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The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford

Naval Air Department

Naval Air Department from the Air

Origins, Catapults & Arrester Gear

Naval Air Department (NAD) was formed at the newly operational NAE Airfield at Thurleigh in the summer of 1954, primarily through the amalgamation of the Carrier Equipment Department and naval elements from Aerodynamics Department at RAE Farnborough. It was disbanded in 1970 following a decision, announced in the 1967 Defence White Paper, that the UK would withdraw from the operation of fixed-wing aircraft by the Royal Navy and would not therefore construct a new generation of conventional aircraft carriers. From 1954 until 1970, however, NAD conducted extensive research and development to improve the operation of jet aircraft from carriers.

NAD’s task was to improve catapults and arrester gear to cope with a new generation of carrier-borne aircraft, such as Phantom and Buccaneer, that were significantly larger, heavier and faster than their propeller-driven (and early jet) predecessors.

Major new facilities for Naval R&D were built at Bedford, on the North side of the airfield (see picture above) including raised and flush catapults, arrester gear, and a proving base, together with CALE (Catapult Alignment Equipment), and Jet Blast Deflectors (JBD).

The catapults and arrester gear operated by NAD were the only such shore-based equipment in the UK. The raised catapult was the prototype steam catapult, installed at Bedford after initial trials in Portsmouth harbour, where it was attached to the flight deck of a WW2 aircraft carrier. In addition to the two steam catapults, there was a cordite powered catapult at the proving base.

Bedford had the only R&D facilities for such work in the country. The French Navy also took advantage of the facilities to prove their Etendard and Alizé aircraft.

The earliest photograph of an aircraft being launched from a catapult at Bedford is of the Supermarine 508 VX133 on 3 June 1955.

Other “firsts” were:-

  • 29 Feb 1956, First catapult launch DH110
  • 14 June 1957, First catapult launch of first production Sea Vixen XJ474
  • 1957 First catapult launch Buccaneer (a later picture is shown)
  • 13 April 1964, First aircraft launch on flush catapult
  • 16 Dec 1968, First catapult launch Phantom FG Mk1 XT872

Because of the challenges faced and the solutions found, it may be reasonably claimed that the UK became a world leader in the evolution of aircraft carrier operational capabilities. It can be demonstrated that much of the infrastructure (steam catapults and advanced arrester gear) that today makes carrier-borne aircraft such a potent weapons system was devised and developed in the UK and indeed, within Naval Air Department.

Buccaneer XK524 about to launch from raised catapult

Phantom XT597 launching from flush catapult

Direct Acting Gear

With its experience in devising arrester gear for ships, Naval Air Department also worked extensively on emergency barriers for airfield use.

A major innovation was the water spray arresting gear, also known as the ‘Direct Acting Gear’ (DAG). This system slowed the aircraft by the use of pistons connected to the arrester wire to force water through small holes in the top of two pipes which run parallel to the runway. The first picture below shows a Scimitar testing this. The second picture shows the water curtain produced during the arrest.

Direct Acting Gear (DAG), Water Spray

Helicopters & Hovercrafts

In addition to the work on fast jet applications, there was considerable interest in the naval application of helicopters, particularly the methods employed in approach and landing phases and in the associated deck handling. Among the tools used for this work were drop test rigs, to test helicopter undercarriage systems, and a specially built Rolling Platform to simulate the motion typical of the deck of a ship at sea. The motion of a ship is not simply up and down but also contains side to side and rolling components. The Rolling Platform at NAD was a unique facility and was used by industry and foreign navies for landing trials. See Pathe newsreel here.

An interest in hovercraft in the early 1960s brought about the formation of a special section devoted to their military application. The work of this team in respect to fan and skirt design produced many improvements, a number of which were taken up by the hovercraft industry.

In consequence of the 1967 Defence White Paper mentioned above, and the change of responsibility for the staff and facilities to Engineering Physics Department, the helicopter team was transferred back to Aero Flight where the work on operational issues continued. In parallel with this work, new activity was initiated in the field of advanced concepts and rotor aerodynamics.


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