Our Heritage: The Sea Venom FAW Mk 53
A short history by Kim Dunstan
In the early 1950s the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) set about replacing its aging Fairey Firefly and Hawker Sea Fury piston-engine aircraft, by re-equipping the Fleet Air Arm with De Havilland Sea Venom all-weather fighter jets and Fairey Gannett AS1 turboprop aircraft. Both would serve on the ‘Majestic class’ light-fleet carrier HMAS Melbourne, which was undergoing modernisation in the UK.
With Australia’s post Korean War, Far East Strategic Reserve and SEATO commitments very much to the fore, and a communist insurgency occurring in S.E. Asia, an up-to-date aircraft carrier with modern aircraft was considered vital to Australia’s defence interests, as there were serious concerns about regional security. Such a vessel would add flexibility and strength to the Australian fleet.
Why the Sea Venom?
In the early 50s, the RAN continued to mimic the Royal Navy and when the time came to replace the Sea Fury and Firefly (both common to the RN Fleet Air Arm), the same philosophy was followed. The choice of aircraft therefore boiled down to either the Hawker Sea Hawk or the de Havilland Sea Venom.
The single seat Sea Hawk, although offering similar performance to the Venom at lower cost, was designed as a day fighter with no radar. The Venom, on the other hand, was designed from the start as an all-weather fighter with a secondary ground attack role.
Unlike Britain, Australia could not afford two aircraft types to cover both roles, so the more versatile Venom was purchased. The logic was that in our theatre of operations the aircraft was more likely to meet long-range enemy aircraft rather than fighters, and its capacity to find and destroy at night as well as day was a powerful incentive.
The Minister for Navy, Mr William McMahon, made the announcement on 23 July 1951 that 39 Sea Venoms would be purchased. The order was placed in December that year by the British Air Ministry on behalf of the RAN, together with eight spare Ghost engines. The Fairey Gannet was chosen as the RAN’s new anti-submarine aircraft the following year. The timing was important as it meant that HMAS Melbourne and her new aircraft would become operational at the same time.
A modern aircraft carrier
The existing aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, which had served in the Korean War was soon to be reduced to a training ship. HMAS Vengeance (that had been on loan during the modernisation of HMAS Melbourne) was returned to the Royal Navy, arriving at Plymouth on 25 October 1955.
On 28 October 1955 Melbourne – now fitted with an angle deck, a mirror assisted landing system, upgraded arrestor wires and a steam catapult – was commissioned into the RAN at Barrow-in-Furness in the UK. She then began five months of acceptance trials in British waters before loading the cocooned Sea Venom and Gannet aircraft at Glasgow over the period 8-11 March 1956. The following day she sailed for Australia.
The RAN now had a state-of-the-art light-fleet carrier and a formidable weapons system, unrivalled by other nations in the region – quickly gaining the respect of allied navies. At the time Melbourne was only the third aircraft carrier to be equipped with an angle deck, together with HMS Ark Royal and USS Forrestal.
The Australian subsidiary of the de Havilland aircraft company approached the Australian Government in early 1953 with a proposal to build the Sea Venom at its Bankstown facility. The company had built over 200 Mosquitos during the latter years of WW2 and more recently had manufactured Vampires, but the work was running out and they were keen to secure an order. This never eventuated, but de Havilland (later Hawker de Havilland) received a further order for Vampire trainers for the RAAF instead. All of the Navy’s Sea Venoms were therefore built in the UK.
To prepare aircrews for the Sea Venoms the RAN ordered several De Havilland Vampire trainers, the first of which were delivered in June 1954. The Vampire had side-by-side seating for pilot and trainee; six were Mk-T34As, with four ex-RN Mk-T22s arriving in 1959. Because the Vampire had similar handling characteristics to the Sea Venom they were an ideal trainer, although there were some inexplicable differences between them: for example, the HP cock and speed brake lever were transposed in the two aircraft!
