Several gems of aviation history sit securely in steel clad hangars, forming part of a 17 acre complex on the western side of RAF Scampton. This is no museum however, and these pedigree aircraft have an active role within the military sphere of operations. Steve Smith and Mark Graham went to visit the Hawker Hunters of Defence Contractor HHA Ltd for AeroResource.
Hawker Hunter Aviation (HHA) is both MoD and CAA approved and are the only company of their ilk in the Country. They provide fast jets on contract to Armed Forces and Defence Contractors for Trials Support and Aerial Support to Joint Training Readiness (ASJTR) ie Threat Simulation, Mission Support Training, photo-chase and radar calibration taskings in addition to undertaking project management and various fast jet related training services.
The brainchild of Mat Potulski and the late Mark Hanna in the mid-1990s, HHA began life based on the idea that fast jets could be operated as a fleet to provide a low-cost out-sourcing solution to the military. Several aircraft types were looked at and evaluated, including A4’s, Alpha Jets, L39’s and even F-4 Phantoms, but the Swiss decision to retire their low-hours fleet of Hawker Hunters at around the same time was the perfect solution. Twelve single-seaters were originally purchased, in fantastic mechanical condition.
Following the tragic death of Mark Hanna and the then Chief Engineer John Chillingworth in 1999, the enterprise was reappraised by Mat Potulski and deemed to be viable, but only if a heavy investment program was embarked upon to rebuild & enhance the engineering and operational infrastructure, acquire and maintain the necessary regulatory approvals, recruit staff, etc. To enable this to happen, Mat created HHA as a standalone company in early 2000 & has financed and managed it ever since.
HHA is not just limited to Hawker Hunters; if a tasking were to require a platform that falls outside the performance envelope of the Hunter, then the company acquires platforms to meet specific needs. The Blackburn Buccaneer and Sukhoi Su-22 are a case in point, with the former offering very long range whilst the latter can accommodate potential supersonic requirements.
HHA owns, operates and maintains their fleet of aircraft, aiming to be as self-sufficient as is possible. Some aspects of work are outsourced to specialist approved sub contractors, for example instrument calibration, but on-site there are Ejection Seat Maintenance facilities, aircrew equipment stores, cabinets full of paper-work and engineering manuals as well as all the tools specially tailored to working on the HHA aircraft fleet.
The modified HHA Hunters, with state of the art electronic capability, can replicate 80% of aircraft or missile threats. The performance of this iconic type is similar to many in-service aircraft in dry power, whilst offering clients in excess of 90 minutes on task, 100 nautical miles of base. Primarily, the role of the HHA Hunters is either as a fast, agile trials support platform or as a target (“Red Air”) aggressor aircraft, a service it has provided to all the branches of the Armed Forces, as well as foreign customers. HHA aircraft are in the process if being equipped with HITS (Hunter Integrated Threat System) to enhance the training benefit in the threat simulation environment.
Recent work has seen HHA Hunters acting as aerial threats for the sea trials of various BAE SYSTEMS built ships, including the Royal Navy of Oman Corvettes. In these taskings, HHA aircraft undertake FRADU style roles simulate attacking aircraft & testing the defensive capabilities of the vessels.
The facility at RAF Scampton houses ten aircraft at present. Amongst these are three single seater Mk.58 Hawker Hunters, a T7 Hunter, two T8 Hawker Hunters, a GA 11; the Buccaneer and the imposing Sukhoi-22, acquired from the German Air Force. In total HHA own 18 aircraft, 16 of which are Hawker Hunters. In terms of aircraft immediately ready to deploy, there are five, three of which are the single seat Mk.58’s the other two being twin seat trainers. The remainder of the fleet is kept in hangared storage both in the UK and abroad, ready to be reactivated should a client requirement arise.
