Naval Air Department
Naval Air Department from the air
Naval Air Department (NAD) was formed at the newly operational NAE
Airfield at Thurleigh in the summer of 1954, primarily through the
amalgamation of the Carrier Equipment Department and naval elements from
Aerodynamics Department at RAE Farnborough. It was disbanded in 1970
following a decision, announced in the 1967 Defence White Paper, that the
UK would withdraw from the operation of fixed-wing aircraft by the Royal
Navy and would not therefore construct a new generation of conventional
aircraft carriers. From 1954 until 1970, however, NAD conducted extensive
research and development to improve the operation of jet aircraft from
NAD’s task was to improve catapults and arrester gear to cope with a new
generation of carrier-borne aircraft such as Phantom and Buccaneer that
were significantly larger, heavier and faster than their propeller-driven
(& early jet) predecessors.
new facilities for Naval R&D were built at Bedford, on the North side of
the airfield (see picture) including raised and flush catapults, arrester
gear, and a proving base, together with CALE (Catapult Alignment
Equipment), and Jet Blast Deflectors (JBD).
The catapults and arrester gear operated by NAD were the only such
shore-based equipment in the UK. The raised catapult was the prototype
steam catapult, installed at Bedford after initial trials in Portsmouth
harbour where it was attached to the flight deck of a WW2 aircraft
carrier. In addition to the two steam catapults there was a cordite
powered catapult at the proving base.
Bedford had the only R&D facilities for such work in the country. The
French Navy also took advantage of the facilities to prove their Etendard and Alizé aircraft.
The earliest photograph of an aircraft being launched from a catapult at
Bedford is of the Supermarine 508 VX133 on 3 June 1955.
Other “firsts” were:-
• 29 Feb 1956, First catapult launch DH110
• 14 June 1957, First catapult launch of first production Sea Vixen XJ474
• 1957 First catapult launch Buccaneer (a later picture is shown)
• 13 April 1964, First aircraft launch on flush catapult
• 16 Dec 1968, First catapult launch Phantom FG Mk1 XT872
Because of the challenges faced and the solutions found, it may be
reasonably claimed that the UK became a world leader in the evolution of
aircraft carrier operational capabilities. It can be demonstrated that
much of the infrastructure (steam catapults and advanced arrester gear) that
today makes carrier-borne aircraft such a potent weapons system was
devised and developed in the UK and indeed, within Naval Air Department.
Buccaneer XK524 about to launch from raised
Phantom XT597 launching from flush catapult
With its experience in devising arrester gear for ships, Naval Air Department also worked
extensively on emergency barriers for airfield use.
A major innovation was the water spray arresting gear, also known as the
“Direct Acting Gear” (DAG).
This system slowed the aircraft by the use of pistons connected to the
arrester wire to force water through small holes in the top of two pipes
which run parallel to the runway. The first picture shows a Scimitar testing this. The
second picture shows the water curtain produced during the arrest.
Direct Acting Gear (DAG), Water Spray
In addition to the work on fast jet applications there was considerable
interest in the naval application of helicopters, particularly the methods
employed in approach and landing phases and in the associated deck
handling. Among the tools used for this work were drop test rigs to test
helicopter undercarriage systems and a specially built Rolling Platform to
simulate the motion typical of the deck of a ship at sea. The motion of a
ship is not simply up and down but also contains side to side and
rolling components. The Rolling Platform at NAD was a unique facility and
was used by industry and foreign navies for landing trials.
An interest in hovercraft in the early 1960s brought about the formation
of a special section devoted to their military application. The work of
this team in respect to fan and skirt design produced many improvements a
number of which were taken up by the hovercraft industry.
In consequence of the 1967 Defence White Paper mentioned above, and the
change of responsibility for the staff and facilities to Engineering
Physics Department, the helicopter team were transferred back to
Aero Flight where the work on operational
issues continued. In parallel with this work new activity was initiated in
the field of advanced concepts and rotor aerodynamics.