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On Sunday 4 June, 2000, the 60th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain, one of Britain's largest ever free air displays took place both on and over Southampton Water, near Southampton, Hampshire, UK. This event, Sea Wings 2000, was not only an air display with fly-pasts, but also included flying boats and seaplanes landing on and taking off from Southampton Water itself, all in front of the watching crowd.
Sea Wings 2000 was marketed as the largest free air show in the United Kingdom in the year 2000 and is the only large air show of its kind ever to take place in south Hampshire1.
The Role Of Southampton In The Development Of The Aircraft
Sea Wings 2000 was a Millennium celebration display commemorating Southampton's role in aircraft development in the previous century, in particular celebrating Southampton's association with flying boats and the most famous plane of all time, the Spitfire.
Southampton was the birthplace of the Supermarine Spitfire which, along with the Hurricane, was the saviour of Britain during the Second World War.
On 5 March, 1936, the first Spitfire flew from Eastleigh (now Southampton) Airport. The aircraft had been constructed a few miles south in Supermarine's Headquarters on the Itchen River at Woolston, Southampton. This is where the first Spitfires were built. RJ Mitchell, Supermarine's chief designer, was determined to design and construct the greatest fighter aircraft in the world, drawing on his impressive Schneider Trophy2 experience. The first Spitfire was delivered into service with the Royal Air Force in August 1938. The Spitfire was so advanced it was used not only by Britain's Royal Air Force, but also in the air forces of Australia, Egypt, France, Greece, Portugal, Canada, New Zealand, the Soviet Union and the United States of America. During the Battle of Britain, when on 1 September, 1940 Reichsmarschall Göring asked Ace Adolf Galland if there was anything he needed in the battle of Britain, he famously replied 'a squadron of Spitfires'.
In recognition of this, a gathering of Spitfires took place as part of the Sea Wings 2000 celebration. Almost 23,000 Spitfires were built during the Second World War in 36 different marks, although only 200 Spitfires are known to have survived and less than 50 were airworthy. Assembling in Southampton Airport, the location of the first flight, were sixteen Spitfires, including the oldest airworthy Spitfire in the world. Due to the turbulent weather conditions, sadly not all the Spitfires were able to fly in the display; however, a formation of 13 Spitfires and one Hurricane flew over Southampton Water for the Sea Wings 2000 crowds.
Southampton was also the world's home of the Flying Boat. The very first scheduled international seaplane service began in Southampton; the company British Marine Air Navigation began regular services from Southampton to Le Havre and Cherbourg in June 1922 and as well as to the Channel Islands from July 1923. This company became Imperial Airways3 in 1924. Many flying boats4 were built in Southampton and Southampton Water was the home to several aircraft manufacturers. These included Supermarine at Woolston, Folland and Fairey Aviation5 at Hamble, May Harden & May6 at Hythe with another, Saunders-Roe7, nearby on the Isle of Wight. Supermarine even named a flying boat after Southampton. The Supermarine Southampton, the first aircraft to fly from Britain to Australia and Hong Kong, was designed by RJ Mitchell and built in 1925.
Britain's main military flying boat base was on Southampton Water at Calshot and it was from there that Britain successfully won the Schneider Trophy with Southampton-built aircraft in 1922, 1927, 1929 and 1931. Flying boat services continued from Southampton until the world's last major flying boat airline, Aquila Airways, ceased services due to lack of aircraft in 1958.
Southampton is also home to Solent Sky, the renamed Southampton Hall of Aviation aircraft museum, which is well worth a visit.
To commemorate its connections with both Spitfires and Seaplanes, Sea Wings 2000 was a free show and air display performed for the people of Southampton.
Sea Wings 2000 - Flying Boats and Seaplanes
Several flying boats and seaplanes took part, and actually landed on Southampton Water, for the first time since 1958. Although the water conditions were not ideal and prevented the mass landings of flying boats that had originally been planned, several aircraft did in fact land on the water and taxied in front of the waiting crowds. This was the largest number of aircraft on Southampton Water and flying boats in Hampshire for five decades.
The Grumman Albatross is a twin-engined flying boat, and the one taking part was built in 1955, and is a short-wing Albatross. It flew search and rescue missions for the American Navy until 1967 and was used in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. When in use by the Navy, the Albatross aircraft had an aircrew of 24.
Older than the Albatross, the Goose, a twin-engined flying boat designed as a six-seat commuter aircraft, was first built in 1937. The Grumman Goose that took part in Sea Wings 2000 was built in 1945 and saw action at the very end of the Second World War when it was used by both the American Coastguard and Navy. Of the 345 built, only a few have survived and are airworthy, with this example flying mainly over Ireland and Scotland.
