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The De Havilland Sea Vixen - A Brief Introduction

In January of 1947 the Royal Navy issued specification No. 40/46 and the RAF specification F.44/46 for an aircraft to cover broadly similar requirements for a night fighter. De Havilland proposed the DH. 110 for both specifications. At first the RAF showed greater interest and updated their specification to F.4/48 in early 1948. About a year later, in April 1949, the Ministry of Supply ordered seven land-based night fighters plus two long range fighter prototypes from De Havilland for the RAF. For the Fleet Air Arm they ordered two night fighter and two strike fighter prototypes to specification N.14/49. Gloster Aircraft were to supply four of the delta winged Gloster GA.5 (which evolved into the Javelin) to the RAF as a back-up.

Due to ministerial machinations and vacillation by the Admiralty, the Navy was persuaded to drop the DH 110 in favour of the cheaper Sea Venom, which was thought could be more quickly evolved out of the RAF Venom, and the RAF chose the Gloster aircraft instead (which it could be argued was a mistake on their part). Well that was the idea. But as usual when politicians have their way, this stopgap measure ignored the difficulties and expense of turning a land-based plane into one robust enough for carrier operation. By the time a satisfactory Sea Venom version (Mk21 or Mk22) became operational it was still somewhat under-powered and the Vixen replaced it within a year or two. The best that could be said of this dilatory policy was that carrier expertise was being kept alive and developed.

The unusual shape of the DH 110 and Sea Vixen was one that grew out of the already successful twin-boomed Vampire, which had adopted this plan in order to keep the jet pipe short and thus minimize thrust loss from the puny centrifugal compressor turbojets (Goblin) of the day. With the DH. 110 a similar configuration was used so that two engines could be mounted as close together as possible thus minimizing asymmetric thrust in the event of an engine failure. Other advantages were a more rigid tail construction minimizing flutter at high speed, easier engine replacement and simplified engine compartment structure. A tail-less form like the DH. 108 was rejected by reason of high landing speeds and directional vices at high speed.

There were only ever three DH. 110 prototypes the first of which Hatfield built WG 236 had its maiden flight on September 26, 1951 with De Havilland Chief Test Pilot John Cunningham at the controls. The date of this first flight is the reason behind the choice of date for the 'Sea Vixen 50' reunion, September 29 2001 being as close as practicable.

Sadly it was WG236 which crashed at the 1952 SBAC Farnborough airshow killing the pilot John Derry and his observer Tony Richards, as well as 27 people in the crowd with another 63 injured. An event my father witnessed.

The Sea Vixen is an aircraft which has, much overlooked, historical importance in as much as it was the first jet aircraft to enter naval service as an 'integrated weapons platform' using radar and infra-red guided missiles, Firestreak (Blue Jay whilst under development)on Mk 1 and Red Top on Mk2. It was also the Fleet Air Arm's first swept-wing, all weather aircraft and was a significant advance on the Sea Venom with twice the rate of climb. The Mk2 version is instantly recognisable by the forward extension of the tail booms into the bulbous fronted pinion fuel tanks. Some Sea Vixens were built as Mk 2s but more were converted from Mk1s. Some of these Mk1 to Mk2 conversions were performed on site at Yeovilton by a CWP (Contractor's Working Party), indeed this was the case with some of the Mk2s of 893 Squadron which I joined in 1966. The conversion of Sea Vixen Mk1s to Mk2s by a CWP at Yeovilton is rarely, if at all, mentioned in Sea Vixen related literature. The boom modifications allowed the fitting of a liquid oxygen system (LOX), for aircrew breathing, in the port boom, to replace the gaseous breathing oxygen system of the Mk 1. The aircrew found the starboard boom to be a useful luggage stowage.

Sea Vixens first equipped 700 Squadron 'Y' Flight at Yeovilton with eight aircraft. 700Y, under the command of Cdr. MHJ Petrie, proceeded to carry out trials on HMS Victorious and HMS Centaur during 1958. The first operational unit was 892 Squadron which, with Cdr. Petrie in command, commissioned on 2 July 1958 and embarked on HMS Ark Royal in March 1960. Later in 1960, 892 Squadron moved to HMS Victorious, moving again to HMS Hermes before finally operating from HMS Centaur from December 1963. From November 1959, 766 Squadron became responsible for operational and conversion training. In order to carry out this intensive task 766 was equipped with as many as forty aircraft and retained a flight of Sea Venoms in the early years. The Sea Vixen equipped four front line squadrons, 890, 892, 893 and 899 Squadrons. All Sea Vixen squadrons were based at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron).

