Fighter All Weather (FAW) of the Fleet Air Arm.

Personal Testimony of Sea Vixen Operations by: Lt. (P) Jonathon Whaley. RN. 1965/1973.

Am I qualified to write a "Pilots Perspective" on the Sea Vixen? Well as probably the only pilot left that still flies a jet fighter and who flew Sea Vixens operationally for two tours, one as Air Warfare Instructor (AWI), I stake my claim.

I'm allowing myself (or I hope the Ed. will) a paragraph of "Soap Box" One of the primary requirements for acceptance in to the Royal Navy and in particular as Naval Aircrew, is to have a sense of humour. The source of "If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined" the Senior Service. If your sense of humour was slightly warped, then a) you were a survivor by nature and b) destined for great things.

The Fleet Air Arm, at the time I joined in 1965, were losing about 1½ aircrew a year per squadron. That's three killed out of 28 Pilots and Observers. You gotta have a sense of humour just to want to join! Circa 1971 "SOPs" were tightened up and "job's worth" criteria added to restrict the antics of aircrew such that losses were dramatically reduced. In 1969 when we lost a couple of Vixens flying in to the sea at night, the papers never mentioned it. To day, such rare accidents are front page news. I'm not saying today's restrictions in flight ops are wrong in any way, just that I was lucky enough to fly (and survive) in the last few years.

Sea Vixen FAW Mk2 my old Pilots notes and Tactical Manual declare. That's Fighter All Weather, just take it as read, that's Day AND Night. This Pilots Perspective may take a bit of time to get to the nitty gritty but I feel it is necessary to give some background in order understand the varied roles the Vixen crew had to cover.

The young Naval Officers path to the cockpit of the Sea Vixen was flight training on Jet Provosts, after which you proudly wore your wings on your sleeve. In my case nothing else on my sleeve, since I still wore the white lapel badges of a Midshipman.

Thence it was off to RNAS Brawdy for fast jet training on the 759Sqn Hunter T8 and 738Sqn for weapons and fighter combat training in the Hunter GA11. You made a request as to the type of Front Line aircraft you wanted. Basically be a Bomber Pilot or Fighter Pilot. The dice rolled in my favour and I set off for RNAS Yeovilton and 766Sqn.

After the Hunter, the Vixen is a BIG aircraft and takes a crew of two to operate in any role other than a ferry flight. It had SYSTEMS with Flight Reference Cards that were a small novel rather than the Hunter's handful of pages.

Preparation were the normal lectures, tests on the Systems and five sessions in the static Sea Vixen simulator. Then an experience Observer drew a short straw and off you went for your first flight. From memory, the principal task one the first flight (apart from putting the aircraft back on the flight line in one piece, preferably with your Observer's nerves only partially shredded) was to climb at full power and then level the aircraft off at 10,000' with demerit points awarded depending on how many hundreds or some cases thousand of feet you overshot FL100.

There were then eight FAM flights before you started Hi Level Air Intercept training, five of those and you started doing it at night as well. Every landing was made on to the Dummy Deck marked out on the runway using the mirror landing site, unless doing a pairs formation landing. Take Offs were conventional but almost always as a formation pair. I strapped my first Sea Vixen on at the age of 19. I also learnt the trick was for your Observer to ask you make a turn and look for a "contact" he had on the radar as you past 9,500' I seem to remember I overshot 10,000 feet by 100 ft. That sense of humour again.

A word here about the Observer. They really needed to have ‘a sense of humour'. The Observers seat is in what is called the Coal Hole. He sits to the right, below and aft of the pilot. His only view out is through a window some 7" x 10" normally covered with a blind. When we were playing at being Fighter Pilots, he spends all the time leaning forward with his head buried in the radar face while the pilot threw the aircraft about in Macho mode. When we were playing at being Strike Pilots, he had little to do other than watch the fuel (only the Pilot could reach any of the switches and levers!) and call the height and speed during the dive. (More later as to why) Deck launches and landings were also a stressful time for him. Don't know why, I always liked doing them, ‘specially at night, in the rain, and you couldn't see anything once in to the cloud at 500' anyway.

