Fighter Command – the Final Decade


Gloster Meteor NF11 flies with Hunter Flight Academys Hawker Hunter T7A G-FFOX at Kemble Air Show 2009.

As the day dawned bright and sunny over the airfields of Britain little did those who scurried to work on that Friday realize that ten years from 30 April 1958 the command that had won the Battle of Britain would cease to exist. Thus as shift bosses chivvied their troops into hangars and onto the flight line, as young pilots dreaming of derring-do entered the briefing rooms daydreaming of future glories, little did they realize that some of them would be in senior positions to take the nascent Strike Command into the future.

Fighter Command had embraced the jet fighter with alacrity very early on in its career. Success with the Gloster Whittle powered by a Whittle/ Power Jets centrifugal engine on 5 March 1943 had led to the development and deployment of the Meteor F1 to Specification F9/40. Production deliveries of the first production machines, later to be named Meteor, took place in July 1944, No. 616 Squadron being the recipient. Powered by Welland engines, the new fighter was deployed on V-1 ‘Doodle Bug’ interception patrols. Codenamed ‘Diver’ these flights took place from Manston with the unit scoring its first success in August. While much of the squadron remained in Britain one flight was detached to Nijmegen in the Netherlands, although the Meteor was banned from flying over enemy territory thus two of the significant aircraft in jet aircraft development failed to meet in combat. The deployment lasted throughout January 1945, this first version of the Meteor being withdrawn from use soon afterwards.

This first venture in to the realm of the jet fighter was followed by the Meteor Mk 3 whose various improvements included higher thrust and more reliable engines, a ventral fuel tank, plus a sliding canopy. No. 616 Squadron would be the first recipient with No. 504 gaining their complement soon afterwards. The follow-on would be the Meteor F Mk 4, this being the first version to enter mass squadron service, a total of twenty-four units being thus equipped. No. 92 Squadron would be the first to equip in May 1948 while based at Duxford whereas No. 245 Squadron would achieve a measure of fame when some of their machines were fitted with in-flight refuelling probes for aerial refuelling trials.

Having delivered three versions of the Meteor to the Royal Air Force, Glosters would then go on to manufacture the most prevalent model, the Meteor F Mk 8, a total of 1,079 aircraft being delivered. In contrast with the earlier machines this version featured an extended nose, clipped wings, modified tail unit and a Martin-Baker ejection seat. At its height the F8 equipped thirty squadrons, including ten assigned to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The final front-line Meteor F8 was retired by No. 245 Squadron in April 1957 having flown various marques of the Meteor continuously from August 1945.

Also in the race to deliver the first jet fighter to the RAF was de Havilland with its Spidercrab, later given the slightly more sensible service name of Vampire. Already well known as the builder of the ‘Wooden Wonder’, the Mosquito, de Havilland would enter the DH 100 in answer to Specification E.6/41. The powerplant for this diminutive fighter would be the Halford H1 designed by Major Frank Halford. This was a simpler and slightly smaller version of the Welland engines specified for the Gloster Meteor; in fact, the first Halford H1s would be fitted into some aircraft from the early Meteor production in order to test them for future usage. The first DH 100, LZ548/G, the ‘G’ indicating that the aircraft required guarding when away from home base, undertook its maiden flight on 20 September 1943 some six months after its Gloster rival had flown. In appearance the Vampire series was a small single-seat twin boom fighter that still featured wood in much of its construction. The pilot plus engine was housed in a short pod as were the four 20mm cannon. The first production of the Vampire F Mk 1, TG274, made its maiden flight on 20 April 1945 with first deliveries being undertaken to No. 247 Squadron during March 1946. Changes took place throughout delivery, thus from the fortieth aircraft a more powerful Goblin, as the Halford H1 had become, was fitted, while from the fifty-first aircraft the F1 featured a bubble canopy and cabin pressurization. Eventually, a total of eleven front-line units were equipped with this model.

Given its diminutive size it was no surprise that the short endurance of the Vampire needed to be addressed and quickly, therefore the next model would be the F Mk 3 to Specification F3/47. Although underwing tanks had been introduced with the F1 this later version also had increased tankage in the wing panels. In its initial iteration the extra wing fuel caused some instability, which was cured by lowering the tailplane and extending its chord while the fin and rudder were reworked to increase the available surface area. The first prototype first flew on 4 November 1945 and was subject to a prolonged development and testing period before first deliveries were undertaken to No. 54 Squadron in April 1948. Eventually, a total of thirteen units were equipped with the type.

While the Vampire proved to be a stable platform it was obvious that any further development as a fighter would be limited by its size and space limitations thus any further models should be dedicated to ground attack only. To that end de Havilland reworked a redundant F1 as the FB5 prototype. To cope with the differing demands of the ground attack role the new model featured a strengthened structure that allowed the carriage of two 1,000lb bombs or eight rockets. The wings were also clipped to improve the roll rate. The undercarriage was also altered, having an increased stroke to compensate for the increased weights involved. The prototype undertook its maiden flight on 29 June 1948 with deliveries to the first operational squadron, No. 54 Squadron, at Odiham during October 1959. Eventually, a total of forty-one squadrons were equipped with this model, most employing the type for ground attack purposes. The final Vampire fighter bomber was the FB Mk 9 that was intended for tropical usage thus it added a conditioning unit to the basic FB5 airframe, which resulted in an increase of eight inches to the starboard wing root fillet. The first deliveries were undertaken during January 1952, the redundant FB5s being returned to Britain for training duties. Overall, twenty-four fighter bomber units were equipped with this version.

