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Hawker Siddeley Nimrod: The Phoenix With Clipped Wings

Written by George Colclough

Pre Reading Notes:

  • As usual, I have capitalised words like THIS to stress points of irony and sarcasm.

Introduction:

In the Book of Genesis Cush begat Nimrod, and he became a mighty hunter, and in its genesis, the de Havilland Comet, once a humble civil airliner begat the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod and it, like its biblical namesake became a mighty hunter. One that during the height of Cold War tensions, protected the United Kingdom from insurrection by the Soviet Submarines that constantly pressed against its waterways.

This is the story of a phoenix of an aircraft rising from the ashes of a tragically ill fated forerunner, only to have its wings clipped and find itself grounded following the cruel intervention of this channel’s favourite boogie man… GOVERNMENT INCOMPETENCE.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hawker_Siddeley_Nimrod_MR2_(801),_UK_-_Air_Force_AN0392018.jpg

This is the story of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod.

Development, Specifications, and Prototypes:

From 1951 the burden of protecting the United Kingdom’s waterways was carried by the Avro Shackleton. The Shackleton was a fine aircraft for its time, being fitted with an advanced electronic warfare suite, then top of the line radar and surveillance equipment, upto 10,000lbs of bombs, torpedoes, mines, aswell as conventional and nuclear depth charges, but by the close of the 1960s it was beginning to show its age. Its airframe, being essentially an amalgamation of the 1940s Avro Lincoln and Avro Tudor was beginning to look a bit obsolete, its four Rolls-Royce Griffon piston engines were starting to look a bit weak, and lingering doubt was emerging in the Royal Airforce about just how long its top of the line systems would stay top of the line. The writing was on the wall for the Avro Shackleton, and on the fourth of June 1964 the British Government issued Air Staff Requirement 381, and the search for a new maritime patrol aircraft formally began.

With a potentially very lucrative contract being dangled before them, the world’s great aerospace companies were practically falling over one another to try and land the contract to replace the Shackleton. Lockheed offered their P-3 Orion, which they proudly boasted was an off the shelf package ready to go, just say the word, sign the contract, and the lads at the Fort Worth Factory will pump them out for you – Harold Wilson, then prime minister  was having none of this however; he was still incredibly bitter about the cancellation of the Skybolt missile program in 1962, which he perceived as an attempted sabotage of the British Nuclear Program by the Americans. He was adamant that the contract would go to a British company, and Lockheed was duly told where they could stick their Orions.

This British only attitude also took the Br.1150 Atlantic out of the equation, which similarly had been offered by the French company Bréguet as an off the shelf ready to go package to the British Government.

One slight problem with this approach however… Britain had nothing in production that could match the specifications demanded in Air Staff Requirement 381. This was only a slight problem however, as the United Kingdom did have several airliners in production which were perfectly capable of being adapted into maritime patrol aircraft with a reasonable amount of work, namely the Hawker Siddeley Trident, the BAC One Eleven, Vickers VC10, and de Havilland Comet.

All of the aforementioned airframes were assessed by the government, and with them all being found to be largely one of a muchness in terms of performance and adaptability to military outfitting the judgement was instead rendered based upon the British government’s most favourite metric, cost, with Harold Wilson reporting the following result to the House of Commons on the second of February 1965:

“The House will be glad to know that after we had examined a wide range of different aircraft, Comets, specially modified to meet the requirements, will be ordered as a replacement for the Shackleton Mk 2.”

Thus Hawker Siddeley, who had merged with de Havilland in 1963 and therefore inherited manufacturing rights to the Comet won the favour of the ever cost conscious British Government and was awarded the contract, supposedly after offering to give the government two unfinished Comet 4Cs to develop into Nimrod prototypes at no cost.

With the contract won by Hawker Siddeley, all that was now left was the SIMPLE task of converting a civil airliner into an armed and dangerous maritime patrol aircraft.

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This conversion actually proved to be a reasonably straightforward task, and despite having faced a few hiccups during development the first prototype, dubbed XV148, built as an aerodynamic test bed, took its maiden flight on the twenty third of May 1967, a little over two years after Hawker Siddeley had been awarded the contract, with a second flying prototype, dubbed XV147 which was built as an electronic test-bed, following shortly afterwards.

At this stage however there was still uncertainty over which engine should be fitted, so Hawker Siddely fitted both prototypes with different engines so the competing designs could be evaluated side by side. XV148 and was fitted with the then new Rolls Royce Spey engines, while the second prototype XV147, was fitted with older Rolls Royce Avon engines.

