Piston Powered Purity
Few names in British aviation history are more legendary and storied than Hawker.
Co-founded in 1920 by Harry Hawker (1889-1921), an Australian aviation pioneer who relocated to the United Kingdom in 1911, H.G. Hawker Engineering was created from the liquidated assets of the Sopwith Aviation Company following the end of the First World War. In fact, the principal people in both companies were the same and the new company was effectively a continuation of Sopwith.
The company changed its name to Hawker Aircraft Limited in 1933 and built a name for itself in aviation worldwide until 1963, when it was absorbed into other companies through a series of business mergers that reduced the British aviation industry from many to a handful of companies during the 1960s.
Today, the Hawker legacy is held by BAE Systems.
In the interwar period, Hawker was a primary supplier of combat aircraft to the Royal Air Force. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Royal Air Force’s primary fighter was the Hawker Hurricane.
While the Sea Fury came too late to have a role in the Second World War, it served as a very important intermediary fighter between piston and jet driven types for the Royal Navy of Great Britain and the air arms of nine other nations.
The Sea Fury would be the last piston driven fighter operated by the Royal Navy and is representative of the apex of piston driven fighter development.
Driven by an 18 cylinder Bristol Centaurus radial engine of 2,480 horsepower, the Sea Fury had a maximum speed of around 740 kmh (460 mph) at an altitude of 5,500 metres (18,000 feet). This performance gave the Sea Fury a place in history as one of the fastest piston driven aircraft put into mass production.
Let’s spend some time with the Hawker Sea Fury:
Building the Storm
As the Second World War progressed, Hawker created the Typhoon ground attack aircraft and developed the Tempest fighter from the Typhoon.
It is in the Hawker Tempest that we find the origins of the Hawker Sea Fury.
Designed by the legendary Sydney Camm, the Hawker Typhoon entered service in Autumn of 1941. Widely remembered as one of the best ground attack aircraft of the Second World War, the Typhoon had initially been intended as a medium to high altitude fighter. Due to a number of design flaws, the Typhoon had poor high altitude performance and could not carry out the air-to-air fighter role it was intended for.
The Hawker Tempest entered service in early 1944 and was the result of much redesign work to address the shortcomings of the Typhoon.
The biggest change between the Typhoon and Tempest was a completely redesigned wing that was thinner and broader than the Typhoon’s wing. With the new wing and other adjustments to the design, the Tempest was a fearsome low altitude fighter-bomber and interceptor.
The Tempest was heavily armed, agile and powerful. Tempest pilots scored a number of victories against Germany’s Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter and made many successful intercepts of V-1 flying bombs that Germany launched at Great Britain from the European mainland.
While the Tempest was a definite improvement on the Typhoon, it had the drawbacks of being too big and heavy to be a truly well-rounded fighter aircraft.
Even before the Tempest had entered service, Sydney Camm and his design team had begun work on a lightened version of the aircraft. The new aircraft used a shortened version of the Tempest wing and had a redesigned fuselage that was much lighter than the Tempest’s. Additionally, the new aircraft had the cockpit raised to give the pilot a better view outward than with the Tempest.
The efforts of Hawker to improve the Tempest were noticed by the Air Ministry. In early 1943, the ministry was so impressed by the new aircraft that it issued a specification designed especially for it. The initial specification was for a land based fighter for the RAF, a different specification was issued for a carrier based fighter for the Royal Navy.
The two specifications were eventually merged into one after Sydney Camm showed that the new aircraft could satisfy both the air force and navy requirements.
The air force prototype, named the Fury, first flew in Autumn of 1944. The naval prototype, the Sea Fury, took to the air for the first time in early 1945.
Responsibility for design and development of the Fury remained with Hawker, while Boulton Paul Aircraft were contracted to develop and produce the Sea Fury.
Saved by the Navy
In spring of 1944, orders were placed for 100 examples of the Fury for the RAF and 200 of the Sea Fury for the Royal Navy.
However, with the Allied victory in Europe, the RAF order was cancelled completely and the navy order was reduced by half.
The result of losing the RAF order was that Bolton Paul’s contract for the Sea Fury was cancelled and further work on the aircraft was consolidated at Hawker.
While the RAF was in the process of introducing jet fighters and reducing the number of active squadrons it had in the post war period, the Royal Navy had a much smaller air arm and did not have time to wait for a new jet fighter to use on their aircraft carriers.
At the time, the Royal Navy’s carrier based fighter fleet was made up of Supermarine Seafires, a navalized variant of the legendary Spitfire fighter, and Vought Corsair fighters that were received from America via the Lend/Lease agreements that America had with other Allied nations.
