On Tuesday 16th September 2014 de Havilland Sea Vixen XP924 (G-CVIX), nicknamed ‘Foxy Lady’, was gifted to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust at a ceremony at RNAS Yeovilton in the presence of dignitaries, veterans and guests. Richard Freail was there on behalf of AeroResource.
At approximately 3.30pm on Tuesday afternoon £1 changed hands and with it the world’s only flying Sea Vixen – resplendent in its markings when serving with 899 NAS (Naval Air Squadron) – was ‘gifted’ to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust (FNHT). Handing over the ‘keys’ of the aircraft to Admiral Russ Harding OBE (Head of the Fleet Air Arm) and Commodore Bill Covington CBE (Deputy Chairman of the FNHT) Julian Jones, who has maintained and cherished the aircraft for the last decade, relinquished ownership.
The event opened with a beautifully flown display by the Sea Vixen piloted by Jonathon ‘Flapjack’ Whaley, himself a former Sea Vixen pilot with 899 NAS, but more well-known for his stunning displays in Hawker Hunter ‘Miss Demeanour’. Julian Jones, at that point in time still the owner of the aircraft, was in the Sea Vixen’s observer’s seat – known as the ‘coal hole’ due to its dark and cramped nature.
After a number of passes and manoeuvres demonstrating the lines and power of the aircraft it was, all too soon, time to land. Unfortunately, the gremlins which have bedevilled this airframe from time-to-time were to strike again: a suspected fault with the anti-skid system caused the port tyre to burst on landing, resulting in some smoke and a smart exit and stop on the taxiway. In true Navy style, this was merely a minor problem soon overcome and, once plans were in place, the afternoon continued unabated with ‘Foxy Lady’ being towed over to the apron and her waiting guests as soon as it was appropriate to do so.
Receiving the aircraft on behalf of the FNHT, Bill Covington, spoke of this “…..very special event. The Sea Vixen has a seminal place in the heart of the Fleet Air Arm, she brings with her the spirit of the pilots and observers that flew it, the engineers and maintainers who got the aircraft into the air, and the thousands of officers and sailors of the Royal Navy who manned the aircraft carriers that the Sea Vixen flew from.” He thanked Julian Jones for his outstanding act of generosity in gifting the Sea Vixen which would help ensure that future generations could continue to see it flown, stating “that what you have done is perhaps best described by the quote from your chief engineer, Mr Paul Kingsbury, ‘without Julian this aircraft would not be flying today’.”
In response Julian Jones stated it had been “an honour to be part of the Sea Vixen’s journey”. He spoke warmly of returning ‘Foxy Lady’ to its spiritual home at RNAS Yeovilton linking the past service of the Sea Vixen, via present and recent conflicts, through to the future and the impending arrival of the new carriers and F-35 Lightning II. He noted that the Sea Vixen was first deployed on operations in 1961 – off the coast of Kuwait after a threatened invasion! He also joked that it was only after he had become the owner that he discovered it used 56 litres of fuel per minute, per engine – “thankfully, it doesn’t have reheat” he added.
The Sea Vixen design was founded in a British post-war requirement for an all-weather, radar and missile-equipped fighter for both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA). While other manufacturers created separate proposals, de Havilland believed one design would satisfy the needs of both services. Calling on its experience with its other twin-boom fighters, the Vampire and Venom, the prototype DH.110 (WG236) first flew in September 1951. However, the Admiralty’s interest had ended in 1949, in favour of the de Havilland Sea Venom, while regarding the DH.110 as too complex. Successful initial flight testing did not stop the RAF from withdrawing either, in the summer of 1952, just as the second prototype (WG240) was about to fly.
Overcoming these set-backs together with the disastrous loss of WG236 at that year’s SBAC display at Farnborough, the project continued without customers. In 1953, revised Navy thinking dictated that the Sea Venom replacement would need to be a twin-engine design, bringing about the end of the project to upgrade and modernise the single-engine Venom. Interest again swung towards the DH.110 and de Havilland quickly submitted a navalised version of the aircraft to the ministry and displayed the second prototype WG 420 in full FAA colours and markings at the SBAC show in September. While the RAF opted for the competing Gloster GA.5 Javelin, the Royal Navy ordered the DH.110 Sea Vixen.
