The Fairey Gannet – ASW Warrior
by Kim Dunstan
Introduction: The Geopolitical Situation
The Soviet Union’s post WW2 domination of large parts of Eastern Europe along with the arms race and communist influence in the Middle East and Southeast Asia was disturbing. Following the onset of the Cold War in 1947 and the build-up of the Soviet submarine fleet in the 1950s, the focus for allied navies was centered on the ‘submarine menace.’ To counter this, a concerted effort was made to increase surveillance and to boost the allies’ Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities. In this role the Fairey Gannet was an important and timely development.
Southeast Asia Concerns
In 1954 the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was established to address the region’s troubled security situation. At the same time the Australian government made the decision to strengthen its defences, giving the Royal Australian Navy a leading role by increasing its strike and anti-submarine capabilities. In 1955 the Majestic-class light fleet aircraft-carrier HMAS Melbourne was commissioned into the RAN at Barrow-in-Furness, and in March the following year she sailed for Australia with De Havilland Sea Venom FAW 53s and Fairey Gannet AS-1s embarked. At the time Melbourne was a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier with her aircraft equipped to hunt and destroy submarines.
The Fairey Gannet – In Brief
Main Photo: Gannet XA403, bearing Melbourne’s pennant (M) and the side number 831 prepares to launch off Point Perpendicular near Jervis Bay, NSW. The catapult crew are moving clear of the aircraft, prior to the pilot applying full power and conducting a final check before the catapult is fired. Photo: Kim Dunstan
In 1945 the Fairey Aviation Company set about designing a new aircraft in response to a request from the Royal Navy (RN) for an advanced carrier-borne ASW aircraft powered by a turbo-prop engine. The prototype took to the air in September 1949, and after successful trials a large order was placed for this advanced aircraft. In 1953 the Gannet AS-1 began rolling off the assembly line. As the Fairey Gannet had begun entering service with the RN in 1954, the Gannet was the logical choice to replace the RAN’s aging Fairey Firefly on the new carrier.
A schematic of a Gannet AS Mk 1 attached to HMAS Melbourne in 1956, showing the ‘three cockpit’ configuration of the aircraft. RAN Gannets were finished in extra dark Sea Grey and Sky paintwork with the Squadron crest under the port cockpit (not visible). Initially the British Type D roundels were retained but they were later replaced with Australian roundels incorporating the kangaroo. Artwork reproduced with the kind permission of John Best of the Queensland Aviation Museum. Click here to see full artwork and explanation by John.
The Gannet AS-1 was a rugged purpose-built aircraft, powered by a 2,950 shp Double Mamba 100 twin driving two contra-rotating propellers on a single hub, giving it a single-engine profile with two-engined performance. This space-saving feature along with its kerosene-fuelled turbines, tricycle undercarriage and folding wings made the Gannet ideal for a light-fleet carrier. Its large underside bomb bay, wing-mounted weapons and retractable radar dome made it a formidable ASW aircraft which remained in service with the RAN until replaced by the Westland Wessex and Grumman Tracker. By the end of August 1967 they were no longer in service.
The Gannet’s crew of three included a pilot, navigator/observer and electronics operator; each had a separate cockpit with a wide arc of visibility. Because the jet pipes ran directly under the cockpit floors it was a very hot aircraft in the tropics. Maximum speed at sea level was 299 mph (481 km/h), and it had a service ceiling of 25,000 ft. (7600 m). With a range of some 660 miles (about 995 km), and a munitions load of up to 2,850 lbs, the Gannet AS-1 was well equipped for its wide-area, day and night anti-submarine role.
Despite its bulky ‘ugly duckling’ appearance pilots considered it pleasant to fly, with responsive controls and a stable weapons platform. Good forward vision and tricycle undercarriage aided carrier deck landings, with the touchdown being at 85 to 90 knots.
On patrol the rear mounted radar dome could be lowered to detect surface ships and submarines. If a suspicious target was located a marker flare or a sonar-buoy (hydrophone) could be dropped to listen for submarine noises. ASW patrols and reconnaissance were major roles for the Fairey Gannet.
Around 360 Gannets were built. They were produced in several marks and variously operated by the Royal Navy, German Navy, Indonesian Navy, and the Royal Australian Navy. The AS-1 & AS-4 marks were the 3-seat ASW versions, whereas the extensively modified AEW-3 featured a large underbelly radar dome. The ECM-6 was for electronic countermeasures. Dual control T2 training models were also produced. .
