Back in 1946 the Royal Navy set out requirements for an all-weather jet aircraft. In 1955 having initially opted for the Sea Venom, the Fleet Air Arm decided to equip itself with a semi-navalised, two seat, twin-boom, swept wing prototype aircraft capable of supersonic flight in a shallow dive – the de Havilland DH.110. The DH.110 was later designated as the Sea Vixen FAW.20 and on July 2nd 1959, the first Sea Vixen squadron was formed.
57 years since its first flight, there is now only one airworthy Sea Vixen left and it is run by DS Aviation (Military) UK Ltd at Bournemouth airport. XP-924/G-CVIX has had a tough few years and has spent a lot of time away from the display circuit – I spoke to Julian Jones, owner of the Sea Vixen, in an exclusive interview to find out what happened after the incident in 2012 and where the aircraft goes from here.
“Fortunately, there was no damage to the main landing gear itself, however there was minor damage to the aircraft below. As we know, the fault was a mix of Pilot error and the way that the weight on the wheel’s interlock system worked following the drone pack conversions in the 80’s. This has now been re-designed to provide dual redundancy and the following had to be repaired – nose lower skin, dry air bay doors, middle nose leg door and 7 internal frames and longerons. We also has to completely replace the nose landing gear upper and nose landing gear main door, as well as the port pylon tank.”
The repairs took quite some time and more than twelve months later, the Sea Vixen finally made its first public appearance at Yeovilton Air Day 2013. Although it didn’t participate in a full display programme, it was still a big milestone for the team.
“Our links with the Royal Navy are extremely important, so supporting their air day at the start of the season was our target. At the time, our Chief Pilot Matthew Whitfield had not completed his Display Authorisation due to poor weather before the display; however this was duly completed in the days following Air Day.”
Even though the team had been off the circuit for over a year, surely getting back into the swing of things should have been quite easy?
“Sadly it wasn’t – it proved quite difficult, not from an aircraft maintenance perspective but there were many new, more onerous requirements from the CAA that had to be overcome or addressed following the gear collapse incident. As for the display itself, that was designed by the Chief Pilot but checked and verified by our CFI Brian Grant. It was then practiced on our flight simulator to ensure the choreography was correct and that both Pilot and CFI were satisfied with the 8 minute display.”
One thing about the Sea Vixen is that it always seems to be hit by bad luck, whether it be the weather or matters that are totally out of the team’s control.
“It’s always disappointing whenever the Vixen is unable to fly but rarely is it down to Serviceability. The Vixen burns a lot of fuel (56 litres per engine per minute) so it’s very expensive for the Air Show organisers to include in their flying order. Our shows are usually all Fly Navy events, Cowes, the Bournemouth Air Festival and Jersey Air show. However, it’s always been an issue that after all the time and effort put in, you may be unable to display the aircraft due to matters beyond your own control. The joys of vintage aviation I am afraid.”
That same bad luck meant that the Saturday and Sunday displays at Bournemouth were almost scrubbed.
“It was the single most important display for us. Unfortunately the Pilot was on duty that day and was operationally delayed. It then happened a second time on the Sunday along with many other aircraft going technical. The Sea Vixen was fully serviceable for both days but that is unfortunately the flip side of not being the Pilot and Owner of an aircraft where you have more control. You have to rely on the Pilot to be available to fly the aircraft and in this case, duty called. This will be resolved in 2014.”
Being an ex-Royal Navy aircraft, there has always been a question mark over the future of the Vixen. Will it stay in private hands or can the Royal Navy Historic Flight take it on?
“We are in ongoing discussions with the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, the charity that supports the Royal Navy Historic Flight, in an attempt to find a way of keeping the aircraft flying, not least given the Royal Navy’s return to big deck carrier aviation with HMS Queen Elizabeth’s “launch” this year. The Trust is pursuing potential solutions at the moment – more to come as soon as we get news. I know that the Royal Navy welcomes this notion.”
We mustn’t forget that G-CVIX is the world’s only remaining airworthy Sea Vixen and Julian explained just what it means to him to be the one to show it to the world –
“It’s a life achievement that I have been privileged enough to offer to the vintage aircraft air display circuit in support of Fly Navy for several years now and to allow millions of people to see British aviation engineering at its best. We all think of drones as high technology aircraft but our Sea Vixen, XP-924 flew as a drone in the mid 1980’s – almost 30 years ago. Even today, the Sea Vixen can drop a Typhoon in dry power from a standing start of straight and level flight.”
The Sea Vixen isn’t the only classic jet aircraft that Julian owns either, he also owns a rarely seen Folland Gnat – nicknamed ‘Gnatty’.
“Although the last eighteen months have been mainly focused on getting the Sea Vixen back to flight, we have also been working on the Gnat. We had to undertake some lengthy repairs to the internal aircraft skin which required engine removal when the Start-up Poluste Hose flicked off and damaged the tyre bay area. In addition to this, we have added new radios with new wiring looms, so the aircraft should be back in the skies shortly. Otherwise it’s fully serviceable.”
The good news for the enthusiast community is that Julian plans on putting a pairs routine together for 2014.
“My birthday is in the first week of July so you may see a display over the skies of Bournemouth but it’s equally as possible at the Jersey Air show. The Gnat is not a usual participant of the air shows, it’s quite small and quiet but when paired with the Vixen, it looks fantastic!”
It’s nice to know that in a time where the display circuit is constantly coming up against barriers, there are still a few glimmers of hope out there for the hard-core ‘avgeek’.
To those that have been following the Sea Vixen and Gnat for many years, Julian asked me to pass on his thanks –
“I have enjoyed this wonderful opportunity to fly in these fast jets, work alongside aviation professionals and support Fly Navy whilst the Fleet Air Arm prepares for its next chapter of Fixed Wing Aviation. XR-537 has flown in formation with the Red Arrows and seemingly I am the proud owner of the only supersonic Jet Fighter on the Civil Register in Europe. With the Harley, it’s just left for me to tick the sound barrier box and then the whole Top Gun experience will be complete – well, everything but Call Sign “Charlie”. I wish I could take everybody along for the experience, as it’s incredible feeling a 4-G loop and heading towards the earth at several hundred miles an hour. To experience the forces that a fast jet can withstand – as these flow through your Torso you rapidly search for your sick bag in the flying suit leg pocket just in case. However, without the efforts of Brian Grant, perhaps one of the single most experienced display pilots with a monstrous 14,000 fast jet flying hours, I could never have achieved the dream. It only leaves me to say, thank you for all your kind words of support on the social media networks and for following the Vixen and thank you to the millions of air show enthusiasts up and down the country who have waited patiently to see her fly and in particular, thanks to the dedicated engineering team in Bournemouth. As for flying next year, being the 50th Year of the Red Arrows and over 50 years since XP-924 entered service, then a link up with both aircraft and the Reds would be an amazing Swansong for my endeavours in support of British vintage aviation and Fly Navy over the last 9 years. Eyes to the skies for 2014!”
You can follow the Sea Vixen on Twitter using @SeaVixenGCVIX and on Facebook by going to https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sea-Vixen-FAW2-G-Cvix-Foxy-Lady/504439626256242 and clicking ‘Like’.
Many thanks to Julian Jones, Dawn Stokes and the Royal Navy – without them, this article wouldn’t have been possible.