- 08 Dec 2022
- GA Buyer Europe
Hawker biplanes are to the 1930s, what the Spitfire is to the 1940s: icons of design and engineering… and no aircraft captures this more than the Nimrod II which was one of the most modern Naval fighters of its time.
The Nimrod II traces its origins back to 1926 when the Air Ministry issued specification for a new Naval fighter, to which Hawker Engineering swiftly responded. Two designs were submitted, one was the radial engine powered Hoopoe (which was rejected) and the other was a Rolls Royce Kestrel-engined single seater, unofficially known as the ‘Norn’. After initial trials the Norn, whose design was credited to Sydney Camm, was renamed the ‘Nimrod’ and it made its maiden flight on 14th October 1931.
Powered by the 477 horsepower Rolls Royce Kestrel II, the Nimrod has much in common with the Hawker Fury, the first Royal Air Force fighter to break the 200mph barrier. Yet whilst on first glance the two silver biplanes look very similar, unlike the Fury, the Nimrod was built for a life at sea and has a number of distinctive maritime features, such as the addition of a strengthened fuselage to withstand catapult launches, flotation bags and hoisting gear (from ditching). All this meant the Nimrod was ideally geared to life in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), whose presence across the British Empire was increasingly sought after in the 1930s. Armed with 2 x 0.303 Vickers machine guns designed to fire through the spinning propeller blades by way of interrupter gear, the Nimrod entered service in 1932 on HMS Glorious and HMS Courageous, gradually replacing the Fleet’s by now outdated Fairey Flycatchers.
By September 1934, the success of the 57 Nimrod I’s produced by Hawker led to the development of the Nimrod II - and be under no illusion that this is a very different aircraft indeed. The engine was upgraded to a Rolls Royce Kestrel V (and later VI) boasting 608 horsepower, which gave the Nimrod II not only a thunderous roar but a top speed of 194mph - which is incredible when one considers the fact it is around 500lb heavier than it’s cousin the Fury. However, it is the subtle differences in design, such as its swept back wings and enlarged tail, that truly stand the Nimrod II apart from its former iteration. These represented the peak of performance engineering at the time, and along with its complex steam condensing cooling system, make the Nimrod II one of the best handling biplanes of the era. Around 30 of these silvery beauties (which, by the way, have a wingspan some 3ft greater than the Fury) were built and a number of Nimrod I’s later converted to Mk.II configuration, remaining in front-line service right up until May 1939.
Despite their success, only one Nimrod II survives today, K3661 (G-BURZ), the penultimate Nimrod II to be manufactured for the FAA, issued in 1936. Like many historic aircraft, K3661 was discarded and moved from one RAF facility to another after its decommission in 1939. After thirty years in the wilderness, it was discovered in a rubbish dump in Ashford, Kent, in 1972, remarkably almost complete but badly corroded. Subsequently donated to the RAF Museum the fuselage was sold following the closure of RAF Henlow and eventually obtained by Guy Black of Aero Vintage/Retrotec, who set about the awesome task of restoring the Nimrod II to its former glory. The search for original drawings was a long one, but eventually, a large collection was obtained from the Royal Danish Air Force Archive to help progress the project. Fortunately, this was not Retrotec’s first Hawker rodeo, and the company had developed extensive experience in Hawker engineering techniques, allowing them to reverse engineer parts where needed and rebuild many of the Nimrod II’s complex elements to exacting original specifications, such as the dumbbell-section wing spars.
In November 2006, 14 years after restoration began, K3661 took to the skies again as part of the Historic Aircraft Collection, based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford. It is a truly historic and inspirational aircraft in every sense, from its beautiful lines to the powerful engine sound which can easily be confused with that of a Merlin! Fully aerobatic, K3661 is a regular show-stopper at air shows; it is simply wonderous to watch the Nimrod II’s silver wings glittering as it dances through the air, for although it is silver, this rare beast is the sole survivor of an aircraft that represents the golden age of biplane fighters.