The comets conversion to maritime patrol aircraft saw extensive modifications to its fuselage, including, but not limited to: replacing the comets cargo hold with an internal weapons bay, extending the nose to accommodate radar systems, extending the tail to mount a suite of electronic warfare sensors, and a magnetic anomaly detector for submarine detection. Inside this modified airframe was fitted an ASV-21D Air to Surface Vessel Radar system, and a (for the time) powerful Marconi Elliott 920B central computer.

The fully converted Nimrod also proved to be a reasonably defendable aircraft. Unlike the Avro Shackleton which featured two independently targetable 20 mm Hispano Mark V cannons in the nose for defence, the Nimrod had no defensive guns, instead primarily depending upon speed, altitude, and electronic warfare for defence, in keeping with British doctrine of the time, although these could also be supplemented with two pylon mounted AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles during particularly perilous missions.

Offensive armaments meanwhile were leaps and bounds beyond the capabilities of the Avro Shackleton and could include Nord AS.12, Martel, AGM-65 Maverick, and  AGM-84 Harpoon air to surface missiles. Out of its bomb bay the Nimrod could deploy a swafe of conventional and nuclear ordenance, with the latter including 20 kiloton American made B57 nuclear depth charges aswell as 190 kiloton British made WE.177 nuclear depth charges, and the former including American Mark 46 Torpedos, British Sting Ray Torpedos aswell as Mark 10 and Mark 12 naval anti shipping mines. Not everything that came out of the Nimrod’s bomb bay went bang however, as it could also launch sonobuoys for submarine detection.

The Hawker Siddeley Nimrod’s performance was also a significant improvement over the Avro Shackleton, with a maximum speed of 580 mph compared to the Shackletons 300 mph, a service ceiling of 43,999 ft compared to the Shackletons 20,200 ft, and a range of 5,755 miles compared to the Shackletons 2,240 miles, a range that on the Nimrod could be extended indefinitely through inflight refuelling, a capability totally absent from the Shackleton.

The Hawker Siddeley Nimrod also dwarfed its Avro Shackleton forerunner literally, as well as figuratively. It was considerably taller, standing at 31 feet tall in contrast to the Shackletons 17 ft 6 in, it was considerably longer also being 126 ft 9 in long as opposed to the Shackletons 87 ft 4 in, it was also considerably heavier, weighing 86,000 lb empty compared to the Shackletons 51,400 lb empty weight. The father was slightly wider than the son however, with the Shackleton having a wing span of 120 ft compared to the Nimrods 114 ft 10 in.

Needless to say, with capabilities such as these the Royal Air Force was pleased as punch with their investment, and deliveries of the production Nimrod began in October 1969, with the first batch of 38 Nimrod MR.1s being delivered between 1969 and 1972. This first batch equipped seven regular squadrons of the RAF, as well as Number 236 Operational Conversion Unit, which had the valuable job of training pilots on the new aeroplane.

A further eight Nimrods were delivered in 1975, dubbed the MR.2 variant, these final eight airframes retained the same flight deck and general systems of the MR.1 variant, but the underwater search systems were given a significant upgrade, with Thorn EMI Searchwater radar, a GEC central tactical system, an AQS-901 acoustics system, and it also received an overhaul of its communications systems to boot. In addition to these updated systems, the MR.2 variant also had an upgraded airframe to lengthen the service life of the aircraft. This upgrade proved a fly away success, and later in 1979 all MR.1 Nimrods that hadn’t already been retrofitted for other specialised roles were upgraded to MR.2 standard.

Three Nimrod MR.1s were later adapted for the signals intelligence role in 1974, where they replaced the ageing de Havilland Comet C2’s and English Electric Canberras that had been serving in that role previously. These converted airframes, dubbed Nimrod R.1s were fitted with a suite of rotating dish aerials, which were stuffed in basically every hollow space on the airframe: the bomb bays, the tail cone, the wings, and the tail boom were all stuffed with them. Operating all of this new equipment demanded a significantly larger crew than the Nimrod MR.1 or MR.2, with the crew of the R.1 variant swelling to 29; rationed between only four flight crew, and 25 signals intelligence operators. Later in their service life Nimrod R.1s had wingtip electronic support measures pods fitted and some cabin windows deleted so that even more signals and intelligence equipment could be crammed inside.

An Airborne Early Warning variant of the Nimrod was also produced, but before we discuss this variant of the Nimrod we would like you to do something viewers. Take a look at this Nimrod MR.2… beautiful isn’t it, the smooth flowing lines that come from having its engines buried in the wing, the bumps and bulges on its design that just ooze power and ferocity, truly it is a beautiful sight to behold. Now get your sick bags ready and have a look at this monstrosity: The Nimrod AEW3.[1]

Vomiting inducing looks were of no concern to the British Government however, who were not at all concerned with appearances, and simply wanted a new and updated airborne early warning aircraft, as the Fairey Gannets filling the role, with their World War Two era AN/APS-20 radar systems were starting to look rather antiquated by the 1970s.