The bulk of the training occurred in the UK between June 1955 and February 1956, however. Night-flying training took place at the RAF 228 Conversion Unit flying Meteor NF11s, while Observers did a special radar navigation course. Then at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron) type conversion began, flying Sea Venom FAW 20s on loan from the Royal Navy’s 891 Squadron.
Maintenance crew training for the Sea Venoms took place at RNAS Yeovilton, and Fairey Gannet training at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. Additional Air Engineering training took place at RNAS Arbroath, in Scotland.
808 Squadron was commissioned on 8 August 1955 and over the following months aircrews continued to exercise at RNAS Yeovilton. The highly intensive training included tactical interceptions, ADDLs, weapons firing and participating in flying trials during Melbourne’s work-up period. In early 1956 the Australian aircraft were delivered to the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard at Abbotsinch where they were stored in protective cocoons for shipment. They were then transported to Glasgow for embarkation aboard Melbourne.
Above: Arrival at NAS Nowra 7th May 1956. As can be imagined, the arrival of the new aircraft caused a great deal of excitement for those present. (Jeff Chartier collection)
Melbourne sailed for Australia on 12 March 1956 with no less than 64 aircraft aboard: 22 Fairey Gannets for 816 and 817 Squadrons, 39 Sea Venoms, two Bristol Sycamore helicopters and a single Avro 707A experimental aircraft (see here for details). The voyage took nine weeks at an average speed of 11 knots.
During a national broadcast on 20 May, captain G.C. Gatacre described the workup period in the UK and her voyage to Australia:
“After commissioning, Melbourne spent the next five months in English waters based on Plymouth or Portsmouth carrying out the large number of trials normally undertaken by a new ship, to test her machinery, equipment and performance. The trials in fact proved her as a ship and then proved her as an aerodrome.
All ship’s trials and flying trials were highly satisfactory, and although undertaken in the northern winter which brings a succession of gales, we completed a comprehensive programme without delay. When we needed reasonable weather for any particular trial, we were favoured by reasonable weather; when bad weather was of no consequence, a gale would come and go.
At this stage our three air squadrons had formed ashore and were practising their airmanship and developing their skills with the new jet aircraft.
During February  we were honoured by a visit at Portsmouth by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, who landed his helicopter on our flight deck and spent three and a half hours aboard. After inspecting the ship’s company walked around the ship displaying a keen interest in everything and, of course, a sound professional knowledge.
He then had lunch in the Wardroom with a full sitting of officers. Before leaving the ship by helicopter, His Royal Highness expressed to me his congratulations on the appearance and cleanliness of the ship, and the smartness of her company.
In March the ship embarked her air squadron personnel and at Glasgow loaded fully with aircraft and freight. We then sailed for Australia. Our loading of aircraft on the flight deck and in the hangars filled all spaces in which any numbers could have recreation, so that it was necessary to plan in our voyage to make a brief stay at several ports so we could stretch our legs ashore. And thus it was we made short visits to Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, Aden and Colombo.
After leaving Colombo the ship began to be cooled by the Trade Wings. We passed the Cocos Islands one afternoon and at the request of the Australian Administrator, steamed close alongside so the Australian community could see their new ship. Being beyond ‘coo-ee’ range, they greeted us by firing several coloured Verys lights.”
Melbourne arrived in Jervis Bay on 7 May 1956, where she unloaded Sea Venoms and Fairey Gannets by barge. The aircraft were then transported by road to RANAS Nowra to be unpacked and prepared for flying operations. The ship then sailed for Sydney where she arrived two days later to a tumultuous welcome.
The 39 new Sea Venoms disembarked in Jervis Bay were carefully prepared for flying and throughout July were involved in an intensive work-up program, flying from Nowra to rendezvous with Melbourne at sea; practicing day and night touch-and-goes, mirror-assisted deck landings and catapult take offs – all in readiness for 808 Squadron’s re-embarkation on 6 August 1956. The training and delivery phase was now over, and the aircraft had to earn their keep.
Above: A synchronised start, with smoke from the ROTAX cartridges giving a dramatic image (Jeff Chartier collection).
