June 07 2013
It was a rare, balmy afternoon in March and I was lost in Somerset and looking for a hotel when I came across a group of elderly men standing between the road and a high fence topped with razor wire. The men were holding Thermos flasks and carrying binoculars and cameras. Distracted by my lack of positional awareness, I imagined I had come across a flock of twitchers searching for a migrating warbler when, without warning, the sky darkened to the left and two black shapes came quickly over the wire and crossed the road about 100ft above me. One was a split second behind the other and as they passed they emitted a noise of such intensity that the shock forced me to stand on my brakes and pull over onto the grass verge. I only narrowly missed a twitcher balancing on a folding chair.
The shapes were low-flying aircraft and I had mistakenly driven down a small lane to the west of the runway at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton. The men with binoculars were in fact plane spotters (although it is fair to say that the species are easily confused). They told me that the aircraft were Hawker Hunter Mk58 single-seat fighters – rare birds indeed.
The spotters explained that on active service the Hunter is not simply efficient, it is beautiful. In service, they were armed with four Aden cannon and could carry 7,400lb of bombs and missiles. If they had passed by with a few hundred feet more altitude, I would have recognised them straight away with their elegant swept wings and graceful fuselage and the distinctive howl of their Rolls-Royce Avon engines. But they were gone in a flash, one banking to the left, the other to the right, each leaving a slight smoky disturbance in the evening air before they disappeared at high speed towards the setting sun. After a while they returned at 500ft and flew back over the airfield in battle formation.
The appearance of this brace of exotic war-birds exiting a Nato base was puzzling because the Hunter went out of service with the RAF and the Royal Navy over 30 years ago (although they remained in use for training purposes until the 1990s).
It also got me wondering if it is possible to buy a fast jet and fly it yourself. I confess to fantasies about hurtling around the skies in control of £30m worth of military technology, although I know it’s a hopeless dream. But to do this you have to be an experienced pilot, trained in sophisticated avionics and military technology. I have a friend who flies Typhoons for the RAF and he patiently explained how hard it is to qualify as one of Her Majesty’s pilots: “It is the weaponry which is complicated; flying them is simple.”
But could a civilian buy a fighter without the guns and military hardware, just for the fun of owning and flying one? The thought of packing your golf clubs into the nose of a McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet and nipping over to Sawgrass for a lesson with the pro is infinitely more beguiling than puttering about in a puddle jumper. And aircraft such as Hunters do regularly come up for sale in the UK. A glance at the internet shows where they are available. Vintage fast jets are advertised in Pilot magazine and Flight International, while a visit to Duxford during the Flying Legends airshow in July and a chat in the airfield café will often turn up details of “legacy” aircraft for sale. A call to Weald or Rainbow Aviation often produces results, too.
I have spent time with the RAF and been lucky enough to fly in military aircraft, so I know that flying in a fast jet is one of the most exciting experiences you can have. If you are in the Services, you are sent to the RAF Medical Centre to experience hypoxia and rapid decompression in a hypobaric chamber, or to the tank at HMS Dolphin to learn how to escape from a submerged fuselage, but this training isn’t necessary for civil aviation.
My first supersonic flight was about 10 years ago in an RAF Tornado F3, a very quick, twin-seat fighter. I was strapped into the weapons officer’s seat behind the pilot, dressed in layers of flameproof, protective clothing, a submersible suit with a heavy helmet and an oxygen mask and radio telephone clipped to my face. My trousers were attached to the hydraulic system and leg restraints were fitted to make sure I would not leave my knees behind if I ejected. I was told about ejection at the briefing and by the pilot as we waited for clearance. Takeoff was a dream – like a bird, the plane soaring, climbing vertically, then “bang” and we were away.
The flight is violent because fast-jet-fighter aircraft are agile and built to be thrown around at high speed. After leaving Coningsby, the pilot turned the Tornado sharply to the right and the anti-G kicked in. The system pushed air into my trousers, which forced my blood back to my head so I didn’t black out. Your body becomes so heavy that you are unable to even lift your hands and then, suddenly, the plane is out of the turn and flying straight and you’re back to normal.
The pilot took the Tornado at low level over the Norfolk coast and joined up with the rest of the squadron and a Tanker aircraft and refuelled. We landed back at Coningsby 40 minutes later. Utter exhilaration.
I asked Group Captain Dave Roome, for many years a fighter pilot and flying instructor with the RAF, what qualifications a civilian would need to fly an ex-military fast jet. Apart from a UK private pilot’s licence, he told me I’d need a radio telephone licence, so I can talk to the ground from the cockpit, and also to do a conversion course to the type of aircraft I was going to fly. Flying a jet as pilot-in-command would require an advanced navigation course and additional flying hours.
