Saving Britain’s Maritime Aviation Heritage

Navy Wings

Cdr Sue Eagles QVRM RD, Communications Director for the charity Navy Wings, highlights the challenges of saving our maritime aviation heritage

With Historic England – the government-funded body tasked with protecting England’s historic environment – warning that much of Britain’s treasured heritage could be ‘lost forever’ after coronavirus, all aspects of our naval and maritime heritage are under threat. Keeping our great maritime past ‘afloat’ is not only about preserving our valuable historic ships, and our coastal, marine, and archaeological environments, it also includes preserving our irreplaceable historic naval aeroplanes and keeping them in the air. The aviation and heritage sectors are both among the most severely affected by the pandemic crisis, which means naval aviation heritage faces a double hit of challenges.

Sea Hawk FGA.6 WV908, currently in storage, is the only airworthy Sea Hawk in the world.
Sea Hawk FGA.6 WV908, currently in storage, is the only airworthy Sea Hawk in the world. Navy Wings hopes to find the funding to get her back on the air show circuit in the years ahead. Photo: Navy Wings

Historic naval aircraft are of the utmost significance to our national heritage, embodying not only the pioneering ingenuity and courage of the Royal Naval Air Service and Fleet Air Arm, but the world-leading achievements of British engineering, design and manufacture through the most exciting and innovative decades of aviation history.

With the airline and aerospace industry now being challenged in ways never seen before, the whole sector faces an extremely worrying future. Many aspects of civil and heritage aviation are being adversely affected.

The charity Navy Wings, based at RNAS Yeovilton, brings the excitement and discovery of the story of naval flying to life by restoring, maintaining and flying a collection of rare historic naval aeroplanes, which display to millions annually at air shows and events up and down the country. This year, however, all air shows have been cancelled. The aircraft have remained grounded and, like many charities, Navy Wings has lost thousands of pounds of income.

The charity had been in the process of taking on full financial and operational responsibility for the aircraft of the former Royal Navy Historic Flight, which stood down last year. The timing could not have been worse! ‘Stepping in to save the Royal Navy’s historic aircraft collection has meant doing business in an utterly transformational way,’ said Navy Wings CEO Jock Alexander.

‘The two Fairey Swordfish are the only flying Swordfish in the world. These two aircraft, Swordfish Mk II LS326 and Swordfish Mk 1 W5856 are national treasures, as important in our nation’s history as the Spitfire and the Hurricane. Now, nearly 90 years since the much loved ‘Stringbag’ entered service with the Royal Navy and played such a vital part in the Battle of the Atlantic, these distinguished old aircraft have come off the military register, ending their service under the White Ensign, and will now fly with Navy Wings on the civil register. Although Navy Wings has supported the Royal Navy Historic Flight for over 20 years with annual grants and donations, a brave new plan was needed to secure the long term future of the aircraft, ensuring that they can continue to fly and are not lost to the nation.’

Big challenges

Seafire Mk17 SX336 – the only Mk17 still flying.
Seafire Mk17 SX336 – the only Mk17 still flying. The Seafire, a modified Spitfire, was developed for the Royal Navy during the Second World War to operate from aircraft carriers. The skill and determination of naval pilots and maintainers, combined with the superb qualities of the aircraft, enabled the Seafire to achieve prestigious battle honours and to remain in service until the jet age. Photo: Navy Wings

Taking on these priceless aircraft, however, comes with enormous challenges, not least the financial, governance and regulatory compliance responsibilities of operating old aeroplanes. ‘We work in a subtly different environment from those who operate modern aircraft, where reliability is often taken for granted,’ continued Jock Alexander. ‘Old aircraft do not enjoy the same level of sophistication. There are no simulators for training. They have oil leaks! It’s a privilege to fly them but we treat them with the utmost respect.”’

Heritage attractions may be about the past, but in countless important ways they are about the future too, providing life-enhancing learning and inspiration. The charity’s educational programme goes hand in hand with the flying programme in promoting a deeper understanding of the spirit and ethos of naval flying and the part played by naval aircraft in the history of our nation.

A heritage of innovation

Our long seafaring history has given us a rich maritime heritage, but our historic naval aircraft represent a story like no other – the history of Britain’s naval air power. Over the past 100 years the technical achievements, test programmes and problem-solving skills of naval aviators opened-up previously unimagined possibilities, and overcame extraordinary challenges. This lead to the development of revolutionary new advancements that changed history. The development of the aircraft carrier, the angled flight deck, the mirror landing sight and the steam catapult were all pioneered by the Fleet Air Arm. The innovative mindset this required – combining analytical thinking, inventiveness and ingenuity – is widely recognised by industry today, inspiring the innovators of the future.

Honouring those who fought for our freedom is as important today as it has ever been, and our historic naval aircraft are a living legacy of their great courage and airmanship. Navy Wings also provides valuable volunteering opportunities in the local community for young and old alike, who gain real fulfilment and enjoyment from getting up close and personal with the aircraft and feeling a part of the story.

So, despite Covid-19, our proud heritage lives on, and our historic aircraft serve as a beacon of hope for the future. With full responsibility for the naval collection, however, comes the biggest challenge of all – raising £850,000 a year, rising to £1M in three years, to keep the aircraft flying. The Fleet Air Arm has never let us down in our hour of need – but the aircraft now need our support. Please support us in any way you can, to keep our remarkable naval aviation heritage accessible, awesome, and airborne for many years to come!

The Navy Wings collection represents the history of naval flying from the Bristol Scout to the F-35 and includes two iconic Swordfish, veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic and the destruction of the mighty Bismarck; two Sea Furies, two jets – a Sea Hawk and a Sea Vixen – and a Wasp Helicopter. Affiliated with the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the charity provides a direct link between the past, and the high performance technologies of today, acting as a focus of inspiration and education for future generations. To find out more about Navy Wings and help support our naval aviation heritage visit navywings.org.uk