After months of intensive discussions and negotiations, Hawker Hunter Aviation (HHA) has finally been given clearance by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fly its Buccaneer S2b XX885/G-HHAA in the Complex Category within UK airspace! It's the culmination of almost five years and in excess of 3,250 manhours of design verification work, excluding all the actual engineering work on the airframe itself. The aircraft overhaul and critical component replacement will commence shortly, with a first flight envisaged for early 2007.
HHA has gained an individual aircraft and operating company-specific approval on the basis of the unique maintenance and support infrastructure available within the HHA group. In no way does this approval open the gates for other Buccaneers, or indeed other complex types flying in the UK, neither was the decision influenced by the entirely independent and unassociated Vulcan project.
has been somewhat different from those of other organisations - rather
than assume that if it undertook a maintenance work programme the aircraft
would then be issued with a permit to fly, HHA took the view that the
actual overhaul or major dismantling of the airframe would not commence
until formal approval had been given in writing from the CAA that the
aircraft would be permitted to fly upon the completion of the necessary
and agreed work.
HHA already holds CAA A8-20 approval in the E4/M5/CAP 632 categories and operates a large number of Hunters on both government contract and promotional work - with over 365,000 man hours of experience on most RAF jet aircraft, including the Buccaneer, the engineering team is more than up to the task of safely maintaining and operating the type on the civil register, especially given the fact that HHA is based at RAF Scampton, an active military airfield and home of the Red Arrows, where the services are familiar with fast jet operations.
HHA carried out a preliminary investigation of the type and concluded that the complex categorisation could be overturned. An initial financial feasibility study was done, examining the likely purchase, transportation, hangarage, return to flight and actual operating costs. This enabled HHA to move to stage two of the viability study - could a suitable airframe with supporting documentation, sufficient spares and all the necessary manuals still be found? The Buccaneer had by now been retired from service use for over six years - much equipment had been scrapped and most of the airframes that remained had not only been spares-stripped prior to sale, but had been stored outdoors and suffered from significant corrosion. Many of these had degraded to such an extent that they were beyond economic repair for return to flight purposes.
Numerous Buccaneer airframes were inspected, spares holdings extensively researched, tools and manuals sourced, etc. Of all those surveyed, XX885, then hangared at RAF Lossiemouth, was without doubt the best. Not only was it one of the last airframes built, with relatively low hours and fatigue index (FI), but it had also been one of the last to be re-sparred and was the last airframe to go through the Buccaneer Upgrade and Modification line. Since being prematurely retired from actual flying duties as a result of arms reduction talks, the aircraft had been continuously hangared and maintained by RAF personnel, so there was no corrosion and virtually all systems were live. As for spares and tooling, much equipment had already been bought by the civilian South African operator of the type. However, after much sleuthing HHA managed to buy the entire support equipment and spares stock left at RAE Bedford, who, like HHA, had maintained a single Buccaneer devoid of normal squadron support.
Only after the financial, airframe and spares questions had been satisfactorily addressed did HHA once again approach the CAA and BAE Systems to present the feasibility study findings. Whilst their joint reaction could at best be described as 'luke warm', the project was not ruled out and HHA was given useful guidance on how best to structure the certification and return to flight proposals. So HHA grasped the nettle and acquired XX885 together with two further airframes for non-lifed component spares recovery.
having had extensive previous knowledge of the type, was appointed as
crew chief and started to address the various questions and concerns the
CAA would have. On the basis of past experience and standard operating
procedures, the CAA would view the aircraft as a prototype as far as civilian
operation was concerned. Therefore HHA had to start from scratch, proving
how every single system in the aircraft worked, how it would maintain
it and why the military design standard of any individual component, and
indeed the entire aircraft, was safe for civilian use. Operationally,
display pilot designate Wing Commander Dave Bolsover (whose regular mount
in the Gulf War had actually been XX885) spent endless hours going over
the Buccaneer manuals and designing civilian Buccaneer flying standards
and procedures, all based on the well-known RAF operating principles.