Looking back, I know we pilots were all guilty to some degree of not giving recognition of their spirit. I can recall several pilots who refused to climb in to the Coal Hole. There was one other thing the Observer could do. Make sure the pilot saw the rusty pair of dividers in the Obs's Nav bag. The pilots right thigh was nicely placed should he not heed his Observers plea to cease and desist what ever was turning the Obs knuckles white. (Having rusty dividers was just their little joke)

From 766 Sqn, a couple of weeks with the station squadron and then join 899 Sqn with HMS Eagle.

Ones first Deck Landing is rather a non event. You've spent your whole training landing on a dummy deck using a sight. Only the arrest was missing. Your first landing is spent worrying about three things. Will you be good enough to catch No. 2 or 3 wire as opposed to No. 1 or 4? will you mess up and get the wire snagged on the hook, need to be pushed back, making the next aircraft go around? and will you get a good cabin or not? The arrest comes as a bit of a shock, especially if your shoulder straps weren't tight. Even so, three sorties in a day would produce bruises on your clavicles.

The Vixen is started using high pressure air delivered from a mini portable jet engine called a palouste. (If you were on Deck Alert, you were parked ready for the catapult and there are two plugged in ready to start both engines at the same time.) There's no fuss about the start and soon ready to taxi out or the range up to the cat. All manoeuvres on the deck are carefully choreographed. On the way forward, the Observer has been watching the fuel and calls your AUW (All Up Weight) to Flyco. Down in the cat bunker, knowing your weight and the speed of the wind over the deck, they calculate how much steam pressure they need to get you off the end.

You line up with the cat, spreading the wings as you do, (the Obs can do this for you) stopping when directed. The hold back is attached (a device held together with rings that will break when the cat fires, hopefully but not unheard of, not just as you reach full power) The cat strop is attached and tensioned. Flyco then clears you for launch and gives you a figure. Normally it will be something like "Plus two". This means the steam pressure is set to give you flying speed +2Kts. On a bad day, when there's no natural wind, it's tropical and one of the carrier's boilers or desalinators in on the blink, the call might be "MINUS two" That means you are going to pick up those extra two knots during the inevitable descent off the end. You've got about 60' to play with. That's fine unless it's night and there's no moon! Luckily you have a sense of humour.

The launch is always special. Before my first launch, I asked what the feeling was like. The reply was on the lines of "Like sex". Well after a couple of hundred launches you realize there really is no other way to describe the physical sensation. (Note I say "Like" not "better than" ) The Deck Launch Officer winds up his green flag (or green wand at night) and you apply full power to both engines at the same time. Once the gauges check out you're ready to go. Sometimes the drop tank transfer dolls eye will stay white but the cat launch normally sorts out what ever is sticking. If you're ready to go, you place your right hand flat on the hood side.

If things are not alright, shake your head. DO NOT reduce power, DO NOT give a thumbs down. When the DLO sees your shaking head, he raises his red flag, while still holding the green one up. He then SLOWLY lowers the green one. Once this is lowered, you can breathe again and close the throttles.

This time we're good to go and give the wave. Your left hand is palms and fingers on the throttles making sure your fingers are not curled over the throttles. Not good to have the acceleration pull your grasping hand back, thus dramatically increasing the MINUS figure given and throwing away a perfectly good Sea Vixen. Your right hand is placed such that your elbow is tucked in at your side (unless you've arms like an ape, like me) The DLO has a quick look around, if the carrier is pitching, he'll drop the flag just as the bow reaches the bottom. It's not his sense of humour, it's just by the time the PO on the button reacts and the cat fires, the bow is on it's way up, reaching it's peak as you leap or trundle off the end depending on the plus or minus call.

