The Royal Navy’s desire for two-seat aircraft which combined reconnaissance and interceptor roles emerged in the 1920s.
War games had revealed a glaring problem.
Fighters launched from carriers would regularly become lost once they had passed beyond 20 nautical miles of the fleet.
This presented a dual problem.
First, it often resulted in the loss of the machine and pilot.
But, also, it meant any sighting report they issued was almost wildly inaccurate.
Pairing an Observer with a Pilot allowed one to concentrate on keeping the aircraft in the air, with the other keeping track of where they were.
The Hawker Osprey emerged in the early 1930s to test this concept. In the absence of radar and radio-direction finding, it proved to be a significant improvement.
Such was its success that it was followed-up by a design requirement that produced the Blackburn Skua (dive-bomber fighter) and Roc (turret fighter). But it quickly became apparent that these low-wing monoplanes simply attempted to do too much with their limited airframes. They were underpowered, over-weight and had poor aerodynamics.
The emergency fleet fight program was initiated which produced the Fairey Fulmar. But the Fleet Air Arm knew this project was a stop-gap measure.
So, the Admiralty also issued another set of requirements calling for a two-seat multi-role fleet fighter to be designed and built for the role from the ground up.
This was designated Specification N8/39. It was issued March 1939. It was to be a medium-range two-seat front-gunned naval fighter to replace the Sea Gladiator, Skua and Fulmar.
Later that year, the Admiralty issued a requirement for a dorsal turret multi-role fighter: N9/39. But a few short months later, the failure of the RAF’s turret fighter – the Boulton-Paul Defiant – in action prompted the Admiralty to dump the turret-fighter concept.
This resulted in Specification N5/40, which was built around the characteristics of a new design Fairey had already begun work on the previous year. But this quick gestation would not lead to a fast development.
It is often incorrectly said that the Firefly was a derivative of the Fulmar.
While it did follow a similar general arrangement, and no doubt Fairey was drawing upon its earlier experience, every component in the Firefly was new.
A mock-up was built and approved by FAA assessors by June 6, 1940. Six days later, the Ministry of Aircraft – under pressure to provide a modern fighter for the navy – issued an advance order for 200 machines.
It was a very aggressive looking aircraft. It had two large 20mm guns extending from each wing. It had a prominent – pugnacious - chin intake. And it had elliptical wings reminiscent of the Spitfire.
In December 1940, F5/40F was given a name: Firefly.
But the rapid pace of development would now slow.
The Battle of Britain’s emergency measures took its toll, with work being slowed and resources diverted from the project. Also, the brutal realities of war experience was leading to a flood of proposed design changes.
Eventually, the first prototype emerged in December 1941. Testing continued steadily throughout 1942.
The project suffered a serious setback on June 26, 1942, when the second prototype experienced structural failure in flight. Fairey’s chief test pilot Christopher Staniland was killed during a low-level flight. Some attribute the crash to a failed tail unit, others faulty elevators.
Minute from Fifth Sea Lord1 to First Sea Lord & First Lord of Admiralty
[ADM 205/ 24] 27 June 1942
Delays in fighter production
I regret to report that an accident took place with the prototype Firefly yesterday, the 26th June, in which the pilot was killed and the aircraft itself is reduced to a mass of tangled wreckage.
2. The matter is being investigated by the Accident Investigation Department of M.A.P. but it is unlikely that the cause of this accident will be fully given for some weeks.
3. In the meantime suspicion must fall on the Firefly as a production aircraft and as a result of this accident we are likely to incur further severe delay in bringing this very essential aircraft into service.
4. With this in mind I feel it my duty to put before you the situation as regards the Fleet Fighters at the present.
(i) The Firefly – (2 seater). is in trouble. Already very late and now may be later as a result of this accident.
(ii) The Firebrand – (single seater) is still a very unknown quantity. Final design is far from being clear and apart from the design we still have doubts as regards the Sabre engine. The aircraft itself is now late and likely to be later.
(iii) American Fighters. The situation here is rather obscure. The United States are well behindhand with their promises and I am not sure that even now we can rely on the promised deliveries, despite recent contacts and assurances. We think the aircraft themselves are quite good, but this has to be established. We know for certain that the Martlet is not really fast enough to deal with the Junkers 88 (as is also the case with the Hurricane I).
5. It appears to me that if we are to have up to date fighters in the Fleet and in the Auxiliary Carriers in the shortest possible time the only remedy is to provide Seafires or Hurricane II’s.
6. Although a Hurricane II has been hooked and operated by INDOMITABLE I do not consider it to be as good as the Seafire. It has neither the hitting power nor the speed. It has, however, a better take off and could be used with advantage in the Auxiliary Carriers whose decks are too short for the Seafire.
7. The Seafire, we know, is capable of being deck-landed, it is man enough for the job as it is armed with cannons and the experiment of the folding wings is well advanced; it has been hooked and spooled for Carrier operation.
