Lt Cdr Steve (Skips) Collier RN Rtd, Navy Wings Chief Pilot, came to
Kingston on November 13th to talk about the organisation and aircraft
of what used to be called the Royal Navy Historic Flight. Steve has
over 10,000 hours in types ranging from helicopters to executive jets,
via fast jets and BAe 125s of the Royal Flight. He joined the Royal
Navy (RN) in 1970 serving for some 29 years during which he flew
Harrier GR3s, Sea Harrier FRSMk1s and FA2s, Hunter TMk8Ms and Hawks.
After the Navy he became a VIP business jet captain and a consultant
to, and pilot for, Navy Wings.
Navy Wings, Steve told us, encompasses the Heritage Flight, Naval Aviation Ltd, which operates the hangar, and the Fly Navy Heritage Trust fund raising charity. In 2017 the Navy announced that its support for the RN Heritage Flight would be tapering to £0 over five years. The twenty trustees of Fly Navy Heritage Trust have taken on the funding task. The result is that the heritage aircraft become civil registered but the pilots remain RN officers who must be licensed by the CAA. As yet there is no Memorandum of Understanding for these changes which must be signed off by the Treasury. A state of limbo exists because of government preoccupation with Brexit.
Navy Wings was launched in July 2016 with the aim of keeping the aircraft of the ‘core collection’ flying in conjunction with privately owned ‘associate aircraft’ to inspire future generations and to preserve and promote the UK’s national aviation heritage.
Funds are raised through ‘ambassadors’ and ‘high net worth’ (wealthy) supporters, corporate sponsors, trusts and foundations, legacies, supporters, and sales and merchandise.
Steve then described the core collection aircraft
starting with the famous Fairey Swordfish Mk 1, W5856, the oldest
surviving airworthy Swordfish in the world, which is a “Blackfish”,
built by Blackburn Aircraft. In 1990, the aircraft was bought from the
Strathallan Collection by British Aerospace and completely restored to
flying condition and was gifted to the Royal Navy Historic Flight.
W5856 was grounded with corrosion in her wing spars in 2003. However
BAE Systems constructed new wings which were delivered in 2012. W5856
was restored to flying condition and re-joined the display team in 2015.
Chipmunk T.10 WK608 was built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company at Chester and served with the RN until retirement of the type from service in 1993 when it was transferred to the Royal Navy Historic Flight thus becoming the last flying example of the type in RN service. It is used for continuation training throughout the year and provides the Navy Wings pilots with tailwheel experience needed for Sea Fury flying.
Sea Fury FB.11VR930 was built by Hawker Aircraft Ltd at Langley, was delivered to the Royal Navy in March 1948 and was put up for disposal in 1961. At RNAS Yeovilton the aircraft was used as a spares source for the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s original Sea Fury FB.11 (TF956) which had been restored at Dunsfold. With the loss of this aircraft in 1989 the decision was made to rebuild VR930 which was carried out at BAe Brough, eventually returning to flying condition in 1998. After a five years in the hangar undergoing refurbishment the aircraft was gifted by Parliament in November 2019 to Navy Wings where she will be operated on the civil register once the CAA is satisfied with airworthiness evidence.
Sea Fury T.20 G-RNHF (VX281) was the second T.20 aircraft built for the Fleet Air Arm and was delivered to the Royal Navy. In 1963, after modification at Dunsfold (readers may recall seeing VX281 there painted bright red) she was delivered to West Germany for target towing. In 2007 VX281 was acquired by the Heritage Trust from the United States and was rebuilt at North Weald, but in 2014 suffered engine failure during a display at RNAS Culdrose Air Day. She returned to flight following the charity’s successful appeal to buy a new Centaurus 18 engine and is now operated by Navy Wings. If CAA approval is obtained it is planned to offer flights in the T.20 to raise funds.
De Havilland Sea Vixen G-CVIX (XP924) was delivered to the Navy in December 1963 and served until 1971. Flight Refuelling converted her to a drone in 1973 and in 1996 she was acquired by de Havilland Aviation. In 2003 she was painted in “Red Bull” colours as a sponsorship arrangement and was subsequently purchased in 2006 by Drilling Systems Ltd (Mr Julian Jones) and operated from Bournemouth. March 2007 saw a return to Naval colours as XP 924 with the 899 Naval Air Squadron mailed fist logo. In 2017, operated by Navy Wings, XP 924 suffered an hydraulic failure resulting in a successful wheels-up landing by Simon Hargreaves. The aircraft is now in a period of suspended maintenance while a repair plan is developed and problems with the CAA are resolved.
Sea Hawk FGA.6 WV908, built at the Armstrong Whitworth factory at Baginton and delivered to the Royal Navy in 1955, flew with 806 NAS until 1960. In 1971 she was acquired by RNAS Culdrose where a team of volunteers restored her. In 1978 WV908 flew again and in 1982 joined the Royal Navy Historic Flight. From 1989 to 1996 she underwent a complete refurbishment at Dunsfold but now awaits funding to provide a flight-worthy R-R Nene engine.
Aircraft in the Associate Collection are privately owned and operated but fly in collaboration with Navy Wings. Current Associates are: Avro 504K replica, Bristol Scout 1264 rebuild, North American Harvard T.6 (AT-6D Texan), Westland Wasp HAS.1 XT420/G-CBUI, XT787/G-KAXT, Westland SA341C Gazelle HT.2 XX436, Stinson Reliant 42-46703, Westland Sea King HU.5 XV660, Westland Wessex 5 XT761/G-WSEX, Douglas Skyraider 126922/G-RADR. Future Associates include: Supermarine Seafire 17, Hawker Siddeley Sea Harrier FA.2, DH 82ATiger Moth T8191.
Steve finished his talk by outlining his wide ranging career in aviation which included an ejection from a Sea Harrier, firing AMRAAMs at Phantom F-4 drones from the Sea Harrier FA2 during trials at Eglin, flying Royal family members from the Queen downwards and members of the UK Government from the Prime Minister downwards - not forgetting flying the Grumman Gulfstream G.550 which can reach anywhere in the World with just one refuelling stop! The vote of thanks was given by Frank Rainsborough, a long standing supporter of Navy Wings and its predecessors.