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Vickers Type 279 "Venom"

Vickers Venom as FAA Fighter

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.

I found the 2004 RDFMedia TV documentary "Spitfire Ace" for Channel 4 to be excellent (why has it never been made available on DVD?). However one line in an interview with the historian Stephan Bungay (author of the excellent "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...
Now 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". So Supermarine should not 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 monoplane "Vareo" 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  (there's a painting I did of the Jockey on my aviation art webpages CLICK HERE ).

Vickers Venom Light Fighter
Vickers Venom F5/34 
Vickers designer Joe Bewsher further refined the design to meet spec F5/34. The Wibault system was discarded for a true stressed-skin design. So 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... 

Vickers Venom sideview

The Vickers Venom prototype coming in to 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.

The Venom was quite a small aircraft, powered by a comparatively small engine - The Bristol "Aquila" of only 635 horsepower. This was a sleeve-valve radial engine, a single row version of the 1,000 horsepower twin-row "Taurus" engine used on the Bristol Beaufort and Fairey Albacore. Now traditionally fighter designers 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*, a class of aircraft they refered 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".  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 (312 mph v the Spitfires MK I's  345 mph) but it was not far off the Hurricane Mk Is speed of 318 mph,  remarkable when you consider the Venom had an engine of 635 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 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 pilots story" he makes the suggestion 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 noticable."  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".

Vickers Venom Sideview

Side view of the Vickers Venom, it shows well the constant-cord wing.

Britain was very badly served by it's own 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?  It's published performance figures tally very closely to that 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 less 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 comparatively long range as well. Of course the best carrier fighter of WWII in this respect was the Japanese Zero with it's huge range. The original Vickers tender to the Air Ministry for the Venom gave a fuel capacity of only 51 Imperial gallons, giving at most a very modest 2 hours endurance. It is not known if this was actually the fuel capacity of the prototype Venom, but if it was then the Venom would have had a short range which would have been a severe handicap unless it could be extended with drop-tanks. However to be fair the Venom would probably have been no worse  than the Sea Gladiator, Sea Hurricane and early Seafires in this respect.

Venom at Brooklands

Vickers Venom Prototype pictured at Brooklands with the banked racing track visible behind. The venom very nearly ended up crahing into the banking on its final flight..

There were two things that mitigated against 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 complete new "shadow factory" set up for it. Secondly the Aquila engine was in the early stages of development and a series of engine failures and "fade-outs" of power blighted the testing of the prototype.  Now the Aquila was just the front row of the two-row Taurus engine which was developed into a fairly successful engine, powering the Albacore and Beaufort. However it should be noted that when the Taurus was put into mass-production it did go through a stage of poor reliability caused by the inability of sub-contractors to meet the stringent quality standards demanded by the sleeve-valve design. However Bristol battled through this period and their improved methods benefited not only themselves, but came to the rescue of the Napier Sabre sleeve-valve engine. So one might expect the problems of the Aquila to have been solved given time. Vickers did approach Alvis about an engine in the same class as the Aquila, presumably the 650 hp Maeonides Major, a derivative of a French Gnome et Le Rhone designs, but nothing came of this (no Alvis aero-engine designs were actually produced until after the end of WWII). Of course there were plenty of bigger radial engines in the 800 - 1,500 hp class (Mercury, Taurus, Perseus, Tiger, Hercules) but the extra weight and size of these engines would have meant a complete redesign of the airframe, and you might as well have started off with a blank piece of paper. One would expect such a design for a Venom replacement to give rise to bigger, faster aircraft in much the same way as the Grumman Wildcat gave rise to the Hellcat.

Venom from below
Venom pictured from below just after take-off. The undercarriage has not yet fully retracted. 

Venom in Flight
Venom in flight.

As it was 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 Januart 7th 1937 the Venom exerienced a total engine failure in flight but Geoffrey Quill managed to get the aircraft down  safely in a glide at Gosport aerodrome. On its final flight on 3rd February 1938 the engine faded out just after take-off from Brooklands and Geoffrey 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 on loan from Bristol and had to be returned to them).
So 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 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 propellor hub has been given a streamlined spinner. It's coming in to land with it's stinger tailhook extended and its generous area of split-flaps down.

A Vickers Venom "Mk II" with cannon armament, drop-tanks, armoured windscreen and "stinger" tail-hook.

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  and the tailwheel is no longer shrouded.

Vickers Type 279 Venom performance and statistics

Max Speed 312 mph at 16,250 ft (502 Km/hr at 4955 m)

Service Ceiling - 32,000 ft 

Weight (Loaded) 4,136 lb (1885 Kg) - Length 24ft 2in (7.36 m) - Wingspan, 32 ft 9in (9.98m)

Armament - 8 x .303 Browning machine guns with 300 rpg

First flight of prototype 17th June 1936 piloted by Mutt Summers

Machine-gun mystery
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. However, as pointed out to me in an exchange of emails with Richard Crapp, none of the available photos ever show evidence for either 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. 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.

Venom head-on

Venom from Rear

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.

Contemporary magazine cover
A contemporary aviation magazine cover featuring a painting of  a Venom in a fiery red finish. An article on the Fleet Air Arm was amongst the contents.


* French fascination with small, lighweight fighter aircraft started in the First World War with the success of the little Nieuport 11 "Bébé" fighter. The ultimate expression of the French light fighter "jockey" class were the Caudron-Renault C714 "Cyclone" , 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.


Vickers Venom on the Aviastar Website
Vickers Venom on Wikipedia


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

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