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Hawker Hunter

The terror of Tower Bridge that served the RAF for 40 years

THE Hawker Hunter is an aircraft that was operated by the RAF in a variety of roles over five decades, arriving in response to the post-WW2 Air Ministry request to British companies for designs for a jet-powered interceptor.

The new jet age was still in its infancy when Hawker Siddeley Chief Designer Sydney Camm made the firm’s initial proposal, but his P.1040 prototype was rejected, the RAF requiring better performance and ability. After a change in specification, Camm looked at transforming the Sea Hawk, a fighter in development that would begin operational service with the Fleet Air Arm in the late 1940s.

The straight wing of the Sea Hawk was replaced with a 35-degree swept wing, and despite an early prototype making its first flight in 1948, it would be six more years before it entered service with the RAF.

A major setback to the project arrived on April 3, 1951, when a prototype crashed killing legendary test pilot and Battle of Britain hero of No. 92 Squadron, Trevor ‘Wimpy’ Wade. Wade made the maiden flights of two of the Hawker prototypes and was flying P.1081 from Farnborough when it went into an unrecoverable dive.

The next prototype, P.1067 first flew from Boscombe Down in July 1951, and was an immediate success, later breaking the world air speed record, the Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet and swept wing design helping it record a speed of 727.63mph over Littlehampton in West Sussex on September 7, 1953.

The single-seat Hunter F.1 became the first high-speed jet equipped with radar to enter service with the RAF in July 1954, No. 43 Squadron the first recipients at RAF Leuchars as a replacement for their Gloster Meteors. Along with Meteors, the new Hunters replaced Canadian Sabres and de Havilland Venoms, but its daytime interceptor operations were hindered by a low fuel capacity, an aspect that was a major drawback to its role.

Four Hunters of No. 43 Squadron in 1956

(Four Hunters of No. 43 Squadron in 1956)

The limit to the aircraft’s endurance was seen as one of the factors that resulted in a debacle that saw six out of a team of eight Hunters crash in poor weather conditions on February 8, 1956. The Hunters had flown out from West Raynham to carry out a 4v4 dogfight exercise and upon completion, the jets were directed to land at RAF Marham due to poor weather at West Raynham; however, the same weather conditions had also descended on Marham and all eight struggled to complete ground-controlled landings.

All of the Hunters were at this point precariously low on fuel and the six that failed to successfully land all crashed after aborting approaches at Marham when the pilots were unable to see the ground, their jets effectively running on empty. Four pilots safely ejected from their aircraft, one belly-landed his Hunter following ‘engine flame-out’ and, tragically, one pilot was killed when his jet crashed; only two safely completed landings at Marham. The loss of six aircraft in a matter of minutes led to a number of changes including improving the passing of weather information between airfields and the setting up a Central Diversion Unit.

Later in 1956, the Suez crisis saw the Hunters deployed at RAF Akrotiri and utilised to escort Canberra bombers on missions over Egypt, and despite its combat range limitations, the major investment in the Hunters by the MoD continued with improvements in fuel capacity for later models. By 1957, 19 squadrons were operating the jet, by which time the F.6 had started replacing the F.4s and the F.5s. However, by the late 1950s more advanced fighters were coming into service across the world that could out-perform the Hunter, with its interceptor role only lasting until the early 1960s when it was superseded by the English Electric Lightning.

Soon after the fully supersonic missile-armed Lightning started entering service, the Hunter was switched to a more specific ground attack role, a new variant the FGA.9 highlighting the move away from day fighting duties.

RAF Hunters of the Black Arrows performing aerobatics at Farnborough Airshow, 1960
(RAF Hunters of the Black Arrows performing aerobatics at Farnborough Airshow, 1960)

But the Hunter remained an impressive aircraft and it was exported by Hawker to a number of countries across the globe, 21 overseas air forces in total placing orders with the firm. Its aerodynamics also saw it utilised by the RAF’s display teams with the precursors of the Red Arrows – the Blue Diamonds and Black Arrows – impressing audiences at airshows with their formation flying; the Black Arrows famously looped a record-breaking 22 Hunters in formation.

However, the most bizarre Hunter ‘display’ was in 1968, when Flt Lt Alan Pollock of No. 1(F) Squadron decided to show his displeasure at the lack of celebrations to mark the 50th birthday of the RAF, his impromptu diversion down the Thames – including flying under the top span of Tower Bridge – before buzzing Parliament, going down in RAF folklore. Pollock was quickly charged and invalided out of the RAF as his support grew both within the service and amongst MPs in Parliament, so avoiding a court martial that would no doubt have seen him give the full reasoning behind the stunt.

Tower Bridge Hawker Hunter Mock Up By Four Prop

(Tower Bridge Hawker Hunter Mock Up By Four Prop)

Later versions of the Hunter were used for reconnaissance duties from German RAF stations, but by the late 1960s the arrival of the Buccaneers, Phantoms and Harriers into RAF service saw Hunter duties diminish further. However, in the late 1970s it was decided to create an updated two-seat Hunter (T.8M) for training purposes, this role continuing until around 1994. Overseas, its shelf-life continued for a lot longer, the Lebanese Air Force operating the jet as late as 2014, 60 years after its original introduction.

It remained a popular visitor to airshows long after it left RAF service, but 2015 saw all Hawker Hunters operating in the UK grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) following the crash of one of the jets on the A27 at the Shoreham Airshow that resulted in 11 deaths – the ban on the aircraft lifted in the summer of 2017.

The Hunter remains a popular attraction at air museums at home and abroad, many examples of an aircraft that served the RAF for 40 years available to view including at the RAF Museum in Hendon.

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