Sea Venom FAW 53
The Sea Venoms were an all-weather, radar equipped, interceptor/strike aircraft, capable of day and night operations and powered by a 5,300lb thrust De Havilland Ghost 105 engine [cartridge starter] giving a speed of 575mph and range 705 miles. The pilot and observer were seated side-by-side, with the latter positioned slightly aft to accommodate the radar viewer. Weapons included 8 x 3-inch unguided air-to-surface rockets (which could be fitted with 25lb steel heads, 60lb H.E. or 60lb hollow-charge heads) and 4 x 20mm cannons mounted under the nose – each with 150 rounds. These weapons gave the Sea Venom considerable strike ability on land or sea, although the aircraft could not carry bombs.
In terms of size and performance, the aircraft was ideal for a light-fleet carrier such as Melbourne. Developed for the Royal Navy in the early 1950s and based on the RAF’s Venom NF2 two-seat night fighter, the Sea Venom featured a strengthened undercarriage, catapult attachments, arrestor hook and folding wings. The Royal Navy’s experience with the Sea Venom in the Suez, Cyprus and Middle East conflicts demonstrated they were a capable and effective fighter.
The Sea Venoms were the RAN’s first jet-propelled, front-line aircraft. They remained in service from 1956 until 1970, serving variously with 808, 805 and 816 squadrons at sea on Melbourne, and at RANAS Nowra when disembarked. 724 Squadron was the Sea Venom training unit stationed at Nowra (HMAS Albatross). The Sea Venom’s low profile meant it handled well in a crosswind; its camouflage paint, rounded wing roots and wood and metal construction gave it some ‘stealth’ qualities. With its night-flying ability unmatched by regional forces for many years, the Sea Venoms gave the RAN an important tactical edge.
The nose-mounted A1 Mk17 radar enabled the observer to scan or aim in a fixed direction when searching for surface or airborne targets. The radar image could also be beamed onto the gyro gunsight; a great advantage at night or low visibility. Originally without ejection seats, this was rectified from 1957 with Martin Baker Mk4A seats being installed by De Havilland, at Bankstown NSW, with a canopy release gun for emergency use. The Sea Venom also had power ailerons with short, wing-tip slats and non-skid wheel brakes vital on slippery flight decks and runways.
Flying the Sea Venom: Article by Norman Lee
Click to Read
Patrols and preparations
An important part of HMAS Melbourne’s duties included regular SEATO exercises with other navies and patrolling in the South-East Asia region and Pacific Ocean as part of the Far East Strategic Reserve. During the 1950s and 60s with on-going tensions in Malaya, there were times when the Sea Venoms would land at Singapore’s Seletar aerodrome to be on standby while ‘Melbourne’ was in dock. Likewise, in Hong Kong, the Sea Venoms would use (old) Kai Tak airport as a base while ‘Melbourne’ replenished fuel and stores. Manila and Subic Bay were ports of call when visiting the Philippines.
The Sea Venoms were well equipped for day and night reconnaissance patrols. Working with the Fairey Gannets on anti-submarine patrols they formed an effective team. During exercises at sea with allied navies, opposing forces would engage in war games with mock attacks and counter attacks, including amphibious assaults and other tactical exercises. In these situations the Sea Venoms always gave a good account of themselves. At RANAS Nowra, where much of the training took place, the Sea Venoms made good use of the rugged coastline nearby and the deep gorges inland in simulated terrain-hugging ‘sneak attacks,’ all testing and building pilot and navigator skills.
In the early 60s with Indonesia’s President Sukarno’s bellicose, anti-colonial rhetoric about the proposed Malaysian Federation, tensions escalated and threats were made that foreign war ships should keep clear. But ‘Melbourne’ continued to sail through the islands with the ship on alert and the Sea Venoms ready for action. To calm matters ‘Melbourne’ made a ‘goodwill’ visit to Jakarta in 1960, where units of the Indonesian Navy showed great interest in the Sea Venoms during an inspection tour of the ship. However, tensions continued and erupted into the 1963-65 Indonesian ‘Confrontation’ with Malaysia, which ceased after Sukarno was deposed.
