de Havilland Sea Vixen

de Havilland Sea Vixen
DH.110 Sea Vixen
Role Carrier-based fighter
Manufacturer de Havilland
First flight 26 September 1951[1]
Introduction July 1959
Retired 1972
Primary user Royal Navy
Number built 145

The de Havilland DH.110 Sea Vixen was a twin boom 1950s–1960s British two-seat jet fighter of the Fleet Air Arm designed by de Havilland. Developed from an earlier first generation jet fighter, the Sea Vixen was a capable carrier-based fleet defence fighter that served into the 1970s. Initially produced by de Havilland it was later known as the Hawker Siddeley Sea Vixen when de Havilland became a part of the Hawker Siddeley group.



The aircraft was originally known as the DH.110; a twin-engined all-weather fighter, development of which started in 1946 following discussions with the Admiralty of its requirements for jet all-weather fighters.[1] De Havilland's design shared the twin-boom layout of the de Havilland Vampire, had an all-metal structure and featured swept wings. It was to be powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon engines, each capable of 7,500 lbf (33 kN) of thrust, which would allow the aircraft to be supersonic in a shallow dive.[1] Armament was to be four 30 mm ADEN cannons. In January 1947, specifications N.40/46 and F.44/46 were issued by the British Air Ministry for similar night-fighters to equip the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and Royal Air Force (RAF),[1] with nine prototypes being ordered for the RAF (together with four of the competing Gloster Javelin) and four prototypes for the Fleet Air Arm.[2][3] In 1949, however, the Royal Navy decided to buy the de Havilland Sea Venom, which as a development of an existing type was cheaper and available quickly to meet its immediate needs for a jet-powered night fighter to replace its piston-engined de Havilland Sea Hornets, while the RAF cut its order back to two prototypes.[1] Despite this, de Havilland continued with the project.[4]

Preserved Sea Vixen XP924 in England

The prototype took to the skies on 26 September 1951 piloted by John Cunningham;[3] the aircraft's performance exceeded expectations, and by the following year it was regularly flying faster than the speed of sound.[1] However, tragedy struck while the aircraft was being demonstrated at the Farnborough Airshow on 6 September 1952.[5] Following a demonstration of its ability to break the sound barrier, the aircraft disintegrated, killing 31 people, including the crew of two: test pilot and record breaker John Derry and Tony Richards.[5] The failure was traced to faulty design of the end sections of the main spar, which resulted in the outer ends of the wings shearing off during a high-rate turn. The subsequent shift in the DH.110's centre of gravity caused the aircraft to lurch violently, creating forces of over 12 g, resulting in the cockpit and tail sections breaking away and the engines being torn from the airframe. One of the engines hit an area crowded with spectators at the end of the runway, causing the majority of casualties. Other spectators were injured by debris from the cockpit landing close to the main spectator enclosures alongside the runway. This incident led to a major restructuring of the safety regulations for air shows in the UK and since this crash no member of the public has died as a result of an airshow accident in the UK.[5]

Owing to this incident, modifications were made to the second prototype, including the fitting of an all-moving tailplane, the modified aircraft not flying again until July 1954.[6] By this time, the RAF had abandoned its interest in the DH.110, choosing instead the Javelin[7] but the Fleet Air Arm decided to adopt the DH.110 to replace its interim Sea Venoms. The Sea Vixen became the definitive aircraft to dispense with guns, being armed with de Havilland Firestreak air-to-air missiles as apart of an integrated weapon system.[8][1] In 1955, a semi-navalised variant was produced as a prototype, including changes of the leading edge profile and strengthening of the wings,[9] making its first flight that same year. The following year, the aircraft made its first arrested deck landing on the fleet aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.[8] The first true Sea Vixen, the Sea Vixen FAW.20 (fighter all-weather, later redesignated FAW.1), first flew on 20 March 1957;[9] and on 2 July 1959, the first Sea Vixen equipped squadron formed.[10]

Two Sea Vixen FAW.1 aircraft (XJ571 & XN694) of 899 Sqn, one refuelling the other at a 1960s Farnborough Air Show


The Sea Vixen had a twin-boom tail, as used on the de Havilland Sea Vampire and Sea Venom. The Sea Vixen became the first British aircraft to be solely armed with missiles, rockets and bombs. The Sea Vixen FAW.1 was armed with four de Havilland Firestreak air-to-air missiles, two Microcell unguided 2 inch (51 mm) rocket packs and had a capacity for four 500 lb (227 kg) or two 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs. It was powered by two 11,230 lbf (50.0 kN) thrust Rolls-Royce Avon 208 turbojet engines; had a speed of 690 mph (1,110 km/h) and a range of 600 mi (1,000 km). The original DH.110 design as offered to the RAF had cannons fitted; however the cannons were soon removed and an all-missile armament was developed.[9]