The first prototype Nimrod AEW3 took its maiden flight on the sixteenth of July 1980, and despite some initial teething issues the AEW3 had every potential to be one of the greatest airborne early warning aircraft in the sky, until in true British fashion, the government got spooked by a mild cost overrun, scrapped the project, and opted to buy off the shelf American Boeing E-3 Sentries that weren’t as good, and ended up costing more than just finishing the Nimrod AEW3 anyway.

Operational History

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Compared to other British Aircraft of the Cold War we have discussed on this channel which spent most of their operational lives sat gathering dust in hangers up and down the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, eagerly anticipating a fiery nuclear exchange that would never come, the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod had a comparatively full and rich operational history, and over its 42 year service life was deployed on a number of different missions all over the world.

Its chief responsibility was that of Maritime Patrol. In this role at least one aircraft was in the sky twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year, patrolling the British coastline to locate, identify, and had the Cold War ever gone hot, engage Soviet vessels both on and below the surface.

In addition to its Maritime Patrol duties, Hawker Siddely Nimrods also formed the keystone of British search and rescue operations, with one Nimrod from each active squadron always being assigned for such duties at a one-hour standby. Despite being designed for war, the Nimrods were surprisngly adept at this role: the bomb bay which normally carried nuclear depth charges or torpedos instead carried two compliments of Lindholme Gear; sets of five cylindrical containers joined together by rope, which housed a nine man inflatable dinghy, and a plethora of other survival equipment. Similarly the powerful sensor arrays designed for tracking Soviet submarines deep below the surface of the Atlantic naturally lent themselves well to tracking aircraft, ships, and individuals in distress, with each Nimrod having the capability to search up to 20,000 square miles of ocean. Finally its world leading communications equipment proved to be perfectly suited for coordinating helicopters, boats, and all other imaginable rescue craft.

With the details of most of their regular Maritime Patrol duties being strictly withheld from public knowledge, Nimrods instead became notorious for their search and rescue role, the reporting of which was subject to no such censorship. Operations which gained particular attention include the 1977 rescue of a Zodiac Inflatable Dinghy following a failed attempt at crossing the Atlantic, the 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race Disaster, when several Nimrods were used both to track down yachting competitors caught up in the disastrous Fastnet race, and then coordinate helicopters in rescuing survivors, and the 1980 Ekofisk Oil Field Disaster, when Nimrods coordinated the rescue of 89 survivors from a collapsed Norwegian drilling rig.

In addition to its regular Maritime Patrol and Search and Rescue duties, the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod also saw active combat deployments to many flashpoints and conflicts of the later 20th century.

The first such, and certainly oddest deployment saw it pitted not against the terrors of the Soviet Navy, but against Icelandic fishermen in the 1972-1973 Second Cod War. This CONFLICT, if we can call it that, really warrants a post in itself just to the sheer oddity of the situation, but for our purposes today all we need to know is that a disagreement between Iceland and the United Kingdom got just A BIT out of hand, as the disagreement escalated from cheekily blasting national anthems down the radio to each other, to fist fights between fisherman, to the Royal Navy eventually calling in 30 frigates, 1 destroyer, and 11 Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply vessels as the situation increasingly grew out of hand.

When the Second Cod War escalated to the point of military involvement, Hawker Siddley Nimrods were a keystone of the military operation, patrolling every single square inch of contested water, where they plotted and tracked the movements of every single Icelandic fishing vessel, and relayed this vital information both to the Royal Navy, and the British fisherman.

Eventually however, the Second Cod War fizzled out with an Icelandic Victory, and the mighty Nimrod fleet returned to its regular duties of maritime patrol and search and rescue for another decade, that was until the raising of the Argentinian Flag on the Falkland Islands in 1982, and with it the Start of the Falklands War, which once again gave the Nimrod the chance to put its war shoes on.

Deployed to the Ascension Islands on the fifth of April, mere days into the conflict, Nimrods initially were given the vital task of protecting the aforementioned islands, before eventually moving to protecting and supporting the British Task Forced as it steamed south to retake the Falklands: scanning the Atlantic ocean for any Argentine ships that may move to interdict the British convoy and providing search and rescue capabilities for the fleet. Beyond the British Task Force Nimrods also provided search and rescue as well as communications relay support for Operation Black Buck, as well as flying intelligence gathering and signals reconnaissance sorties from the Chilean Desventuradas Islands and Punta Arenas on the Chilean mainland.

