A naval raptor – the Sea Hawk

28 June 2013 | Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, England. The old adage, ‘If it looks right, it’ll fly right’ holds true for such aircraft as the Mustang and the SPAD 11, the Mosquito and the F-86, but there is also a classic jet fighter/fighter-bomber of the 1950s that this applies to, that few people have heard of.

Hawker’s were not known for building ugly aircraft – although they came VERY close to the mark with the Typhoon – and Sir Sydney Camm designed some absolute beauties (Hawker Fury, Hart, Tempest V, Sea Fury, etc). The state of British naval aviation in the late 1940s and early 50s was complex, having begun to shrink from its wartime peak in terms of numbers of carriers and aircraft, it was also in the midst of a technological transition from piston engine to jet power. The Seafire and Sea Fury were still around, as were Sea Hornet and Sea Mosquito, but there was an attempt made to ‘bridge the gap’, by stretching the piston engine with the Blackburn Firebrand (it didn’t last) and the one-off turbo-prop fighter-bomber Westland Wyvern – an interesting design that saw action during the Suez Campaign but had major technical snags. The Royal Navy’s first jet fighters, the Sea Vampire and Supermarine Attacker were very short on range, and the Attacker did not have a tricycle undercarriage, which gave rise to huge deck-handling problems.

There were some stiff technical problems to consider. All naval aircraft needed greater range than their land counterparts, and good low-speed handling was a ‘must’ to cope with deck landings. Couple this with the fact that most British first generation jet engines had centrifugal compressors, rather than axial, (this made them of much larger diameter than axial designs) and the need to keep the jet pipe at the rear of the engine as short as possible to reduce thrust losses, and you would need some kind of genius to solve the puzzle. One pace forward, Sir Sydney Camm……

Hawker’s had been designing a ‘Jet Fury’ in 1944/5, and this crystallized as two prototype aircraft built to Specification N.7/46, (Contract No.6/Aircraft/234/CB.9b) powered by the Rolls/Royce Nene II. Camm placed the Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet close to the center of gravity in the aircraft’s fuselage, thereby ensuring good weight/balance characteristics and maneuverability. He gave the Sea Hawk wing-root intakes for the Nene, allowing the pilot’s cockpit to be placed in the extreme nose, giving excellent visibility. He also divised a very elegant solution to the ‘jet pipe problem’ by constructing a bi-furcated jet pipe, which split the engine’s exhaust gases so they exited at the wing trailing edge, either side of the fuselage. In the photograph, the jet exhausts are marked by elegant ‘pen nib’ fairings. This exhaust arrangement, and the positioning of the engine, allowed much more of the fuselage volume to be devoted to fuel tanks thereby solving the range problem!

A production batch of 35 were ordered on 22nd November, 1949 and built by Hawker’s at Kingston. Suddenly, with the outbreak of the Korean War, this order was accorded ‘Super Priority’ status as was the Hawker Hunter. The aircraft went to 804, 806 and 898 Naval Air Squadrons as the Sea Hawk F. Mk 1. FAA Sea Hawks could reach 630 mph, which equated to Mach 0.84 at 36,000 ft, and had a impressive 1,400 mile range (with the phenolic/asbestos drop tanks developed for it). Gun armament was 4 x 20 mm Hispano cannon – later aimed by a gyro gunsight.

Hawkers were now part of the Hawker Siddeley Group which included Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth Ltd, a company well known for producing other designs under sub-contract, and the majority of the work on the Sea Hawk went to their plant at Baginton, near Coventry, which handled all subsequent development. Since the airframe had been optimized for carrier operations, it featured a strong, fairly short undercarriage, a simple wing-folding mechanism and a ‘sting’ type arrestor hook. There was also a very prominent ‘bullet’ fairing on the leading edge of the tailfin, to ensure smooth airflow at that point.

A series of improvements were made – F. Mk 2 – power-assisted ailerons, F.B. Mk 3 – first of the fighter bombers, with rockets, bombes and uprated Nene 101 (5,200 lb thrust), etc. Then the export orders started. The Germans did not own a carrier at this time (indeed their only wartime carrier, the ‘Graf Zeppelin’, was never completed), but they still had a very active, land-based naval air arm, and they were looking around for a suitable fighter-bomber. After careful evaluation, they chose the Sea Hawk in the day fighter (F. Mk. 100) and the ‘maritime strike’ role (F. Mk 101, all-weather fighter, with enlarged fin and rudder, to compensate for the large pod under the starboard wing which carried an EKCO radar).

The Royal Dutch Navy bought 32 F. Mk 50 (similar to the RN’s F. Mk 6), which had a Nene 103 engine and Dutch Phillips radio. Some of the last Dutch Sea Hawks became rather more potent, with the ability to carry a pair of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

Perhaps the strangest order came in 1959, from the Indian Navy. The production line had closed and was in the process of being dismantled when the Indians demanded 24 new Sea Hawks (similar to the FAA’s F. Mk 6). The jigs were hastily re-assembled and the aircraft delivered. They were later joined by 12 more from FAA stocks (re-conditioned) and 28 re-furbished Mk 100/101 aircraft from the Germans. These 64 aircraft served from land bases and at sea with No. 300 Squadron INS, onboard the INS Vikrant (ex-HMS Hercules). The Indian Sea Hawks saw a lot of action! They struck at ground targets during Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, then from the deck of the INS Vikrant, played a pivotal role in the 1971 War when they sank Pakistani gunboats and cargo ships, and helped defeat the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan (thanks to that war, now named Bangladesh). By this stage the Sea Hawk could carry up to 20 x 3″ rockets (or a smaller load of 5″ HVAR) or 4 x 500 lb bombs or other stores; it had become a very capable fighter-bomber.

This fact was demonstrated in the only action it saw in British colours, when it took part in the ill-starred Suez Campaign of October/November 1956. Despite the military victory – and the Sea Hawks performed very efficiently, attacking airfields and military bases – it was a political disaster for Britain and France, with the U.S.A. forcing them to withdraw.

The Seahawk you can see here is displayed as part of a ‘carrier deck diorama’ at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, along with many other Royal Navy aircraft of the 1950s and 60s (immediately behind the Seahawk you can see a Fairey Gannet anti-submarine aircraft). The simple camouflage scheme consists of overall Dark Sea Grey over Sky, and the aircraft is carrying the famous ‘Ace of Diamonds’ symbol of No 806 NAS. 806 had played a distinguished part in WW2, flying Sea Hurricanes, Martlets (Wildcats), and the Seafire. It was the first to equip with the Sea Hawk (2 March, 1953) and the last in RN service – December, 1960. WV856 is shown as a Sea Hawk from HMS Centaur, in 1955. Actually this aircraft served TWICE with 806 Sqn, once coded ‘166’ and once ‘182’ (never ‘163’)!

The Sea Hawk was finally withdrawn from active service with the Indian Navy in 1983 – an incredible track record for what was a first generation naval jet fighter. It’s replacement was the ultimate Camm design – the Sea Harrier!

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An avid writer, photographer and former member of the Royal Air Force (RAF), Ross Sharp serves as the Director of Engineering and Airframe Compliance for The People’s Mosquito and Deputy Air Show Coordinator of the RAF Finningley Air Show. He provides 20th Century Aviation Magazine readers unique perspectives on topics relating to British aviation.