The pressure instruments are not worth looking at in the first few seconds, the VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) has hit its stops, the altimeter has a negative reading, the ASI (Air Speed Indicator) has gone through 200Kts and is now erroneously going back down past 100Kts but will shortly come back to around 130Kts. As you leave the cat, you "gather" the aircraft and aim for about 9° nose up. That will entail a rotation of about 9-11° depending on the tensioned attitude. If the Air Direction Detector (ADD) is working, this may reach 23 units but any more than 24 and you've over pitched and the aircraft will pitch up and drop a wing leaving you no choice but ejection. That's why there is a Command Ejection system. If you decide to leave the aircraft, there's no need to waste time telling the Obs. You go, he goes to, ready or not. The cautious Obs took off with his hand grasped on the Ejection D ring between his legs, just in case. Pilots Notes state "some sink will occur at or near minimum launch speed." The gear is bought up ASAP and once all three of you are happy that the aircraft is being flown by you, circa 140Kts, the flaps are raised to 20°. (There's a famous radio call, "It's OK JC, I've got her now")

If you are still accelerating the flaps are raised fully. Speed rapidly builds to 400Kts and the nose pulled up to settle in the climb at 430Kts until 0.83M is reached. A clean aircraft will climb at about 8500fpm but normal rates were about 6500fpm.

If you're one of the first off, you orbit the carrier while the rest of the section launch, synchronising the orbit to pick up number 4 as he climbs out. At night you climb out on the designated heading, jinking as required to let your number two catch up. He won't be far behind, launching seconds after you from the waist cat. We split in to two pairs for some mutual AI.

The Sea Vixen is not really a "Fighter" It is really an "Interceptor". Its Air to Air weapons were initially the Firestreak, which had a thing going on with the Sun and ignored anything else unless in reheat or was a non manoeuvring target lined up dead ahead. This was replaced with the Red Top. This wasn't so keen on the sun. Much of our AI work was one of the pair pretending to be a Bear or Badger bomber. The general opinion was that WWIII would see waves and waves of these coming in and our role was to "intercept" them head on, turning to be astern in the "murder" position 1000 - 5000 yards astern. Hi level, typically we flew at 40,000 and 0.85m All the manuals show the bombers kindly holding a steady height and heading throughout so that's what we practised. Not to do so would be demonstrating a lack of sense of humour. When the RAF wanted to play with their Vulcans or Canberras, they would but come in at 55,000' and turn through 45° just as we past their beam, just to show that they too had a sense of humour. We could just make 55,000' but the P/Ns state 45,000 as the maximum due to the limits of the O2 system should you suffer a pressurisation failure. Anything above 50,000' usually had the Obs fingering the dividers.

Low level intercepts over the sea were done at 300Kts with the target flying at 1000' and the interceptor at 500'. To be tricky, because the AI18 radar had no doppler thus no "look down" performance whatsoever, the duty target would drop to 700'. You knew this, so you dropped to 250', AT NIGHT, with no Radio Altimeter! We lost several Vixens doing this. Once we'd "played the game" we might indulge ourselves in some 1v1, 2v1, 3v1 or 2v2 fighter combat. It's here that you realize the Vixen is not a Fighter v Fighter aircraft. With a G limit of 5.5g and a missile that needs a minimal manoeuvring target you avoided a close quarter fight. If we had had some guns, then that would have been a different matter. Luckily designers learnt that lesson and theTornado got its gun and the Typhoon at least had its gun designed in.

The Vixen manoeuvres best at 380Kts where you hit the 5.5g limit. In the dogfight though, you'll yo-yo and scissor at speeds between 140Kts and 620Kts. She'd flick on you fairly easily but the rudders were very effective, so much so that sometimes you could end up with masses of back stick and turning hard, with a boot full of rudder to hold off the flick until she'd gently start rolling the opposite way telling you to ease off the back stick. Any incipient spin was quickly stopped with rudder and unloading. The Sea Vixen's Fowler flaps at ½ and Full had limiting speeds of 220Kts and 175Kts. I know, I broke two sets! One during ACM with a Hunter and the other messing with a Gannet. 

Use of flaps during ACM was not permitted yet its use was advised in the Sea Vixen's Tactical Manual and commonly used by pilots. The problem is that the lever is down and behind the throttles, tucked away from view, as was the indicator at the bottom of the panel. The trick was to sing out to the Obs that you were dropping flap hoping that one of you would remember as the speed started rocketing up. Fighting a Mk9 Hunter was a sobering experience and if you let yourself fight on his terms, you'd loose every time. Luckily they would only have had cannons and you just had to keep him outside of 800yds. Again no close in  combat advised.

