Heritage: Flying the Sea Fury

Above: An RN FB11 Sea Fury with HMS Triumph markings.

The Hawker Sea Fury FB11, suddenly popular in 2017’s aviation literature and You Tube videos, is frequently touted as the fastest propeller-driven aircraft in the world. It was certainly remarkably fast and a delight to fly. More importantly, it could also pack a reasonable ground attack wallop (4 x 20 mm guns, 2 hard-points, 8 x 3-inch RP with 2 x 45 gallon drop tanks or 2 x 1,000 lbs. bombs and no drop tanks) and shrug off battle damage to boot. The U.K. and The Netherlands built about 860 Sea Furies for nine countries and the RAN purchased 100. Its distinctive “blue note” shallow dive maximum speed of 450 knots (833 km/h) was easy to attain, but many propeller-driven fighters had exceeded that speed by the end of WW II.

Compared with other 1950s ground attack aircraft, the Sea Fury was on a par with the two-seat Fairey Firefly in many respects. Neither aircraft, however, was in the same street as the contemporary Douglas AD Skyraider when it came to weaponry (4 x 20mm guns, 15 hard-points, bombs, 5-inch rockets, torpedoes, etc.), total bombload (8,000 lbs.) or endurance (eight hours with drop tanks).

The Sea Furies and Fireflies of the 1951-52 Sydney Carrier Air Group were the only RAN fixed wing aircraft ever to see action in a shooting war. In Korea, the deck cycle time was about two hours. This gave the deck crews adequate time to spot, refuel and rearm the next sortie. To give Sea Furies a safe time in the air, they typically carried a 45 gallon drop tank on each of the two wing hard points (total fuel 200 gallons). This left room for only two rocket rails each side, which typically mounted four pairs of piggy-backed three-inch rockets with 60-pound heads. Theoretically, the top rocket would never fire with the lower rocket still attached. In practice this was not so. Once in maybe every 20 sorties a topmost rocket would fire with the lower rocket inert, but still aboard for the ride. The resultant gyrations were memorable.

The Skyraider AD-3 and -4 were bigger than the Sea Fury, but had a similar-powered engine. They carried a larger load – e.g. a dozen 5-inch HVAR rockets. It could also deliver bombs, torpedoes and even nuclear weapons.

About The Author

Fred Lane is the last surviving member of the graduates of the Number One RAN Pilots Course. He joined HMAS Cerberus in December 1947, one of 14 direct entry and serving members. Flying Tiger Moths and Wirraways, seven young navy pilots graduated from the first course of the Number One Flying Training School, RAAF Point Cook, in July, 1949.

After voyaging to the UK, they joined Number 13 Course Operational Flying Schools (OFS), flying Seafires or Fireflies from Lossiemouth Scotland, and Eglinton Northern Ireland. Deck landing qualifications in HMS Illustrious followed, in March, 1950, and they all advanced to Pilot Third Class (Petty Officer equivalent). All were promoted SBLT on their return to Australia in August, 1950.

After a five-month flying hiatus Fred joined 805 Squadron, 3 December, 1950, rushing into a seven-week Sea Fury conversion, weapons qualification and work up for a 25 January, 1951, HMAS Sydney embarkation.

The seven RAN Pilots of Number One Course graduating as Pilots Fourth Class (Leading Seaman equivalent) at RAAF Point Cook. Back row from left: Dick Sinclair, Lofty Lane, Scotty Macdonald and Col Champ. Front row: Shorty Roland, Mick Streeter and Tas Webster.

In the Korean War he had the unnerving experience of seeing his Division Leader and Squadron Senior Pilot, LEUT Keith Clarkson DFM, shot down 100 metres ahead, 5 November, 1951, and losing his best friend, SBLT Dick Sinclair, exactly a month later. Dick was killed striking the empennage as he attempted a low-level bale out from his burning Sea Fury. Fred later qualified and served as a Landing Signals Officer (LSO), Qualified Flying Instructor (RAAF QFI A1 Grade) and Senior Naval Officer (SNO) at RAAF Point Cook and RAAF Pearce. Other appointments included Senior Pilot of 817, 808 and 805 Squadrons and twice Commanding Officer of 805 Squadron (Sea Venoms and Skyhawks).

He is probably the only person to serve as a squadron pilot in all three of the RAN carriers, Sydney, Vengeance and Melbourne, and flying, in turn, all three RAN fighters, Sea Fury, Sea Venom and Skyhawk while embarked.