The pilot's canopy is offset to the left hand side. The observer is housed to the right completely within the fuselage, gaining access through a flush-fitting top hatch into his position.[9][N 1]

A Sea Vixen FAW.2 at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford

The Sea Vixen FAW.2 was the successor to the FAW.1 and included many improvements. As well as Firestreak missiles, it could carry the Red Top AAM, four SNEB rocket pods and the air-to-ground Bullpup missile. An enlarged tail boom allowed for additional fuel tanks in the "pinion" extensions above and before the wing leading edge, and there was an improved escape system along with additional room for more electronic counter-measures equipment. However, the changes in aerodynamics meant that the 1,000 lb bomb was no longer able to be carried. Visually the FAW.1 and FAW.2 may be distinguished by the tail booms which extend forward over the leading edge of the wing on the FAW.2.

The FAW.2 first flew in 1962 and entered service with front line squadrons in 1964, with 29 being built and a further 67 FAW.1s being upgraded to FAW.2 standard. The FAW.1 began phasing out in 1966. In 1972, the career of the Sea Vixen FAW.2 came to an end. It was planned to replace the Sea Vixen with the F-4 Phantom II, with both HMS Ark Royal and Eagle to be refitted to take the new aircraft. In the event, due to defence cuts and following the decommissioning of HMS Eagle, only Ark Royal was converted to take the new aircraft.

A small number of Sea Vixen subsequently saw service in the less glamorous roles of drone, being redesignated Sea Vixen D.3. Only four were converted to the D.3 standard.[11] though three more were sent to Farnborough for conversion but not converted.[11] The last remaining airworthy Sea Vixen (XP924) was a D3 conversion.[11] Some other Sea Vixens became target tugs and were redesignated as TT.2.

Operational history

Landing on HMS Eagle

The aircraft did not take part in any true wars during its career with the Fleet Air Arm though it took part in many operations. In 1961, President Abdul Karim Kassem of Iraq threatened to annex the neighbouring oil-rich state of Kuwait. In response to Kuwait's appeal for external help, the United Kingdom dispatched a number of ships to the region, including two fleet carriers. Sea Vixens aboard the fleet carriers flew patrols in the region, and Kassem's aggressive actions wilted in the face of the strong naval presence, thus averting a Gulf War over Kuwait.

In January 1964, trouble flared in the East African state of Tanganyika after the 1st and 2nd Tanganyika Rifles mutinied against the British officers and NCOs who, despite Tanganyika being independent, still commanded the regiment. The mutineers also seized the British High Commissioner and the airport at the capital Dar-es-Salaam. The UK responded by sending the light fleet carrier HMS Centaur, accompanied by 45 Commando, Royal Marines. The Sea Vixens, flying off Centaur, performed a number of duties including the providing of cover for the Royal Marines who were landed in Tanganyika by helicopters. The operation "to restore Tanganyika to stability" ended in success. That same year, Sea Vixens of HMS Centaur saw service once again in the Persian Gulf, including the launch of air-strikes against rebel forces, this time supporting British forces fighting against locals disgruntled by the loss of tolls in the Radfan. Later in 1964, HMS Centaur's 892 Squadron Sea Vixens stationed off Indonesia, helped to prevent an escalation of President Sukarno's Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation.[12]

Sea Vixens saw further service during the 1960s, performing duties on Beira Patrol, a Royal Navy operation designed to prevent oil reaching landlocked Rhodesia via the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique. The Sea Vixen also saw service in the Far East. In 1967, once again in the Persian Gulf, Sea Vixens helped cover the withdrawal from Aden. There were a number of Royal Navy warships involved, including the carriers HMS Albion, Bulwark and Eagle (carrying the Sea Vixens) and the LPD (Landing Platform Dock) HMS Fearless.

The Sea Vixen also took to the skies in the aerobatic role, performing in two Royal Navy display teams: "Simon's Sircus" (sic) and "Fred's Five".

A small number of Sea Vixens were sent to FR Aviation at Tarrant Rushton airfield for conversion to D.3 drone standard, with some undergoing testing at RAF Llanbedr before the drone programme was abandoned.[13][14] Among them was XP924, now G-CVIX, the only Sea Vixen to remain in flying condition, which has now been returned to 899 NAS colours. Owned and operated by De Havilland Aviation, G-CVIX can be viewed at their hangar at Bournemouth Airport in Dorset, southern England, or at air shows around the UK. Many other Sea Vixens remain in good condition but do not fly.