He told me that the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) tends not to give clearance to “supersonic” or “complex” aircraft for private use, although there is no hard and fast rule. And it generally does not license aircraft manufactured overseas because it will have no engineering back-up in the UK.
Roome recently provided fast-jet training to Ian Pringle, a civilian helicopter pilot who had acquired a Hunter and a Buccaneer from Delta Jets (since folded) at Kemble Airfield and flew them in displays. I asked Ian about flying the Buccaneer, which is a two-seat bomber with only one set of controls. He told me that the aircraft, designed to fly fast and low and carry nuclear weapons, has two Rolls-Royce Spey engines and carries 7,000 litres of internal fuel. “It’s a great beast – 20m long and 5m high,” he says. “It’s a joy to fly but you will need many hours on fast jets first.”
Although I have flown as a passenger in a Hawk, Harrier, Sea Venom, Jaguar and Phantom F4 as well as a Tornado, I’ve never flown in a Hunter, so I called the Ministry of Defence and asked what the two Mk58s were doing at Yeovilton, which is an operational RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) base. It turned out that they were owned by Hawker Hunter Aviation, a private company based at RAF Scampton that provides fast‑jet services for the MoD and the defence industry. Heavy cuts to the British fast-jet inventory and related resources mean even simple training exercises like target towing have to be contracted out.
Hawker Hunter Aviation is financed and run by Mat Potulski, a successful management consultant in the City who became involved in military aviation in the 1990s when he went into business with Mark Hanna, co-founder of The Old Flying Machine Company, which maintains rare vintage aircraft in airworthy condition. I used to watch Hanna flying his Spitfire over the Berkshire Golf Club until he crashed and died flying a Hispano Buchon, the Spanish-built version of the Messerschmitt 109, in 1999. Potulski knew there was a business case to be made for a privately financed squadron that could be contracted to supply fast-jet services to the MoD. It would operate in a similar way to the American Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) in Newport Virginia and Apache Aviation at Istres near Aix-en-Provence.
In 2000, he decided to finance and run the company himself. By 2006, he had MoD approval for the company’s operating standards. His plan was to contract out services such as aerial threat simulation, aggressor training, forward air control and combat training. He began creating his private fast-jet squadron and his search happened to coincide with the Swiss Air Force decision to retire its Hawker Hunters and replace them with the American F5 Tiger. The Hunter had stopped work as an RAF operational day fighter in 1963, but the Swiss examples had been meticulously looked after and still had years of life in their airframes.
So the backbone of the HHA Squadron of 17 fast jets are 12 Mk58 Swiss single-seat Hunters and three former RAF T8 two-seat trainers. Potulski extended his acquisitions by snapping up a Buccaneer S.2B bomber that unexpectedly came up for sale at Phillips. It originally flew with No 12 squadron at Lossiemouth and could be made airworthy if a commerical client requirement arose. He finally acquired a Russian Luftwaffe SU22M4.
HHA has converted one of its Hunters to carry a radar seeker being tested for the UK’s Septor missile system and three more are being contracted out as agile fast-jet targets. I talked to HHA’s operations director and chief pilot Simon Hargreaves, who has 8,500 flying hours in fast jets under his belt. He told me that the Hunter has low operating costs and outperforms more modern RAF fast jets such as the Hawk. HHA has fitted its planes with upgraded navigation systems, and created more space for advanced technology.
A variety of military jets come on the market in Europe and are available to civilians. Hunters, Meteors, Gnats, Sea Venoms and Vampires have appeared for sale in recent months. If you can find one, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter bomber would be well worth considering. It’s a very sophisticated aircraft with a speed of Mach 2.2 (twice the speed of sound) and seats a pilot and weapons officer – or a husband and wife. The RAF flew several Phantom squadrons and, with 5,195 built, there is no spares problem.
Personally, I’d go for a Hunter. They’re not supersonic or complex and they fly at over 600 miles an hour but are comparatively easy to operate. Dave Roome told me that an airworthy Mk58 would cost in the region of £80,000. I would commission an expert operator such as HHA to source the aircraft and bring it up to speed. I’d also ask it to maintain the jet, acquire hangarage, ensure the licences are up to date and that the CAA is happy – and, in theory, HHA would be able to do all of this if the owner has passed the stringent medical tests. Once the aircraft is airworthy and you’re strapped into the pilot’s seat, it will cost you upwards of £20,000 per month plus parts and fuel. Chocks away.