Forever the student, Fred swaps his flying helmet for a mortarboard to receive his Bachelor of Arts in 1977, an MA in 1982 and PhD in 1984.

He retired in his early forties to graduate BA (UNSW), MA and PhD (SUNY Stony Brook, USA) in Clinical Psychology, becoming probably the first Australian career serviceperson to retire, with no tertiary qualification whatsoever, and go on to PhD.

Above: What the well-dressed young Sea Fury pilot wore to War in Korea. First, he donned neck to toe thermal underwear, then a two-piece immersion suit, life jacket, helmet, oxygen mask and finally strapped a .38 revolver to his waist and a knee pad to his thigh. Tucked away were a first aid pack, a silk escape map and two emergency ground signal scarves, one fluorescent pink, the other yellow.

Other than RATOG, carrier operations in the RAN proceeded smoothly for the first of the pipeline pilots who joined in 1951. In the early days, despite no failures ashore, together with careful testing and re-testing aboard, one side of a Sea Fury RATOG launch from Sydney failed to fire, leading to the loss of the pilot and aircraft. Thereafter all launches were either free takeoff or catapult.

In Korean waters, all RAN Sea Fury sorties were catapult-launched and most were of the Armed Reconnaissance type, with frequent designated Strikes, Naval Gunfire Support (NGS), Combat Air Patrol (CAP), Rescue CAP (RESCAP), Photo-Recon and Army Support variations. For Photo-Recon jobs, stray engine oil persistently fouled the built-in fuselage camera ports, so an empty drop tank was modified to carry the big cameras. NGS shoots by Sea Fury pilots ranged from amazingly accurate 16-inch battleships, like USS New Jersey, to sometimes woeful 3- and 4-inch frigates. Any briefed sortie could change at no notice into a RESCAP. These included successful searches and cover for baled-out USAF B-29 aircrew as well as fellow Sydney aircrew who ditched, force-landed or baled out after battle damage. A G-Dropper Firefly kept watch on standby. As well as its big five-man dinghy the G-Dropper might contain survival rations, water and an Owen gun. Enemy-inflicted damage was not infrequent. Once, the author’s own Sea Fury, flown by the Squadron CO, returned with peppered wings and fuselage after a swan down the Haeju Gorge. The starboard aileron had blown up like a balloon, but the trusty Sea Fury brought the Squadron CO back safely.

Above: The pre-Shoenberg atonal Katatonic Kasbah Band possibly struck more terror in friends than any enemy in Korea. Here, during a late evening impromptu rhythm section rehearsal, First Violin Tas Webster exhorts Bongo Drummer Dick Sinclair (later KIA) to keep even worse time. Back row advisers, from left: Toy Xylophone Shorty Roland, Toy Piano Col Champ, Ukulele Schnoz Coleman (later KIA), Boom Box Shiner Wright (RN) and Bell Ringer Arthur Smith (RN).

Deck landing the Sea Fury was not easy for some of the Olds and Bolds. Brought up on British deck landing signals, they had to convert to the USN system in 1951, whereas the new “pipeline” pilots had learned only the USN system. There was never time to think about what a signal meant on finals approach and some vital reflex-response signals were dangerously opposite. The old “Go lower” signal now meant “You are low”. The big Centaurus engine, sleeve valve or not, completely obscured the flight deck during the final stages of a 95 knots deck landing approach. Only the Landing Signals Officer’s platform could be seen. At the cut, the nose dropped, the centre line came into view and split-second corrections might be made to line up and flare. After the arrest, the aircraft was allowed to roll back with the brakes off until the wire dropped out of the hook then, obeying the yellow-shirt director, it was on brakes, flaps up, allow two “hookmen” to manually house the hook, off brakes, add lots of power and start folding the wings to cross the barriers quickly to give the next aircraft a “clear deck” to land, a routine 30 seconds behind.

Below.  A Sea Fury about to land on HMAS Sydney. Well before the era of angled decks and mirror landing aid, landings were achieved solely by visual contact with the Deck Landing Control Officer (‘Batsman’) – a feat not made any easier by the nose-up landing attitude and the big Bristol Centaurus engine obscuring forward vision.  (RAN image).
The Sea Fury started replacing the Seafire as the preferred RN fighter in 1947 and during Aerodrome Dummy Deck Landings (ADDLs) a Seafire pilot could take the cut and flare, but just trickle on a little power so that the tailwheel alone touched down. The main wheels could be kept clear as full power lifted the Seafire into the air again. The Sea Fury had no ability whatsoever to copy this. Its flare was a full commitment to a three-point touchdown — or bounce. On the other hand, the Sea Fury with its wide-track undercarriage (12 feet/3.66 m) was less likely to topple sideways (Seafire track 5 feet 9 inches/1.7 m) and it could take a much firmer touchdown. When flared properly it had a much better stick-to-the-deck ability than the highly sprung Seafire.

