In July the CAA announced that it had withdrawn the safety directive that had grounded all Hunter Aircraft on the UK register since August 2015
The CAA finally releases the Hunter to fly again – but is it too late?
The wonderful RAF term for accelerating progress, known as ‘getting one’s finger out’, could perhaps do with a transfer to the civilian world as administered by the CAA. In this case the relevant digit was extracted rather too slowly, with the CAA only announcing at the start of July that it had ‘withdrawn the safety directive which grounded all Hawker Hunter aircraft on the UK register’, a measure put in place after the Shoreham Air Show disaster in August 2015.
It was perhaps understandable at the time, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, to temporarily ground similar aircraft in case an issue had stemmed from the type’s airworthiness. That immediate blanket grounding of the fleet then took nearly two years to be rescinded; largely one suspects, for political reasons. Meanwhile, even the AAIB’S forensic analysis of the aircraft type, design and operation, threw up little more than some minor technicalities which had no bearing on the accident.
Now at least, the mighty Hunter, regarded as many as the most iconic and beautiful post-war jet fighter of them all, can fly again. In theory at least….
It may be the damage has already been done. The lengthy (and frankly unnecessary) grounding has forced some owners to come to the conclusion that their aircraft are just not viable any more. Of the six airworthy Hunters that were flying in 2015, I would hazard a guess that we’ll be lucky to see one maybe two flying again here in the UK, if any at all.
As many of us well know, an aircraft doesn’t stop costing you money, even when it’s sitting on the ground. Aircraft hate not to fly and even the best storage regimes and decontamination runs can’t prevent a steady deterioration in condition, but still cost money — lots of it. That then starts to put even more pressure on the owners.
At least two Hunters have been sold overseas since the Shoreham accident; one to the Royal Jordanian Air Force Historic Flight and one to a Museum in Canada. Two others, including the spectacular rainbow-liveried Miss Demeanour, are currently stored and up for sale. That leaves just Hunter T7A G-FFOX. It has recently carried out a successful series of ‘decontamination’ runs, but it is still at Västerås in Sweden, where it was grounded when the CAA ban came into force.
The story for other former military jets is the same. Of the fleet of 1950s and 1960s classic jets that were formerly based at Coventry, its brace of Gloster Meteors, as well as miscellaneous de Havilland Vampires and Venoms all seem to be headed to the USA. The beautiful Vampire T.11 maintained at North Weald is up for sale and if you fancy an apparent bargain, how about an airworthy Jet Provost T3 for just £12,500? That’s not even the price of a used Ford Fiesta!
Before you get too excited though, do remember that operating a former military jet has never been less than financially onerous. Even the humble Jet Provost, once rather cruelly described as having “constant thrust, but variable noise” will still sup up to 600 litres an hour of Jet-a1 at around 80 pence a litre, just in the cruise. You can double that consumption if you turn up the volume.
For most classic jet owners, income from airshows has been a vital component in ‘balancing the books’ and a common point among aircraft owners is that CAA restrictions and increased organisers fees have drastically reduced their income. This has had a knock-on effect in maintenance and engineering. Organisations have had to reduce their staff and let go volunteers who keep these aircraft airworthy.
Worse still, at the start of the summer we lost another iconic fast jet from the display scene when de Havilland Sea Vixen G-CVIX suffered a hydraulic systems failure and was forced to make a wheels-up landing back at its base at Yeovilton. Despite a copybook arrival by Cmdr Simon Hargreaves, the damage is severe, with cracks in the tail booms and other damage meaning a likely repair bill of around £2 million.
It’s not just about money. The increasingly constrained air display ‘boxes’, the continuing ban on any aerobatics and the requirement for just fly-pasts and gentle wing-overs, has taken the fun out of displaying these aircraft for some of the necessarily wealthy owners who operate these aircraft. The owner of the aforementioned North Weald-based Vampire recently went on record as saying that continuing to fly and display the aircraft was “simply not going to work for me”.
There is though, some good news. A number of operators of BAES Strike-masters and Jet Provosts have become popular air show attendees this year, less overshadowed by more exotic types. In addition, the Gnat Display Team, themselves recovering from a tragic accident which claimed the life of pilot Kevin Whyman earlier in 2015, are aiming to expand their fleet with the addition of the first single-seat Gnat F1 to have been seen in British skies since the early 1960s. (They are also looking for further trustees and pilots to fly and display their aircraft: see p.24 — Ed.)
There is also the tantalising prospect for some operators of two-seat jets to potentially offer passenger-carrying flights under the terms of the CAA Safety Standard Acknowledgement and Consent (SSAC) guidelines, in a similar manner to two-seat Spitfires and the like. This could create a new and viable direction for the classic jet community — so long as the CAA gets its finger out!
The mighty Hunter can fly again. In theory at least...
STEPHEN SLATER Stephen is CEO of the Light Aircraft Association, Vice-chair of the General Aviation Awareness Council, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years helping restore the ‘Biggles Biplane’ 1914 BE2C replica