Aircraft carriers which operated the Sea Vixen were HMS Victorious, HMS Eagle, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Hermes these all operating Mk 1 and later the Mk2. HMS Centaur operated only the Mark 1, being retired from service in 1965.

Mk 2 Vixens were first deployed with 899 Squadron which embarked on HMS Eagle in December 1964. The next squadron to re-equip with the Mk 2 was 893 which embarked (with myself) on HMS Victorious in 1966. Whilst all other Sea Vixen front line squadrons rotated through the fleet carriers of the period, with the exception of Eagle, 899 Squadron did not it being the head-quarters squadron at Yeovilton, only ever operating from Eagle. 899 Squadron was the last front line Sea Vixen squadron which disembarked from HMS Eagle for the last time and disbanded at Yeovilton on 23 January 1972.

The first front line Sea Vixen squadron to embark was 892 on the Victorious in October 1959. 892 subsequently served on Ark Royal, Victorious, Hermes, Centaur and then Hermes again when re-equipped with Mk 2s. 890 Squadron were the next to embark first on Hermes in July 1960. 890 next served on Ark Royal, Hermes, Eagle (briefly from November 1964 until January 1965) and Ark Royal. 890 Squadron's entire embarked service was with F(AW)Mk1s the squadron only receiving Mk2s when it became the headquarters squadron from 1967 and then taking over some of 766 Squadron's former training roles. 893 Squadron first embarked on Victorious in September 1960 afterwards serving on Ark Royal, Centaur, Victorious (becoming the second squadron to re-equip with the Mk2 from late 1965 and into early 1966) and then finally Hermes after Victorious was prematurely retired when a fire, the damage from which was repairable, was used as a politically motivated excuse to axe her. As mentioned elsewhere 899 Squadron only ever served on Eagle and with F(AW)Mk2s.

The De Havilland Sea Vixen - Sources of Further Information

You must see Damien Burke's " Thunder & Lightnings " web site for more on the Sea Vixen with a comprehensive list of references and other aircraft types.

In the meantime here is a brief list of references to more information on the Sea Vixen.


Franks, Richard A. (2006) The De Havilland Sea Vixen. Dalyrmple & Verdun Publishing.
                                                                                                             ISBN 1-905414-04-8
This a refreshing new book on this one time neglected aircraft type which has gained much popularity through its sheer presence when exhibited to new audiences over the last few years thanks to Red Bull sponsorship of XP924 (G-CVIX). XP924 has now been refinished in true naval colours, 899 Squadron and as she was during her last Eagle stint, but is now sadly grounded awaiting sponsorship to cover the cost of insurance.
Franks' book is the first I have seen which mentions the contractor's working party that, in the period 1965-66, converted a batch of F(AW) Mk 1s to F(AW) Mk 2 standard in a hangar near where the Fleet Air Arm Museum now stands. There are many photographs not often published in other works and the numerous excellent coloured drawings drawings will be welcomed by modelers. The fuselage details immediately aft of the radome are here correctly differentiated between port and starboard with hinge cover detail to starboard and latch to port. The underside drawing, however, incorrectly shows the fuel bay cover (immediately aft of the air-brake) as being one piece. One of the photographs rarely seen depicts 893 Squadron Sea Vixen (461V) XN652 refuelling a USAF Thud (F-105 Thunderchief) which was in transit from Singapore to Okinawa in November 1963, XN651 had been 461V but had gone to 899 Squadron and then on loan to 892 Squadron at this time
Franks includes some useful appendices. Appendix I is Technical Data and includes photograph of cockpit, coal hole, wing-fold and radar detail. Appendix II details squadron histories with carrier deployment dates. Appendix III is an abridged version of the airframe histories listing found in Sturtivant, Burrow and Howard's 'Fleet Air Arm Fixed-Wing Aircraft since 1946'
Balch, Adrian. (2002) de Havilland TWIN BOOMS. Airlife Publishing Ltd.
                                                                                                             ISBN 1-84037-250-8
This excellent, publication 'de Havilland Twin Booms' is illustrated almost exclusively with colour photographs. Those of the Sea Vixen are worth the cover price and include a number of G-CVIX, XP 924. Most of the variants of fin squadron emblems are amongst the photographs. Not a book for those interested in detailed technical and historical information.
Birtles, Philip. (1986) De Havilland Vampire, Venom and Sea Vixen. Postwar Military Aircraft: 5. Ian Allen Publishing ISBN 0-7110-1566-X
Thetford, Owen. (1962) British Naval Aircraft Since 1912. Putnam, London.