At Nowra from 1958, 724 Squadron Sea Venoms towed large banner-style targets used for 20mm air-to-air live-firing exercises. A sonic recorder registered hits and colour coded ammunition indicating which aircraft scored hits. In 1964 the Delmar target system was adopted. The Sea Venoms were also used for fleet gunnery exercises at sea
The Sea Venom’s four 20mm Mk V Hispano cannons were adjusted to concentrate fire on a small ‘beaten area.’ The Hispano muzzle velocity is around 2,750 ft./sec., firing some 850 rounds a minute. The 150 rounds the Sea Venom had for each gun [total 600] gave the pilot approximately 11 seconds’ firing time. This may not seem much, but the 20mm has a devastating impact and with short bursts an experienced pilot could make the most of the ammunition. Test firing the Hispano on the ground showed that a 130 gram, 20mm projectile could easily pierce four inches of reinforced concrete at 100 yards.
The 20mm ammunition, depending on the target, would usually be a mixture of ball (solid metal), high explosive and semi-armour-piercing incendiary shells with tracer. For practice at sea the Sea Venoms would fire RP3 rockets and 20mm at a ‘splash target’ towed behind a ship, simulating the wake of a submarine periscope.
Martin Baker ejection seat
The early Venoms were not supplied with ejection seats, but they were gradually fitted although the ejection parameters precluded slow and/or low events. Following a fatal crash on the approach to runway 26 at Nowra in 1960, the Sea Venom’s Martin Baker seats were modified to ground-level ejection standard. While the aircraft needed a speed of 90 knots for an effective ground-level ejection, it added a real safety margin that was especially useful in the event of a failed catapult launch at sea. The ejection seat sequence for the Martin Baker Mk-4A seat follows.
In an emergency when the crew ejects, the cockpit canopy is jettisoned first. Then, by pulling down on the ‘D-shaped’ handle positioned above the head, a protective blind is released covering the face. Simultaneously the primary ejection seat cartridge is fired and the occupant is thrust out of the aircraft. If ’G’ forces prevent the crew’s hand reaching the upper handle, an alternative firing handle on the seat pan, between the knees, was available – but without the benefit of the protective face screen – although a lowered helmet visor would give limited protection when ejecting.
When the ejection seat fires it moves on its rails at 80ft/sec, secondary cartridges quickly fire, and the leg restraining straps tension. After half a second a drogue-gun fires, releasing a 22-inch drogue from the top of the seat. As the seat clears the aircraft the small drogue deploys a larger 5ft diameter drogue, which stabilises the seat in an upright position, allowing it to descend swiftly to a safe altitude where the main parachute canopy is deployed. During this time emergency oxygen is fed to the occupant’s face-mask.
As the seat leaves the aircraft a barometric seatbelt release is activated, which triggers after 1.5 seconds (at 10,000 ft. or under) opening the seat belt harness, allowing the occupant to separate from the ejection seat. At the same time the large stabilising drogue disconnects from the seat and deploys the main parachute. Free of the seat and with the main parachute open the occupant makes a normal descent, with a survival pack and inflatable dinghy attached. Once fired the ejection sequence operates even if the occupant is unconscious.
Read the History of the Development of the Martin-Baker Ejection Seat
Sea Venom aerobatics
In 1956, following in the footsteps of the earlier Sea Fury aerobatic teams, 808 Squadron fielded a Sea Venom aerobatic team, winning praise from the President of the Philippines. In 1959, 805 Squadron took the honours with a number of polished performances. In 1959 the Sea Venoms of 724 Squadron formed an aerobatic team called the “Ramjets” sponsored by the Golden Fleece fuel company H.C. Sleigh, who used a Merino ram as their emblem.
