Vickers Type 279 "Venom"
A history, description and short discussion of its possible use as a carrier fighter.
Venom in flight.
I found the RDFMedia TV documentary "Spitfire Ace" to be excellent. However, one line in an interview with the historian Stephan Bungay (author of the outstanding "The Most Dangerous Enemy") needs a bit of qualification. He said that no one would have expected such an excellent aircraft as the Spitfire to be designed and built by such a small company as Supermarine...
From 1928 onwards, Supermarine was part of the Vickers Group, the largest arms manufacturing group of companies in Britain (if not the world), producing ships, tanks and aircraft. Supermarine could call on the technical and money resources of the Vickers group. Many of their top technical brains (such as the aerodynamicist Beverley Shenstone) moved regularly between projects at Supermarine and the main Vickers aircraft company. Test pilots such as Mutt Summers and Jeffrey Quill were also a shared resource. Supermarine also regularly did assembly work on "Vickers" designs. So Supermarine can hardly be regarded as a "small company".
What is surprising is that Vickers allowed RJ Mitchell to invest so much time and money into the highly speculative job of designing the Spitfire, (for which no Air Ministry specification existed) while the main Vickers aircraft company had been chasing Air Ministry orders for over a decade with successive designs based on the advanced construction techniques licensed from the French engineer Michel Wibault (pioneer of metal aircraft construction who went on to develop the concept of VTOL that led to the Harrier "Jump Jet"). While not a true "stressed skin" design the Wibault system did allow the construction of cantilever monoplanes with no external bracing. Vickers first used the system in their type 121 parasol monoplane "Scout" of 1925 and then in the advanced looking (but aerodynamically disastrous) monoplane "Vireo" light fighter which flew in 1928. The system was then used on a series of single, twin and three-engined airliners; the "Viastra" family. In 1930 Vickers flew their type 151 "Jockey" designed for Air Ministry spec F20/27 which again used the Wibault system.
Vickers Venom F5/34 at Brooklands.
Vickers' designer Joe Bewsher further refined the design to meet spec F5/34 to produce the Venom. In doing so the Wibault system was discarded for a true stressed-skin design. The inception of the Spitfire meant the Vickers/Supermarine company was developing two quite separate high-speed monoplane fighters at the same time. There is no doubt that the Spitfire was the better of the two, but there are many aspects of the Vickers "Venom" which are noteworthy...
Side view of the Vickers Venom, it shows well the constant-cord wing. The number "3" is the aircraft's "new types number" so that the public could identify it from the list of new types printed in the programme for the annual Hendon Air Display.
Description and History
The Venom was quite a small aircraft, weighing appreciably less than either the Spitfire or Hurricane. It was powered by a comparatively small engine - The Bristol "Aquila" of only 620 horsepower. This was a single-row 9 cylinder sleeve-valve radial engine. Fighter designers usually build their aircraft around the most powerful engines available, building a "light fighter" is always a gamble since some element of the performance, speed, range or armament, has to be sacrificed. Between the wars it was the French who were champions of the "light fighter" concept ¹, a class of aircraft they referred to as "jockeys", hence the name of the Vickers Type 151 predecessor to the Venom, and early in its development the Venom itself was referred to as the "Jockey II".
Vickers were an international arms company that did a lot of business with small nations; South America was particularly lucrative for them. The appeal of a smaller, less costly aircraft in such a marketplace is obvious and Vickers probably had one eye on this when developing the Venom. You might almost consider it as a 1930s equivalent of the F5 "Freedom Fighter" of three decades later. Certainly, if the Venom had reached production early enough it might have captured some of the market taken by the Curtiss Hawk 75-N.
Surprisingly for the size of the engine and airframe, the Venom had a remarkably good performance and carried a full battery of eight Browning machine guns. Its maximum speed was much lower than a Spitfire (315 mph ² v the Spitfires MK I's 345 mph) but it was not far off the Hurricane Mk Is speed of 318 mph; outstanding when you consider the Venom had an engine of 620 horsepower compared to the Hurricane's Merlin of 1,000 horsepower. One rather strange feature of the Venom were perspex transparent sides to the cockpit; these did not improve the view of the pilot but the light they admitted made it easier to read the instruments inside the otherwise dark cockpit interior. The transparent panels formed doors that could be folded down on both sides of the cockpit for easy access. One other unusual feature of the Venom was that the canopy slid backwards inside the rear section , rather than outside as on the Spitfire and Hurricane.
