Past Talks : June 2023

“Supermarine and turbojet fighters” by Group Captain Jock Heron (Ret’d), OBE

Jock Heron told us that Noel Pemberton-Billing founded his company in 1913 in Woolston, Southampton, and in 1916 it was renamed the Supermarine Aviation Works Ltd. In 1928 Vickers-Armstrong took over Supermarine and merged it into Vickers-Armstrong (Aircraft) Ltd. Sadly, the Supermarine Chief Designer, R J Mitchell, died in 1936, having created the Spitfire but not living long enough to see how successful it was. The Spitfire first flew in 1936 and continued in production until 1948 with over 20,000 being built. Refinements to the Spitfire to improve the critical Mach number and safer high-speed operations included a laminar flow wing and a wider undercarriage for safer landing characteristics. These aircraft were named the Spiteful for the RAF and the Seafang for the RN variant. In parallel, Hawker had introduced the Centaurus radial-engined Sea Fury. However, technology was moving quickly and several jet powered projects were in service by the war’s end, such as the Me262, He162, Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire, which entered service as the war ended.

Several nations considered converting existing piston engine airframes to accept a jet engine. Two examples that succeeded included the Swedish Saab J-21, which became the J-21R with its DH Goblin jet engine; and the Russian Yak 3 which morphed into the Yak 15. In response to the Air Ministry Specification E10/44 in 1944, Supermarine proposed a jet-powered Spiteful. This used the laminar flow wings and wide undercarriage of the Spiteful with a new fuselage incorporating the RR Nene engine and, incredibly, a tailwheel. The performance was little different from the Meteor, so the RAF rejected it, but the RN adopted it as the Attacker in 1951. The newer Hawker Sea Hawk was demonstrably better and the Attacker was taken out of front-line service in 1954, although it lingered on in reserve until 1957.

In 1946, Air Ministry Specification E41/46 required an experimental swept-wing jet aircraft, for which Supermarine took an Attacker fuselage and installed swept wings and tail assembly to create the Type 510, still with its tailwheel. In 1948 it became the world’s first swept wing aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier. In the 1950s, Hawker developed the Hunter, while Supermarine revised the Type 510, to become the Type 535, sporting a lengthened nose, a tricycle undercarriage, but still retaining the RR Nene engine. The Type 535 was a prototype for the Type 541 Swift, which replaced the RR Nene engine with the more powerful RR Avon engine.

In 1953, Mike Lithgow broke the world speed record in a Swift F4 by achieving 737.7mph. The development period for the Swift was lengthy, and it did not enter service until 1954. Problems were not overcome easily and the intended orders were significantly cut. Its high-altitude performance was poor, greatly limiting its potential. In consequence, between 1955-60 just two ground attack squadrons operated out of Germany.

In the late 1940s, the RN examined ideas for extending the range and payload of carrier aircraft. One of these concepts was the use of a rubber landing pad. By landing on its belly, with the assistance of an arrester hook, an aircraft needed no undercarriage, thereby saving weight. In 1948, ‘Winkle’ Brown successfully landed a Sea Vampire on a rubber deck, followed by more successful trials. The concept had shortcomings, among which was the need to crane the aircraft on to a trolley for handling, also the aircraft were confined to specially adapted runways and decks.

Graham Mottram said that the HMS Warrior trial deck was made up from inflated fire hoses and the problems of manoeuvring aircraft on the rubber deck led indirectly to the concept of the angled deck. As a result of these trials, Supermarine designed the Type 505 without an undercarriage, but the Admiralty abandoned the rubber-deck concept, so the Type 505 flew in 1951 as the Type 508 with a tricycle undercarriage, straight thin wings and a ‘V’ tail. In 1957 the Scimitar entered RN service as a fighter/bomber, with two RR Avon engines and four cannon. British aircraft carriers of the day were still quite small and of 76 Scimitars delivered, over 50% were lost in accidents. In 1963, the Blackburn Buccaneer entered service and replaced the Scimitar in mostles. Mk 1 Buccaneers were underpowered and relied on Scimitar tankers to give them a top-up of fuel after launch. More powerful engines in the Mk 2 Buccaneer resolved that problem and ended the career of the Scimitar.

Jock commented that out of various Supermarine design concepts, none was an outstanding success. He suggested that perhaps Hawker allowed Sydney Camm design freedom that Vickers Armstrong did not allow its own team. He concluded by describing the reduction in size of UK’s aircraft industry under Government policy, in which only the English Electric Lightning was funded.

This was an excellent evening of entertainment. Thank you, Jock and the team behind the scenes.

Summarised by Robert Heath