Sea Fury, Seafire, Sea King: A century of sea air power on display

With their special requirements, naval aircraft are different from their land-based counterparts. The UK's Fleet Air Arm Museum museum celebrates 100 years of these amazing planes.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Fleet Air Arm Museum

In the far west of England, south of Bristol, is the Fleet Air Arm Museum, a fantastic collection of aircraft from throughout the history of Royal Navy aviation history. 

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In Hall 1 there was a temporary exhibition featuring rescue helicopters, like this Sea King that helped rescue people off bombed troops ships in the Falklands War. 

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Crewed by 4

A pilot (right seat) and co-pilot (left) sat up here, while an Observer and Aircrewman sat in the back. 

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Rescue ops

The Observer is also the navigator, radar operator and runs the winch. The Aircrewman is the guy that hangs out the door to directs the rescue of the injured, assist in difficult landings and is trained as a medic. You can see on the right the yellow paint. This aircraft is painted in both RAF and Royal Navy SAR colors, split down the middle, giving it the nickname of "Banana Split."

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The big Wessex

This Wessex entered service in 1964, was ditched at sea in 1980, recovered and entered back into service.

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Water Lynx

The naval version of the Westland Lynx, basically the British military's Huey, had folding rotors and other modifications for ship use, plus missiles, torpedoes or depth charges.

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Five-pound walrus

This Supermarine Walrus served in the Irish Army Air Corps before WWII. It was bought from a scrapyard in 1963 for £5 and donated to the museum.

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Same era

Perhaps surprisingly, the Fairey Swordfish II biplane torpedo-bomber and the Fairey Fulmar fighter both saw extensive service throughout WWII. The Swordfish's first flight was only 5.5 years before the Fulmar. Despite being a seemingly obsolete biplane, it was an extremely successful aircraft in the war. For example, carrier-based Swordfish dropped the torpedoes that helped sink the famous German battleship Bismarck

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Sole Fulmar

The only remaining Fulmar is this, the prototype. 

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Hall 2

Hall 2 focuses mostly on WWII aircraft, like this Grumman Wildcat, or as the British initially called it, the Martlet. This is the only one of its type, sold to the French but diverted to Britain after the fall of France.

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Good Corsair

This Corsair was actually built under license by Goodyear (yes, that Goodyear). It is the only remaining Corsair flown by the Fleet Air Arm, the only one in its original condition from WWII, and one of only two of the FG-1A type, which were those built by Goodyear for the FAA.

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Spit at sea

A Supermarine Seafire, the Navy version of the Spitfire. This one was completed after the war and was in service for 9 years.

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Fury and MiG

The Hawker Sea Fury was a post-WWII fighter, the last propeller-driven fighter in the Royal Navy. On the right is one of the reasons why, a MiG-15. This example was Polish-built and served in their air force.

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The Fleet Air Arm Museum is actually on an active airbase, Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton. There's a viewing area at the end of Hall 2 that overlooks the airfield. Here a Royal Navy AgustaWestland Wildcat spools up for a training flight.

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This very de Havilland Sea Vampire was the first jet aircraft to land on an aircraft. Geoffrey de Havilland was a genius designer, and influential enough to be worthy of his own museum, which we've also toured.

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A cockpit from a T22 Sea Vampire trainer. 

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Entrance to Hall 3

Here's something I haven't seen in any air museum before. To access Hall 3 you enter through an actual aircraft, this Westland Wessex helicopter. It shakes and rattles a bit, and then you "land" on...

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Carrier landing

...an aircraft carrier! Well, a mock-up of an aircraft carrier anyway, mimicking the HMS Ark Royal

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1/2 Wessex

Two Wessexes take the role of one to transport you to Hall 3. This was exceedingly clever, I must admit. 

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Couple of Bucs

One of two Blackburn Buccaneers, later built by Hawker-Siddeley. This is an S2, which is similar in appearance to the adjacent S1, except much larger engine nacelles. This one first flew in 1967 and was briefly stationed on the real Ark Royal. 

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Carrier support

A Fairey Gannet, notable for it's twin props. This is actually a post-WWII anti-submarine aircraft, flying from 1949 to 1978, or in the case of this particular example, starting in 1957.

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Mad props

The contra-rotating propellers and the 3,035hp Double Mamba turboprop engine gave the Gannet a top speed of 310mph and the ability to carry 2,000 pounds worth of bombs, torpedoes or depth charges. This example was used as a Carrier Onboard Delivery shuttle.

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Phantom launch

The business end of the YF-4K Phantom II prototype.

Also, a projector uses the wall ahead to show carrier launches several times an hour.

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Inside the "ship"

The carrier facsimile goes beyond just painting the floor and walls. There's a reproduction of the ship's island as well, complete with dummy crew. An audio/video tour that follows you from room to room tells you the story of the ship. 

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Though some liberties are taken to let you get around easier, the displays give a reasonable idea of what the ship looked like.

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The Action Information Centre, where the crew can monitor and direct the carrier and fleet's actions.

