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Heritage: Flying the Sea Fury (Part 2)

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

In 1951 when I arrived at Culdrose in Cornwall to convert onto Sea Furies the aircraft was one of the main strike aircraft of the RN, RCN and the RAN. Churchill had instructed the RAF and the RN to jointly develop all single engine aircraft. Hawkers had produced the Hurricane, followed by the Typhoon and then the Tempest. These aircraft had been good fighters and fighter/bombers in world war II. The airframe for the next phase – the Fury – was developed, but a power plant was difficult to find. In the meantime, the RAF developed the Meteor and dropped out of developing the Fury. The RN solved the power plant problem and the name of the new fighter was changed to Sea Fury.

At Culdrose we were briefed on the characteristics of the Sea Fury. Although the pilot’s notes said the aircraft was cleared for full aerobatics we were warned not to spin it as the aircraft had poor rudder reaction and recovery from a spin was very difficult at low speeds. In theory, if the aircraft was spinning left a sharp burst of power could stop the rotation. Almost 4 years later I listened as an overconfident, well below average pilot, whose own stupidity had found himself in a spinning Sea Fury. As a last resort he had thrust the throttle open and survived.

A few words from the author:

‘I graduated on number 4 course at Point Cook in Victoria. On being handed our wings we were promoted from Probationary Naval Airman to P4. Two days later I was an Acting Sublieutenant (P). Two weeks later I was a first-class passenger on a liner en-route to Lossiemouth in Scotland to fly Seafires and become a fighter pilot.
     I knew a little about the navy; nothing about the Fleet Air Arm and a lot less about the duties and responsibilities of a Naval Officer: it was a case of learning on the job. After Lossie it was Culdrose to convert to Sea Furies. Then, onto a British Airways flight to join 805 on Sydney in Korean operations. When Glory replaced Sydney, it was 804 on Glory. As Ocean replaced Glory in mid-1952 I returned to Australia and joined 808 until it was decommissioned in late 1954.
     At that time, I was offered, for the second time, a permanent commission. With the offer was the news that, because of my youth and junior rank, the appropriate appointment was for 2 years on 805 flying Sea Furies until 805 was decommissioned in late 1956. With over 3 years of continuous front line flying I wanted a change. Having declined the offer, I joined 723 to be a taxi driver, drogue tower, radar calibrator etc. for 2 months before my time was up. During that time, I received an unsolicited offer to fly with a domestic airline after my time in the RAN was up.’

With the aircraft set up for landing at approach speed we were also warned not to open the throttle in a rush. Such action could cause a torque stall whereby the aircraft would rotate around the propeller axis with fatal results at low level such as on a deck-landing approach – better to add a few knots for mum and dad, as the rudder control may not allow a quick recovery.

At the end of my time at Culdrose a test pilot arrived with a Sea Fury trainer, and he took me up to demonstrate the initial stages of a torque stall and the recovery – all done at 10,000 feet. When I asked if I could have a go he politely and firmly said “not while I am in the plane.”

With a fuel injection system and pressurised lubrication for the sleeve valve engine there were no engine limitations on inverted flying. The power plant was turbo charged from the ground up. There was no limitation on using full power, either. After take-off the pitch lever was moved back to the stop with a drop of around 50 propeller rpm. (Normally with piston engines the throttle was moved back before using the pitch lever to set the propeller rpm.) Thereafter the throttle set the propeller rpm. Normal cruise rpm was 1500. Due to engine vibration the range above 1500 to 2000 was not to be used. For close formation flying, especially aerobatics, it was best to manually select 2200rpm by moving the pitch to set that rpm.

The pilot’s notes assured us that the Sea Fury had good ditching characteristics. Korean operations confirmed that to be the case. We were told of three methods of bailing out, but no one knew the best way. Korean operations solved that problem.

On completion of the conversion, weapons training and 20 deck landings, I joined 805 squadron on HMAS Sydney in Korea. When Sydney was relieved by HMS Glory I joined 804 Squadron (Royal Navy). There were some main differences between the operations of the two squadrons. Of the 25 pilots (I was no 26) on 804, 16 were on their second time and a further three were there for a third time. When the catapult was down on Glory we used RATOG for carrier take offs. In May 1951 there was a Sea Fury fatality using RATOG for a take off on Sydney. The RAN did not use RATOG for carrier take offs in my time.