899 Sqn Sea Vixen FAW.2 on Eagle, 1970

Military operators

 United Kingdom
Sea Vixen FAW.1 units
Squadron/ Flight From First on carrier To Codes Comment
700 Sqn Y Flight [15] 01958-11-01November 1958[16] Never 01959-07-022 July 1959  ? Intensive Flying Trials Unit (IFTU) based at RNAS Yeovilton.[16] Reformed as 892 Sqn.[17]
892 Sqn[15] 01959-07-022 July 1959 01960-03-033 March 1960[17]
Ark Royal
01965 1965 208-219 Flew from: Ark Royal, Victorious, Hermes and Centaur (late 1963 to mid-1965, the fourth and last commission of the ship)
890 Sqn[15] 01960-02-011 February 1960 01960-07-01July 1960
01966 1966[18] 240-254 Flew from: Hermes and Ark Royal. Disbanded 1966, reformed September 1967 initially with four FAW.1, and converting to FAW.2.[18]
893 Sqn[15] 01960-09-099 September 1960[17] Ark Royal 01964 1964 455-468 Flew from: Victorious, with short periods on: Ark Royal and Centaur.
899 Sqn[15] 01961-02-011 February 1961[17]  ? 01965 1965 485-489 Sea Vixen HQ Sqn Yeovilton, with short periods on: Eagle. 899 was the first squadron to evaluate and operate Sea Vixen FAW2 aircraft
766B Training Sqn[15] 01959-10-01October 1959 1964 Eagle post refit trials 01965 1965?[19] 710-722 1962 renamed Naval Air Fighter School; provided a/c and crews for "Fred's Five" aerobatic team, all of whom were instructors on 766 squadron.
Sea Vixen FAW.2 units
Squadron/ Flight From First on carrier To Codes Comment
13 JSTU[20] 01964-04-01April 1964 Never 01966-02-01February 1966[20] 13 Joint Service Trials Unit (13 JSTU). Red Top trials at Hatfield and Boscombe Down.
899 Sqn[19] 01963-12-01December 1963 01964-12-01December 1964
01972-02-01February 1972 120-127
Flew from: Eagle.
Last operational carrier embarked Sea Vixen squadron
766 Sqn[19] 01965-07-077 July 1965[18] Never? 01970-02-1010 February 1970?[N 2][N 3] 700-707
Naval Air Fighter School, Yeovilton
893 Sqn[19] 01965-11-044 November 1965[18] 01966-04-1919 April 1966
01970-07-01July 1970[21] 240-247
Flew from: Victorious, Yeovilton, RAF Akrotiri, then Hermes.
892 Sqn[19] 01963 1963[21] Hermes 01968-10-01October 1968 301-315 Flew from Hermes. 1968 Simon's Circus aerobatic team from this squadron performed at Farnborough Air Show.
890 Sqn[19] 01967-09-01September 1967[18] Never 01971-08-066 August 1971[21] 750-755[N 4] [N 5] Trials and operations unit at Yeovilton with mix of FAW.1 and FAW.2.
For a short period 1964-5 Ark Royal.
FRU[21] 01971-08-066 August 1971? Never 01972-12-011 December 1972[19] 750-755[19][23] Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU). When 890 Sqn disbanded some aircraft passed to Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU), Yeovilton. FRU became Fleet Requirements and Air Defence Unit (FRADU) on 1 December 1972.
FRADU[21] 01972-12-011 December 1972[19] Never 01974-01-01January 1974[24] 750-755[19][23] Fleet Requirements and Air Defence Unit (FRADU). Retired Sea Vixen on grounds of cost.[19] Jan 1974.[21]

Civilian operators


De Havilland Sea Vixen in sponsored livery at a 2004 airshow. It has since been returned to Royal Navy livery.[25]
Sea Vixen on display at the de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre. Cockpit open for visitors to sit in.

Only one Sea Vixen is still airworthy:

The following complete airframes also survive:

In addition, a number of partial airframes (principally nose and cockpit sections) survive in private and public collections around the world.