Both the Seafires and Corsairs were war weary machines that desperately needed replacing. The Seafire had always been an aircraft of compromise; while it functioned, it showed that the Spitfire design did not adapt well to the rigours or the aircraft carrier environment. An ongoing issue with the Seafires was the tendency for their landing gear to collapse upon landing on the carrier.
In accordance with the Lend/Lease agreements, any equipment sent to an Allied nation from America had to be returned to America, or purchased or destroyed by the borrowing nation at the end of hostilities. The Royal Navy Corsairs were well used by the end of the war, America did not want them back and Britain did not have the means to buy them. Most of the Royal Navy Corsairs were pushed overboard from their aircraft carriers or scrapped when the war ended.
The Sea Fury entered Royal Navy service in 1947. It also entered service with the Royal Netherlands Navy, the type’s first export customer in the same year.
While the Royal Navy would place jet fighters on their carriers before the 1950s were out, the Sea Fury was an appealing interim type that would give them a capable and relatively modern fighter type to see them through the late 1940s and early 1950s
Sea Furies Abroad and in Anger
The Sea Fury not only bridged the gap between piston and jet fighters on Royal Navy aircraft carriers; it also served the same purpose on the aircraft carriers of the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy.
Beyond naval users, the Sea Fury was used by the air forces of Burma, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan.
In addition to military users, a fleet of Sea Furies was operated by Deutscher Luftfahrt-Beratungsdienst (DLB), a civilian firm in the former West Germany that was contracted by the military to carry out target towing duties.
In addition to Hawker built examples of the aircraft, a production license was granted to Fokker to produce some of the aircraft for the Dutch navy Sea Fury fleet.
The non-naval users of the aircraft received versions with a significant amount of carrier specific equipment, such as tail hooks and launching gear, removed.
While the Aircraft used by Burma, Cuba, Egypt and West Germany were Former Royal Navy aircraft that had beeen refurbished by Hawker, the Sea Fury fleets of other users were factory fresh machines.
As mentioned earlier, the Sea Fury came too late to have a role in the Second World War. However, it did see its share of combat.
The first combat use of the Sea Fury was by the Dutch navy against insurgent forces in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, in 1947. The Dutch attempt to hold onto the colony ended in December of 1949, when the Netherlands officially recognised Indonesia as an independant nation.
Sea Furies of the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy were very effective ground attack aircraft in the Korean War. They were a difficult target for enemy jet fighters as well as ground based anti-aircraft crews due to their speed and agility. Those factors in combination with the Sea Fury’s ability to carry a significant amount of armaments on a mission made the aircraft a threat not to be taken lightly by North Korea and its allies.
On August 9 of 1952, a formation of four Royal Navy Sea Furies were attacked by a group of North Korean MiG-15 jet fighters. While none of the Sea Furies were lost in the ensuing air battle, one of the Royal Navy aircraft was successful in shooting down one of the MiGs. In doing so, the Sea Fury became one of the very few piston driven fighters after World War Two to claim an aerial victory over a jet fighter.
The next major combat that involved Sea Furies was the Cuban Revolution and the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban military took delivery of the Sea Fury in 1958, shortly before the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by revolutionarly forces led by Fidel Castro.
Due to a lack of experienced pilots and ground crew, the Cuban Sea Furies proved difficult to keep in servicable condition after Castro took over. However, the few that were kept in running order gave a good account of themselves against the American CIA backed ships, aircraft and ground forces that made up the force sent to take Cuba back from Castro in April of 1961. Cuban Sea Furies were credited in part for the sinking of two major ships and shooting down of a number of attack aircraft of the invasion force.
Through much of the 1960s, Sea Furies of the Iraqi air force were used against frequent Kurdish uprisings during the First Iraqi-Kurdish War. The conflict lasted from 1961 to 1970 and ended in a stalemate.
Off to the Races
The Iraqi air force was the last military user of the Sea Fury, replacing their fleet with the Soviet built Sukhoi Su-7 attack jet between 1967 and 1969.
However, the end of military service was not the end of the Sea Fury. By the mid 1960s, the Reno Air Races had been inagurated in Reno, Nevada, USA.
A growing interest in restoring and maintaining historic aircraft, known popularly as the Warbird Movement, began to take hold in many places around the world at the same time.
It wouldn’t take long after the last Sea Furies were retired from military service for the air racing and warbird communities to take an interest in them.
A number of Sea Furies with a good amount of flying hours left in them had found their way into civilian hands before the 1960s were out.