Above: Extracts from HMAS Sydney III’s Line Book capture the scope of the ship’s Korean deployment over the period 1951-52.

BROTHERS IN ARMS–When a Royal Australian Navy aircraft was forced down at a Marine airbase in Korea, the Leatherneck mechanics turned to help the pilot get his ship back into the air. Shown here, several mechanics swarm over the machine as curious onlookers stand by. (Photo via Jeff Chartier). 

Above: The Monte Bello test, 03 October 1952. This image was captured at 0935, five minutes after detonation, showing the atomic cloud rising above the site.  The weapon, about the same yield as the Nagasaki bomb, was aboard a former WW2 RN River Class Frigate. (Photo: Jack Duperouzel). 

Above:  An excerpt from HMAS Sydney’s Record of Proceedings (ROP) for January 1954 gives an indication of the interval between landings. (via Kim Dunstan)

On 804 we went from 12 x 60lb air to ground rockets to 2 x 500lb or 2 x 1000lb bombs. The bombing approach began by tracking at high speed onto the target at low level (200 feet), pulling up to 4000 feet, rolling the Sea Fury into a 45-degree dive and tracking the target on the 6 o’clock pip of the gyro-gunsight. The bomb was released at 1500 feet with the Sea Fury mushing down to around 800 feet on recovery. With nose fuses the aircraft was hit with the blast during recovery. Bombs were used on fortified targets, bridges, close air support on the front line, where the ground controllers gave us a good description of the damage and similar targets. On occasion an airburst bomb was used on a flak position, with deadly results. When there was a bomb hang up the section would go to Kimpo where the USAF would provide sand bags and retire to their bunkers, while the looney limey pilots removed the nose and tail fuses before manually dropping the bomb on to the sand bags. The USAF would then reappear to remove and claim the bomb. When Glory was relieved by Ocean, I returned to the RAN in mid-1952 and joined 808 until it was decommissioned at the end of 1954.

In October 1952 there were nuclear tests at Monte Bello on the north-west coast of Western Australia. When the tests were completed the program was for HMAS Sydney to sail south to Fremantle and then on along the south coast returning to the east coast. As an exercise in replenishing the carrier on the west coast, it was proposed two flights of 4 Sea Furies from 808 would fly from HMAS Albatross to the west coast with the CO’s flight joining Sydney south Geraldton. That flight consisted of Lt Cdr J Cavanagh, Sub Lt P Wyatt as no 2, Lt F Lane as no 3 and myself as no 4. All pilots had Korean experience. Cavanagh had been on 808. Lane and myself had been on 805 and Wyatt and myself on 804. To reduce the effects of the prevailing westerly winds we flew at low level picking up the iron compass (railway line) and flying west.

After landing at Forrest for lunch the two flights separated at Kalgoorlie with the other flight going to RAAF Pearce air station just north of Perth. As we approached the coast it was evident from the sky that we were heading into a significant cold front. A radio message told us the weather conditions prevented any attempt of landing on the Sydney and we were to go to Pearce – but the same frontal system had closed Pearce. We spent the night at Kalgoorlie.

The next morning after arriving at Pearce we went to HMAS Leeuwin near the port of Fremantle. At Leeuwin we were told that due to strong winds the port was closed to shipping operations and Sydney was anchored in Gage Roads. The captain had decided to attempt landing the 4 Sea Furies while the carrier was at anchor. The wind speed was 30/35 knots gusting to over 50 knots. Normally when landing on a moving carrier the wind was around 10 degrees on the port bow. This took the turbulence created by the superstructure of the island away from final approach path. The approach airspeed was only a few knots above the power off stalling speed. Hitting the island turbulence could be uncomfortable with the elevated risk of a premature aircraft stall. Although there were a few wave offs due to the wind, all four Sea Furies made a normal deck landing. The Captain was thrilled.

At the time, possibly because of Korea, I thought it was all ho-hum. Many years later, when I became aware that it was the last time fixed wing aircraft had made arrested landings on a straight deck carrier of the size of Sydney while at anchor with the barriers up and a deck park that I appreciated the skill of everyone involved in those landings.