Above: The Bristol Centaurus had a rare “Sleeve Valve” induction and exhaust system. Instead of cylinder head-mounted poppet valves the entire sleeve moved. Here, all the cylinder walls have been removed to show the sleeve valves. (AWM).

Below
: The Australian War Memorial Sea Fury, showing the large Centaurus engine and five-bladed propeller. Unfortunately, this aircraft was found to be longer than expected and was emasculated by removing nine inches from the arrestor hook. (Wikipedia).

The Sea Fury’s Bristol Centaurus XVIII air-cooled radial twin-row 18-cylinder engine developed 2,480 hp (1,850 kW), giving the aircraft a maximum level flight speed of about 400 knots (740 kmh) at 18,000 feet. Its fuel-injection system automatically corrected for mixture and injected fuel into the eye of a two-stage supercharger. The sleeve valve design aimed to reduce frontal area, enabling better pilot vision ahead when taxying, taking-off and landing, as well as less drag and better speed in the air. Instead of conventional inlet and exhaust poppet valves sitting high on each cylinder head, every Centaurus cylinder had a single sleeve geared to engine rotation so that two pairs of ports in each sleeve either lined up with intake or exhaust ducts or blocked everything for a power stroke. All this demanded lubrication. Sleeve valve oil failure risked engine seizure in 60 seconds, or disintegration with a strong fire risk to follow.

Maximum take-off power was +9.5 lbs. boost and 2700 rpm. Geared down to a 0.444 ratio the big (diameter 12 feet 9 inches/3.89 m) five-bladed propeller pulled the aircraft along at comfortable 240 knots at cruise power (zero boost, 1500 rpm). However, full power during take-off had to be carefully managed. Sea Fury Pilot’s Notes (p. 35, paragraph 62) recognised but somewhat comically understated the problem:

“(ii) Full throttle should always be used at take-off, even though the aircraft may become airborne before the full throttle position is reached.

(iii) The tendency to swing to the right can be controlled easily by the rudder particularly if the aircraft is flown off tail down.”

In fact, applying full power early and allowing the tail to rise at its natural rate caused a decidedly uncontrollable swing to starboard, full opposite rudder and full brake or not. Until proficient, new pilots limited the engine to only +4 lbs. boost until they mastered the technique of raising the tail slowly without inducing an uncontrollable swing. Then they applied the rest of the power. For the time being, they accepted a slightly longer takeoff run and impaired tail down visibility directly ahead.

Like many of its contemporaries, such as the “Hose Nose” Vought F4U Corsair, the Sea Fury’s engine power also contributed to torque stalls. If the pilot opened the throttle too rapidly at too slow an airspeed like, say, taking a late wave off, the aircraft wanted to rotate in the opposite direction to the propeller and opposite aileron exacerbated the situation.

As a result, the Sea Fury’s starboard wing could suddenly stall. LEUT Geoff Litchfield describes this in his self-published 2002 book Fly Boy. Lightning fast and precise anti-spin recovery action was required to avoid crashing inverted onto the deck, island, the water alongside or all three.

Why a big five-bladed propeller? Before the big scimitar-style propellers became fashionable, the extra horsepower of the bigger engines was considered by many to be best absorbed by a big five-bladed system. Six blades or wider chords in those days risked inter-blade interference and reduced efficiency. Longer blades risked higher Mach numbers on the tips and again loss of efficiency. Sometimes the propeller-tip/ground clearance was a consideration (Sea Fury clearance was a scant 9.5 inches [24.13 cm] in level flight attitude). With its wider effective chord smaller diameter and swept back aspect, the scimitar blade helped to solve some of these problems with more modern aircraft.

The Sea Fury’s throttle and pitch control were interconnected so that with “auto throttle” (pitch lever fully retarded) the pitch control would be picked up for power above cruise and as the throttle advanced or retarded it automatically re-set a higher or lower rpm. This protected the engine from over-boosting. Unfortunately, this feature was counter-productive in close formation. At cruise power a small throttle advance adjusted the pitch first, causing the aircraft to lose a little power before it caught up. Newbies were tempted to advance the throttle even more, only to suddenly shoot ahead of the leader. Solution? Set the pitch at 2100 rpm and accept the slightly poorer fuel consumption.

