Book Review – Gloster Javelin: An Operational history

Book cover image (credit: Pen and Sword Books)

Gloster Javelin: An Operational History

By: Michael Napier

Pen and Sword Books (2016)

First flown in Late 1951, the Gloster Javelin was a distinctive design and quite large for its intended roles as a fighter and interceptor. With its large delta wing and horizontal stabilizer set at the top of the tail fin, the Javelin was an unmistakeable shape among its contemporaries.

As British military aircraft of the Cold War go, the Javelin often gets downplayed as an “also ran” type with mediocre qualities where flight performance was concerned.

On the surface of things, it’s not difficult to see how history might record the Javelin in that rather dim light. The Javelin had no export success and only served the Royal Air Force for around 12 years. It always seemed to be something of a “work in progress” as no fewer than eight different versions of the aircraft were developed and put into service in that relatively short window of time.

Additionally, the Javelin was introduced to RAF service in 1956 and was gone from the front line of air defense of the United Kingdom by 1964, the last four years of its service life being spent fulfiling RAF committments abroad. As such, the Javelin never had much time to work its way deeply into the hearts and minds of the British public.

Last but not least was the aircraft that replaced the Javelin, the English Electric Lightning. The Lightning was a true performer from the start; capable of twice the speed of sound with a reputation of being a “missile with a man in it” the Lightning was a showstopper wherever it went and was able to capture the the imagination of the British public in ways the Javelin could never hope to.

To this day, among aviation enthusiasts far and wide, the Lightning has a large fan base while the Javelin is rather more of a niche interest.

All of this is borne out further by the fact that while over 430 Javelins were built, a respectable production run, only ten remain intact in museums today and none of them will ever fly again.

In spite of the rather lacklustre hand that many historians have dealt to the Javelin, it was a significant aircraft in many regards for the Royal Air Force and was an essential stepping stone to higher performance aircraft like the aforementioned Lightning.

The Javelin was an aircraft of “firsts” for the Royal Air Force; it was their first true all weather fighter, it was their first missile armed fighter, the first type in RAF service with the ability to be refuelled in flight, it was also the first type in RAF service with afterburner equipped engines.

If there was ever a military aircraft, British or otherwise, from the 1950s that deserved a fair hearing and reevaluation of its importance, the Javelin certainly qualifies.

Happily, this book gives the Javelin that fair hearing.

This book, as the title indicates, focuses on the service life of the Javelin and begins when the first squadrons of the aircraft were activated. A total of 19 squadrons used the Javelin during the type’s years in service.

The author does not shy away from the shortcomings inherent to the Javelin’s design and the fact that the aircraft was in a continual state of development throughout its service life to overcome many of those shortcomings.

However, the author also makes sure not to lump shortcomings of other systems associated with the Javelin in with those of the aircraft itself.

The Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire engine, two of which were used to power the Javelin, was a typical fuel hungry turbojet engine of its era. Any perceived lack of range in the Javelin must be laid, at least partially, upon the fuel guzzling nature of the engines.

An additional, and much more serious, problem in the engine was that the Sapphire was prone to a phenomenon called centre-line closure. This disasterous phenomenon occured when the aircraft was flown through thick clouds and the temperature of air going into the engines lowered enough to cause the engine casing to shrink enough to make contact with the spinning turbine blades inside.

When contact was made between the turbine blades and engine casing, the affected engine ripped itself apart and typically took the other engine and a good sized part of the back end of the aircraft out with it.

A number of Javelins and their crews were lost to centre-line closure incidents.

The author also discusses the shortcomings of the DeHavilland Firestreak missile, which the Javelin was equipped with. The Firestreak represented the first generation of heat-seeking missiles and had all of the limitations that its contemporaries did. those limitations included the fact that it could only be fired at a target from behind and could only be fired at a maximum angle of around 20 to 30 degrees off the target to ensure a reasonable chance of a hit.

This book does a good job of showing that the Javelin was generally well liked by those who worked with it. It was a well handling and reliable aircraft with a roomy cockpit.

Some of the most important work the Javelins were involved in did not happen while flying from British soil, and this book does a very good job of detailing this aspect of the aircraft’s service.

While the Javelin never fired a shot in anger, it proved its worth as a projection of both NATO and British military airpower in some key hot spots through the late 1950s to the late 1960s.

Squadrons of Javelins were based in the former West Germany from 1957 to 1966 as part of the United Kingdom’s committment to NATO for the shared defense of the country.

A squadron of Javelins was based on Cyprus from 1963 to 1967 and turned back a number of Turkish air force fighters coming into the island’s airspace during the volatile years between Greek and Turkish Cypriots immediately after the island attained independence from British rule in the early 1960s.

A squadron of Javelins was dispatched to Zambia after Rhodesia announced its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in late 1965. Zambia had attained its independence from British rule in late 1964 and the Javelins were stationed there to ensure the country was protected from any attacks by the Rhodesian air force.

Javelin squadrons were based in Asia as part of the RAF’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) from 1961 to 1968. It was in this area of operations that they perhaps carried out their most critical work as it was also the time of the Indonesia – Malaysia Confrontation that lasted from 1963 to 1966 and the Cultural Revolution in China, launched by Mao Zedong in 1966. Javelins based in Singapore and detached other points on the Malay Peninsula were part of ensuring that Indonesian air force bombers were kept out of the area and the nation of Malaysia could be established. At the same time, Javelins based in Hong Kong guarded that colony’s airspace from possible incursions by Chinese military aircraft.

This book is a well researched and thought out volume on the Javelin and has a good balance of pictures to go with the text.

The book is also a timely one given that the generation that worked with the Javelin directly is certainly an aging one and many who did know the aircraft best are no longer with us to give first hand account of it. For those who are still with us, and the families of those who are not, this book is an affirmation that the Javelin and those who worked with it are not forgotten and are indeed appreciated.

If you like the Javelin, or would like to know more about it, this book will definitely give you a good starting point. It’s accessible reading that brings the nature of the Javelin across well without getting bogged down in unexplained technobabble.

Buy with confidence.

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