Far left: An Armstrong Siddeley advertisement in ‘Flight’ magazine in June 1950 made the point that the Gannet was the first turbo-prop aircraft ever to land on a carrier. Some idea of the complexity of the twin engine configuration and its coaxial drive shafts can be seen from the image.
Centre Top: with the engine cowling removed, the double Mamba installation can be seen. The Gannet used a sophisticated engine roll-in roll-out system for power plant replacement. Photo Kim Dunstan.
Centre Bottom: Preparing for an engine run on Melbourne’s Flight Deck. With the cowlings removed accessibility to the engine was good. Image via Jeff Chartier.
(Click on images to enlarge)
In May 1955 an advance party of RAN pilots and observers arrived in the UK for instruction and familiarisation on the Gannet, and to coordinate the ground work for the formation of 816 and 817 Squadrons later in the year. The main body of squadron and headquarters personnel arrived at Portsmouth on 5 August 1955 on HMAS Vengeance, which was being returned to the RN.
Aircrew training for 816 Squadron took place at RNAS Eglinton, HMS Gannet, in Northern Ireland, while attached to the Royal Navy’s 820 Squadron. 817 Squadron personnel were stationed at RNAS Culdrose, HMS Seahawk, in Cornwall in England. On arrival all squadron personnel set about developing their skills with the Gannet through practical experience and work-up exercises, and with some specialist training at RNAS Arbroath.
The conversion to type for pilots began with a short course of dual training then solo. In a busy schedule pilots quickly gained experience with the Double Mamba engine drill and other Gannet systems, progressing to deck landing exercises using the angle deck and mirror aid on HMS Bulwark; and then on HMAS Melbourne during her acceptance trials. Further ASW exercises involved various fleet units.
Observers did intensive navigation and ASV radar training on different aircraft, with regular night-time exercises over the sea in a program of squadron activities (ASV, or Airborne Surface Vessel, was an early type of airborne radar used by the RN FAA. It had wavelength features and pulse differences from the standard radar of the time). The senior Air Engineering personnel who went to RNAS Arbroath, HMS Condor, in Scotland, where they did maintenance training on the turbo-prop Gannet before transferring to RNAS Culdrose (or to HMAS Melbourne headquarters) on completion.
During 1955 the Gannets were progressively ferried from Fairey Aviation’s production line and eventually the two Gannet squadrons formed at Culdrose. On 23 August 1955, the official re-commissioning ceremony for the RAN’s 816 and 817 Squadrons (and Sea Venom 808 Squadron) took place at RNAS Culdrose, where the Australian High Commissioner, Sir Thomas White, addressed squadron personnel. This was followed by a flypast of the new aircraft. Additional work-up exercises continued to front-line standard with Lt Cdr O’Connell as CO of 816 and Lt Cdr Gledhill CO of 817 Squadron.
Near the end of January 1956 preparations for the trip back to Australia began. Arrangements were made to transfer aircraft and stores to RNAS Abbotsinch, HMS Sanderling, (now Glasgow Airport), Scotland. Twenty two Gannets were flown to Abbotsinch where they received protective coatings and were cocooned ready for the sea voyage on HMAS Melbourne. Other equipment was boxed and sent by road.
On the forenoon of Thursday 8 March 1956 HMAS Melbourne secured alongside King George V Dock, Glasgow, where the two squadrons of Gannets with their wings folded were towed and loaded aboard, together with stores and spares; plus two squadrons of Sea Venoms, two Bristol Sycamore helicopters, one Gloster Meteor and one Avro 707 Delta Wing aircraft. On 12 March Melbourne departed from the Clyde and headed for home. The aircraft were disembarked at Jervis Bay and transported by road to RANAS Nowra prior to Melbourne arriving in Sydney Harbour on 9 May 1956.
For the detail minded, it will be noticed that the Fairey Gannet tails first used the large ship’s identifying letter B at Culdrose in the UK. This was soon changed to Y which was the identifying letter on HMAS Melbourne’s flight deck. In 1957 this changed to M for Melbourne which lasted until the ship was decommissioned in 1982. The Gannets based at HMAS Albatross used the NW identifier on their tail – which is where the RAN Gannet training squadrons 725 and 725 were located. For type conversion, the base had Gannet T2 and T5 dual control trainers.
