She stands very high. It’s only when you walk up close that you realise just how high the pilot’s cockpit is on the Gannet AEW3. This height is driven by necessity, as when the design for the AEW3 was put forwards, it involved some pretty heavy modifications from a standard Gannet. You can read a full description of the Gannet’s operational history and the earlier aircraft she was designed from at this article here.
Our Gannet AEW3 has been with the Museum for a while now, but it’s striking appearance always attracts the attention of visitors. As you come closer to it, you begin to realise how it is actually quite a complex aircraft. It’s almost as the design brief read “Make it as complicated and unusual as you can, able to fold away into a small box, yet still able to fly”
In service from 1959 until 1978, the Gannet AEW3 was flying at a time when defence spending was a constantly changing target. In the Cold War era, many politicians responsible for defence budgets considered that fixed wing naval aviation was a thing of the past. As aircraft carrier designs were axed and military thinking questioned even the continued operation of manned aviation in preference to missiles, the Gannet was an important aircraft for British airborne early warning. It was only ever intended as a stop gap aircraft, but the constant changes in decisions at that time meant that, like the Buccaneer, she continued in service far longer than intended.
We take a moment to climb around the Gannet AEW3 to explore some of it’s quirky design features and explain how they work.
The Double Folding Wings
Folding wings are not unusual on carrier borne aircraft. However, due to the major design changes to the original Gannet aircraft, the overall height was such that double folding wings were needed to fit below decks on Royal Navy aircraft carriers. Two hinge points compact the dimensions down meaning that they could be taken below for maintenance.
It’s effectively two engines in one. Designed by Armstrong Siddeley, the Double Mamba turbine engine paired together two turbine engine units, driving the contra rotating propellor through a specially designed gearbox. The engine and transmission arrangement enabled one of the engine units to be shut down in flight to conserve fuel and increase endurance, swapping between the two every half hour. You can see an example of the Double Mamba engine on display in our main hangar.
It’s two propellors in one. The complex gearbox drives contra rotating propellors. This means that the two sets of propellor blades rotate in opposite directions. The idea is to cancel out the torque or twisting effect of the engine’s power, making the aircraft easier to fly at low speed from aircraft carriers. One engine could be switched off and one of the propellors ‘feathered’ in flight.
It Looks Like a Single Seater But Isn’t
At a glance, it appears to have room for just one pilot. In fact, buried deep within the rear section are two additional crew members, responsible for the operation of the navigation systems and the early warning radar. With no ejection seats, the crew would have to resort to climbing out of the small access hatch in an emergency. Given it’s maritime role, that would probably involve a ditching at sea. Health and safety was not high on the agenda back in the 1960’s!
The radar dome raised the whole height of the aircraft
The huge bulbous radome beneath the fuselage houses the radar scanner. This in turn meant that the other two crew members responsible for it’s operation and navigation had to be moved to a new compartment behind the wing. With all of these modifications to the centre of gravity, the undercarriage was also lengthened by an additional three feet, making the aircraft sit very high off the ground. Climbing into the cockpit on a heaving aircraft carrier deck in the North Atlantic must have been a tortuous and risky exercise.
By now, you will have probably realised that the Gannet AEW3’s quirky looks were dictated by function, not style. And while she will never be considered beautiful in the same way as a Spitfire, she makes a fascinating aircraft to study in detail. Next time you visit the Museum, be sure to take a close look around the Gannet, she’s a great example of early turbine aircraft engineering and British ingenuity at creating an aircraft to fit it’s role in a time when technology and world politics were quickly changing.