Hawker Aircraft Ltd took over the lease of Dunsfold Aerodrome in 1950 (41). Hawker Aircraft Ltd went through many new names over the next half century, and as BAe Systems ceased activity at the aerodrome in 2000. The Aerodrome was sold to the Rutland Group in 2002. (42)
By the early 1950s, Hawker’s were developing jets for which the short, grass landing strips then available to them, were not sufficient. They needed long, hard-surfaced runways, which was what Dunsfold could provide. (43)
On taking over the Aerodrome, Hawker Aircraft Ltd “built up a final assembly and experimental test facility in the two T-2 hangars as a basis for expansion (44). Dunsfold is associated with several types of aircraft including Hunters and Hawks, but the Aerodrome is best associated with the Harrier. We now look at each of these in turn.
The Hunter could be regarded as the beginning of Dunsfold Aerodrome’s role at the cutting edge of military jet aircraft development. Hunters were early jet fighter aircraft: the first flew in 1951. (45)
In 1953, Dunsfold was the base for important speed tests. In January of that year the speed of sound was achieved and on 7 September a Hunter, piloted by Squadron Leader Neville Duke, broke the world air speed record off Littlehampton achieving 727.6 m.p.h. Later the same month, the 100km world record — 709.2 m.p.h — was established from Dunsfold by Duke. (46) The plane is on display at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. (47)
The record-breaking Hunter .
As a result, complaints about the noise started; test pilot Neville Duke reported “At Dunsfold we hear tales of people being flung off bicycles by the bangs—but I don’t believe them”. (49) By 1954, the noise issue had become serious. A local farmer, Col. du Boulay, issued a writ, but was persuaded to withdraw it by assurance that the nuisance would be abated by technical means. However, the Ministry of Civil Aviation immediately took action to prevent any future writs so as to protect the production of military aircraft. (50)
Hunters were put into service by the RAF in 1954 and were used until the 1990s. They were employed in the 1956 Suez Crisis and numerous other conflicts. (51) As well as being used by the RAF and the Royal Navy, they saw service in Abu Dhabi, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, India, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Netherlands, Oman, Peru, Qatar, Rhodesia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sweden and Switzerland. (52) In fact they were in military use somewhere in the world until 2014. (53)
The Hunter continued in production, or refurbishment, until 1980 by which time almost 2,000 had been produced. It is reported that “the Hunter cost £100,000 in 1956, which is not far off £450,000 in 1974 money” (54) ; and about £16,000,000 when estimated at 2011 prices. (55) That clearly represents a great deal of money!
The Harrier: the “Jump Jet”
“Jump jets” are, technically speaking, vertical (or short) take-off and landing (VTOL or V/STOL) aircraft that can also be used on short runways. They can operate from clearings in forests and small aircraft carriers. The Harrier is unique in that it is the only aircraft using vectored thrust so that it can take off, fly and land either vertically or conventionally. BAe proudly says “The Harrier was the only true STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft in the world.” (56)
The Kestrel flying from Dunsfold
In October 1960, the Hawker Siddeley Group’s P.1127, “the world’s first operational vertical take-off strike aircraft, made its first tethered flight at Dunsfold Aerodrome” which led to the Daily Express running the front-page headline “The Jumping Jet” (57). The plane is now on display at the Science Museum in London. (58)
The first P.1127 in “free hovering flight” at Dunsfold Aerodrome (59)
The P.1127 evolved into the Kestrel and then the Harrier. (60) In 1967, Flight International announced “HARRIER World’s first fixed-wing V/STOL weapons system”, with a nine-page article describing its history and novelty. (61) By 1969, the RAF was using Harriers. (62) The potential for use at sea was recognised from the start with the Hawker Siddeley P.1127 landing on HMS Ark Royal in 1963. (63) However, it was not until 1978 that the prototype “Navalised-Harrier” took to the air over Dunsfold. The first Sea Harrier joined the Royal Navy in 1980. (64)
May 1969 Trans-Atlantic Air Race
The Falklands War started on 2 April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory some 300 miles off its east coast and some 8,000 miles from the UK. The British Government dispatched a Task Force on 5 April. The resulting conflict ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982, returning the islands to British control.