The RAN Fairey Gannet AS-1
HMAS Melbourne proved to be a ship well-suited to the operational needs of the RAN – and the Gannet. In Australia, the Gannet training base was located at RANAS Nowra, HMAS Albatross, south of Sydney. Pilots received intensive training before attempting a deck landing. Landing a Gannet on a pitching rolling deck required skill and concentration. On touch-down the tail hook would pick-up one of the six arrestor wires, bringing the aircraft to a standstill within 30 paces or so. Good engine response, excellent forward vision and tricycle undercarriage made deck landings easier.
Although HMAS Melbourne had the latest mirror-assisted landing system, indicating the correct approach for pilots, daytime deck landings were always impressive. Night-time landings were rather more breathtaking. If a Gannet missed the arrestor wires, the pilot applied full power, flying the length of the angle deck, then repositioned for another attempt. Trainee pilots would do ‘touch and goes’ with the deck-hook up – when proficient they would do a full hook-down landing, then taxi to the bow for a catapult take-off.
To start engines, a cordite cartridge would spin one of the Gannet’s Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba turbines. The first cartridge quite often didn’t get the engine up to self-sustaining rpm. If it failed to reach 4,500 rpm the high pressure cock had to be closed and the engine allowed to wind down to about 700 rpm before firing the second cartridge. Once the first engine was running the propeller would then windmill the second into action.
To conserve fuel on patrol one engine could be shut-down and the propeller feathered. This extended the range but cut reserve power – requiring a careful watch on airspeed especially when re-lighting a turbine. In hot climates the engines developed 15-20% less power which made single engine work marginal: for example, the aircraft could not maintain height on one engine with the radome down, so the second engine had to be restarted from time to time to climb back to cruising altitude. In order to balance engine hours and avoid “brinnelling” of the bearings it was practice to change engines about every twenty minutes, which provided an opportunity to do this. Some engine problems were attributed to airborne re-lights where temperatures would quickly rise from below zero to 500 degrees, stressing turbine parts. Once engine drill was mastered pilots found the Double Mamba easy to use, and the improved Double Mamba 101 version, which came later, gave additional power.
The normal procedure during ‘flying stations’ was for the flight deck crew to position the Gannets on the flight deck, then with engines started and wings unfolded and locked, marshals would guide the aircraft onto the catapult. The sling on the aircraft would then be looped over the catapult shuttle. With the engine revving the Catapult Engineer would drop the hydraulic chocks, so the only thing holding the Gannet back was a small steel ring. Gunning the engine to full power the pilot would signal ‘go.’ Within seconds a full head of steam would be released into the catapult, breaking the hold-back ring, thrusting the aircraft over the bow into the air. Within moments the next aircraft would be ready to launch.
Robust & Reliable
The Gannet was a sturdy aircraft able to operate in adverse weather conditions and take considerable punishment, and was well-suited to a range of tasks including surveillance, long-range patrols and search and destroy missions. Gannets could carry various weapons with considerable strike power against targets on land or sea. The large bomb bay had space for marine markers (smoke flares), directional sonar buoys (hydrophones to detect submarine noises), parachute flares, and in different combinations 250lb or 500lb bombs, depth charges and/or Mk30 acoustic torpedoes. Underwing hardpoints carried 250lb bombs or depth charges. The 16 underwing RP3 air-to-surface rockets (target dependent) used 60lb H.E. or shaped-charge heads, and the 25lb solid steel heads or anti-submarine heads fired at 600 yards could easily penetrate a submarine hull. The Fairey Gannet gave the RAN a solid, effective anti-submarine capability.
From a maintainers point of view, the Gannet was generally well-liked too, although there were tasks that were particularly unpopular such as spreading or folding the mainplanes by the two hand pumps; putting the starboard ‘jury strut’ into position or fuelling the outer wing tank whilst at sea with the wing overhanging the side of the ship.
For many years following the Korean War, regular joint exercises with SEATO and RIMPAC navies were conducted. ‘War games’ with the RN, RAN, RNZN and the US Navy also took place – testing tactics and cooperation. Invariably the Gannets gave a good account of themselves. Although not involved in hostilities, the Gannets were used for surveillance and reconnaissance during the Malay Emergency and Indonesian ‘Confrontation.’ As a patrol, ASW and surface attack aircraft they were as good in their role as any other aircraft of the time.
Above Left. With catapult strop in place (but not yet tensioned) and hydraulic chocks engaged, Gannet 312 is in the initial stages of a launch. Above Centre: Gannets on display during an open day on Melbourne. Above Right: Same place, different time! Gannet 847 comes to a halt after an arrested landing. Notice the planeguard helo is now a Wessex, rather than the Sycamore in the first image. The two sailors approaching the aircraft will ensure the arrestor cable is detached from the tail hook before the aircraft is allowed to move forward.