The first production order for 78 airframes came in January 1955 and would lead to 145 production aircraft being constructed in two marks, the FAW.1 and the much-improved FAW.2, which first flew in 1962 and entered service two years later. The Sea Vixen entered squadron service in 1959 with 892 NAS and retired in 1972 from 899 NAS.
‘Foxy Lady’ – Sea Vixen XP924
Sea Vixen XP924 was originally commenced as an FAW.1 at Hawarden but constructed as an FAW.2, one of 29 new-build aircraft – the other 67 FAW.2s being converted from earlier serving FAW.1 aircraft. She spent her entire service with 899 NAS – at RNAS Yeovilton and on HMS Eagle until the squadron disbanded in January 1972 when the Sea Vixen was withdrawn from service. XP924 was flown to Tarrant Rushton airfield, the home of Flight Refuelling Ltd. (FRL), and stored until she was converted to D.3 standard.
Previously, FRL had converted Gloster Meteors to drones but the MoD was seeking a more modern replacement to test new air-to-air missiles. Converted Meteors had the relevant avionics spread around the airframe but the intention with future drone aircraft was to have the avionics all in one place and capable of being removed from the airframe. In the Sea Vixen the rack containing the necessary avionics was mounted in place of the observer’s ejector seat in the ‘coal hole’. The idea was that the rack was ‘universal’ and could therefore be removed and fitted to other fighter types, such as the Phantom, if required. This led to the initial designation of Sea Vixen U.3, which was subsequently changed to D.3. The Ministry cancelled the project in the early 1980s, again requiring a more modern airframe.
As a result the Sea Vixen D.3s, including XP924, moved to the RAE facility at Llanbedr to assist in the development of the Jindivik pilotless drone and also act as a high-speed radar targets.
When the aircraft was retired in 1991 she was sold off and acquired by businessman Gwyn Jones who, together with an ex-FAA Sea Vixen pilot, expounded much effort to keep her airworthy. Moved to Bournemouth Airport in 2000 she was subsequently granted a Permit to Fly by the CAA and started to appear at airshows. In 2003 her operators, De Havilland Aviation, gained sponsorship for the Sea Vixen from Red Bull and XP924 appeared in the same livery as a can of that well-known product. A consortium led by Julian Jones purchased Gwyn Jones’ business interests in 2005 including ownership of the Sea Vixen. When the Red Bull sponsorship ended she was re-painted in her original FAA/899 NAS colours and subsequently re-appeared on the airshow circuit in 2009. Since then ‘Foxy Lady’ has appeared at a number of airshows and events – particularly those with a navy theme – but has struggled to gain more widespread recognition. However, at the same time she has endured some rotten luck suffering a collapsed undercarriage in 2012, pilot availability issues in 2013 and significant engine problems this year.
A Bright Future
Tuesday’s flight was planned as the last for this year prior to winter maintenance. The FNHT has a head start as Julian Jones has gifted not only the Sea Vixen but also 80 tons of spares and a hangar full of support equipment, together with the use of his chief engineer to assist the FNHT in getting the Sea Vixen serviced and prepared for next year. Furthermore, Babcocks International will provide quality assurance support for the aircraft.
The airframe was gifted on condition that it remains airworthy for as long as possible and is displayed at air shows. To this end, the Sea Vixen will continue to fly on the civil register and will be operated by Naval Aviation Ltd., a subsidiary of the FNHT. For its part, the FNHT recognises that it will be no easy task to emulate the success enjoyed by the previous owners. Bill Covington stated that “For next year it is a hard fact of life that we can only expect a limited number of hours to be affordable. We are planning on Yeovilton Air Day as her first air display….”
For now the future of the Sea Vixen appears assured; certainly much hard work lies ahead and funds will need to be raised in order to keep her flying. However, with the return of ‘Foxy Lady’ to her spiritual home, there is no doubt she is in safe hands.
For further information about the Fly Navy Heritage Trust see: http://www.fnht.co.uk/
AeroResource would like to thank Bill Covington, Hannah Robinson and all the staff of the FNHT and RNAS Yeovilton for their invitation to, and assistance at the Sea Vixen’s homecoming!