  The following three aviation magazines contained excellent articles on the Sea Vixen, all from Key Publishing Ltd. PO Box 100, Stamford, Lincs, PE9 1XQ. Tel: +44 (0) 1780 755131 Fax +44 (0) 1780 757261 Key Publishing Web Site

Air International, April 1991. Vol 40. No 4

Very good with interesting cutaway drawing.

AIR Enthusiast, May/June 2000, No. 87

Excellent in depth article but complimentary to above with more information on proposed future development.

The History of the World's Aircraft Carriers, CARRIERS, Air Power at Sea. Classic Aircraft Series No.8, An AirForces FlyPast Special, Winter 2001/02

Flying the Sea Vixen. This from a pilots perspective, that of Chris Blower. 'Sea Vixen 50' gets a mention.

That last above contains interesting articles by Cdr David Hobbs, curator of the Fleet Air Arm Museum, entitled: Aircraft Carriers - The Formative Years' - (1908 to 1939), 'Flying the Gannet - the last RN fixed wing AEW aircraft', 'British Carriers - Cold War to the 21st Century'

Cdr Hobbs has also compiled two volumes of photographs in 'The Fleet Air Arm in Focus' series published by Maritime Books, Lodge Hill, Liskeard. PL14 4EL, Tel: 01579 343663 Fax: 01579 346747, Maritime Books web site, of which Part Two contains pictures of Sea Vixen operations.

There was an excellent profile of Dan Griffith who flew XP924 with such elan in:

Jets, Winter 2001 (in 'View from the Cockpit' on page 88)

IPC Media Ltd, Room 2308, Kings Research Tower, Stamford St., London. SE1 9LS. jets@ipcmedia.com

See also
The Telegraph Magazine 25 September 2004

carried a compelling and thought provoking article relating the experiences of a young woman trying to find out about her father who had died whilst piloting a Sea Vixen. Sabine's father was Lieutenant MJW Durrant who was lost in Sea Vixen XN708 during Lepus flare (this is what the article states but it was more likely to have been the more disorienting Glow Worm) illuminated rocket attacks over Lyme Bay on 25 November 1964. Michael Durrant is one of many young men who gave their lives whilst flying in these aircraft during 'peace time' otherwise known as 'The Cold War'. A promising web site Sea Vixen, Royal Navy. Carrier Jet, by Martyn Harvy Dean ex Sea Vixen and Phantom pilot, has recently been started dedicated to these men and their aircraft. Martyn has also started an RN Phantom site Phantom F4K, Fleet Air Arm. Royal Navy

The Sea Vixen entry in Owen Thetford's book 'British Naval Aircraft Since 1912' is headed by a photograph of Sea Vixen FAW1 XJ520 in 766 Squadron markings with the call sign 711. This particular call sign is emblazoned in my memory (whilst an AAA) as belonging to the aircraft that crashed around midnight on a wet and blustery February night in 1966 but by this time XJ567 was the 766 Sea Vixen wearing the call sign 711. XJ567 was one of the small cohort of Vixens that had become my lot to look after with respect to Daily, Before Flight and Turn-round Inspections (DI, BFI and TR). DIs were carried out during the early hours after completion of night flying and assisting in other, heavier, maintenance tasks with the lads generally being given five or six aircraft each to see to. At one time we had 36 or more Vixens on squadron strength. I recall the motley collection of pre-production and production F(AW)Mk1s which had detailed differences particularly in respect, from our point of view, of the positioning of charging points for e.g. hydraulic accumulators. Even the F(AW)Mk2s on strength had slight variations according to age of the original airframe or the date of conversion with a few being Mk2 new-builds.