Below Left: A Gannet secured on the deck as Melbourne approaches Sydney Harbour Bridge. This aircraft survived its service life and is now on display in Caloundra. Below Right: Gannet 832 passes over the bow during a launch. (All images via Jeff Chartier. Click to enlarge).
Farewell to the Gannets
After a life of 12-years, operating variously with 724, 725 816 and 817 Squadrons, the Fairey Gannet AS-1 was finally withdrawn from active service. By then they were redundant and had been replaced by the Westland Wessex helicopter with its dipping sonar and the Grumman Tracker S-2E/G with its high-tech electronics and anti-submarine equipment. Most of the retired Gannets went to the wrecker’s yard in 1967, with the remainder used for training fire-fighters. Luckily several were saved and one is on display in the Fleet-Air-Arm Museum, near Nowra south of Sydney. Today, apart from the Fairey Gannets on display at other air museums in Australia, various other survivors are to be found in collections in the UK, Germany, Indonesia, Canada, and the USA.
Above. XA343 above the skies in NSW, with the EKCO ASV Mk19 radar transducer lowered. The aircraft is still bearing the “Y” marking, which was later changed to “M”. This particular aircraft survived its service life only to die on the Nowra fire ground. Image via Jeff Chartier.
Fairey Gannet Anecdotes
At RANAS Nowra the Fairey Gannets were used in the Air Sea Rescue role as occasionally fishing boats or yachts on the South Coast of NSW would get into trouble, especially during weekends or holiday periods. To assist in a search and rescue mission a duty Gannet would be on standby with a “G” Dropper loaded on a bomb carrier mounted under the starboard wing. The “G” Dropper case contained a large life raft, survival rations and rescue aids, and designed to inflate automatically upon contact with sea water. Upon sighting survivors, the pilot would position upwind and first release a long cord then release the life raft so that the cord would float towards the survivors with the inflated life raft attached. The life raft could contain up to 20 people and had a hood to provide protection from the elements and a sea anchor to stop drift until a rescue boat arrived. Nowadays helicopters with winches have generally taken over this role. Over many years at Nowra, the “G” Dropper was variously carried on the Fairey Firefly, Dakota, Fairey Gannet, and Grumman Tracker – a very useful device for ASR emergencies.
Night flying activities on the flight deck of HMAS Melbourne could be hazardous. Loading munitions on a Gannet under black-out conditions, with engines revving and the Flight Deck Officer barking instructions to ‘hurry-up because the aircraft are taking off’ tested one’s mettle. One night during the loading of armament stores the bomb bay doors closed and the aircraft started to taxi. An armourer in the bomb bay who had his clothing caught on a bomb rack swung his legs up as the bomb bay doors closed. Luckily a supervisor noticed and signalled to the pilot to open the doors again. As the sailor reappeared his only comment was ‘it was very dark in there’.
US Navy submariners said they could pick-up the Gannet’s radar from some distance, yet they were always puzzled when detected beneath the waves. The truth was that in the deep, clear waters of the Pacific Ocean it was easy to see a submarine from a high-flying Gannet. On occasions foreign submarines were detected in Australian waters. During one exercise a ‘mystery’ sub was called upon to identify itself (three grenades was the standard signal), its high-speed disappearance suggested a foreign submarine was shadowing the fleet.
In 1960 there was a spectacular crash when a Gannet hit the stern of HMAS Melbourne. As the pilot approached to land the Gannet’s port engine lost power causing the aircraft to sink suddenly. After hitting the round-down the Gannet bounced onto the flight deck. It then rolled onto its port side and skidded along the deck, tearing off a wing in the process. Fortunately, the aircraft caught an arrestor wire, which prevented it from going over the side. Remarkably all three crew members walked away, but the Gannet was a write-off. The full story and photographs can be seen here.
In another incident, after a Gannet was launched from the catapult, the pilot reported an engine malfunction and requested an emergency landing. As the aircraft was loaded with 16 heavy (underwing) rockets, permission was sought to fire them prior to landing – which was granted and the rockets were fired as a salvo. Unfortunately, this blew the flaps off – as they were still in the take-off position. The result was the aircraft had to land at high speed without flaps. In this case the crash barrier was used for a safe ‘assisted landing.’ Unfortunately, a piece of the shredded crash barrier webbing hit one of the fire crew in the face knocking him out and delivering a black eye. See here for photographs of this incident.