The Nimrod fleet was also modified for their sorties in the Falklands war, with the addition of air-to-air refuelling probes, while the Nimrods armaments were beefed up with 1000lb MC Aircraft Bombs, BL755 cluster bombs, and AIM-9 sidewinder missiles. The aforementioned air-to-air refuelling probe allowed the Nimrod to carry out ultra long distance sorties over and around the Falkland Islands, with notable sorties being a 19 hour and 5 minute patrol flown by XV232 on the fifteenth of May 1982 in which the aircraft passed within 60 miles of the Argentine coastline to confirm that the Argentine Navy was staying in port, and a 8,453 mile patrol on the twentieth to the twenty first of May, the longest single flight of the entire Falklands War.

With the end of the Falklands War, the Nimrod fleet would once again return to its regular duties for a decade or so before getting the opportunity to flex its muscles once again in the Gulf War. As Saddam Hussein’s forces marched into Kuwait in August of 1990, a force three, later upped to five Nimrod MR.2s were deployed to Oman, where they carried out patrols around the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The Nimrods worked in cooperation with American Lockheed P-3 Orions, with the former focusing on night time patrols, and the latter, with its inferior quality systems being relegated to day time patrols. In addition to routine patrols, Nimrods were also used to coordinate British and American aircraft attacks against Iraqi patrol vessels, with the Nimrod being credited with the assisted sinking and damaging of 16 Iraqi ships.

The Nimrods final deployment came during the War on Terror, where they were deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. You might not think there was much demand for a maritime patrol aircraft in the blistering, dry deserts of Iraq, and the landlocked mountains of Afghanistan, but you’d be wrong! Although very much intended for tracking shipping, the advanced sensors of the Nimrod proved adept for overland intelligence gathering sorties, as well as directing attacks for friendly forces.

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Cancellation:

All good things must come to an end however, and despite the Nimrod fleet providing decades of dependable service, the world of aviation is a fast evolving one, and with the millennium ratcheting ever closer, those once world-beating aircraft were starting to show their age. But the powers that be saw some life in the old Nimrods yet, and thus in December 1996 work began on a complete overhaul and modernisation program for the Nimrod, dubbed the Nimrod MR.4

The Nimrod MR.4 was to be essentially a brand new aircraft, with the existing fuselages being refurbished and refitted with new larger wings, the old Rolls-Royce Spey engines replaced with new Rolls-Royce BR710, and a new glass cockpit fitted. Initially all appeared rosy for the MR.4, and the first prototype took its maiden flight on the twenty sixth of August 2004, and subsequently passed testing with flying colours.

But then, in 2010, at the 11th hour, when three prototypes and two production aircraft had been completed, a creature most foul and wicked set its sight upon the MR.4, a creature with no regard for logic, nor reason… I speak of course, and may God forgive me for even uttering its name… of the politician.

Having won the 2010 General Election, David Cameron, and his goon, sorry, I mean Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox were scuttling around the ancient halls of Westminster, knife in hand, desperately looking for things to cut, and sacrifice on the altar of half baked manifesto promises when they happened to stumble upon the MR.4.

Having received some negative press for cost overruns and delays, the MR.4 made the perfect sacrifice, and the MR.4 was unceremoniously cancelled on the nineteenth of October 2010, with the British government instead opting to buy five American Boeing P-8 Poseidons to fill the role instead.

There was however, one small, teeny tiny problem with this plan… The Nimrod MR.2 had been retired in March 2010 in anticipation of the MR.4s future entry to service, and the P-8 Poseidons wouldn’t be ready for another decade. Consequently for an entire decade, Russian submarines were able to navigate the United Kingdom’s waters nearly completely undetected and unopposed – only being detected and opposed when the British government occasionally stuck its tail between its legs and asked France, Canada, or the US if it could please please please borrow some of their maritime patrol aircraft – and OF COURSE history has again proven that it would have been cheaper in the long run to just finish the British project.

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Closing Remarks:

Thus concludes the story of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod. An amazing aircraft denied its chance to retire in glory after a long and great service to its nation, instead relegated to naught but a footnote in the long and sordid history of the British government’s incopetent meddling in matters of military procurement.

Now we are no strangers to government incompetence on this channel, sadly its unavoidable, as government incompetence is kind of an ingrained element of British aviation history, but even among the numerous examples of government incompetence we have discussed on this channel, this has to be the single biggest boob up we have yet discussed; not only did the government further decimate British jobs and industry, and send yet more money overseas, but they seriously undermined the United Kingdom’s defence in the process – but then again that was the administration that cancelled the Harrier Jump Jet without a replacement, and for years had aircraft carriers without any fixed wing aircraft on them, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised!


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