- Role: Two-seat advanced trainer
- Powerplant: Rolls-Royce Avon 122 (7,550lbs dry thrust)
- Max Speed: 694mph
- Service Ceiling: 47,000ft
- Ferry Range: 1900miles (with external tanks)
- Wingspan: 33ft 8in
- Length: 48ft 10in
- Height: 13ft 2in
Up until 1939 the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) were subservient to the Royal Air Force and as such nearly the entire inventory of FAA aircraft were simply naval versions of the RAF’s own aircraft. Upon gaining independence from the RAF the FAA was finally able to stipulate its own requirements for aircraft and the British military aviation industry branched off in to two sectors – land based for the RAF and carrier based for the FAA. There were of course exceptions and the most notable being the Hawker Sea Hurricane, the Supermarine Seafire and De Havilland’s early jets such as the Vampire and Venom but these were seen as stop-gaps until the resources became available to develop entirely new aircraft.
In the post war period the FAA operated a plethora of jet powered combat types ranging from the relatively simple Supermarine Attacker up to the powerful De Havilland Sea Vixen with plans on the horizon for the even more sophisticated Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnell Douglas Phantom. The problem was that the training infrastructure in place for the FAA was falling behind the frontline aircraft and so the gap between the lead-in fighter trainers such as the Hawker Fury and the operational conversion units was rapidly growing.
Therefore in the mid-to-late 1950s the FAA looked at options to acquire a new and more capable advanced trainer to plug the gap. After evaluating several options the FAA decided that it would reverse its policy on acquiring jets designed specifically for them and acquire the training version of the RAF’s superlative Hawker Hunter, the Hunter T.7, but tailored to their needs. This produced the Hunter T.8 and this in turn spawned several sub-variants.
Hawker Hunter T.8
In outlining its requirement for the Hunter the FAA decided against making the Hunter carrier-capable as this would increase development (and subsequently unit) costs but the aircraft would have to train FAA pilots in the delicate and dangerous art of carrier landings. To do this a series of arrestor wires could be stretched across the runway at a shore based training station to simulate a carrier deck allowing the pilots to practice making carrier approaches. In order to catch the wire the Hunter T.8 was fitted with a tail hook but this was not strong enough to bring the aircraft to a full halt. It would simply pull on the arrestor wire to allow a ground instructor to grade the landing by the student pilot.
As well as training pilots how to land on a carrier the Hunters were also employed as lead-in fighter trainers teaching pilots the skills necessary for basic air-to-air and air-to-ground combat before moving on to a conversion unit where these skills would be built upon depending on the aircraft and role they would undertake operationally. The first unit to receive the Hunter T.8 was No.726 NAS based at RNAS Lossiemouth. A total of 35 Hunter T.8s were built or converted from ex-RAF Hunter F.4s and served with No.726 NAS and No.764 NAS.
The Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 offered a whole new dimension to the Fleet Air Arm’s ability to fly low and fast but the lack of a dedicated trainer version meant that the FAA turned to the Hunter to fill the gap. Four aircraft were converted to act as trainers for the Buccaneer and featured among other Buccaneer systems a TACAN navigation suite. The new variant was designated the Hunter T.8B and remained in service until the Buccaneer S.2 was withdrawn in 1978 but the RAF would later adopt a similar aircraft for the same role when they inherited the navy’s Buccaneer force.
Hawker Hunter T.8C
Ten of the ex-RAF Hunter F.4s converted to T.8 standard in the early 1960s were fitted with TACAN navigation suites. A tactical air navigation system, commonly referred to by the acronym TACAN, is a navigation system used by military aircraft. It provides the aircrew with a bearing and distance in relation to a ground- or ship-based station. These aircraft were delivered to No.759 NAS at RNAS Brawdy in North Wales and received the peculiar designation of T.8C and were used to train pilots preparing to join a Scimitar or Sea Vixen (later Phantom FG.1) squadron where using these systems were an integral part of flying. A number of observers were also trained in the system’s use.
As the Royal Navy began scaling back its carrier force such a large training organization was no longer needed and so the three squadrons were disbanded and their personnel and aircraft amalgamated in to a single training squadron based at RNAS Yeovilton under the banner of No.899 NAS. For a very brief time this was the Royal Navy’s only operational fast jet unit between the retirement of HMS Ark Royal and the delivery of the first Sea Harrier FRS.1s.
As well as traditional training tasks the Hunter T.8/8Cs also acted as adversaries for the Royal Navy’s surface fleet training naval gunners and surface-to-air missile (SAM) operators in acquiring high speed low level attack jets. For this role the aircraft were modified with a Harley light in the nose that made the aircraft more visible to new gunners. Once the gunners became more proficient the light would be turned off to provide a more realistic target. This training would prove invaluable during the 1982 Falklands Conflict particularly during the landings at San Carlos.
Between the late 1970s and early 1980s the Hunters were slowly passed to the civilian operated Fleet Requirements and Direction Unit (FRADU) who continued to use them in the target role for surface ships. They were eventually replaced by British Aerospace Hawks.
One of the most well-known naval variants of the Hunter in FAA service were the small number of Hunter T.8Ms. The introduction of the Sea Harrier FRS.1 brought with it new problems regarding training of aircrew. It was a totally new form of air operations and the navy’s version was different still being fitted with the large Blue Fox radar. The FAA used two seat Harriers to train their pilots how to fly the aircraft but these lacked the weapon system and it would have been impractical to develop a Harrier trainer with the radar.
Therefore the decision was taken to fit the radar and its accompanying systems to a handful of Hunter T.8s to train the Sea Harrier pilots how to use the weapon system operationally. This produced arguably the most attractive version of the Hunter and many viewed it as a taste of the potential the aircraft had in the late fifties had development continued. The trainee pilot could fly the Hunter T.8M almost exactly like the Sea Harrier FRS.1 bar of course the V/STOL capability and this meant that the aircraft could theoretically have a wartime role of rear guard air defence. As well as the Blue Fox radar the aircraft was wired to carry an AIM-9L Sidewinder acquisition training round to simulate firing the live weapon.
Despite the success of the aircraft no new variant was developed to train FAA pilots on the Sea Harrier FA.2 with its far more sophisticated Blue Vixen radar. Instead the FAA adopted a combination of flight time in the two seat Harrier trainer and ground tuition.