Why 2100 rpm and not a lower setting, say around 1800? The Centaurus XVIII was said to have an annoying internal resonance problem between about 1600 and 2000 rpm, so flying in that range was discouraged.

The Centaurus had a couple of dirty tricks. For instance, the engine could overspeed in steep dives. With a fully closed throttle and high airspeed, the engine might overspeed beyond 3000+ rpm and start disintegrating or burning, as the 805 CO designate, LCDR Jimmy Bowles, found during a weapons sortie at Beecroft Range in late 1951. As the wardroom chant said, “Black smoke came out, red flames came out, Jim Bowles came out, f*** staying in there.” Once the engine overspeeds, there is no recovery. We now know that simply cracking the throttle an inch or so at the start of the dive protects from engine overspeed.

Another alarming condition was a drop in oil pressure. The oil pressure gauge had a broad needle, normally indicating 95 psi. Pressure of 80 psi or lower (less than a needle’s width) warned that the engine was about to seize, as SBLT Tas Webster found in 1951 on our way to Korea. He was lucky. He picked up a stray ricochet 20 mm round in his oil cooler during strafing practice on a towed splash target and noted the oil pressure drop. He called the emergency and flew straight to the downwind leg but the engine failed on cue. He ditched downwind, wheels and flaps down. Abandoning the sinking aircraft, he inflated his dinghy and settled back as the Doggy, HMAS Tobruk, rapidly raced to his rescue. Unfortunately, once fired up, Tobruk seemed unable to stop and her bow wave rudely tipped Tas back into the ocean for another short swim. Sydney’s own cutter finally pulled him out.

Incidentally, this was the first successful ditching of any Sea Fury and it put to bed crewroom chatter that the aircraft’s heavy Centaurus and blunt frontal aspect (compared to the Seafire) must initiate a steep dive to an irrecoverable depth on first contact with the water. Tas certainly noted an initial dive, unsurprising with wheels and flaps down, but he reported the aircraft briefly popping back to the surface, giving him enough time to escape with his dinghy.

Above:  A Division of four 808 Squadron Sea Furies overfly HMAS Sydney, at anchor in Jervis Bay, NSW. Note the “K” designator on the round down (matched by the tail markings of the aircraft), and the straight-though flight deck.  HMAS Melbourne, which was to succeed Sydney, introduced the first angled deck, a steam catapult and more modern landing aids.  You can get an insight into some of the problems of landing on a straight deck (albeit in Fireflies) from a piece written by Norman Lee here.  (RAN image).

The last of the Sea Fury’s engine niggles might be its sometime reluctance to start. Either one of two problems might intrude. If the cylinder priming time guess or throttle position was not just right, the impetus from a single Coffman starter cartridge might not be sufficient to keep the engine turning long enough. Firing the second or more cartridges from the six-cartridge breech might or might not work. Sometimes it was best to wait ten minutes or so, then try again with the throttle advanced a little more than usual.

The second problem, instead of turning the engine, the Coffman starter might just “fizz” for 30 seconds or so and exude a cloud of noxious-smelling smoke. This indicated a sticky exhaust valve that could only be rectified by opening a big engine cowl and belting the starter with a leather mallet until it responded with a distinctive metallic “click”. In the absence of a leather mallet, the heel of a flying boot would do, as one embarrassed young pilot in a brand new shiny Sea Fury was inadvertently forced to demonstrate before a big audience of amused Qantas passengers at Sydney airport.

Flying the Sea Fury was really a pilot’s dream come true. It had light, perfectly balanced controls, a 100 degrees a second roll rate, a good range of speed and plenty of engine power. All the essential cockpit switches and levers were within easy reach. It was an ideal formation aerobatic machine, capable of tight turns, loops and other manoeuvres, all within a cloud base maybe half that required by the more modern jets. It had no cockpit lateral trim tab adjustment. The spring tab ailerons did not need it. It really was a privilege and a delight to fly. ♣

If you enjoyed Fred Lane’s recollections, click on the image left and read another eyewitness account: Andrew Powell also served in Korea and gives a fascinating account of flying & fighting the aircraft. 

BRIEFING FILE by Aeroplane Magazine July 2019.  

Read how Starter Cartridges worked, including a comment from Fred Lane.  Click image for pop-up.