The Venom was fitted with a Hamilton three-blade variable pitch propeller, quite an innovation for the time (the prototype Spitfire and early production Hurricanes used a fixed-pitch propeller). This nearly led to disaster on the Venom's first flight on 17th June 1936, (piloted by "Mutt" Summers) when the Venom barely got off the ground and had to be landed straight away. It was found that the pitch of the blades had been incorrectly set up when assembled. With the propeller correctly aligned the Venom took to the air properly the following day and its initial performance seemed to fully justify its designers' hopes.
Another view of the Venom at Brooklands. Note the highly polished engine cowling. The entire Aquila engine assembly and cowling of the prototype were rented from Bristols. Vickers were charged £6 for each hour the engine ran. The Venom's fuselage was a monocoque metal assembly, while the control surfaces were fabric-covered. The retracting undercarriage was electrically driven, rather than using hydraulics. The propeller was ordered with a streamlined central spinner but this seems to have never been fitted.
The test pilot Jefferey Quill, who test flew the Venom and the Spitfire, rated the Venom very highly, saying he suspected the Venom to be much the more manoeuvrable of the two. In his book "Spitfire- A test pilot's story" he suggests that the Venom would have made a very good carrier-based naval fighter. Mutt Summers had this to say about the Venom "All round manoeuvrability of this machine, plus the fact that the pilot is sitting practically on the centre of gravity to my mind makes this machine the ideal fighter as in quick manoeuvres the absence of g on the body is very noticeable." High praise indeed from the first pilot to fly a Spitfire! As to the landing characteristics, Flt Lt Edward Jones at A&AEE Martlesham Heath commented he could "land it anywhere".
The Vickers Venom prototype coming into land - notice the generous flap area which could be set to a full 90 degrees down. These functioned as very effective air brakes allowing the pilot to plonk down in very small spaces - an ideal prerequisite for a carrier aircraft. Jeffrey Quill considered the front cockpit frame and windscreen to be too close to the pilot and advised that any production machine should have it placed further forward.
Vickers Venom prototype pictured at Brooklands with the banked racing track visible behind. The Venom very nearly ended up crashing into the banking on its final flight. The large spine running from the cockpit to the tail was to give extra side-area to the fuselage to prevent flat-spins (the cause of the loss of its predecessor the "Jockey"). As an extra precaution, the Venom had an anti-spin parachute in the tail-cone but this never had to be used.
Two things mitigated against the production of the Venom. Firstly and most importantly, Vickers just did not have the factory space for another production line. They were fully committed to the Wellington at their main factory and Supermarine also had full order books. So the only way the Venom could have been produced is if another company could have produced it under licence or a completely new "shadow factory" set up for it. Secondly, the Aquila engine it used was not in production (only a handful of hand-built prototypes were built) and it looked increasingly unlikely that any other aircraft project would use it.
The Bristol Aquila was originally designed to be a small-to-medium-sized engine for the civil marketplace, a rival to the Armstrong Whitworth Cheetah, the Napier Rapier and the de Havilland Gypsy Queen and King engines. Apart from the Venom the only other aircraft that used it were Bristol's own products, a Bristol Bulldog and Bullpup were both fitted with Aquilas during testing of the engine and the prototype Bristol 143 small airliner used a pair. When you look up details of the engine you usually find it quoted as producing 400 to 500 horsepower (hp) and running at 2,250 revolutions per minute (rpm). This is not representative of the engine fitted to the Venom. This was the little-documented AE-3S version (in one source called the AE35) which ran at the much higher speed of 3,550 rpm to produce 620 hp at an altitude of 13,500 feet.
Venom pictured from below just after take-off. The undercarriage has not yet fully retracted.
Venom in flight.