The Single Seater Hunters
The Mk.58 Hunter was a conversion of the F.6 designed for export to the Swiss Air Force. All the Mk.58s have been maintained to an excellent standard at HHA are very low houred & fatigued, with the fleet leader having less than 3,000 flying hours. This compares favourably with RAF / RN Hunters where the fleet leaders approached 12,000hrs or the current Hawks, many of which are around the 9,000hr mark. The principal three UK use aircraft are ZZ190, ZZ191 and ZZ194. ZZ194 still has the red and white underside it acquired with the Patrouille Suisse. Other aircraft in the fleet of Mk.58s are either in storage, maintenance or undergoing overhaul.
The Twin Seater Hunters
There are currently three in the HHA fleet in the UK with a fourth stored overseas. XF995 was one of the last four RAF Hunters to fly; XF994 has a similar accolade since it was the last ever Hunter to undergo major servicing when in RN use and took part in the last Hunter RN flypast, whilst XL587 had a normal RAF Service career. XF995 is currently acting as the prototype for a glass cockpit conversion (whilst also being heavily modified for a classified missile development project); 994 is undergoing a total rebuild and 587 is in store.
BAe Buccaneer XX885 (G-HHAA) was acquired directly from the MoD where it last served at RAF Lossiemouth and flew seven sorties in Gulf War I. HHA embarked on a huge project of design verification and system analysis work in order to get this airframe approved for CAA registration. However, the airframe is currently in store undergoing continuous anti-det maintenance and will only be fully reactivated if a firm client requirement for the airframes evolves.
This aircraft arrived at HHA in 1999, since when it has been regularly maintained. The airframe is technically airworthy and arrived with very low hours. It’s the only supersonic aircraft in the HHA fleet and was acquired for that very purpose to enable HHA to offer that service if required.
As well as maintaining their own aircraft, HHA are contracted to provide through life support to Embraer in Brazil to assist in the continued airworthiness of their Hunter T72 PP-XHH. Formally an ex Chilean aircraft, Embraer use it now as a photo/video chase aircraft during their flight test campaigns. HHA Engineers have made two visits to Embraers’ Flight test facility at Gaviao Peixoto (Sau Paulo) where they have undertaken deep maintenance on the aircraft as well as engine inspections and fault rectification.
Continuity is essential for the staff of HHA. Aircraft maintenance and modification is completed by a team of close-knit ex-RAF engineers covering all trades. Chief Engineer Michael Elliot heads up the team. Michael had a long and varied career within the Royal Air Force serving as engineer on eight different fast jets, several tours as an engineering instructor saw him teach electrical avionic and weapon systems on Tornado and Typhoon as well as training Engineer Officers at the RAF College Cranwell. He was also deployed operationally during the Gulf War and in the Balkans. The experience of the small engineering team has been vital to HHA achieving its current status. The core permanent staff team is augmented by a pool of part time staff who are called forward when required.
The experience of the staff covers virtually all of the UK cold war jets including Lightning, Buccaneer and Vulcan and carries on through Tornado and Typhoon. The engineering team have played a key role in gaining the required approvals which enable HHA to do what they do. The development of systems of work and procedures to meet the stringent regulatory requirements as well as the introduction of safety enhancements through a robust safety management system facilitate the aim of continuous improvement and safe operation. Mick would like to take this opportunity to thank the team for their continued support since the inception of HHA and goes on on to say that this is a unique place of work where everyone in the organisation is justifiably proud of the company and its achievements.
The team of pilots are exclusively ex RAF / RN fast jet, two with a test pilot background. The current Ops Director Simon Hargreaves typifies HHA’s aircrew selection approach – almost 8,000hrs fast jet captain in command, test pilot and jet expertise ranging from the Hunter and Buccaneer to Typhoon and F35.
HHA Ltd is a fairly unique organisation. The idea of a fleet of privately owned and flown aircraft of military design origin, operating on the UK military register with all the legislative implications thereof, is such a huge undertaking, but the demand for HHA’s services is clearly there on the basis they can provide fast jet assets quickly and more importantly cost-effectively for a variety of purposes. From the aviation enthusiast’s point of view, let’s be thankful that someone is keeping these wonderful aircraft in the air and keeping a part of British aviation heritage very much alive.
Thanks must go to HHA MD Mat Potulski & Chief Eng Mick Elliot for enabling our visit and speaking to us and explaining the purpose and role of HHA Ltd.