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The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek

The Hawker Hunter's southern African Connections

It is well known that the Hawker Hunter aircraft was operated in southern Africa by the then Rhodesian Air Force (now the Zimbabwean Air Force) during the Rhodesian Bush War, and very effectively at that, but what might not be all that well known is that a South African-born test pilot was also involved in the Hawker Hunter's development.

                                                                                                       (Brian Burnell Photography)

The aesthetically-pleasing Hawker Hunter was designed to replace the Gloster Meteor in the Royal Air Force (RAF) service, and the prototype first flew in 1951, powered by a 2948kg/6500lb thrust Avon 100 series turbojet WB188. The Hunter appeared at the 1951 Farnborough air-show, and in April of the following year the famous test pilot Neville Duke took the jet fighter through the much-publicized “sound barrier” for the first time.

One of the pilots who worked with Neville Duke on the Hunter project was Hugh Merewether, born in South Africa in 1924, and educated there at the Diocesan College (“Bishops”) and the University of Cape Town (UCT), before serving with the South African Navy and on secondment to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm (FAA) during World War II.

From 1948-1953 Merewether worked under Barnes Wallis (of the Bouncing Bomb and Dambusters fame) as a junior technician in the research and development department at Vickers Armstrong, and also flew with the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), at one stage flying Meteors from Biggin Hill with No 615 Squadron. In 1954 Merewether joined Hawker as a test pilot and was appointed deputy chief test pilot in 1956, and his aeronautical engineering interests led to his involvement in the developmental flying of the Hunter.

He made detailed assessments of the aircraft's powered flying control systems and he was responsible for the corrective actions, which eventually made the system so reliable. He explored the extreme conditions of the aircraft's performance envelope, including a comprehensive inverted spinning programme, which subsequently became a standard exercise a the Empire Test Pilot's School for over 30 years.

After the retirement of Neville Duke, Hawker then appointed Merewether as its chief experimental test pilot. On the 2 October 1958, he flew a Hunter Mk.6 non-stop to El Adem, Libya (a distance of 1,588 nautical miles) in three hours and 19 minutes (at an average of 548 miles-per-hour). The aircraft carried the new 230-gallon (1,046-litre) fuel tanks on the inboard wing pylons with a pair of 100-gallon tanks mounted on the outer.

In November 1959, Merewether teamed up with Hawker 's chief test pilot, Bill Bedford, to develop the techniques of vertical take-off in the P.1127. In 1967 he was appointed Hawker's chief test pilot, and was based at Dunsfold, Surrey. In addition to test flying Hugh Merewether also helped convert military pilots to the P.1127's successor, the Kestrel, which was later developed into the famous Harrier. Merewether retired from test flying in 1970, during which time he had been awarded the OBE, after an illustrious career in aviation.

Meanwhile, in the interim, the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (as it was then) first received their Hawker Hunter FGA.9's in late 1962, when the country was still part of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi respectively), all the Hunters being issued to No 1 Squadron at Thornhill, near Gweru.

However, in March 1963 the federation was subsequently dissolved, and the bulk of the RRAF's aircraft, including the Hawker Hunter, reverted to Southern Rhodesia control. The Rhodesian Hawker Hunters' first saw action in 1966 during the early days of the Rhodesian Bush War, and were to serve until the end of the war in December 1979, which may have been the most intensive action that the Hawker Hunter was to see. And the Hawker Hunters were still to serve in what became the Zimbabwean Air Force and were later involved in the Second Congo War.

And today Hawker Hunters are still to be seen in southern Africa, as seven Hunters' (of which at least three are flyable) are based at Thunder City at the Cape Town International Airport.

                                                                                                (Video: Seagoons 1)