8. I would therefore suggest that authority be obtained for a further allocation of Spitfire VC’s for the Royal Navy.
9. Seafires are being produced by Supermarines at the rate of 24 a month, but this output could be accelerated at the expense of R.A.F. requirements. I understand that Supermarines will make another 250 Spitfires between the end of 1942 and the middle of 1943 when that production will turn over to marks of Spitfires designed for high altitude work.
10. I consider the position as regards Fleet fighters at the present moment is so grave that authority should be sought on the highest plane to allocate another 500 Seafires to the Royal Navy, making 750 in all.
11. I press that this decision may be sought immediately, that is within a week, so that we may get a continuity of production in the Supermarine factory, as any delay in placing the order will result in introducing a bubble in the production line which will take months to eradicate.
12. Should this allocation be approved I request that authority may be obtained for the design work on the folding Seafire to be given highest priority.
13. We also require a number of fighters better than the Fulmar for the Auxiliary Carriers particularly if they are to be employed with the P.Q./ Q.P. convoys and in other convoys in range of German aircraft.
14. We are sending a matter of 200 Hurricane II’s to Russia each month and shall be escorting them there with Sea Hurricanes (Mark I Hurricanes) which is rather “Gilbertian”.
15. I propose that we be allocated 25 Hurricane IIC’s per month for use in the Auxiliary Carriers up to a total of 250.
Ben Jones, M.Phil., Ph.D.. The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, Volume II, 1942-1943: The Fleet Air Arm in Transition
Further testing at Boscome Down found the Firefly to generally have light controls, though they became somewhat overbalanced at slow speeds and needed extra effort. There was also a degree of ‘snatch’ on the elevators.
If these could be fixed, the Boscome Down test unit judged “the aircraft should make a satisfactory naval fighter”.
The Admiralty decided to press ahead regardless, such was their need for an indigenous fleet fighter to reinforce their fleet.
The initial production run of Fairey Firefly FIs were virtually identical to the prototypes.
That’s because they were an attempt to fast-track a way through the development process.
But their tails had been reworked – with a mass-balanced rudder replacing the horn-balanced type. And the type’s distinctive Fairey-Youngman flaps had their size slightly increased.
The first production aircraft were delivered in January 1943. These underwent intensive testing, in the place of further prototypes.
It was a gamble that did not pay off.
It was soon found further improvements were needed to make the aircraft effective.
And the Air Ministry asked Fairey to explore the potential of mounting a torpedo to the airframe. The resulting experiments met with no success.
By June 1943, when the thirteenth example had been delivered, the air assessment office deemed the type in its current form suitable only for training.
That same month, test pilot Lt Eric Brown had put the Firefly through its landing paces aboard HMS Illustrious. He judged it a success – despite having a nasty fright.
On his third take-off from Illustrious, Brown’s pilot’s canopy detached and struck the leading edge of the port horizontal tailplane. This severed the main spar. Struggling with the bucking Firefly through its landing circuit, Brown managed to put it back down on the deck safely.
However, the Firefly was suffering from erratic porpoising. Its elevators were giving insufficient results. Its ailerons were too heavy at high speed.
Fairey went back to the drawing board and quickly produced extended leading-edge elevators, and gave the ailerons and elevators metal skins.
Also introduced to the production line was a new raised pilot seat and canopy, along with a redesigned front armoured windscreen, to improve pilot visibility. Fairings were added to the full length of the 20mm cannon barrels.
The first production aircraft to incorporate these modifications was tested at Boscombe Down in October 1943.
It was finally cleared for service.
Eric Brown, in Wings on my Sleeve
It was now that I had my first deck-landing crash. I had gone to the trials ship Pretoria Castle to do tests with the new Firefly. I was making a good approach, as I thought. Wheels and flaps were down and, I thought, the hook. At least the green light had come on when I moved the release lever, so as far as I was concerned everything was in order. But the hook had not in fact come down at all, and the batsman had not noticed. I set her down. But where she should have caught a wire she did not. Nor did she catch any of the others, but shot along the deck, and I found myself, very surprised, staring the barrier in the face. The Firefly’s nose cleared the top of the barrier, which sliced the undercarriage clean off. The rest of the machine slid on and came to a stop right in the bows of the ship, sitting askew on the catapult.
The first operational squadron to receive the Firefly was 1770 based at RNAS Yeovilton. The first aircraft arrived on October 1, 1943. Within two months, it had 16 of the strike fighters on its books.
The pilots were reportedly pleased with their new machines.
During unofficial dogfight tests against Seafires also stationed at Yeovilton, the Firefly pilots pleasantly discovered their aircraft could turn inside their lighter opponents.
It boded well for the future.
In February 1944 the squadron moved to Hatston, where it was taken over by Major V.B.G. Cheeseman and carrier deck landing training initiated On July 9, the squadron joined HMS Indefatigable for their first deployment – a strike against the Tirpitz.
The Ministry of Air Production told Fairey the Firefly F1 and its variants would remain in production into 1946 when it wanted the Firefly IV to take its place on the assembly lines.
The production run of the Firefly FI amounted to 459 machines Total production of the type reached 872 aircraft.