The Westland Wyvern; Outdated Monster

April 19, 2024

There are a literal host of aircraft that, despite apparent good design, were doomed by the failure to provide them with a decent engine. But occasionally you come across one that manages to succeed despite repeated failures by powerplant manufacturers to get their products working well enough to use. And this aircraft, the Westland Wyvern is in some ways even more remarkable in that not only did repeated problems with engines and changing specification bedevil it, but the type was also given a huge amount of time to evolve until finally coming into service.

Indeed, from design initiation to notional service introduction was a massive nine years!

For contrast, the Grumman F-14 took about eight years…and for a three of those Grumman was just working on it as a concept aircraft!

However, let’s not hold that lengthy gestation against the Wyvern, because it was an aircraft that was at the forefront of brand-new, cutting-edge technology that helps explain some of this long process. And like several other British post-war carrier aircraft, the design got messed around with quite a bit along the way before the aircraft even flew.

The Wyvern’s origins date back to a study conducted in early 1944 by Westland for a new carrier strike fighter. So interested where the Admiralty in Westland’s proposal that the Air MInistry issued a specification in April 1944 purely for the new aircraft, which may seem somewhat optimistic as Westland hadn’t built a naval aircraft of their own design since 1915, though they were major producers of Seafires and Fairey Barracuda.

However, Westland obviously made an impression because the Royal Air Force also got into the affair and ordered their own prototypes for testing. With all this interest the design team set about solidifying their ideas and by September of that year they had settled on a rather ambitious concept that would be bigger and heavier than any previous British single-engine carrier aircraft. Indeed, it weighed more than the Grumman Avenger and the De Havilland Sea Hornet twin-engine fighter!

And it wasn’t just this factor that made the Wyvern stand out. Though in appearance somewhat conventional with its low wing monoplane and tail-dragger layout, in fact the Wyvern was planned from the beginning to utilize a turboprop engine combined with a contra-rotating propellor; brand new concepts that really marked the Wyvern out from contemporary aircraft.

However, as the British turboprop engines under consideration for use in the Wyvern, the Rolls Royce Clyde and the Armstrong Siddeley Python where still very much under development at the time, it was thought that it would be best to fit the first Wyvern’s with a conventional piston engine. Thus, the idea was that the first aircraft, the Mk.I’s, would get the new Rolls Royce Eagle XXII, a 24-cylinder H-block liquid-cooled design that produced 3,500hp.

So far, so good…but naturally, things started to go awry not long after that.

For starters, 1944 saw the introduction of jet aircraft into British service, and so Rolls Royce realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot of demand for new piston engine designs and so they cut right back on development of the Eagle, focusing most of their attention onto jet and turbine engines. This probably proved astute as in late 1946 the RAF dropped their order for ten preproduction Wyverns and decided they were going to concentrate on jets alone.

Westland pushed ahead and in December 1946 the first Wyvern took to the air. This, enginned with the Rolls Royce Eagle, formed the basis for the Wyvern TF.I’s.

And these, on paper certainly, seemed to have promise.

The Wyvern TF (torpedo fighter). Mk.1 was estimated by Westland as having a top speed of 456mph (773km/h) and, along with its standard armament of four 20mm Hispano cannon fixed in the wings, was capable of carrying a torpedo or three 1,000lb bombs or sixteen RP-3 air-to-ground rockets.

However, in the end only six of the Eagle-powered prototypes and another seven of the Wyvern TF.1’s would be built as Rolls Royce completely abandoned the Eagle in 1947, not building enough of the engines to complete the order.

By this point though, interest was well and truly fixed on the prospective turboprop powered versions, and already in 1946 orders had been placed for three prototypes, one with the Clyde and two with Python engines, as well as another order for twenty preproduction aircraft – the Wyvern TF.2. In order to keep the amount of design work on the TF.2s to a minimum the same cockpit and wings were used as on the TF.1’s, with the main modifications being an increase in depth to the centre and rear fuselage in order to accommodate the jet tailpipes of the new engines.

However, development of the turboprops hit understandable snags and the prototype Wyverns with these engines didn’t fly until early 1949. By this point the decision had been made that the Clyde, which produced just over 4,000 equivalent shaft horse power (eshp), wasn’t actually going to be put into production, Rolls Royce instead focusing on their jets and the more advanced Dart turboprop instead.

So other than the one prototype with the Clyde this naturally meant that the Python was the selected engine for the new aircraft, and as well as this the Wyvern TF.2’s received another new novelty – ejector seats as standard, which proved a literal life saver in due course.