The constant cut-outs and fade-outs of the Bristol Aquila engine put the test programme back and the Venom was left behind by the development of the Spitfire and Hurricane. On January 7th 1937 the Venom experienced a total engine failure in flight but Geoffrey Quill managed to get the aircraft down safely in a glide for a "dead-stick" landing at Gosport aerodrome. After this, the original Aquila engine was a write-off and the aircraft was taken back to Vickers' Brookland factory by road. It was at this stage, disappointed in the constant issues with the Aquila, that Vickers investigated the use of an engine from Alvis in the same class as the Aquila, presumably the 650 hp Maeonides Major, a derivative of a French Gnome et Le Rhone designs. This got nowhere (no Alvis aero-engine designs were actually produced, except as prototypes, until after the end of WWII). They also considered the use of an American Pratt and Whitney engine (probably the Twin-Wasp Junior) but again nothing came of it. The possibility of fitting 600 pounds of armour to the Venom was also briefly investigated but swiftly dismissed as the airframe would have had to be completely redesigned to take the additional weight. Indeed, Vickers seem to have lost all interest in the Venom at this stage, and who can blame them? The previous year the first orders had come through for Spitfires and the Vickers-Supermarine group were struggling to deliver them.
It would seem that the Air Ministry had other ideas; in mid-1937 they showed fresh interest in the Venom and put pressure onto Vickers to rent a replacement Aquila, and there was renewed talk of a government-sponsored shadow-factory being built to produce Venoms. Just what they hoped to achieve by this is a mystery. Perhaps they were worried by all their fighters depending on the Rolls-Royce Merlin and wanted a fall-back in case of problems of development or production of that engine? In that exact period the early Merlin Mk I was going through a period of bad reliability with its initial "ramp head" design. Or perhaps they wanted a cut-price fighter to supply to friendly powers to avoid them having to release Hawker Hurricanes to the likes of Yugoslavia and Belgium? In any event, a new (or rebuilt?) Aquila was obtained and fitted and after being grounded for 6 months the Venom took to the air again. This second engine did not seem to suffer from the fade-outs of the previous engine and on 4th October 1937, the Venom went of the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Martlesham Heath for full service testing (it had been to A&AEE before, in June 1936 for a brief evaluation). It returned in mid-December, having sustained some wrinkles on top of the starboard wing. This was quickly rectified and "grooves" put in the top of the wings to prevent the wrinkles returning. In the meantime, Air Ministry interest in the Venom had evaporated (perhaps because the issues with the Merlin had been fixed in the Mk II version and a second factory to produce Merlins had opened) and an official evaluation report on the Venom was never completed.
On its final flight on 3rd February 1938, the engine cut-out just after take-off from Brooklands and Jeffrey Quill just managed to clear the race-track banking before the engine recovered and he was able to fly it on to Supermarine's Eastleigh facility, where it would seem the single Venom was scrapped sometime in 1939 (the engine was being rented from Bristol and had to be returned to them). The report on some websites that the Venom was written off after a crash (a report unfortunately repeatedly put on its Wikipedia entry) seems to have no basis.
Vickers Type 279 Venom performance and statistics
Max Speed recorded on initial manufacturers' trials: 308 mph (TAS) at 17,000 ft (496 Km/hr at 5,182 metres). After modifications a speed of 315 mph (TAS) at 16,000 ft was recorded (507 kph at 4,877 metres). ²
Initial climb rate: 3,000 feet per minute (914 metres per minute).
Service Ceiling: 32,000 ft (9,754 metres).
Weight: (Loaded) 4,185 lb (1,898 kg) including 50 gallons of fuel, ballast weight of 8 machine guns, 2,400 rounds of ammunition and TR9 radio.
Length: 24ft 2in (7.36 metres). Wingspan: 32 ft 9in (9.98 metres). Wing area: 170 sq feet (15.79 sq metres).
Armament: 8 x .303 Browning machine guns with 300 rounds per gun.
Engine: Bristol Aquila AE-3S delivering approx 620 brake horsepower at 3,550 rpm at 13,500 ft with +5 lb boost.