The only time I ever had to seriously contemplate how to take on Migs, was when Iranian soldiers landed on Lesser Tunb in the Persian Gulf. Our run ashore to Mombasa cancelled and we steamed north in true Gun Boat fashion. Our foe were going to be Mig 15s and Mig 21s. Both with guns and the Mig 21 with reputably impressive AA missiles. We decided that our best armament fit would be four pods of 36 2" rockets. Get within 250-1000 yards and use best guess as a sighting solution. The 2" rocket war head had a self destruct timer, which if all else failed, would be like flak going off all around him!

Our sight was called the Pilot Attack Sight or PAS Mk1. It remained Mk1 for the Vixen's life. It was basically an Air to Air gun type gyro sight, tweaked to give some missile lock information and further tweaked to provide some form of datum for air to ground use. Despite the totally inadequate sighting system, air to ground stuff was enjoyable, especially at night.

Two types of attack were my favourite. The day type Bravo and the night Lepus. The Bravo was an attack on an opportunity target. For the most fun, this would be carried out on the carrier towing a splash target 1000yds astern. Your section would be in echelon, 450Kts and V low level. Coming in from the carrier's 5 o'clock position, you would rack the aircraft around the stern of the carrier below flight deck level and then pull up and dumb-bell reverse with aircraft giving themselves displacement for the dive. Then fire or drop on the splash target.

The Lepus was a 4 million candlepower flare. The Lepus attack had four aircraft in line astern, 3nm between the leader and No 2 and 1nm between 2, 3 and 4, all running in at 500' and 450Kts. The leader would call pulling up and 4, 3 & 2 would turn out through 30° at 30 second intervals. The leader would pull in to a half loop and the Lepus either released automatically using the LABS system or you pickled it simply on a pre-calculated range, climb angle, speed and height. The pull was continued and a half roll to starboard carried out at the top. Meanwhile number 2 has reached 4000' and started a turn to port and entered a 20° dive. If all has gone to plan, just as he settles into the dive, the night sky becomes day and if things have really gone to plan, there in front of him will be a white splash target towed by a Frigate. 3 and 4 enter their dives, each passing below the descending flare. During the dive, the pilot would concentrate on his dive angle and getting the right sight picture. The Observer would be calling the speed and the height. Weapons release was carried out when all the parameters were met.....or not. If the dive angle was wrong, the speed too high or low, the pilot had to make adjustments either by changing the sight picture or more usual, the release height. You couldn't take your eyes off the sight so you used a combination of peripheral vision to watch the altimeter and the calls from the Obs. Meanwhile the leader has been changing armament selector switches, resetting his PAS to AG1 or AG2, pulling hard to port and getting back down to 4000' all this with a mini sun in the vicinity. He then starts his attack on the splash. The trick here is to remember that you have to fly OVER your flare. Only COs, SPs and AWIs were permitted to attack their own Lepus in the later years of the Sea Vixens life.

Fuel management was one of the Vixen's highest workload for the crew. There are FOURTEEN tanks if you were carrying two drops, a total of 13,500 lbs or 7,670Lts. You had two fuel gauges, one for each side. You or normally the Obs could cycle the gauges to show the contents or sum of tanks 1 - 4. The fuel in the Pinion tanks and Drop tanks was not gauged. (The Pinion tanks were only on the Mk2 being extensions to the Mk1's booms in which fuel could be kept). Air pressure from the engines pushed the fuel from the drops into the No 2 & 3 tanks. To pump all this about, there are 10 main Booster Pumps and 6 auxiliary pumps. If I tell you that the P/Ns have 16 pages on the fuel system, you'll understand why I don't go into much detail. Fuel management was critical. One often flew on one engine to increase endurance.

If possible you shut down engines alternatly to ease the balancing problem. If carrying only one drop tank plus a flight refuelling pod and you were handing out fuel, judicious cross feeding and tank contents management with the pumps was essential. It was possible to end up with fuel in a tank that you couldn't get at.