Flight testing showed that there were a range of issues, not least with the massive 13-foot (c.4m) diameter propellors and the forces they exerted in certain flight profiles. This led to repeated changes and tweaks being made to the aircraft, most notably to the tailplane which was substantially increased in size and eventually having small vertical winglets added to it.

The problems with flying the aircraft, which led to several pilots being killed during testing, led to a single example of the Wyvern T.3 two-seat trainer being constructed.

This was effectively a TF.2 with a modified fuselage with tandem cockpits, each with its own sliding canopy and ejection seat while the instructor in the back also had a periscope to improve his view.

This conducted its initial flight in May 1951, but official interest faded and no production of the T.3 occurred, with some sources saying the aircraft ended up being written off after a forced landing soon after it started flying.

The early Pythons proved problematic, and because the engine type was gradually improved up to the Python 3 this fact, along with the other host of changes to the design meant that the first actual service model was the Wyvern S.4; the “S” standing for “Strike” as all allusions to the Wyvern being a fighter were firmly laid to rest by this point.

The S.4’s (which included the final seven TF.2s that were modified while under construction to the new standard) entered shore-based squadron service with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in May 1953, replacing the much-maligned Blackburn Firebrand.

Fitted with the afore mentioned Python 3, which produced 3,670 shp along with an additional 1,180 lb of residual force from the exhaust, the S.4’s had a top speed of only 383mph (616km/h), which probably explains the dropping of the “fighter” designation, but they could carry the same payloads of the earlier models.

Though carrier trials had been conducted as early as 1949 with the TF.1 it wasn’t until September 1954 that Wyverns first saw service on a carrier, deploying with 813 Squadron on HMS Albion in the Mediterranean. And despite the long testing regime of the Wyvern, a new and rather distressing flaw soon came to light.

The Python didn’t appreciate the sudden acceleration it experienced when launched from a catapult, causing fuel starvation and often causing the engine to flameout on take-off; hardly an ideal situation for a carrier aircraft.

In October 1954 this led to another “first”. One Lt. MacFarlane had just launched from the Albion when his engine cut out immediately, causing him to crash directly into the path of the carrier…which promptly run him over.

MacFarlane managed to keep his cool and despite having 24,000 tonnes of ship pounding along overhead while rapidly sinking he triggered his seat, making him the first person to successfully eject underwater. (Oh, and if you are interested in knowing the background inspiration to this particular model of ejection seat, check out my article on the Martin Baker Mk.3 fighter.)

Obviously, the Wyvern, despite its long development, still had problems but these were resolved and by the following year the type was full service. Which meant that when Britain found itself in a confrontation with Egypt in November 1956, Wyvern’s were to see their one and only combat usage.

Operation Musketeer was an Anglo-French scheme, in coordination with Israel, to seize the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by the Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser. The full history of this affair and the causes is beyond the scope of this article but suffice to say that when the Anglo-French amphibious invasion began, amongst the host of aircraft employed by the two nations carriers were two squadrons of Wyverns.

These conducted air strikes on the Egyptian airfields and in support of the ground offensive, flying a total of 79 sorties and losing two aircraft to AA fire, with both pilots successfully ejecting.

The Suez Crisis marked the swansong of both the British as a great power and of the Westland Wyvern itself, as in 1957 the aircraft started to be withdrawn from service, being completely replaced by 1958. Indeed, though notionally in service in 1953, in fact the effective frontline usage of the Wyvern really only dated from 1955-57, somewhat ridiculous considering the length of its development.

In total 124 Wyverns were completed, including prototypes, and these suffered an accident rate of 39 lost with 13 pilot fatalities; though to be fair that wasn’t a particularly unusual statistic for aircraft of this era.

To be honest, and I will admit that I haven’t found anything to corroborate this, it is just my opinion, but the FAA’s persistence in getting the Wyvern into service seems almost an exercise in bloody mindedness as much as anything. Admittedly, wishing to bank against the failure of the jet engine for use in carrier aircraft probably made sense in 1944/5, but the success of designs such as the Sea Hawk, which actually managed to beat the Wyvern into service, meant that there was no real need for the aircraft.

I suspect that the Royal Navy was still taken with the idea of the torpedo attacker for possible use against the Soviet Navy, and notably the Wyvern’s replacement of the Firebrand certainly bears this out. But it seems that that concept was on its last leg too with the Royal Navy by the time the Wyvern was acceptable for service, again explaining the very short life of the type and it’s replacement by more formidable and more useful jet strike aircraft.


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