The first flight of prototype: At Brooklands on 17th June 1936 piloted by Mutt Summers.
Many of the descriptions and accounts of the Venom published stress that the prototype was fitted with its full set of 8 machine guns and their associated electrical heating very early in its flight-testing. For example, the test pilot Jeffrey Quill very much stressed this point in his book "Spitfire- A Test Pilot's Story". However, as pointed out to me in an exchange of emails with Richard Crapp, none of the available photos ever show evidence for openings for the machine guns in the leading edge of the wing or panels to allow the loading of ammunition in either the top or bottom of the wings or ammunition ejection chutes in the bottom of the wing. So either Vickers made an extraordinarily good job of ensuring the panels and covers were flush, or all the photos available were taken before any armament was fitted, or someone has got it very wrong and no armament was ever fitted. It should be noted that the performance figures for the initial trials of the Venom state that the aircraft was carrying ballast to represent the weight of guns, ammunition and radio; that would certainly suggest that the guns themselves were not fitted during the Venom's initial testing.
Head-on and rear views of the Vickers Venom (again taken at Brooklands). No photos show evidence for machine gun ports or ammunition replenishment panels. Notice the Hamilton logo on each of the propeller blades.
Something that regularly crops up on internet forums is the Venom's suitability for use as a carrier fighter by the Royal Navy. The interest in the subject is no doubt prompted by test pilot Jeffrey Quill's comments in his book "Spitfire- A Test Pilot's Story" that he thought the Venom might have been ideal for the role.
Vickers Venom painted as if it had gone into service as a fighter in the Fleet Air Arm. The painting is based closely on the configuration of the prototype Venom with the simple addition of a "V" frame arrestor hook under the fuselage. HMS Eagle is in the background.
Britain was very badly served by its designs of carrier fighters during World War II. The biplane Sea Gladiator and two-seat Blackburn Skua did their best, but they were just not up to the task of taking on German and Italian fighters. Navalised versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire were far from perfect, the Seafire having a short endurance and poor record for deck landing. The Sea Hurricane was never fitted with folding wings and took up a lot of space inside carriers. The two-seat Fulmar had endurance and firepower but lacked speed. The later two-seat Firefly was a good improvement but only arrived late in the war. The huge Blackburn Firebrand arrived too late to do anything. So the British had to rely on a supply of American carrier fighters, first the little Wildcat, then the later Hellcat and Corsair.
Could the little Venom have given Britain a decent naval fighter? Its published performance figures are chasing those of the Wildcat. It was a small aircraft and a lot of them could be crammed below the decks of a carrier, even more, if its wings could be made to fold, something that should have been comparatively easy with its constant-chord wing layout. The Venom had a unique feature in that the engine was hinged to fold sideways to allow access to the rear, a boon for servicing in the cramped confines of a carrier. The Venom had a widespread inward retracting undercarriage, and so should have provided good deck landing characteristics. The tail cone lent itself to an American style "stinger" tailhook, usually more effective than the British forked underbelly hook (when late-model Seafires were fitted with a "stinger" their deck landing accident rate dropped significantly). The Venom pilot sat high in his cockpit, like the pilot of a Wildcat he sat above the fuel tank, rather than behind it as in the Sea Hurricane and Seafire. He had a good view over the leading edge of the wing and forward past the small diameter Bristol Aquila engine. With 8 machine guns, the Venom was on a par with the early Sea Hurricane and Seafire, but like both those aircraft, it carried only half the ammunition of the Fulmar. No doubt a "later model" Venom might have been fitted with 20 mm cannon to replace some of the machine guns.