I had, a week prior to the accident, relinquished my position as one of the 'plane captains' of this aircraft to attend the 'Airmanship School' which was at the site that now includes the FAA Museum. Many of us in the then 'Venerable Mess' were just turning in after an evening's run ashore when a pipe over the ship's Tannoy system called for volunteers to go out and search for the crew of a downed 766 Squadron Sea Vixen. Those of us interested, which was most of us as we were all on 766 Squadron, quickly dressed into suitable clothing and reported to the duty staff at the 'main gate'. As instructed I fell in the troops, recorded names and then reported to the duty Chief whereupon torches were rationed out to a few.

On arrival at the site of the crash, somewhere in the region of Queen Camel and South Cadbury, we were formed in line across the lower slopes of a muddy field and made our way uphill, in the wind and rain, towards the visible wreck. The aircraft had driven itself into the soft wet earth nose and starboard wing down with the tail booms having snapped off and the tail inverted on top of the wreck. The pilot was recovered from an adjacent field but the realization of the whereabouts of the observer, a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI), caused some distress as I, by having a torch, had been asked to accompany Cdr Air to investigate the wreck more closely. Quite a number of our apprentice class at Arbroath had answered the call for volunteers for flying duty, I amongst them. Any idea I had of continuing down that path was quashed that night, I think. I later met up with one ex-colleague who had become an observer on Buccaneers and had experienced an ejection after a catapult launch.

The aircraft had been on a training sortie and suffered a master reference gyro (MRG) failure and thus lacked blind flying instruments. It had become separated from a 'buddy' aircraft in low cloud on approach at low level. Teams of workers, on rotation, were camped out in the fields for some weeks recovering the wreck. Not a pleasant task.

Sea Vixen F(AW)Mk1 XJ520 was the 890 Squadron aircraft flying from Ark Royal that was lost in the Mozambique Channel on 10.5.66, confirmed by the listing in, 'Fleet Air Arm Fixed Wing Aircraft Since 1946' by Ray Sturtivant and Lee Howard, Air-Britain (Historians Ltd.) (2004) ISBN 0-85130-283-1. Sturtivant lists XJ 567 as the 766 Sqdn 711 that crashed near Manor Farm 1 mile East of Sparkford, Somerset on 9.2.66. By June of 1966 I had, after a period on 893 Squadron, including a brief spell on Victorious, returned to 766 Sqdn and recall the dismay caused by the news of the ditching in the Mozambique Channel with the loss of the observer, Lt JM Stutchbury, despite the heroic efforts of the pilot Lt AL Tarver to disentangle the observer from straps after failure to eject during the rapid descent of XJ520. The aircraft's port engine had flamed out after a rapid loss of fuel, an attempt at IFR (in-flight refuelling) with a Scimitar tanker had failed after which the starboard engine flamed out. Lt Tarver was awarded the George Medal for his brave effort.

This tragic event came very soon after another unfortunate tragedy experienced by 890 Squadron, and felt back at Yeovilton, when Sea Vixen F(AW)Mk1 XN701 was blown out of the sky during a bombing dive when a VT (variable timed) fused 1000lb bomb, instead of coming off the wing appeared to exploded whilst still on the pylon. Lt. Tarver relates this incident in 'Fly Navy The View From the Cockpit 1945-2000' edited by Charles Manning, ISBN 0-85052-732-5. But for chance it could have been Lt Tarver and his Obs' Lt. Stutchbury in the destroyed Vixen, an unserviceability on the lost crews aircraft had resulted in a crew swap for operational reasons.


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Above: three views of Sea Vixen F(AW)Mk2 XJ571 as she is now in Solent Sky museum, previously The Southampton Hall of Aviation. XJ571 was built as an F(AW)Mk1 and delivered to a Royal Navy Aircraft Holding Unit at Abbotsinch on 14 May 1960, converted to F(AW)Mk2 from 13 July 1964 being first flown as such on 19 October 1965 and went via Brawdy to 892 Squadron at Yeovilton as 301. Like most Sea Vixens XJ571 had an eventful career with 893 and 899 as a Mk1 and 892 and again on 893 as a Mk2. Top right by Minolta Dynax 7 with Sigma 14mm ultra-wide, the other two pictures with a Minolta Xi.

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