Dunsfold Aerodrome immediately went on to a war-footing. The three Harriers based at Dunsfold for trails were commandeered and one was to be seen on HMS Hermes ski-jump as it sailed from Portsmouth. (65) Dunsfold went on to double-shift working to modify Harriers and Sea Harriers for air combat and ground attack roles in the South Atlantic and played a crucial role in ensuring that the Royal Navy was in a position to send a second Sea Harrier- equipped carrier to the Falklands, though the conflict ended before this was necessary. (66) Dunsfold test pilot Taylor Scott volunteered to return to the Royal Navy to help form and train an additional Sea Harrier squadron, 809. (67) It is reported that 42 Harriers and Sea Harriers were deployed. (68) BAe comments “The usage in the Falklands was probably the most high profile and important success recorded” as “it was the only fixed-wing fighter available to protect the British Task Force.”(69) Sea Harriers shot down at least 28 Argentinian aircraft, without loss in air-to-air combat (although there were losses on the ground). The Harrier was vital in winning this conflict.(70) When reporter Brian Hanrahan worked around the reporting restrictions by saying, “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”, he was counting Harriers. (71) As a result of this success, the British Government immediately ordered more Sea Harriers.(72)
Harriers were also important in the 1990-91 Gulf War and in NATO’s action in Kosovo in 1999 and elsewhere.(73)
The Harrier II, a follow-on to the AV-8A, was designed by McDonnell-Douglas in St Louis USA with Hawker Siddeley Aviation/BAe, and was built on a roughly 50-50 work share basis by the two companies. Dunsfold built the centre and rear fuselages and reaction control systems for all the aircraft delivered, and McDonald-Douglas built all the wings and front fuselages. These items were shipped across the Atlantic for final assembly as the RAF Harrier GR5/7 at Dunsfold and as the AV-8B for the USMC at St Louis. (75)
Manufacturing of the Sea Harrier ceased in 1998 with the last aircraft retiring from the Royal Navy in 2006 and from the RAF in 2011 (76).The Sea Harrier was in service with the Indian Navy until 2016 and the AV-8B remains in service in the USMC; and in the Spanish and Italian navies in 2017 (77).
It is claimed that 278 Hawker Siddeley Harriers (78) were produced, plus 111 Sea Harriers79, 347 AV-8As80, and 143 Harrier IIs (81). That comes to 879. Costs are difficult to come by but it is suggested it could be of the order of $24-30 million (£19,000,000 – 24,000,000) each. (82)
In 1985, Ashworth reported that, “Starting with the P.1127’s first tentative hover on October 21 1960 up to the current Sea Harrier, all British development, assembly and testing of this family of vertical take-off aircraft has been at Dunsfold”. (83) However, the technical legacy of the Harrier lives on today in the F-35 Lightning II STOVL variant. (84) Delve wrote: “This fantastic British aircraft is enough for Dunsfold to have a place in aviation history”. (85)
In 1972, the RAF “ordered 176 to be assembled and test flown from Dunsfold”. 87 The first Hawk flew from Dunsfold Aerodrome in 1974, piloted by Duncan Simpson.88
An important derivative of the Hawk was the T-45 Goshawk, produced jointly with McDonald Douglas, starting in 1981. The T-45 Goshawk was designed by BAe and McDonald Douglas in California. British designed components were shipped across the Atlantic for final assembly for the US Navy. When production ceased in 2009, 221 had been delivered. It is still in use as a carrier-capable advanced trainer. (89)
Most famously, these are the planes used by the Red Arrows. From their inauguration in 1964, the Red Arrows had flown Gnats.90 But the last Gnat to go to the RAF was delivered from Dunsfold in 1965. In the winter of 1979/80, the Red Arrows graduated to Hawks. (91)
Some 1,000 Hawks have been produced and they have been delivered to 18 countries. 93 They are still in production. (94) It is reported that they cost £18,000,000 each in 2003. (95)