HMS Ocean, a British light aircraft carrier, was fog-bound and awaiting an approaching aircraft on Dec. 3, 1945 — so it could make history.
The plane was a jet-powered, specially modified de Havilland Vampire piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Eric “Winkle” Brown of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, arguably Britain’s greatest test pilot then and now.
He already held several world aviation records, and would eventually hold the record for test-flying more aircraft models than any other pilot in the world — 487 different planes, a record that remains unbroken. Brown would ultimately hold the rank of captain in the Royal Navy as well as commander in the Order of the British Empire for his achievements.
He had flown all of the early jet fighters — British, American and German — that made their appearance in the waning days of World War II, but he considered the Vampire “the one for us.”
Brown’s goal — prove that jet aircraft could land and take-off from a carrier deck. In an interview, Brown said he was “desperately keen to beat the Americans at being the first to operate jets from carriers.”
Deck crews heard the whine of the approaching Vampire’s single Goblin jet engine and saw the fighter’s distinctive twin-boom stabilizers. They signaled Brown that the carrier trials were called off because of bad weather and attempted to wave him off.
It didn’t matter. Brown missed the signal and made a perfect landing on Ocean’s deck. For good measure, he took off and then he performed a total of four arrested landings and take-offs.
Three days later, Brown was back in his Vampire for a total of 11 take-off and landing cycles on Ocean. Carrier aviation had entered the jet age.
“To give a short verbal impression of the Sea Vampire being deck-landed it would only be necessary to stress how easy and simple and perfectly normal it all appeared. Actually, of course, the apparent ease of handling was a combination of superb piloting of an excellent aircraft in conjunction with a good crew in a well-found ship,” according to a Dec. 13, 1945, article in the British aviation magazine Flight.
It was one of many firsts that would be credited to the Vampire, an undeservedly forgotten Cold War jet fighter beloved by its pilots and used around the world by the air forces of more 20 nations.
The Vampire was an impressive record setter, responsible not only for the first jet aircraft takeoff and landing from a carrier but also other firsts.
It was the plane used to set a world altitude record for jet aircraft — 59,446 feet in 1948. It was the first jet aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean, also in 1948. In addition, the Vampire was the first Royal Air Force plane to fly faster than 500 miles per hour.
In short, the Vampire could go like a bat out of Hell.
The Vampire was even used to test rubber decks on aircraft carriers, an innovation that would allow jet aircraft to eliminate landing gear and use the space for extra fuel tanks.
Once again, Eric Brown was record-setter. He was the first to successfully fly an aircraft without landing gear to a safe landing on a flexible rubber deck installed on the carrier HMS Warrior.
The idea might work in test flight — but it was abandoned when sea lords at the Admiralty realized that less-experienced pilots than Brown might just simply crash their jets.
At a time when Americans were thought solely to possess “the right stuff” when it came to jet aircraft development, the Vampire proved the British aerospace industry was still a world-class force in aircraft design.
By the standards of the age, the Vampire’s performance was nothing short of eye-popping, particularly when you consider de Havilland designed the plane in 1943 to fight the Luftwaffe. The Vampire came too late for World War II but it became one of the most important first-generation jet fighters.
Aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. performed the first test flight of the Vampire and considered the plane one of the company’s best designs. The Royal Air Force received delivery of the first Vampires in 1945.
The shape of the aircraft is the inspiration for its sinister name. First designated the Spider Crab, someone at de Havilland noticed that the silhouette of the prototype plane in flight looked like a bat.
Soon, the new plane was dubbed the Vampire DH.100 — a name that sounds far more formidable than “Spider Crab.”
More than 3,300 of the jets were manufactured and sold, and some models of the jet remained in service through the early 1990s. It was also one of the last jet aircraft made of a combination of wood and metal — the fuselage was a wooden frame covered with doped fabric, but the wings, booms and tail assembly were mostly aluminum.
However, by the mid 1950s newer British aircraft such the Hawker Hunter and the Gloster Javelin were faster and more maneuverable. They quickly became the front-line fighters that replaced the Vampire.
But true to its name, the Vampire refused to die. It was ideal as a ground-attack aircraft and trainer.
The Vampire Mk. 5 was the most popular export model. Altered to create a ground-attack jet, the Mk. 5 had shorter wings, a reinforced fuselage, and hard points for bombs and rockets.
A two-seat model of the Vampire called the T. 11 served as a jet pilot trainer for the Royal Air Force until 1966.
“The Vampire is a relatively basic aircraft, with good stability and docile handling — ideal traits for its role as an advanced trainer,” wrote Matt Hampton, chief pilot for the Vampire Preservation Group, a British aviation club that owns and maintains an airworthy Vampire. “The Goblin engine produces 3,200 pounds of thrust. Even at maximum take-off weight this results in very impressive performance.”