you consider the number of things that could go wrong with a late ‘50s aircraft. There were two Avons to leak fuel everywhere, blown flaps to malfunction, probably something resembling avionics. It does break down slightly when you introduce maths to the problem though.
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To take one example 804 NAS operated the Scimitar for 18 months from 1 Mar 1960 to 15 Sep 1961, or 563 days. During this they flew 1077 sorties for a total of 1,367 flying hours, with only one minor accident when Sub Lt J G Smith suffered a nose gear collapse when Landing on HMS Hermes.  563 day is 13,512 hours, at which point the 1000 maintenance man hours per flying hour myth starts to break down. According to the myth 804 would have had to endure 1,367,000 hours of tinkering to have achieved that much flying. That’s 195,285 hours per aircraft. Or 14 people working on each aircraft every hour it isn’t flying. The compliment of 804 at this time isn’t readily available as apparently a global pandemic is the kind of easy excuse archives look for to prevent access. However, while equipped with 10 of Supermarine’s ultimate fighter, 803 NAS had around 123 personnel.  Ignoring any reduction in personnel due to operating fewer aircraft and subtracting the 14 officers who wouldn’t want to get in the chaps’ way while they’re working, that gives 15 maintainers per airframe on 804 NAS.
So, from the above workings the only way the Scimitar could be operated if it required 1000 maintenance hours per flying hour is if the squadrons were over manned and the workforce did nothing but fix aircraft. Even in their sleep. For those unfamiliar with the naval service they may be bastards, but they do let the workforce eat, sleep, and if they’re particularly good take leave. But what’s a more realistic figure? Well assuming weekends off, and their Lordship’s deigned to give the squadron 45 days leave over the 18 months that gives 357 days of work. Assume 8 hours a day are available for maintaining aircraft, which ignores the other duties that the navy insists are more important than fixing aircraft. In that case each maintainer would have done 2,857 hours of maintenance. Still allowing 15 maintainers per aircraft and you get a total of 42,857 hours of work on each jet for the period 804 NAS was in commission. With each aircraft averaging 195 flying hours you end up with 219 maintenance hours per flying hour as pretty much the upper limit of what’s achievable. This is still a lot, it’s around 20 times what an F-22 needs, but it’s a lot less than the figure bandied around. Which could lead you to suspect it was a glib answer given by someone who didn’t expect to be taken seriously, or the real answer was 100 hours and someone added a zero.
Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.
 Eric Morgan, and John Stevens. The Scimitar File. Trowbridge: Air Britain, 2000. p137
 HMS Hermes Commissioning book photo. Count the people in the photo of 804 NAS.
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