It had become obvious by 1953 that the Meteor and Vampire had been totally outclassed by the emerging crop of Soviet Union fighters. Unfortunately, the next British fighter was still in the development stage and therefore a stop gap was needed in a hurry. The only available candidate was the North American F-86E Sabre that had already proven its worth in Korea. It would be Canadair who would build the RAF fighters under licence from North American Aviation (NAA). Altogether, some 430 aircraft were built for Britain, which were flown across the Atlantic by pilots from No. 1 Long Range Ferry unit as part of Operation Beechers Brook. While the majority of the new fighters were delivered to the units based in Germany, two units in Fighter Command were equipped with the type these being Nos 66 and 92 Squadrons. The F-86 Sabre F Mk 4 was withdrawn from service in 1956, the majority being refurbished for further use by other nations.

The first British swept wing fighter to enter service was the Supermarine Swift, which could trace its ancestry in a tortuous way back to the Spitfire. Unlike its more illustrious ancestor, the Swift was an unmitigated disaster in its earliest form. Developed to meet Specification F105, the first Type 541, Swift F Mk 1, undertook its maiden flight on 25 August 1952. This version was equipped with a pair of 30mm Aden cannon, a fixed tailplane plus a Rolls-Royce Avon engine without reheat. Development problems delayed service entry until 13 February 1954 when No. 56 Squadron traded in its trusty Gloster Meteor F8s. The pilots were then faced with an aircraft that was beset by flight restrictions that included gun firing, maximum speed and altitude. This was compounded by a spate of accidents that caused the type to be grounded in August of that year. By the end of that month the squadron had received the next model, the Swift F2, which was supposed to be a better aircraft. Unfortunately, the opposite was true as two aircraft were lost due to uncommanded pitch-ups. By this time the RAF had lost patience and ordered the withdrawal of the extant fleet from flying in March 1955. Only one version would enter unit service in appreciable numbers, the Swift FR5 that would operate with Nos 2 and 4 Squadrons in Germany.

It would be the Hawker Aircraft Company that would produce the next RAF fighter, the Hunter. Having already delivered the Hurricane, credited with the highest number of kills during the Battle of Britain, the Typhoon that became an outstanding ground attack aircraft plus the Tempest that was an outstanding fighter bomber, it came as no surprise that the Hunter was greeted with delight by the waiting squadrons. The first Hunter F1, WT555, undertook its maiden flight on 16 May1953. This was followed by a total of 113 aircraft at Kingston while a further 26 were built at the Blackpool factory. Flight testing would show that a ventral airbrake was needed to improve handling, which delayed service entry until July 1954. No. 43 Squadron would be the first to equip, quickly followed by Nos 54 and 222 Squadrons. While its looks were graceful this first model suffered some problems, the greatest of which was engine surging at high altitude when the guns were fired, also the links ejected during firing causing damage to the aircraft’s skin. The next Rolls-Royce Avon-powered Hunter to enter service would be the F Mk 4, which had increased fuel capacity in the wing while the airframe was capable of carrying a far greater weapons load. The first F4 undertook its maiden flight on 20 October 1954 with 188 being built at Kingston while a further 177 were constructed at Blackpool. The F4 entered service with Nos 54 and 111 Squadrons in March 1955. Eventually, a total of twenty-three squadrons would equip with the type, the majority of the aircraft being fitted with the Rolls-Royce Avon 115 engine that finally cured the surging problem caused by gun firing.

The Hunter also brought with it an improvement in flying standards. No longer were pilots told to go off on an aimless flight; they were given proper flight briefings that included the use of cine gun cameras while the standards in air-to-air firing also improved. Pilots were also expected to complete a set number of flying hours per month during which a set number of exercises were completed. Proper post-flight debriefings were also established as normal practice with pilots being expected to tell the ground crew of any faults that needed rectification. Although the Hunter was a good visual day fighter only being hampered by a lack of flying tailplane, the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) mounted in the nose was regarded as virtually useless. Curing this required improved servicing plus the addition of improved voltage regulators that turned the DME system into a viable proposition.

The definitive fighter, the Hunter F6, would make its first flight on 22 January 1954 with 264 being built. The first production model flew on 25 March 1955, followed by a further 119 machines by Armstrong Whitworth. As production progressed the aircraft were fitted with an extended wing outer section that improved handling while the gun links would be collected in blisters under the gun pack. The final F6 was delivered on 9 July 1957. Eventually, twenty front-line fighter units were equipped with this model and after leaving service it saw extensive use by second line units. Support for trainee fighter pilots was provided by the Hunter T7, examples of which were used by twenty-nine squadrons.

The final Avon-powered version of the Hunter delivered to the RAF was the FGA9, which as its designation shows was dedicated to the ground attack role. Based on the earlier F6, the first aircraft, XE617, undertook its maiden flight on 3 July 1959. Modifications applied to this model included a tail brake parachute compartment above the jet pipe fairing, the fitment of 230-gallon underwing tanks on the inboard pylons plus strengthened wings capable of carrying an increased weapons load, improved cockpit ventilation and an air conditioning system. Eventually, nine squadrons of Fighter Command were equipped with this version, although the greater majority were delivered to the various overseas commands. Two other models of the Hunter were manufactured, these being the F2 and F5. The primary difference between this and the other models was the fitment of a Sapphire engine, the intention being to give the Hunter another powerplant should there be a shortfall in Avon manufacture given that this engine in its various forms was proving a very popular unit. The Hunter F2 was manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth with forty-five being built. Only two units would be equipped, Nos 257 and 263 Squadrons. The next model would be the F Mk 5 that was equivalent to the Avon-powered F Mk 4 and would be delivered to six front-line Fighter Command units. Both of the Sapphire-powered versions would be withdrawn from use by 1958, although the F5 would see action during the Suez Crisis in 1956.

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