Piaggio Royal Gull
Known in Italy as the Piaggio P136, the Royal Gull is an Italian twin-engined flying boat first built in 1949, but the one at Sea Wings 2000 was built in 1956. Only 63 Royal Gulls were built, yet owners of the plane included King Farouk and Aristotle Onassis. The Italian Air Force had 14 for coastal patrol and air-sea rescue, although these were replaced in 1961 by the Grumman Albatross. Of the 63 built, the one at Sea Wings 2000 was at the time the only airworthy one in the world and was on display in Italian Aeronautica Militaire air-sea rescue service colours. Six other Royal Gulls are known to have survived and are being restored.
De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver
The Beaver first flew in 1947 and almost immediately proved successful; it was one of Canada's most successful planes. Over 1,600 planes were built between 1947 and 1967 and exported to over 62 countries. They were used for a variety of roles from military and ambulance duties to transport, spraying insecticides, and aerial photography. Many were used as seaplanes, although wheeled versions were also possible. The one at the air-display was built in 1958 and equipped with 'wiplane' floats that allow it to land on water or land. It had also seen service in Vietnam for transport and communication duties for the US Army.
Another plane at the display was the United Consultants Twin Bee - a very unusual 1960s flying boat with twin engines. Based on the single-engined Republic Sea Bee, the Twin Bee's extra engine gave it more power and stability, as well as a short take-off and landing capability. The small, narrow hull also means that when on water, only the cabin, wings and tail are visible above water.
Another flying boat that landed on Southampton Water was a Lake Renegade, an amphibious American pusher-engine flying boat from the 1980s that can seat up to five passengers.
As well as standard flying boats, a hovercraft, which is quite literally a boat that flies or hovers over the waves, was on display as well. The hovercraft, a British Hovercraft Corporation AP1-88 built in East Cowes, was one owned by Hoverspeed that regularly takes up to 100 passengers on the Southsea to Ryde (Isle of Wight) route. The hovercraft, an unannounced addition to the programme, flew up Southampton Water close to the Weston Shore where the assembled crowds were watching.
Changes to the Flying Boat programme
The Catalina that had been used in 1998 to promote the planned upcoming Sea Wings 2000 event did not attend, following its sinking in Southampton Water.
A Canadair CL4158 firefighting flying boat had been expected to perform a water-bombing display over Southampton Water, but sadly water conditions prevented it. The water bombing display was cancelled; had it taken place, however, it would have taken nine seconds to fill the aircraft with 6,137 litres of water and just three seconds to drop the water back in front of the waiting crowd. The CL415 was one of the most modern aircraft booked for Sea Wings 2000; the first flight was in December 1993.
Similarly, two Russian amphibious aircraft, the Beriev Be-12 and Be-200, had been expected to take part. They were originally intended to visit Southampton as part of a sales drive in Europe, with the Beriev Be-12 never seen before outside the former Soviet bloc. Like the Canadair CL415, both the Beriev aircraft are firebombers, and had been expected to demonstrate their water bombing capabilities during the show.
The Sea Wings organisers stated:
'It is with regret that we announce the withdrawal of the Beriev aircraft from the display. We have been in negotiation with Beriev for over two years but have just been informed by the company that these two aircraft have failed to achieve the necessary certification to operate outside Russia. We apologise for any disappointment, but hope that you will still enjoy the other rare and exciting seaplanes that will be appearing at Sea Wings 2000.'
Fly-Pasts and Air Displays
In addition to the flying boats, there were scheduled fly-pasts taking place, as well as air displays by the Red Arrows and Diamond Nine Tiger Moth. This included the highlight of the day, the fly-past of 13 Spitfires in formation, but there were several other aircraft flying over Southampton Water. The fly-pasts and air displays were timed not to interfere with civilian air traffic flying from Southampton Airport.
Part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the Hawker Hurricane is the second most famous British fighter aircraft of the Second World War. Although Hurricanes were more numerous than the Spitfire and scored more kills during the Battle of Britain, they never quite caught the imagination in the way that the more graceful Spitfire could. The Hurricane could out-turn a Spitfire and was able to withstand greater enemy fire, but was slower and had poorer acceleration. Of the 14,000 Hurricanes built, only 12 flying examples survive worldwide.
English Electric Canberra WK163
This British aircraft in August 1957 took the world altitude record to 70,310 feet (21,430 m). Built in 1954, the Canberra was a superb, highly manoeuvrable high-altitude bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. The Canberra first flew in 1949 and has served with several different air forces as well as NASA. They have taken part in both the Falklands and Vietnam9 Wars. This particular Canberra was heavily modified and had special wings, engines and undercarriage fitted to allow its record attempt, and as such was the only Canberra B2/6 ever built.
