So what does one do after a life-time in the Royal Navy? The answer was clearly something different.
I have just left the Royal Navy after nearly 39 years, 33 of which were spent with the Fleet Air Arm, including the roles of Senior Pilot, Commanding Officer (Squadron and ship), Staff Operations Officer, Staff Aviation Officer, Commander Air of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, the Captain in charge of Carrier Strike and the 1st Sea Lord’s Aviation Advisor. My last job in uniform was the Commanding Officer of Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton and, as I started to think about ‘something different’ it quickly became apparent that would not be the case, particularly as the ‘error of my thinking’ was pointed out to me by several persuasive senior officers. I was therefore delighted to be appointed in a full time job as the new Chief Executive of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust in February this year. The good news was that I didn’t need much induction training, as I had been intimately involved over the past three years as both a Trustee and Director of the Charity.
One of the key drivers in persuading me to take on this role was the exciting journey which the Trust has now embarked on under the new brand of Navy Wings. Let me explain.
Last year was a relatively good one for the Trust insofar as we had both the Swordfish and Sea Vixen in the air, but this challenge is becoming more and more difficult for a number of reasons. In the first instance, legislation to control vintage jet aircraft is really being tightened up (and rightly so) post the sad events at Shoreham last year. The emerging engineering regulatory requirements are putting a large strain on an already taut budget. Secondly, as the Royal Navy feels a similar budgetary strain, the amount of resource it can offer to the Historic Flight and hence the Swordfish and Sea Fury has been reduced and we now have almost half the flying hours we had planned for this year; the Sea hawk is now in suspension due to lack of resource. There is little chance of this situation improving in the next few years and in fact every chance it may get worse financially. Therefore things had to change to allow the Trust to move forward on a secure financial footing, which in reality means raising something approaching £700,000 per annum.
So what has happened?
At the end of 2015, the Trustees decided to make a positive statement of intent and restructure the charity’s set-up by looking towards the future, as the new aircraft carrier, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH enters service. Navy Wings was formally launched at Yeovilton Air Day by one of our Ambassadors, Mr Frederick Forsyth the world famous author, and it was a huge success. So what does Navy Wings mean exactly? Essentially it is a new brand which brings together owners of other airworthy historic naval aircraft to create a ‘Navy Wings collection’ in order to tell a more complete story about the development of flying from the sea. This is made up of a Core Collection and an Associate Collection of aircraft.
The Core Collection is either owned directly by the Trust (the Sea Vixen and twin seat Sea Fury T20), or by the Royal Navy (the Swordfish, the single seat Sea Fury FB11, the Sea Hawk and the Chipmunk). The Associate Collection is the exciting innovative bit of Navy Wings and we already have several privately owned aircraft under the banner, which can be viewed on our new website. For the first time this includes helicopters and we now have a Wasp and Gazelle under the Navy Wings umbrella; the Gazelle is of particular interest to me as I flew this very aircraft (side no XX 436) during my Basic Flying training on 705 Naval Air Squadron at Culdrose in 1984! It is painted in the livery of the Sharks display team and I am sure many of you reading this will also have flown her. In addition, we have some beautiful old flying aircraft from the Great War including the AVRO 504K and the Bristol Scout.
This has been a hectic few months for the Trust and the small team have been working flat out to deliver some really successful events including a Bismarck Anniversary lunch in May, the Navy Day at Shuttleworth in early June, the launch of Navy Wings and of course most recently, the Commemoration Lunch and flying display for Capt Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown in the new Navy Wings Heritage Centre at Yeovilton. I won’t say too much on the Winkle event as it is covered separately on our website, except to note that it was an enormous success for the Trust who were asked to under-write and run the event on behalf of the Royal Navy. Clearly there was some risk in this, particularly given the short time scale to raise money and organise a Royal event with over 640 people sitting down for lunch, however the Trustees decided to take up the challenge and the subsequent accolades from a variety of serving and retired officers, along with close members of Winkle’s family, proved how successful it was. Many members of the FAA Federations were no doubt in attendance and they will have their own stories to tell.
Finally, we have completed the move across the airfield and the offices of the Trust are now situated next to Hangar 15 on the South side. For the first time we are co-located with the Royal Navy Historic Flight and all our aircraft are next door in the Navy Wings Heritage Centre hangar. We are able to receive visitors, give them a brief and then show them the aircraft without driving around different locations; surely it will never catch on!
These are exciting times and I firmly believe we are on the right trajectory for the future, whereby we can continue to meet our aim of 'Inspiring future generations by bringing together the aircraft, people and story of flying from ships’. We have had both the Swordfish and Sea Vixen flying at our major events this year and, with a fair wind, we should see the Sea Fury return to the skies in 2017 in time for a fly-past over HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH when she enters Portsmouth Dockyard for the first time.
We do however, need your help and support. I know it is always tacky to talk about money, but the bottom line is that no charity can function without it and this is an expensive game; as an example, a new set of nine pistons for the Swordfish costs about £25k. We therefore need to double our Supporter base in the next year in order to have a viable way ahead and the key must be our serving and retired members of the FAA of whom very few are current Supporters. Therefore please consider becoming a Supporter (through the website at: www.navywings.org.uk) for the princely sum of £30 per year. There are lots of benefits in joining, but the main one is knowing that you are helping to keep the living legacy of Naval aviation alive by ensuring these wonderful old aircraft are kept in a flying state and thus able to get around the country to inspire future generations. Put simply, if we don’t all get behind the Truat, there is a real danger of these aircraft ending in a Museum within the next few years.
Jock Alexander OBE FRAeS