Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm FG.1 Phantoms of No. 892 Naval Air Squadron back on board the carrier HMS Ark Royal (R09) after a visit to a US Naval Air Station (NAVSTA) Oceana where they worked up with USS Saratoga. The Royal Navy roundels had been “zapped” and replaced with interwar American Navy “meatball” insignia, and on XV590 001/R, the “Royal Navy” flash had been replaced with one for the “Colonial Navy.”
Originally founded in 1942 to operate Grumman F4F Wildcats (Martlets) from escort carriers, 892 NAS in the 1970s was the only operational RN Phantom squadron, and the force’s only fixed-wing carrier-capable squadron at the time– hence the Omega tail code–and flew from Ark Royal until the mighty British flattop was decommissioned in 1978.
892 NAS was disbanded on 15 December 1978 and its Phantom FG.1s were transferred to the RAF who continued to fly the type, sans tailhooks, until 1992.
British Movietone just posted this great short about the newly commissioned HMS Ark Royal (R09) in October 1955, “shortly leaving for the Mediterranean.”
The video includes a short clip of her plankowner skipper, Capt (later RADM) Dennis Royle Farquharson Cambell, CB, DSC– the pioneer who shot down the first German aircraft in WWII by a British pilot and later went on to invent the angled carrier flight deck. Also shown are Ark Royal‘s interesting 1950s FAA airwing to include early Hawker Sea Hawk jets, which were just joining the fleet, and late-model Grumman TBM-3E Avengers, which were on their way out.
Notably, Ark Royal would go on to be the last large deck British carrier in service in the 20th Century, only retiring in 1979, at which point she flew F-4 (FG1) Phantoms and Buccaneer S2 strike aircraft.
While the U.S. Army’s M45 Maxson “Meatchopper” four-pack of air-cooled M2 .50-cal BMG (12.7x99mm) heavy machine guns is legendary, Britain’s version, used almost exclusively for shipborne anti-aircraft artillery, gets considerably less attention.
The Vickers 0.5-inch was an altogether different gun and caliber (12.7x81mm) with 690-grain Semi-Armour Piercing (SAP) and 664-grain Semi-Armour Piercing-Tracer (SAPT) rounds favored in RN use. The round, according to some bullet collectors, was invented by necking down a .600 Nitro Express.
While the Army and RAF used the same gun, typically in single mounts, the cyclic rate was pretty slow (400 rpms). The RN’s version lacked the delay pawl and used heavier springs, almost doubling that rate of fire.
Classified as the Vickers Mark III No. 1, the mount weighed in at 2,580-pounds when fully loaded and included a quartet of water-cooled .50 cals, capable of depressing/elevating -10 / +80 degrees. Unlike the Maxson which was electrically powered via a small gasoline engine, the Vickers relied on a pair of Jack Tars working their elevation and azimuth wheels while sometimes a third rating served as the mount’s captain/spotter.
The guns could be calibrated to have a spread of fire 60 feet wide and 50 feet high at 1,000 yards, which is a pretty effective cone, though a short ranged one.
Each machine gun had a 200-round belt in a drum can, giving the gun 800 rounds at the ready. As cyclic rate per gun could run as fast as 700rpms, you could drain a mount’s onboard ammo supply in well under a minute of constant firing. However, as you are dealing with a water-cooled machine gun (each held 3.5 quarts in its jacket), simply add another belt and get back into the fight. A new belt could be added to a gun in 16 seconds or less, with two gunners recharging all four guns within a minute.
According to Navweaps, production started on these guns as early as 1926 and they were no doubt effective against the biplanes of that day. However, as planes got faster and heavier, the prospect of using .50 cal– even massed– had rather expired in the early days of WWII. Indeed, by the end of that conflict, the U.S. Navy was distancing not only 20mm Oerlikons but also 40mm Bofors in favor of rapid-fire radar directed 3″ and 5″ DP mounts.
Apparently, some 12,500 of these guns (in several varieties not limited to the quad mount shown here) were produced and a limited number exported to Japan and China before 1939.
These guns, nonetheless, were very common on British and Commonwealth ships as well as Soviet vessels passed on, being mounted on everything from converted trawlers to aircraft carriers (HMS Ark Royal had eight such quad mounts in 1940).
These guns no doubt lingered in service with third world navies on surplus RN ships through the 1960s or later.
When the Harrier jump jet became a real thing in the late 1960s, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.1/GR.3 and the AV-8A were seen as being able to fight from primitive forward operating bases on the battlefield and help blunt the Soviet tank force should they come across the Fulda Gap or over the top into Norway (or for the Brits, against the Guatemalans in Belize or Argies in the Falklands).
However, the benefit of using these V/STOL strike craft on abbreviated aircraft carriers without the need for catapults or arresting gear was soon evident.
In fact, it was tested out before the aircraft was even put into production.