The Canberra also flew in formation with the Hurricane.
Fairey Swordfish II W5856
The Fairey Swordfish was a biplane torpedo-bomber that, despite being outdated by the start of the Second World War, was used to great effect by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. Nicknamed the 'Stringbag', the Swordfish's finest hour was perhaps the attack on the Italian Navy at the Battle of Taranto, which inspired the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Although several swordfishes were seaplanes and had floats rather than wheels, the swordfish that took part in Sea Wings 2000, W5856, was one used by the Mediterranean fleet onboard aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.
The Fairey Swordfish first flew in 1934, however the one that took part in the Sea Wings 2000 event first flew in 1941 and was a 'Blackfish', one manufactured under licence by the Blackburn Aircraft Company. It was painted in the pre-war colours of 810 Squadron and flies with the Royal Navy Historic Flight.
The British, German and Italian Panavia Tornado F3 was a long-range twin-engined interceptor jet aircraft that first flew in 1985 and entered service with the RAF in 1986. Its wings were able to sweep back into a delta position for greater speed. Several flew during the 1991 Gulf War, although the Tornado has since been replaced by the Typhoon Eurofighter.
Westland EH101 Merlin
The Westland EH101 Merlin was designed as a replacement for the Westland Sea King which was manufactured by Westland Helicopters in the UK and Agusta10 in Italy. It entered RAF service in 1997, and is named after the famous British Rolls Royce Merlin engine that powered several aircraft during the Second World War11.
Hawker Sea Fury FB11
The Hawker Sea Fury was the last propeller-driven aircraft developed for the Royal Navy. Intended to serve in the Second World War, the prototype was undergoing testing at the time the war ended. The Sea Fury was designed to replace the Supermarine Seafire and the FB11 was a fighter-bomber version, of which 650 were built. Despite being piston rather than jet powered, the Sea Fury served with distinction during the Korean War and even shot down a MiG-15 jet fighter in air-to-air combat.
The Sea Fury on display at Sea Wings 2000, WH588 'Baby Gorilla', was transported to Australia in 1952, where it served with the Royal Australian Navy. Between 1972 and 1997 this Sea Fury raced at the Reno Air Races in Nevada12. It was purchased by PJ Morgan Aviation and returned to Southampton in 1997.
Hawker Harrier GR7
The Harrier is the world's only vertical/short take-off and landing aircraft capable of hovering that saw service in both the RAF and Royal Navy, in particular onboard the Invincible class aircraft carriers. McDonnell Douglas have made versions under licence for America. The Harrier was first made in 1973 by Hawker Siddeley, which later became part of British Aerospace, and served in the Falklands War and the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, where its agility and manoeuvrability have made it formidable in air-to-air combat. The GR7 version first flew in 1990.
At Sea Wings 2000, the Harrier hovered about 10 feet (3 metres) above Southampton Water, creating a giant water bubble.
De Havilland Tiger Moths - Diamond Nine Display Team
The De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane was designed in 1931 as a development of the De Havilland Gipsy Moth, and was used as a flight training aircraft with the RAF until 1952. Over 7,000 were built and, as a cheap and easy aircraft to use, many still remain in service today. A Tiger Moth even became Thunderbird 6 in a film spin-off of the 1960s puppet television series, Thunderbirds.
The Diamond Nine Tiger Moth Display Team is a group of pilots who pilot nine Tiger Moths in a series of flying circus aerodynamic displays.
Hawker Nimrod MR2P
The Hawker Siddeley Nimrod is one of the longest-serving aircraft in the RAF, whose development was based on the Comet 4 airliner, the first ever jet airliner. The Nimrod first flew in 1967 and has been used in a maritime patrol role, for anti-submarine, anti-shipping and search-and-rescue roles. Despite being a four-engined aircraft it can operate and climb using only one. The MR2P version was modified as a result of lessons learnt during the Falklands War; a refuelling probe was added, to allow it to stay airborne for up to 16 hours, and it carried defensive air-to-air missiles.
CG Sikorsky S61N Helicopter
The Sikorsky S61N helicopter is an all-weather amphibious helicopter capable of landing on water. The prototype first flew in 1959.
Westland Sea King HAS6
The Westland Sea King is a British-licensed version of the Sikorsky S61 but with considerable differences. The HAS6 version was an anti-submarine version, although Sea Kings are being replaced in the Royal Navy by Merlin helicopters. They frequently can be found off the coast in a search-and-rescue role with the coastguard.