Once airborne the Sea Fury was easy and a delight to fly. The pilot sat in a bubble cockpit with a good all-round view. The long nose sloped away, and low flying was easy and safe. The cockpit was comfortable with a full instrument panel for cloud or poor visibility flying. The location of the pilot gave one a feeling of complete control. The controls were light and responsive with a relatively fast rate of roll. The Sea Fury had a tight turning circle and the use of the first stage of flap as an air brake made the circle tighter – a big advantage in air-to-air combat. At normal cruising the fuel consumption was around 50 gallons per hour. By using 2 x 45 gallon (normal in Korean ops) or 2 x 90 gallon external drop tanks, the endurance could be increased.

With 4x20mm cannons as inboard weaponry the aircraft had good self-defence. External ordinance could be varied using 30lb or 60lb or 200lb air to ground rockets or 2 x 500lb or 2 x 1000lb bombs. The aircraft was a stable platform for weapons. Towards the end of my time in Korea on 804, the Chinese air force, using Mig 15 jets, became more active and aggressive. We were confident that the Sea Fury was a match for Migs under our conditions at low level. If a Mig pilot wanted to keep his speed advantage at low level, he could not pass under us on attack. Accordingly contact would have to be broken off early or take the risk of a close encounter with our 4 x 20mm cannons under our best aerial fighting conditions. The Mig had a single 30mm cannon in the nose.

We were confident the Sea Fury could out turn any aircraft operating in Korea. On August 8 1952 around 16 Migs took on 4 Sea Furies of 802 Squadron from HMS Ocean. After about 4 minutes the Migs broke off their attacks. One was destroyed and burning on the ground. Two more had been damaged and there were doubts as to whether they would have made it to their base north of the Yalu river. Our confidence in the Sea Fury was vindicated.

Some pilots found carrier operations or deck landings stressful and difficult. The deck landing began by flying upwind on the starboard side of the carrier at final approach height. The hook was released as the air craft broke onto the down wind leg where the aircraft was set up for landing with gear down, full flap, height 30 feet above the deck, power set and the speed set at the approach speed. When the aircraft was abeam the stern of the carrier a gentle rate one left hand turn began.

With the American system there was one mandatory signal – “wave off”. All the other signals were advisory. It followed that should a pilot ignore the advice then there was a high probability of the mandatory signal. With a 20/25 second landing on interval the batsman would pick the aircraft up around the 90 degree position of the turn. Given the aircraft was correctly set up and trimmed out there were very few signals before the cut.

When given the cut the pilot closed the throttle and the aircraft stalled with nose falling away. The Sea Fury had good elevator reaction at slow speed. A good flare out was for the Sea Fury to have the tail wheel well down and the first to touch the deck. On occasions one could hear the clang of the hook as it hit the deck. You knew you were home free. Once the aircraft had stopped the first marshal stepped out of the island hatch giving the closed fist “brakes on” signal. You selected flaps up and lots of power. As soon as the hook man locked the hook up it was a race up the deck to cross Barrier No 2 in less than 15 seconds after touch down, as there was a colleague behind you who did not appreciate a late wave off.

Once over Barrier 2 the pilot unlocked the wings and selected fold. One did not stay in the deck park a second longer than necessary, as the flight deck was a work zone with a high danger rate.

The cheapest experience in aviation is the experience that a pilot can get second hand. Every approach and deck landing were filmed and at the close of the day’s flying there would be a debriefing session with all approaches and landings shown with comments. My 21st deck landing was after my first operation over North Korea so I had the benefit of around 50 or more (in one case 106) second-hand experiences a day very early in my front line flying career. I enjoyed carrier operations.

On the downside the Sea Fury had two major disadvantages. With a fuel pressure system and pressurised engine lubrication, the essential elements of a fire were in place. A high explosive shell in the engine nacelle was the ignition for the fire that quickly engulfed the aircraft. An ejection seat would have been a big plus in Korea. When the power plant quit the pilot had to contend with the substantial drag caused by a large 5 bladed propeller in fine pitch. Altitude disappeared at a rapid rate. When the problem happened at low level it was a case of turning into wind and the here and now. There were no options. If the Sea Fury came to an abrupt stop during a forced landing, there was usually an unscheduled meeting of the pilot’s head and the gunsight. The pilot’s head usually came off second best. A bone dome would have been a help.

If you enjoyed Andrew Powell’s recollections, click on the image left to read Fred Lane’s  account of flying & fighting this historic aircraft.