In 1974, the Marines began the first shipboard trials on the helicopter assault ship USS Guam and two years later 14 AV-8A Harriers from Marine Attack Squadron 231 (VMA-231) “Ace of Spades” embarked aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) from 1976 to 1977 to prove the concept of integrating the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) Harrier into catapult and barrier configured carrier’s normal Air Wing operations.
Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt backed the concept of a cheaply built 13,000-ton Sea Control Ship that could be filled with a couple dozen Harriers and Sea King ASW helicopters at about the same time. Basically a 1970s update to the Jeep Carriers of WWII.
Heck, Zumwalt even wanted Harrier optimized Spruance-class destroyers in several different flavors, none of which ever got past the drawing board.
As well as a modern battlecruiser based on a nuclear powered Virginia-class hull stretched to form an aviation capable “Strike Cruiser” that could accommodate 6 Harriers and 4 Sea Sprites/Hawks along with a full weapons suite.
Harriers on everything!
Even though Zum was replaced and a lot of his ideas (including building 100+ Pegasus-class hydrofoil missile boats!) went with him, the Harrier Carrier concept was growing.
In 1977, the Spanish Armada placed an order for a 15,000-ton ship based on Zumwalt’s concept which was commissioned in 1982 as Príncipe de Asturias capable of carrying 29 fixed wing Harriers (“Matadors” in Spanish service) and rotary wing aircraft. A larger 26,000-ton ship optimized for amphibious warfare, Juan Carlos I, was ordered in 2003.
The Royal Navy converted their last legacy carrier, HMS Hermes, with a 12-degree ski jump to help with rolling take offs of the new Sea Harrier FRS.1 in 1980 while they ordered three specifically designed “carrier cruisers” as they were described at the time, the first of which, HMS Invincible, was commissioned 11 July 1980.
India began operating their INS Vikrant with Sea Harriers in 1983 later joined by the retired Hermes (as INS Viraat).
The 13,000-ton Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi (551) came off the ways in 1985 and was joined by the nearly twice as large Cavour in 2009.
Thailand’s 11,000-ton HTMS Chakri Naruebet, based on the final U.S. Navy blueprints for a dedicated sea control ship but with the addition of a ski-jump ramp, was commissioned in 1997– flying a handful of Spanish surplus AV-8S Matadors.
Plus of course, all five Tarawa-class and eight Wasp-class LHA/LHDs of the U.S. Navy were designed so they could operate as dedicated Sea Control Ships when needed. This was validated when some 20 AV-8Bs of VMA-331 operated from USS Nassau (LHA-4) in support of Operation Desert Storm, flying 240 combat sorties and dropping 900 bombs.
In all, between May 1976 when USS Tarawa (LHA-1) was commissioned and 2005 when Invincible was taken out of service, no less than 22 Harrier Carriers or their equivalents were built, converted or building for six navies around the world.
That was the peak.
Since then those numbers have trimmed as all of the Invincibles and Tarawas, Vikrant and Hermes/Viraat, as well as Príncipe de Asturias have been decommissioned. Currently there are but 13 hulls afloat designed to operate these aircraft, which themselves are dwindling and are getting smaller in number every week.
The Harrier was withdrawn from both RN and Thai service in 2006.
The Indians hung up their last jump jet this May.
The Italians still have 16 operational AV-8B/TAV-8Bs they operate from their two carriers and they are very active. For instance 8 Italian Harriers flying from Garibaldi dropped 160 guided bombs during 1221 flight hours over Libya in 2011.
The Spanish have 13 EAV-8B+/TAV-8Bs capable of operations from Juan Carlos I, though maintenance on these older aircraft is reportedly a problem.
The 2016 Marine Aviation Plan carries 84 AV-8Bs airframes to produce 66 RBA Harriers in 6 operational and one replacement squadrons. This is to reduce to 80 aircraft/5 operational squadrons in FY17, 64/4 by FY21, 48/3 in FY22, 32/2 in FY23, 16/1 in FY24 and drop altogether by FY27.
USMC Harriers will be replaced by the F-35C, in theory, by then for which the new LHA-6 class ships will be optimized for.
But speaking of Marine AV-8Bs from their dedicated sea control/amphib ships, they are still getting the job done.
Withness this video last week from USS Boxer (LHD-4) with Harriers of VMA-214 (Blacksheep) assigned to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), launching missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, joining strike aircraft operating from USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) in the Mediterranean Sea.
“These missions from the flight decks of USS Boxer, like those from the USS Harry S. Truman, demonstrate the inherent flexibility of naval forces,” said Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
“Today, U.S. naval forces are striking ISIL simultaneously from both the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf. Of course the engine of this effort is our nation’s Sailors and Marines serving with the USS Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit; they, together with our joint and coalition partners, are dismantling and rolling back terrorist networks in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere,” said Donegan.
Here are some beautiful shots of AV-8Bs aboard Boxer.
Just keeping it real.