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Flight ops

On the left is a display of the analog way the aircraft were tracked. On the right, a pilot signs in a plane he'd been flying.

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It's just a model

Keeping track of the various positions of the 38-50 aircraft on the Ark Royal must have been exceptionally stressful -- something they'd never let just any dummy handle. 

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Speaking of keeping track, here's a mock-up of the radar room.

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Flight Control

Overlooking the "flight deck" is flight control (aka "flyco"), which is appropriate. One of these guys looks a little seasick.

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Short span

A Supermarine Attacker, which has to be one of the most bland-looking aircraft ever made. It was only in service with the Fleet Air Arm for three years in the early 50's.

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Such a Vixen

The sleek de Havilland Sea Vixen. This one spent a large chunk of its service here in Yeovilton.

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The rear wall also turns into a massive projection screen, like the front wall. On this one you can watch what carrier landings look like, from the deck. All very well done.

That's another Sea Vampire in the foreground, with the two Buccaneers behind.

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Well that sure is a Concorde. G-BSST, to be specific, the second Concorde to fly, and the first one built in Britain. It takes a traditional jet airliner 7 to 8 hours to get from London to New York. Concorde could do it in 3.5, traveling at over Mach 2.

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A Handley Page HP.115, which first flew in 1961, was built to study the low-speed flight characteristics of delta wings for early Concorde research. 

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High-speed delta

While the HP.115 tested the delta wing design at low speeds, this BAC 221, modified from a Fairey Delta 2, tested higher speeds and for a year and a half held the world airspeed record. It also had a droop nose, like the Concorde.

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Mini canards

You can see the seems in the panels that allow the nose to droop 12.5 degrees during takeoffs and landings.

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Adjustable inlets

To help make the inefficient Concorde as efficient as possible, computer-controlled air-intake ramps could vary the amount of air gulped by the big Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 afterburning turbojets. At cruising speed Concorde was actually quite fuel efficient, it was getting to that speed that wasn't.

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When taking off, and again when going transonic through Mach 1.7, raw fuel would be dumped into the exhaust and ignited for extra thrust. In American English these are called afterburners. In British English, the process is called reheat. Production Concorde models, unlike this prototype, had "eyelid" exhaust nozzles.

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Because of the narrow cabin, most Concordes you can tour use the rear emergency exit as either and entrance or an exit. The former, in this case.

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Test lab

G-BSST never made commercial flights, and has been at the museum since 1976 after 7 years of flight testing.

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Skinny seats

What amazes the most when you enter Concorde is how narrow the cabin is, and if there are seats, how small they are. Especially when you consider they cost significantly more than the first class seats on other aircraft. 

Production Concordes had a higher, more comfortable, air pressure in the cabin than even the modern 787. It was roughly equivalent to the air pressure at 5,500ft/1,700m, while the 787's cabin is equivalent to 6,000/1,800 and most commercial aircraft is 8,000/2,400m. 

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Super emergency exit

Being a test aircraft, G-BSST has escape hatches in case of an in-flight emergency.

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Test gear

Being the first British-built Concorde, it went through significant testing to ensure the subsequent aircraft were are safe as possible.

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In-flight testing

Three engineers monitored literally tons of instruments and recording gear during flight tests. 

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Not much of a view

And here's the first sign of how old Concorde really is. An analog cockpit. There was even a flight engineer well into the era when this position was eliminated. With the nose and aerodynamic visor up, check out how poor forward visibility is. Though I guess at 60,000ft/18,000m, what are you going to hit?

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Windows to the world

Here you can see the visor, and the side windows that still look like they should be on a space ship.

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The reason the nose would droop is the wings were less efficient at low speeds, requiring a high angle of attack, so the long nose obscured the forward view.

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Still stunning

Nearly 50 years after its first flight, and 15 since its last, Concorde still looks as graceful as it does stunning.

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Speaking of iconic British aircraft, here's the prototype predecessor to the Harrier, the Hawker Siddeley P.1127.

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VTOL engines

A serious engine was required to get the VTOL Harrier and predecessors off the ground. In the background is the smaller Pegasus that powered the early prototypes. In the foreground is the 3.5x more powerful BS100 that was designed and built to with the intention to create a supersonic Harrier variant. The program was cancelled.  

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Battle-hardened King

In the 34 years this Sea King served the Royal Navy, it was damaged in the Falklands, Bosnia, and even by an RPG in Afghanistan. It even delivered the Olympic flame to the Opening Ceremonies in 2012.

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Harrier at sea

A Sea Harrier that fought in the Falklands war. In 1994 the pilot had to ditch in the Adriatic sea, he safely ejected and was rescued. The airframe was recovered and reconstructed.

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The Fleet Air Arm Museum is a fantastic collection of aircraft. It's a bit of a hike from any of the more touristy parts of the UK, but the southwest coast is lovely, so if you're headed that way, this is definitely worth a stop. 

To read the story behind this tour, check out Sea air power: Britain's Fleet Air Arm Museum.

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