Fairey Gannet AEW Mk3

Fairy Gannet AEW Mk3

Although generally derided as probably the ugliest aircraft ever to overcome gravity, the Fairey Gannet AEW3 nevertheless fulfilled a vital AEW role for the RN for many years. The Gannet AEW3 was a highly modified version of the Gannet AS (Anti Submarine) aircraft that first flew in June 1953 and entered service with 703 Sqn on 7 Jan 54. The aircraft's powerplant was, like the rest of the aeroplane, rather odd. The Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba ASMD1 engine provided 2950ehp and was basically two Mamba engines mounted side-by-side, linked to a common gearbox and driving contra-rotating, co-axial propellers - however, despite all this, the aircraft was underpowered.

Fairy Gannet AEW Mk3 observers cabin

At an early stage of the Gannet's development, it was realised that an AEW version could be developed to replace the aging piston-engined Douglas Skyraider AEW Mk1. However, in order to enable the Gannet to carry out the AEW role, it was necessary to make some significant modifications to the airframe and powerplant. The two rear cockpits, weapons bay and radar radome were removed. A large radome to house the AN/APS-20F radar from the Skyraider was positioned under the fuselage to the rear of the nosewheel bay. These changes resulted in the fin being increased in size and a longer undercarriage being fitted to provide ground clearance. The pilots cockpit remained virtually identical to the AS version, but in the AEW version the two radar operators were located in a cramped cabin buried in the fuselage and accessed by way of a door above the wing trailing edge. To cope with the extra weight of all the equipment, a new version of the Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba engine was introduced, the 112 engine which provided 3875ehp and produced what can only be described as a distinctive noise. The prototype Gannet AEW3 first flew on 20 Aug 58 in the hands of the Chief Test Pilot, Peter Twiss, and an order for 44 Gannet AEW Mk3's was placed with Fairey.

Fairy Gannet AEW Mk3

In those distant days the RN could field no less than 8 carriers: Ark Royal, Eagle, Hermes, Victorious, Glory, Albion, Bulwark and Centaur. The AEW Gannet was only operated by 849 Sqn that was split into 4 flights, A, B, C and D which then operated a small number of aircraft from one of these carriers. However, the rundown of the RN carrier fleet soon began and in Oct 1966 C Flt disbanded. A Flt was next to disbanded in Jul 70, followed by D Flt in Jan 72, leaving only B Flt operating, to the best of their ability, an obsolescent aircraft from an obsolescent aircraft carrier with a keel full of concrete. Finally, in 1978 the old Ark Royal was dispatched to the scrapyard to be converted into razor blades and on 15 Dec 78 C Flt disbanded. The remaining Gannets were flown to RAF Lossiemouth and most were scrapped, although one or two survived to appear in Museums and a couple were briefly used for civilian tasks.

It says something about the pathetic state of the MOD finances and the procurement process in the 1970's, that it was decided to remove the completely obsolescent AN/APS-20F radars from the Gannet's and retrofit them into a number of obsolescent Shackletons in an effort to provide some AEW cover. It's worth considering that the AN/APS-20 radar first saw service with the Douglas Skyraider AEW Mk1 in 1952 and that the Shackleton AEWs had to remain in service until 1991, carrying essentially 35+ year old radars, because of the fiasco of the Nimrod AEW. Finally, common sense prevailed and the Boeing E-3D Sentry was purchased and at long last an AEW aircraft with reasonable capabilities eventually entered UK service.