In the event of a single or double generator failure, there is a lever on the fuel booster pump panel which will take offline all the pumps except the No1s. Any electrical emergency automatically brought on a fuel management problem. The complexities of the system were such that if you intended to stay up for the duration of the fuel available rather than land ASAP, you needed someone to sort things out while you flew the plane.

Flying for endurance, such as during an exercise and hanging around on CAP, you flew at 10,000' on one engine. At times this could be for over an hour with nothing to do but fly a figure of eight pattern. If really bored, the Obs was probably dozing, so you quietly load shed and close the good engine down before lighting up the other. This produced a satisfactory silence followed, if prolonged for too long, by lots of lights on the Central Warning Panel and associated warning clanging. Be ready fend off a divider attack.

Coming back to land on, you had been given a "slot time" This was a time you entered the "slot", a position just off the starboard side of the carrier IF she was heading into wind. This time was expected to be hit plus or minus a few seconds and often the carrier would only just be turning in to wind. You broke into the circuit (memory fails here but I think it was an 800' circuit) Checks downwind flying at 150-160Kts were normal but included dropping the hook, arming the Command ejection and underwater escape selectors to "Ready" The Obs told you your Datum speed, which was 125Kts at 31,000Lbs, increasing by 2kts for every 1000lbs. This was the speed you had to establish as you rolled your wings level and hold ±2kts.

On finals, when you picked up the "meat ball", the white light on the deck mounted gyro stabilised projector sight, you called the ball and four greens. You aimed to be wings level at about 250-400' and on the centerline. The glide slope was 4°. In some rough weather off Wellington, New Zealand, I remember the carrier was pitching some 4-5° which meant that on one approach, the deck disappeared and Eagles two aft props appeared thrashing the water. A carrier pitches in a cyclic mode such that if you made your first approach while she was pitching at maximum, the timing was such that you would make your next approach during the Null phase of the pitching.

Some pilots thrashed the stick around so violently on finals that it depleted the hydraulic pressure such that when they called "on the ball four greens" you could here the CWP warning clangers in the background. I made a conscious effort to be smooth and it served me in good stead such that I never missed a wire during my first tour. The second tour as a "steely rack it tight around the corner AWI" was a different matter and resulted in my one and only "Whispering Bolter". Once lined up, you used the ADD visual and audio cues to obtain the correct speed and angle of attack. Not trusting the pilot to arrive at the correct speed, they fitted three lights to the nose door, to indicate to the Landing Sight Officer whether you were fast, on speed or slow.

When you hit the deck, you closed the throttles, selected flap up, hook up, wing unlock and fold then open the throttles again, all as the aircraft was still pulling the wire out. If you missed the wire, you realized just as your hand dropped to the flap lever, so it was back to the throttles and slam them open. From "Goofers" on the Island behind Flyco this is great sport and always got a cheer as the silent Vixen shot passed, the wheels literally running out of deck to run on, sinking slightly before both Avons came to the rescue. The "Whispering Bolter", brought to you only by the Sea Vixen. In the Buccaneer or Phantom, with bypass engines and bleed air over the wings for lift augmentation, anything less than full throttle on touchdown was going to put you in the water if you missed the wires.

The actions of raising the hook whilst the wire was being pulled out meant that after the wire reached full stretch and then gave you a small roll back, the wire dropped cleanly out. The application of power came on just after the wire dropped out, allowing you to quickly clear the wires. We aimed for 30 seconds between aircraft landing on. You moved forward and up to the bow, if the deck was wet and pitching, parking in Fly One was interesting. All you could see ahead and to starboard was water!

By the time the Sea Vixen was retired from the Front Line in 1971, she was the UKs' longest serving Front Line Fighter. I'm sure this record has been surpassed. As a weapons system at the time, she was long overdue retirement but as an aircraft to fly and have adventures in, she was ageless. I've lost touch with the Observers that flew with me but if any read this, I'd welcome their contact via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone 01494 711431.

I'm 40 years older now and memory gets distorted by the way one wants to remember things, so if there are errors in how I remember things a) lighten up and b) you had to be there.

S/Lt (P) Jonathon Whaley RN. Age 19 Years. First Front Line Tour. 899 Sqn. HMS Eagle.
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