Visitors to this year’s Scampton Airshow will undoubtedly be drawn towards the impressive array of classic jets on static display. In fact, it is one line up that’d be virtually impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world. The Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter , Blackburn Buccaneer, McDonnell Douglas Phantom F-4F and Hawker Hunters belong to Hawker Hunter Aviation (HHA), which has been based here at the airfield since 2000.
The company owns, operates and maintains a remarkable fleet of fast jets for the purpose of undertaking aerial work on behalf of defence contractors and government agencies. Even those that are not currently airworthy are either in inhibited storage or kept in ground running condition, and could be returned to the skies should a requirement arise.
Today, HHA has no fewer than 14 Hunters on its books – ten of these famous British designed aircraft are Rolls-Royce Avon 200-powered single-seat Mk.58s which once served with the Swiss Air Force. Three Avon 122-powered twin-seat Hunter T.7/T.8 trainer variants and one GA.11 are in storage.
The Russian-built Su-22 M4 Fitter is a former East German Air Force machine (but is marked up for the airshow in its post reunification German markings as ‘98+14’). Both it and Buccaneer S.2B XX885 undergo regular maintenance and ground runs. In addition to these, HHA now also has an ex-Luftwaffe F-4F Phantom, (once again coded in its original German markings as 37+89 for the show) on display this weekend – it’s currently being used as a ground instructional airframe.
“RAF Scampton is the ideal home for us, and we’re pleased to be supporting the airshow here,” says HHA’s Managing Director Mat Potulski. “We’re looking forward to the weekend as it’s a relatively rare opportunity for us to show some of our aircraft to the public. We’ll be pulling out the Sukhoi, the Buccaneer, the Phantom and at least one of the Hunters. Some of our aircrew and engineers will be on hand to talk to visitors about the aircraft and some of the things we as a company do. “Airshow audiences are very diverse but on the whole enthusiastic; we’re looking forward to chatting with them. Personally I always find it fun engaging with the younger generation and generating that spark of interest, which may lead to a love for engineering and aviation. Hence we’re delighted to be supporting this event – not just because it’s at our home base but because it’s raising money for a wonderful cause, the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust.”
HHA fulfils two vital roles. It works with defence contractors on aerial trials support and it also provides aircraft for threat simulation, thereby aiding and assisting military training. As a consequence, and somewhat unusually, HHA operates its aircraft on the UK military register rather than in the civil ‘permit to fly’ category. The reason is that air navigation orders state that civilian-registered aircraft of military design origin cannot be used for commercial activities. Their use is effectively limited to film work and airshows, and their flight envelope is heavily restricted. Operating on the military register exempts HHA from such restrictions and also means that the company’s activities are regulated and audited by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), thereby enabling seamless integration with Ministry of Defence (MoD) assets and providing assurance that the HHA’s Safety Management Systems, procedures and training are aligned with those found within the RAF.
“The question we’re often asked is how can we provide credible training or trials effects with ‘legacy’ aircraft such as Hunters [a type that entered service in the 1950s] when the world is seeing the likes of F-35s and F-22s entering service,” says Mat. “To answer that, you have to look at what the aircraft can actually deliver in a prescribed adversary training role, and its performance as a pure ‘air vehicle’, plus of course its sustainability and spares support going forward from here.
“Our former Swiss Air Force Hunter Mk.58s offer a basic platform with superlative subsonic performance. It goes higher, faster and further than a Hawk whilst also having multiple hardpoints for carrying additional stores. It’s like a Hawk on steroids. Supportability is good as evidenced by over 30,000 Hunter flying hours accrued in the last ten years by US-based operators on contract to the US Navy.
“Part of the original aircraft selection process which led HHA’s purchase of the Hunter MK.58s was identifying a ‘clockwork’ aircraft with mechanical rather than fly-bywire flying controls. This greatly eases the integration of the modern threat emulation and pod mounted electronic warfare systems we carry versus the cost of doing so in a more modern fly-by-wire aircraft, where emissions from the ‘kit’ could potentially cause interference with the primary flight control systems.”
Why carry Electronic Warfare (EW) kit? “Threat emulation and EW equipment simulate the radar emissions of enemy aircraft and by carrying this type of equipment we can simulate being a totally different aircraft type”. HHA performing this role helps the military train to respond to any real threats whilst saving their own aircraft from expensive flying hours and fatigue. “While the Hunter is an older design, our aircraft are a bit like ‘Triggers broom’.
Nominally the same broom – but 30 different heads and ten different handles. Ours have been continuously updated and are currently going through a modification process where they are being equipped with glass cockpits, electric start and further threat emulation equipment. There’s plenty of life left in them, with our fleet leader having clocked up just over 3,000hrs while the youngest has around 1,000hrs total time. Compare that with many of the Hawk T.1s flying, which have between 7,000-9,000hrs on the clock.”
In recent years, a couple of ex-German F-4F Phantoms have also joined HHA’s line up, one of which will be on static display this weekend. Like the Hunters, they’re not flyby- wire, but they’re extremely fast and can carry a huge variety of equipment.
“The Phantoms will enable us to undertake various tasking that involve supersonic flight,” says Mat. “There’s one F-4F that is about to commence overhaul in Germany, and the other is here at Scampton, which we currently use as a ground procedures trainer. They will eventually fly on the UK military register with the one currently still in Germany having had the registration ZK848 allocated to it. The acquisition process has taken a long time, because it has meant dealing with ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] and included working with the US Department of Defence, the German MoD and the MoD here in Britain – so a lot of people generating a lot of paperwork have been involved in the process.
“It’s a supersonic fighter jet with modern systems fitted within, so getting them ready was always going to be a complex affair, and one that we are determined to do correctly and get right. Remember that the aircraft itself is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the infrastructure and certification processes that have to be established to operate the type. All of our activity is audited and endorsed by the MAA, and with that relationship in place we are able to make this work.”
Both the Buccaneer and the Sukhoi could also be reactivated if a contractual requirement arose. So far there hasn’t been one, but both of these remarkable Cold War survivors are regularly ground run to ensure their condition doesn’t deteriorate. They’ll be on show to visitors this weekend, and should they ever fly again, Scampton is the perfect base.
Mat: “When you operate aircraft like ours you really need a long runway, air traffic control that is familiar with fast jets, appropriately trained crash rescue and a myriad of other things that pertain to military air ops – and that’s exactly what we’ve got here at RAF Scampton. It’s the ideal home for us, and we really hope the airshow will raise the airfield’s profile. We’d like this important and historic base to remain open and active for many years to come.”