Why I loved flying the world’s most beautiful fighter jet

Air Marshal G A ‘Black’ Robertson flew the most beautiful jet fighter even flown (outside of the Sea Hawk that is). We met him to find out more about flying the gorgeous Hawker Hunter.

Flt Lt Tim Thorn taking off from Sharjah in one of 8 Sqn’s FR Mk 10s, 1968. Photos: Air Marshal G A Robertson unless otherwise credited
Fg Off GA ‘Black’ Robertson with his own 8 Sqn aircraft, FGA Mk 9, tail letter ‘H’, serial XJ 684; Bahrain, 1968.

“…a remark I heard a number of times: the engine ate eagles. Not strictly true, of course, but a tribute to the Avon’s strength and reliability.

What were your first impressions of the Hunter? At last, I thought, here’s a proper aircraft: a camouflaged single-seater with an almost bewildering array of instrumentation – weapons switches too. It’s hard to describe the sense of excitement I felt, strapping into an F6 (XF 526) for my first solo on 8 Nov 67. To put these remarks in context, I was fresh out of training – well, almost. I’d spent the previous five months holding at St Athan, and was privileged to fly five different types, four as captain. But my first operational aircraft was a step beyond all this – a very considerable step too.

Describe the Hunter in 3 words. A pilot’s aircraft.

What was the best thing about the Hunter? Its aesthetic beauty is the obvious answer – a beauty one felt privileged to share.

….and the worst? I’d never say a bad word about the aircraft – even if I could think of one, which I can’t.

What was your unit’s role and how effective was the Hunter at this role? My first and only front-line squadron was 8, a DF/GA unit. For its time – before the advent of precision weapons – the Hunter was more effective than any other aircraft in this dual role. That said, the more powerful Lightning could outperform it in some air combat scenarios, and aircraft like the Canberra and Vulcan  could deliver a heavier weapon load. It could be argued that the Hunter was the first multi-role fighter.

Many people love the aircraft’s looks, do you? Its beauty is ageless and its design, for a relatively modern aircraft, is matchless. I’d put only two other aircraft in its class: the SE5A and the Spitfire – arguably the world’s most beautiful and iconic aircraft. But I never felt the same about the two-seat T7. The widening of the fuselage to accommodate side-by-side seating seemed to me to destroy, certainly in part, the cleanliness of the single-seat design.

Is there a popular myth about the Hunter? The only thing close to this is a remark I heard a number of times: the engine ate eagles. Not strictly true, of course, but a tribute to the Avon’s strength and reliability.

How would you rate it in the following categories

A. Sustained turn
B. Instantaneous turn
C. Acceleration
D. Climb
E. Ergonomics
F. Cockpit comfort

It’s impossible to rate the majority of these categories in absolute terms. To avoid subjectivity one needs a comparator. All I have is the Phantom, and a fading memory. So, other than to say I have no complaints about any of them, I’ll pass on the first four items.

Two 8 Sqn Mk 9s taking off from Sharjah, September 1968.

            On ergonomics, it’s often said that the switches in later marks of the aircraft were all over the place – an exaggeration, but it makes the point that cockpit ergonomics could have been better. By way of example, aids such as the radio compass weren’t easy to interpret, tucked away down on the lower right-hand side of the cockpit. But any criticism in this respect must be seen in the light of a design that was progressively improved and updated, not least by the addition of additional equipment, year by year and mark by mark.

            Cockpit comfort was such that one felt very much part of the aeroplane. One could perhaps argue that reaching down to the flap lever during air combat sorties was a bit of a stretch and an exercise in dexterity, but it would be stretching a point to complain about imperfect ergonomics. The HOTAS concept was some years away, of course.

What was your most memorable flight in the Hunter?

It was 7 Feb 1969. Two of us were ferrying refurbished FGA Mk 9s back from the UK to Bahrain. The second leg of the first day was from Hal Far, Malta, to Akrotiri, Cyprus. The last forty minutes of a three-hour trip were completed at night, in and out of massive thunderstorms accompanied by lightning flashes that lit up the entire sky. By the time I was handed over to the final controller for the mandatory radar approach I was more than a little tense. However, my nerves were quickly calmed by the crystal clear tones of a woman’s voice; the very model of professionalism, she guided me down to a safe landing. Rarely had ‘On centre-line, on glidepath,’ sounded so sweet, and rarely had I been so relieved to see runway lights emerge from the gloom. I was eventually reunited with my leader, who’d earlier exercised his prerogative to descend first, ‘to see what it was like’ – a questionable decision given that I was much lower on fuel. What if he’d found conditions difficult? There was little he could do to help. In the end though, a valuable lesson was learned: check sunset time at the destination airfield before departure! Night flying, let alone night formation, hadn’t been part of the plan.

Was the absence of missiles or a serious radar an issue? Not in the DF/GA role in my time. While both might have been nice to have, they would probably have brought penalties (performance?) too. The aircraft had arguably reached the end of its stretch potential when it was retired from operational service.

What other equipment did Hunter pilots long for? While nothing comes to mind, given that even experienced pilots managed to land wheels up, some scraping along on the 230-gallon underwing tanks before lurching airborne again, a (radio altimeter-type) indication that the wheels weren’t down as the aircraft reached a critical height might have proved useful.

Tell me something I don’t know about the Hunter. Sydney Camm was reputedly less than enamoured with the addition of the under-fuselage air brake – it ruined the aesthetics of his elegant design. While he wanted it removed, it was deemed a necessary addition.

What should I have asked you?  Where does the Hunter rank amongst all the aircraft you’ve flown? Apart from a single, memorable hour in a Sea Fury, it’s the aircraft I love best

Where/when and in which service did you fly the Hunter?

No 130 DFGA (Day Fighter/Ground Attack) Course, No 229 OCU, RAF Chivenor; Oct 67-Feb 68.

8 Sqn, RAF Muharraq, Bahrain; Mar 68-Apr 69.

No 101 Short TWU Course, 79 Sqn, RAF Brawdy; Mar-Jul 82.

8 Sqn arrive at Sharjah for APC, April 1968. Black is flying the no 2 aircraft, on the immediate right of the CO (Sqn Ldr Fred Trowern)

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