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The Brits Operated Fire-Breathing Phantom IIs From a Tiny Flight Deck

Fleet Air Arm Pilots Had Little or No Margin For Error Operating From HMS Ark Royal

Official US Navy photograph

The film “Hands to Flying Stations” was shot and produced during 1975 when the Royal Navy’ Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was still flying McDonnell Douglas FG.1 Phantom IIs from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (R09). The FG.1 variant was powered by Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines, which necessitated larger engine air intakes as well as aft fuselage modifications to fit the larger Spey engines within the Phantom’s engine bays. This video transfer of the film, uploaded by YouTuber aerocruses, explains FAA carrier operations in great detail and with some unexpected British humor thrown in.

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Official US Navy photograph

When the film was made the FAA Air Wing aboard the Ark Royal totaled 39 aircraft consisting of 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) flying the Blackburn Buccanneer S2 attack aircraft (also equipped with RR Spey engines), 892 NAS McDonnell Douglas FG.1 Phantom II fighters, 849B NAS Fairey Gannet AEW.3 airborne early warning aircraft, 824 NAS Westland Sea King HAR.3 rescue helicopters, and Westland Wessex HAS.1 multipurpose helicopters assigned to the ship’s company.

Ark Royal docked in Norfolk across from the Nimitz. Official US Navy photograph

The Brits operated Buccanneers and Phantoms from a comparatively tiny carrier deck. The United States Navy never deployed Phantoms aboard carriers smaller than the Midway class. The Ark Royal was roughly the same size as an Essex-class carrier. It must have been a real eye opener for American crews to cross-deck with the Brits and operate their F-4J Phantom IIs from Ark Royal after being accustomed to the comparatively huge flight decks of the American Forrestal-class bird farms. The Brits must have enjoyed the spacious American flight decks as well.

VF-33 Tarsiers F-4J operating from Ark Royal. Official US Navy photograph

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.