In a more dramatic incident, on 10 February 1964 at 8.56 pm, as the CO of 816 Squadron, LCDR T. Dadswell (later Commodore Dadswell AM) approached the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne to do night touch and goes in Gannet XG784, he noticed HMAS Voyager was not in the correct RESDES (rescue destroyer) position. The resulting collision between Melbourne and Voyager sank the destroyer with the loss of 83 lives. Because Melbourne’s aerials were lowered during flying stations they were damaged, and the ship asked Dadswell to activate rescue services. He immediately radioed RANAS Nowra advising them of an emergency, requesting rescue helicopters from Nowra and search and rescue craft from Jervis Bay. Dadswell then remained over the accident area for the best part of an hour, passing messages from ship to shore before landing at Nowra to report on the situation. Throughout the night and at first light the following day the search for survivors continued. A full article on this tragedy, including Toz Dadswell’s account, can be found here.
Another time a Gannet dropped a Mk30 acoustic torpedo (dummy warhead) near two of ‘Melbourne’s 32ft cutters; one of which had lowered a ‘noise-box’ 50ft into the depths to attract the torpedo. The drill was to test the functions of the torpedo, which was designed to home-in on the noise of a submarine’s propeller. As planned, the Gannet dropped the torpedo, however it was soon noted the torpedo did not dive towards the ‘noise-box,’ [above 30ft it was supposed to shut down] but circled the cutters (engines off) then – after hitting one boat and splitting a plank, it turned on the other holing it. Both cutters took on water but were saved by buoyancy tanks.
“The Melbourne had the most sophisticated catapult I saw on any ship. It was fitted with loading chocks which had a set of rollers which centred the aircraft on the catapult centre line after it was stopped by the chocks. Once the strop and “holdback” were put in place by the handlers the loading chocks were lowered and the aircraft allowed to roll forward until the holdback was restraining it but, while the catapult was being tensioned up a further set of “breakout” chocks prevented the aircraft rolling forward if the holdback broke prematurely. This arrangement allowed the Melbourne to launch aircraft as fast as most carriers with two catapults.”
Noel Dennett, Gannet Pilot.
A worthy aircraft
The Fairey Gannet continued to perform well in the RAN until retired in 1967. Generally, it was considered a gentleman’s aircraft to fly with good engine response, light on the controls and very manoeuvrable, with excellent visibility from the cockpit ideal for flight deck landings on a light-fleet carrier. Although bulky in appearance with an unusual wing fold, once it was in the air the Gannet was in its element. As an anti-submarine aircraft it was very effective during its period of service with the RAN Fleet Air Arm.
If you enjoyed reading about the Gannet, why not check out our story on the Fairey Firefly, which preceeded it? The Firefly pages contain a full account of the aircraft’s history in the RAN, an amazing image library, a full record of every airframe and what happened to it, and news of the few surviving Fireflies around the world.
Click on the image to the left to access this treasure trove of history.
References & Acknowledgements:
Reports of Proceedings – AWM‘
‘Submarine Hunter’ by Zbigniew “Ben” Patynowski
‘Breaking Ranks’ by Peter Cabban & David Salter. Random House ISBN 1 74051 315 0
Messrs Kevin Duffey, Ron Marsh and Barry White for their stories and invaluable technical advice.
Mr Noel Dennett for his technical and handling advice, including on his ditching.
RAN Sea Power Centre
 Although the engines were rated at 2,950 shp the pilot’s notes limited this to 2,700 (1,350 per engine) at 15,000 rpm [see Limitations page in the ‘Documentation’ section of this website]. This could only be achieved in fairly temperate conditions or the JPT limit was exceeded. In practical terms the engines delivered 15-20% less than their rated power in hot weather, making single engine performance marginal.
 Maximum Speed as per Pilots Notes was 360 knots/415 mph/ 665 kph. This speed could only be achieved in a steep dive but pilots all had to explore this parameter at least once in their training. It was reported as very exciting but, following Peter Arnold’s empennage departure, caused pilots something of a worry as the tail shook quite violently at that speed.
 No story about Fairey Gannets would be complete without mentioning the decommissioning of the Royal Navy’s Gannet AEW-3s in 1978 – and how the RN came to regret retiring them without acquiring a suitable replacement. This budget-driven decision created a significant AEW gap for the Royal Navy during the 1982 Falklands War, where several RN ships were lost to Argentine aircraft conducting low level attacks. Airborne early warning aircraft are essential for the protection of a fleet and the RN’s Gannet AEW-3 was highly effective in this role, with radar capable of detecting such stealth attacks.