A carrier fighter benefits from a great range, it meant a wider area to fly escort to torpedo and dive bomber strikes, and more importantly, it meant fewer launches and recoveries to keep an umbrella of fighters aloft over a task force. The Sea Gladiator, Sea Hurricane and Seafire were particularly poor in this area. The Skua, Fulmar and Firefly were much better in this respect. The Wildcat, Hellcat and Corsair all had a comparatively long-range as well. Of course, the best carrier fighter of WWII in this respect was the Japanese Zero with its huge range. The Venom had a fuel capacity of only 50 Imperial gallons, approximately a third that of a Grumman Wildcat, giving at most a very modest 2 hours endurance. This meant the Venom would have had a short-range which would have been a severe handicap unless it could be extended with drop-tanks (two decades later the Venom's constant-cord wings would have cried out to be fitted with wing-tip fuel tanks that were then in vogue with aircraft designers). However, to be fair, the Venom would probably have been no worse than the Sea Gladiator, Sea Hurricane and early Seafires with regards to range.
If the Venom had been selected for production there must be a big question over the ability of Bristols to have made the Aquila in quantity and with the reliability required. the Aquila's "big brother", the twin-row Taurus, had a very troubled development and production history that blighted the career of both the Fairey Albacore and Bristol Beaufort aircraft powered by it. The alternative Alvis Maeonides Major could never have been got into production in a realistic time-frame. The American Twin-Wasp Junior might have been a very practical alternative but any adoption of this engine before the start of the war would have caused an uproar in the British Aeronautical press (one can imagine a stinging editoral from CG Grey).
Even assuming the Venom got into production with a reliable engine and a minimum amount of armour behind the pilot and a self-sealing fuel-tank, its period of usefulness would have been brief. One can imagine it being an asset as a replacement for the Sea Gladiator in defending the fleet off Norway in 1940 and in the Mediterranean in the first half of 1941 but from that time onward its usefulness would have declined. Its small size would have prevented much development and its lack of range would have always been an issue. If it had been used in the Far East it is hard to see it being any better than a Brewster Buffalo against Japanese Zeros and Oscars. Of course another consideration would have been the production resources it took away from other aircraft, it would have stretched Vickers/Supermarine to be producing two fighters at the same time.
However, going with the flow of a Venom for the Royal Navy, here's my painting: A hypothetical "Sea Venom Mark II", still with an Aquila engine but sporting two 20mm cannon to replace four of the eight machine guns. It has had a single piece of armour plate added behind the pilot, and a rear-view mirror, and beneath the wings, it has two small drop-tanks for longer range. The propeller hub has been given a streamlined spinner. The canopy slides back over the fuselage rather than inside it so it can be thrown off in an emergency. It's coming into land with its stinger tailhook extended and its generous area of split-flaps down.
Vicker Venom painted, again as a Fleet Air Arm fighter, but this time in "Mk II" form - Two of the machine guns in each wing have been replaced with a single cannon, drop tanks are carried under the wings, a "stinger" type arrestor hook is fitted instead of a "V" frame, the tailwheel is no longer shrouded and the canopy slides back outside the rear section, rather than inside it.
A contemporary aviation magazine cover featuring a painting of a Venom in a fiery red finish. An article on the naval aviation was amongst the contents.
¹ French fascination with small, lightweight fighter aircraft started in the First World War with the success of the little Nieuport 11 "Bébé" fighter. The ultimate expressions of the French light fighter "jockey" class were the Caudron-Renault C714 "Cyclone", Bloch MB700, ANF-Mureaux 190 and Arsenal VG30. Only the C714 Cyclone saw combat in World War II in the hands of the Polish manned Groupe de Chasse Polonaise.
² The figure of 308mph was recorded early in the Venom's testing by the manufacturer, with 315 mph being measured later in the test programme (but before the failure of the first engine and its replacement). Without an official report by A&AEE there is no "official" Air Ministry figure.
Video of the Vickers Venom on Youtube showing the engine could be swung around to allow easy servicing.
Vickers Venom on the Aviastar Website
Vickers Venom on Wikipedia
Vickers Jockey on Wikipedia
Hendon Airshow 1937 video on Youtube. Venom in flight appears at 3 minutes 45 secs
Spitfire - A Test Pilots Story by Jeffrey Quill ISBN 0 947554 72 6.
Vickers Venom Interceptor an article by Eric Morgan in Aeroplane Monthly Magazine - September 1982 Edition.
Vickers Aircraft Since 1908 by CF Andrews and EB Morgan - Putnams ISBN 0 85177 815 1.