Specifications (Sea Vixen FAW.2)

Sea Vixen FAW 2.svg

Data from The Great Book of Fighters[26]

General characteristics



GEC AI.18 Air Interception radar

See also

Related development

Related lists
  • List of fighter aircraft


  1. ^ "Observer" is the FAA term for the navigator/radar operator – the US Navy's equivalent is the radar intercept officer (RIO).
  2. ^ Fiddler 1985, Table 4 says that 766 Sqn disbanded 10 February 1970.[19]
  3. ^ [17] Birtles 1986, p. 107 says that 766 Sqn disbanded 10 December 1970. It is not known which date for 766 Sqn disbanding is correct.</ref>
  4. ^ Fiddler 1985, Table 4 says 750-755 initially, with 001-007 and 010-014 during a brief period on Ark Royal in 1964-65, and 701-706 from 1971.[22]
  5. ^ Birtles 1986, p. 107 says that 890 Sqn was disbanded in 1966 and reformed in 1967. Further research is required here.[21]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g Neal 1960, p. 179.
  2. ^ Birtles 1991, p. 194.
  3. ^ a b Jackson 1987, p. 470.
  4. ^ Birtles 1991, pp. 195, 198.
  5. ^ a b c "On This Day - 1952: Dozens die in air show tragedy." BBC News, 6 September 1952.
  6. ^ Jackson 1987, p. 471.
  7. ^ Neal 1960, pp. 179-180.
  8. ^ a b Birtles 1991, pp. 198–199.
  9. ^ a b c d Neal 1960, p. 180.
  10. ^ Jackson 1987, p. 472.
  11. ^ a b c The aircraft converted to D.3 standard were: XN657, XP924, XS577 and XS 587. The aircraft sent sent to Farnborough for conversion but not converted were: XJ494, XN658, XN688. See "UK Serials." UK Retrieved: 27 September 2010.
  12. ^ McCart 1997, p. 96.
  13. ^ Birtles 1991, p. 201.
  14. ^ Jackson 1987, p. 474.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Fiddler 1985, Table 3.
  16. ^ a b Hobbs 1982, p. 20.
  17. ^ a b c d e Birtles 1986, p. 102.
  18. ^ a b c d e Birtles 1986, p. 106.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Fiddler 1985, Table 4.
  20. ^ a b Birtles 1986, p. 103.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Birtles 1986, p. 107.
  22. ^ Fiddler 1985, Table 4.
  23. ^ a b "History of the FRADU." Retrieved: 27 September 2010.
  24. ^ Birtles, Philip, Postwar Military Aircraft: 5, de Havilland Vampire, Venom and Sea Vixen, page 107 says Jan 1974.
  25. ^ "Sea Vixen: G-CVIX." Retrieved: 8 August 2010.
  26. ^ Green, William and Gordon Swanborough. The Great Book of Fighters. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-7603-1194-3.
  27. ^ "Sea Vixen FAW Mk.2 Flight Reference Cards AP101B-3002-14." Ministry of Technology, 1968, rev. 1970.
  • Birtles, Philip. Postwar Military Aircraft 5: de Havilland Vampire, Venom and Sea Vixen. London: Ian Allan, 1986, ISBN 0-7110-1566-X.
  • Birtles, Philip. "Sea Vixen: Britain's first missile specialist". Air International, April 1991, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 194–201. Stamford, UK: Key Publishing. ISSN 0306-5634.
  • Donald, David and Jon Lake, eds. Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft. London: AIRtime Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-880588-24-2.
  • Fiddler, Brian. Sea Vixen. Ilchester, Somerset, UK: The Society of Friends of the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Fleet Air Arm Museum RNAS Yeovilton, 1985, ISBN 0-948251-03-4.
  • Gunston, Bill. Fighters of the Fifties. North Branch, Minnesota: Specialty Press Publishers & Wholesalers, Inc., 1981. ISBN 0-933424-32-9.
  • Hobbs, Lt Cdr David. Aircraft of the Royal Navy Since 1945. Liskeard, UK: Maritime Books, 1982, ISBN 0-907771-06-08.
  • Jackson, A.J. De Havilland Aircraft since 1909. London: Putnam,, Third edition 1987. ISBN 0-85177-802-X.
  • McCart, Neil. HMS "Centaur", 1943-72. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK: Fan Publications, 1997. ISBN 978-0951953891.
  • Neal, Molly. "Sea Vixen." Flight, 5 February 1960, pp. 179-186.
  • Taylor, John W. R. "De Havilland Sea Vixen". Combat Aircraft of the World from 1909 to the Present. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969. ISBN 0-425-03633-2.
  • Winchester, Jim, ed. "De Havilland DH.110 Sea Vixen." Military Aircraft of the Cold War (The Aviation Factfile). London: Grange Books plc, 2006. ISBN 1-84013-929-3.

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