Illustrated History of the Fleet Air Arm
Stringbag to Shar 1938 - 2006
Author: Derrick Dickens
Reviewed By: Dean Wingrin
Derrick Dickens is a man on a mission ... to paint all the aircraft types that have served in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA). That is quite a feat, considering that the FAA has operated over 50 major fixed-wing aircraft types, with many, many more lesser types! Nevertheless, Derrick has set about this task with vigour and his passion and knowledge for the subject shows.
The Fleet Air Arm is the branch of the British Royal Navy responsible for the operation of naval aircraft. Although the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force was formed on 1 April 1914, it was only in May 1939 when it was returned to Admiralty control. The FAA consisted of only 20 squadrons and 232 aircraft prior to the Second World War. By the end of the war the FAA had 59 aircraft carriers and 3 700 aircraft. The aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the Fleet's capital ship and its aircraft were now strike weapons in their own right. The number of squadrons, aircraft and manpower has been steadily declining ever since.
The FAA took on its first jet, the Sea Vampire, in the late 1940s and it is credited as the first jet to take off and land on an aircraft carrier. With the introduction of larger and more powerful aircraft carriers, the UK introduced numerous innovations, such as the angled flight deck allowing aircraft to land with a safe separation from those about to take-off on the forward deck, the Fresnel lens optical landing aid and the use of steam powered catapults to cater for larger and heavier aircraft.
Defence cuts across the British armed forces during the 1960s led to the cancellation of all Royal Navy aircraft carriers, but a new series of cruiser-sized carriers, the Invincible class, were built and equipped with the Sea Harrier. These carriers incorporated an upswept forward section of the flight deck that deflected the aircraft upward on launch and permitted heavier loads to be carried by the Harrier and the system was used extensively in the Falklands war. The Harrier went on to form the basis of the Royal Navy's fixed-wing strike forces. In 2000 the Sea Harrier force was merged with the RAF's Harrier GR7 fleet to form Joint Force Harrier and the Sea Harrier was finally withdrawn from service in March 2006.
Although he majored in Fine Arts and Design, Dickens spent most of his working life in the world of advertising and marketing, retiring as visiting Professor of Marketing at Wits University. However, painting was never far away and he continued to paint in his spare time. The fact that Dickens was an Active Citizen Force member, flying Harvards in the late 1950's, also helped. After retiring, Dickens started painting seriously, concentrating on aviation art.
So why the FAA? According to Dickens, the story of the accomplishments and the part played by the FAA in the history of aviation and the bravery and daring of its pilots has never been properly told. His research showed there was very little reference to the Fleet Air Arm aircraft, especially in full colour, thus his decision to produce this book.
With a Foreword by Admiral of the Fleet HRH Prince Philip, the style of the book is similar to that of A portrait of Military Aviation in Southern Africa by Ron Belling. After a very brief history of the FAA, 44 major aircraft types (82 including subtypes) are described through almost 100 full colour paintings. Each aircraft type is described in detail and accompanied by reproductions of the original paintings, most covering the full page. These paintings show the aircraft in a typical operational environment.
The book subtitle is Stringbag to Shar. The venerable Fairey Swordfish, the FAA's premier torpedo-bomber at the outbreak of WWII, was known as the Stringbag, while Shar, of course, refers to the Sea Harrier, the final all-British fighter to serve in the Fleet Air Arm. In between, all manner of aircraft served the FAA with distinction and these are suitable represent in the book. Perhaps the only negative is that no helicopter types, so vital to the modern FAA, are included.
The artist states that he hopes this book will help keep alive the proud exploits, and the fading images of the aircraft used, in the minds of generations to come. In this I think he has succeeded magnificently. This book is a must for anyone interested in the aircraft of the FAA.
Dickens is a member of the South African Guild of Aviation Artists and has held many local and international exhibitions.