In the meantime the aircraft itself, together with all the spares and support equipment, had been moved to Scampton in a complex operation of its own. XX885 couldn't be flown out of Lossiemouth and the Scottish Police deemed it to wide for road transport - the only alternative was to move it out by ship. Since this was a 'return to flight' project, the insurance underwriters insisted that it must be transported inside the hold of a cargo vessel. As a result the ship eventually hired was the largest to have ever docked in the harbour at Lossiemouth, and after a week-long sea crossing it arrived in Immingham. The fully assembled airframe was then slowly, in the dead of night, moved to Scampton on a low-loader. This logistical transport nightmare would not have succeeded without the expertise of Neville Martin and his team at Phoenix Aviation company.
Once at Scampton the airframe was subjected to a detailed examination and rapidly recovered to a flight-ferryable condition. Since then it has been maintained in this condition, with regular anti-deterioration runs and preventative maintenance being carried out by the HHA team. In addition all the spares and tools were itemised and re-packed prior to creating computer-controlled storage facilities in insulated ISO containers - therefore, if the Buccaneer is ever to relocate away from RAF Scampton, it can be achieved with relatively little effort since the basic infrastructure components are mobile.
All the above took three years of blood, sweat, tears and sheer hard labour, not to mention a very liberal input of cash, but HHA finally had its aircraft and its supporting infrastructure in place. HHA formally presented the Design Reports and supporting information to the CAA with a high degree of confidence, expecting a rapid turnaround. Unfortunately, things took slightly longer than expectedů
The first blow was that it could not overturn the CAA's previous ruling that the Buccaneer would fall in the COMPLEX category. Every logical argument, supported by detailed design analysis, indicated that the airframe was no more complex that the INTERMEDIATE category Sea Vixen, or even the Gnat. Being in the Complex category raises the expense and magnitude of effort required by a significant factor - the original equipment manufacturers' (OEM) support is required.
The first step was to absolve the OEMs of any fears; suffice to say that it wasn't easy - precisely how HHA went about this forms part of a Non Disclosure Agreement. The second part was to reinvent the wheel insofar as that HHA was obliged to hire the design support of an established E1/E2 (i.e. civil aircraft manufacturer) company, train them up on Buccaneer Systems and Operation, so that they could then audit and provide the CAA with the assurance that everything was being verified by a third pair of independent, suitably qualified and approved eyes.
A further two years of a frustrating process followed - in the case of the Buccaneer, its systems exhibit excessive inherent strength and redundancy so as to be able to accommodate, for example, battle damage or stressful low level operations. Since the whole aircraft and its systems were relatively new to them, the CAA was naturally cautious, but eventually all its concerns, many of which stemmed from an understandable lack of knowledge of military systems, were addressed.
Eventually the longed-for formal CAA letter arrived - this stated that a Permit may be issued once the surveyors have determined that an appropriate standard has been achieved, i.e. the satisfactorily completion of all the previously agreed inspection, maintenance and test flight programmes. Due to not receiving approval until 9 December 2005, some of the critical lifed components in the aircraft, principally related to ejection seats, have not yet been returned by the OEMs. For this reason it is now highly likely that the first flight will not be until Spring 2007.
All at HHA now know what the British Olympic Committee must have felt like when they were finally told, after much hard work and lobbying, that London was to be the home of the 2012 Olympics. Just as in their case, the real work can now begin - at the time of writing the engineering team is ready to commence work! Whether or not the aircraft will be seen at UK air displays depends entirely on the airshow organisers willingness to support the aircraft.
HHA would like to take this opportunity to thank both BAE SYSTEMS and the CAA for their unstinting support, patience and perseverance.
Before anybody asks, HHA does not have any plans to operate a Lightning, neither should the clearance of the Buccaneer be seen as an indication in any way that the operation of a Lightning is now possible within UK airspace.
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