Warbird Alley
Hawker Hunter
Pilot Report
By Vince Moore

Hawker T.8 Hunter N 289XF
[Photo source unknown. Please contact us if you deserve credit.]

When it comes to picking a "dream plane," my vote goes to the British-built classic, the Hawker Hunter jet fighter. When it comes to the sheer pleasure of flying, it's hard to beat the Hunter. N289XF is a former Royal Navy Hunter T.8 owned by George Lazik and Bob Guilford of Los Angeles. Since its arrival in the U.S. in 1995, it has appeared at airshows all around the country, occasionally with the author in the left seat.

First Impressions
Knowing you're about to take to the sky in a world-class fighter that has a distinguished military history and is one of the sexiest aircraft ever designed is awe-inspiring. A video about life in an RAF Hunter squadron shows two pilots strapping into a two-seater. To show how easy it is to start the engine, the instructor casually intones a few checklist steps, flips a few switches and phooossh!! -- the engine whines to life and they taxi away.

Flying in the Real World
In the real world, the 45-year-old Hunter does not become airborne at the push of a few buttons; it must be charmed to life by arriving at least two-and-a-half hours before takeoff. Without a plane captain or crew chief, the pilot must perform all the preflight checks.

To prepare for a launch, a truck is parked alongside the Hunter. In back are compartments that house tools, hoses, high-pressure nitrogen and oxygen bottles, start cartridges, ladders and an infinite number of accessories that may be required to start the plane. First, the tires are inflated to the required pressure, brakes adjusted, accumulators charges, battery checked, start cartridges replaced, nosegear door retracted for towing, gear box and engine oil levels services, hydraulic reservoir topped off, oxygen tank refilled, and then the plane is fueled, the cockpit prepped and a pre-flight walk-around performed. Finally, you pack the drogue chute into the tail, which is a two-man job.

Getting ready in the cockpit seems to take almost as long. The seat and rudder pedals are adjusted, leg garters hooked up, seat belts, shoulder harnesses and parachute straps fitted and snapped into place, oxygen masks plugged in and checked, helmet connected to the communication system, and charts and GPS readied. Since it's now a civil bird, don't pull the ejection seat pins -- a no-no, says the FAA.

Hunter Cockpit

Starting Up
For the uninitiated, engine start can be startling. The first versions of the Hunter were fired off with large brass cartridges filled with cordite. When the cartridge is ignited, air pressure spools the compressor up to the required speed for a light-off. The four-second "swoosh" this produces usually sends anyone within earshot diving for cover, and the plume of black cordite smoke shooting from the belly sends ramp personnel scrambling for fire extinguishers. Because of the pyrotechnic danger of the cartridges and their dwindling availability, many owners are converting to electric starting systems.

Cockpit layout is rather disorganized, even for a jet designed at the beginning of the turbine era. Seems like the ergonomics engineers at Hawker grabbed a handful of instruments, levers, switches and dials, threw them up in the air and left them wherever they fell in the cockpit.

Getting Airborne
Asked about the Hunter's flying qualities, former Hawker Chief Test Pilot Bill Bedford said simply, "It's a real pilot's airplane!" Another example of typical British understatement.

On takeoff, the Hunter lifts off very naturally and in flight, its controls are light and well-balanced through the entire range of airspeeds. Performance-wise, it behaves as well at 600 knots as it does in the traffic pattern, a claim most jets can't make. Even with the smaller Rolls-Royce Mk.120 engine, there is impressive acceleration when you need it. The Hunter is such a thoroughbred, it's almost impossible to fly somewhere straight and level. Aileron rolls are so effortless, they can become hypnotic. The Hunter's stall and spin characteristics are relatively docile and predictable. That's why it's the only swept-wing jet in the world routinely used for spin-recovery training. The wide-track landing gear adds a margin of safety for takeoffs and landings in crosswinds and on rough surfaces. If the gear won't extend, the Hunter can land on its underwing fuel tanks with minimal damage.

Airshows and Odd Jobs
N289XF has performed at some of the country's biggest airshows, including Oshkosh and the USAF 50th anniversary at Edwards AFB in 1997. Last year, I flew to several shows with George Lazik and his Polish Air Force MiG-17. We usually depart Van Nuys [California] as a two-ship, climb to flight level 20- or 30- something and arrive at the destination with an overhead break. Not even in my dreams did I ever think I'd one day be flying a Hawker Hunter in formation with a Soviet MiG. Tearing along at 450 knots next to a MiG with rocket pods under its wings is one of the highlights of my 20-year flying career.

N289XF's career as a civil jet hasn't been all play and no work, however. The Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB and the National Test Pilot School at Mojave, Calif. both leased the swept-wing Hunter to teach pilots about the handling characteristics of early Fifties fighters. It even flew the role of "Goon 51" with the former Top Gun school at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC), NAS Fallon, Nevada. Along with several other vintage jets, N289XF was invited to fly against recent NSAWC graduates as a "surprise adversary."

Civil Versus Military
Like many Hunter T.8Cs, N289XF began life as a single-seat F.4 variant. In 1958, Hawker converted it to a two-seat T.7 and shortly thereafter, converted it again to a T.8 for the Royal Navy's Number 764 Squadron. After many years of service, it was transferred to the Fleet Requirements and Direction Unit at RNAS Yeovilton in the mid-1980s. The airplane was used for Harrier conversion training and as a low-level target simulator until it was sold at auction in November 1994.

There are some major differences between how the Hunter is flown on the civilian airshow circuit and how they were operated by the military, and most of them have to do with economics. It's not news that jet warbirds are ungodly expensive to operate when a private citizen rather than a government is paying the bills. In the military, a jet's wings were routinely loaded with as many weapons as possible; for airshow flying, we carry as many fuel tanks as possible. That's because when a show is providing free fuel, you want to be able to take as much as you possibly can. It's the same with brakes. A civilian pilot uses aerodynamic braking and as much of the runway as he can to prolong the life of hard-to-find brakes. Where military pilots flew the Hunter in all kinds of instrument conditions, we try to fly VFR whenever possible.

Maintaining the Hunter hasn't been a problem so far. However, it's obvious that some necessities will soon be in short supply and require extensive and expensive searching to obtain. Among these are start cartridges, isopropyl nitrate used to start the bigger engines, brake disks and pads. Guilford said that he and others are researching the possibility of re-chroming the disks and having the pads manufactured abroad from scratch.

* * * * *
Article Copyright 2003
Vince Moore,
All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Incredible Aventures

Do you have a flight report like the one you just read?
Send it to us!

[Back to Hunter Page]

Warbird Alley

Copyright 2014 The Doublestar Group
All Rights Reserved