These precision aerobatic displays were popular events at air shows around the country, at family days, Navy Week events and ‘Shop Window’ displays. The amazing ‘threading the needle’ act was a truly breathtaking performance. Movietone made a six-minute film of the 724 Squadron formation flying. 805 Squadron formed the “Checkmates” – featuring red and white checks on their wingtip tanks. In April 1961 they gave a magnificent aerobatic display at the Singapore International Air Show. Another important occasion was when 725 Squadron sent an aerobatic team to the International Air Convention, held at Avalon, Victoria.
In 1962 a remarkable demonstration of formation aerobatics was witnessed by thousands of onlookers as the “Checkmates” team performed over Sydney Harbour. Suddenly two Sea Venoms in the formation of four collided in mid-air. One damaged aircraft limped back to RANAS Nowra, followed by two undamaged aircraft. But the fourth aircraft did not recover and the pilot ejected moments before the aircraft plunged into the harbour. Fortunately, he was rescued unharmed.
The Ikara Trials
A little known (at the time secret) role of the Sea Venoms was their involvement in the development and testing of the Ikara anti-submarine homing torpedo missile system during the 1960s.
A Sea Venom during Ikara trials, conducted at Woomera and Port Wakefield from about February 1961. The weapon being tested is under the port wing, with 3 inch rockets under the starboard wing. (Phil Thompson collection). See a short video of the Ikara test here.
As the RAN fleet was strengthening its anti-submarine capability the Ikara missile was an important part of that plan. With the Sea Venom able to fly at suitably high speeds they proved to be an ideal test platform.
Two Sea Venoms from 724 Squadron were modified to carry the Ikara missile attached to an underwing hard-point. To enable engineers to check for aerodynamic and vibration problems, one Sea Venom had a movie camera in the gun bay, filming through a Perspex screen. Both Sea Venoms were used extensively at the Woomera Rocket Range flying under varying conditions, also test dropping dummy Mk44 torpedoes to evaluate performance standards.
By 1960 with the advances in naval aviation it was clear the Sea Venoms needed to be replaced. By then fighter aircraft in the RN and US Navy were equipped with air-to-air and anti-shipping missiles and other technical systems. This meant acquiring a new aircraft-carrier capable of carrying the larger, modern aircraft. But the government was reluctant to accept the huge cost involved, so the decision was made to cease fixed-wing flying and equip Melbourne as an ASW helicopter carrier only. Meanwhile, the Sea Venoms continued to exercise at sea and perform other second-line duties such as radar calibrating and target towing for the fleet.
After some government re-thinking about the need for a Fleet Air Arm, a decision was made to refit Melbourne and replace the Sea Venoms with the McDonnell Douglas A4 Skyhawk, and the Fairey Gannets with the Grumman S2EG Tracker – both of which were delivered in 1967 to assume front-line duties. The last Sea Venom flight occurred in December 1970 by SBLT Peter Cox, and the aircraft were retired to go to their individual fates.
A proud service record
The De Havilland Sea Venom FAW 53 was the final model in a distinguished line in a period of rapid advances in aviation. But it was a good solid aircraft that was easy to fly, and it served the RAN well from 1956 to 1971. The Sea Venom also served with the Royal Navy and French Navy. Although small and ungainly in appearance with its twin boom tail, a comment from a US Navy officer at the time makes a telling point saying: ‘They look cute and sporty – but don’t underestimate them.’
A number of FAW 53s have survived and are on display at several locations in Australia, including Moorabbin Air Museum, near Melbourne and the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Nowra, NSW.
Above [Click images to enlarge]: Of the 39 Sea Venoms purchased, few remain. In the lottery of life some were destroyed, some left to languish and a very few were preserved. The images above tell part of the story (L to R): Restored to her former glory, WZ939 now resides in the Parafield Classic Fighters Museum near Adelaide (image Malcolm Clarke); Not so lucky, this Venom rots in the elements at an unknown location; So too does this aircraft, photographed at Maitland Flying Club in 1976. Some ended up on the inevitable pole, as seen in this case with WZ939 suspended above a park near Tuggerah Lakes, NSW. The fate of each airframe can be found by clicking on the red button below. Information is courtesy of ADF Serials.