Grumman FM2 Wildcat
The American Wildcat was the US Navy's first monoplane and their only aircraft carrier aircraft until the Hellcat arrived in 1943, and from 1940 was also used in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. The Wildcat fought throughout the Second World War. The Wildcat that flew at Sea Wings 2000 is the only one flying in Europe and is decorated in the colours of 846 Squadron, which operated from HMS Tracker.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
The Hellcat was responsible for 75% of America's carrier aircraft kills during the Second World War and replaced the Wildcat as the US Navy's premier fighter. As well as used by the US Navy, the Marine Corps and Fleet Air Arm also used the Hellcat. The Hellcat at Sea Wings 2000 is the only airworthy one outside America and dates from 1943.
Grumman F7F Tigercat
The Tigercat was the United States Navy's first twin-engined fighter and entered service in 1945. They missed combat during the Second World War; despite a fast top speed, they had poor performance - especially on one engine - and were not considered suitable for operations from aircraft carriers. They were withdrawn from service in 1954.
Grumman F8F Bearcat
The Bearcat was introduced near the end of the Second World War and again operated with the US Navy. Like the Sea Fury, it served alongside early jet aircraft. The one on display at Sea Wings 2000 dates from 1945.
The RAF's display team, the Red Arrows, has performed at many air displays worldwide since 1964. They performed a short display.
The Jaguar is an Anglo-French long-range jet aircraft capable of supersonic flight. The prototype first flew in 1968, and entered service with the RAF in 1974. The Jaguar GR3 was intended for use in the Cold War; however, they saw service as recently as the 1991 Gulf War. The Jaguars were replaced by Tornados.
Westland Lynx HAS3
The Westland Lynx is a fast and agile British multi-purpose helicopter that first entered service in 1977. The HAS3 is the Royal Navy variant, used in anti-submarine and shipping roles (the HAS stands for Helicopter, Anti-Submarine). The Lynx was a development of the Saunders Roe Wasp and Scout helicopters. These had become Westland helicopters when Saunders-Roe was forcibly merged with Westland to form Westland Helicopters in 1961.
Tribute To Flight Lieutenant James Eric Brindley Nicholson
The only RAF pilot during the Battle of Britain to receive a Victoria Cross, for a dogfight battle over the city of Southampton, James Nicholson had a solo Spitfire flight over Southampton Water in his honour. Southampton was the ninth most bombed city in Britain during the Second World War. Over 1,500 Air Raid Warnings were broadcast in Southampton during the Second World War, with 57 heavy bombing attacks inflicted on the city. The worst raid was on the night of 30 November and 1 December, 1940. The Town Centre was virtually destroyed: 630 citizens died, nearly 1,900 were injured, 3,589 buildings were destroyed and over 40,000 damaged, 2,631 high explosive bombs and 30,652 incendiary bombs were recorded as having been dropped.
On 16 August, 1940, at the age of 23, Nicholson was flying his Hurricane when he was attacked by German Messerschmitt BF110 fighters. He was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him. His foot was badly injured and he was almost blinded when a shard of plexiglass pierced his eye, and his plane caught fire when a shell set fire to his fuel tank.
As he struggled to bale out, an enemy ME110 fighter came into his gunsights. Nicholson climbed back into his burning plane and shot the enemy although, as a result of staying in his burning aircraft, he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs; he then bailed out again and parachuted to safety. Sadly, however, on landing he was shot by a member of the Home Guard who was on the way home from the pub. A crowd of people then attacked the drunken Home Guard man, breaking his arm and several ribs, so that when the ambulance arrived it was the Home Guard man who was taken to hospital in it. Nicholson was forced to endure an excruciatingly painful ride on the back of a lorry.
Fortunately, by September 1941 he had recovered and in 1942 Nicholson was posted to India, where he flew Bristol Beaufighters over Burma. During this time he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He died in an air accident in 1945. His Victoria Cross, the highest award that can be given to British and Commonwealth servicemen, is on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, North London.
Sea Wings 2000 was dedicated to the memory of Councillor Mike Andrews, Mayor of the City of Southampton, and Airline Officer Peter Shave, an employee of Southampton Airport. During the initial planning of the Sea Wings 2000 event, a publicity demonstration had been arranged to take place on 27 July, 1998 showing how Southampton Water could still be used as a runway for flying boats. A Consolidated Catalina, an American flying boat of the 1930s and 40s, used by the US Navy during the Second World War, flew to Southampton Water for a publicity tour.
Tragically the Catalina amphibian flying boat plunged into Southampton Water on take-off, and although the majority onboard survived, the two men drowned. Although there were brief calls to cancel the demonstration, instead it became a tribute to the tragedy.