By the mid 1970s, Deutscher Luftfahrt-Beratungsdienst were selling off their T.20S Sea Furies to civilian buyers and replacing them with North American OV-10 Bronco aircraft.
In the late 1970s, several former Iraqi air force Sea Furies were recovered from Iraq and shipped to America and sold off to different buyers. Many of these aircraft were able to be restored to airworthy condition as the dry desert air they’d been kept in since retirement had kept corrosion to a minimum.
In the context of the Reno Air Races, the Sea Fury has proven popular in the Unlimited category. The basic requirements for an aircraft to be in the Unlimited category are that it must be piston driven, able to sustain a speed of 805 kph (500 mph) and be able to withstand turns of at least six times the force of gravity.
The Sea Fury is not only popular in air racing due to its flight performance, it’s also popular for being adaptable to engines other than the Bristol Centaurus it was originally powered by. Any Sea Fury entered into the Reno Air Races has been refitted with an American engine comparable to the Centaurus and a four bladed propeller designed to work with the American engines.
Most racing Sea Furies are refitted with the 18 cylinder Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone or the 28 cylinder Pratt and Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major.
The primary reason for the engine change was one of availability of not only spare engines and parts, but also availability of skilled technicians to work on the engines. Air racing is incredibly hard on aircraft engines, so a reliable source of replacement engines and parts is essential. As Centaurus engines were never used in American aircraft, both they and people knowledgable in working with them are rare in America.
The Sea Fury Family
Approximately 860 examples of the Sea Fury were built across nine variants:
Sea Fury F.10
This was the initial single seat fighter version delivered to the Royal Navy
Sea Fury FB.11
The FB.11 was a fighter-bomber version. It had many improvements over the F.10, including better weapons and hydraulically operated wing folding mechanisms.
The FB.11 was the most numerous of the Sea Fury variants, with over 600 being built. They were used by the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal Canadian Navy.
Former Royal Navy FB.11 aircraft were refurbished by Hawker and used by the air forces of Burma, Cuba and Egypt.
Sea Fury T.20 and T.20S
The T.20 was the two seat trainer version of the Sea Fury that was made for the Royal Navy. As with the FB.11, a number of T.20 aircraft were refurbished and taken into service with Burma, Cuba and Egypt.
Ten former Royal Navy T.20 aircraft were converted to the T.20S version. The T.20S was a target towing version specifically used by Deutscher Luftfahrt-Beratungsdienst in the former West Germany.
Sea Fury F.50 and FB.51
These versions were built for the Dutch navy. The F.50 was a single seat fighter and the FB.51 a single seat fighter-bomber.
Fury FB.60 and and T.61
These were designations for the single seat fighter-bomber and two seat trainer versions built for Pakistan. They were built factory fresh with most of the navy specific gear deleted.
Fury I and Fury Trainer
These were designations for the single seat fighter-bomber and two seat trainer versions built for Iraq. Like the Pakistani versions, they were built factory fresh with most of the navy specific gear deleted.
Iraq donated a small number of their Furies to Morocco for use in their air force. However, those aircraft were not in a good state when delivered and the Moroccans ultimately did not use them.
What Remains and Learning More
The Sea Fury has done very well for itself in its post-military life and of the 860 or so built, upwards of 50 are know to still be surviving as museum exhibits, active flyers, restoration projects, or in storage.
With its large size, high speed and agility relative to other single engine piston driven fighters, the Sea Fury is an unimissable presence on the ground or in the air at any show it appears at.
If you see a Sea Fury with a five blade propeller flying at a show, take time to savour the sight and sound and appreciate that you’re seeing one of the very small handful of Sea Furies that still fly on a Centaurus engine.
The majority of Sea Furies flying today are fitted with American engines and four blade propellers. While that does not make their performance any less spectacular, the sound is quite different from the original Centaurus and a little less authentic.
There’s a good amount of information on the Sea fury online:
This link will take you to the dedicated Hawker Fury and Sea Fury page on the BAE Systems website.
This link to a write up about the Sea Fury on the Royal Australian Navy website will give you some insights into the aircraft in the Australian context.
Similarly, this link will take you to an article about the Sea Fury in Canadian service. This article has lots of good pictures too.
This link to the Britain’s Small Wars website will take you to a very interesting first hand account of the Sea Fury victory over the MiG-15 in the Korean War. For many years after the event, it was a contested point who the credit for the victory should have gone to.
This link will take you to a condensed historical article about the Sea Fury at the Afterburner Aviation Magazine website.
In print media, “Sea Fury in British, Australian, Canadian and Dutch Service” by Tony Buttler is an excellent and well illustrated volume to read more about the Sea Fury in those air arms.