Open Cock­pit

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

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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

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