The Sea Vixen was born from 1947 specifications by the RAF for a night fighter and the RN for an all-weather fighter – in the Navy’s case to replace the Sea Venom. This resulted inter alia in the production by de Havilland of two DH 110 prototypes, both of which first flew in 1952. The RAF chose a rival, the Gloster Javelin as its night fighter, but de Havilland continued with the project leading to the placement of an RN order and the first of 119 Sea Vixen FAW1s was delivered in 1958. The first embarked unit was No 892 Squadron on HMS Ark Royal in March 1960.
The FAW1 was armed with 4 x Firestreak AAM on wing pylons together with 2 x retractable packs under the fuselage carrying 2-in rockets. It also had the ability to carry 4 x 500 lb bombs. No cannon were fitted and thus it was the first British fighter aircraft to have all-missile air-to-air armament. An Air Intercept 18 radar was fitted in the nose. It was powered by 2 x Rolls-Royce Avon 208 turbojets, each providing 11,230 lbs static thrust, which gave it a maximum speed of Mach 0.91 at sea level and a service ceiling of 48,000 ft. Pilots reported that it handled well even with full external stores.
In 1961, the decision was taken to procure the Sea Vixen FAW2, this version’s two main advantages being increased fuel capacity and the capability to carry the more advanced Red Top missile. The final 16 FAW1s on order were upgraded to FAW2 status, a further 15 new build aircraft were completed and, during the period 1963-68, 67 of the original FAW1s were upgraded. No 899 Squadron received the first FAW2s in 1963 and embarked on HMS Eagle the following year. Other units followed with the last, No 890, being equipped with the FAW2 in August 1967.
Meanwhile, in 1966 the British Government had decided to phase out the Navy’s carriers and the Sea Vixen’s days became numbered. The aircraft’s demise began in the late 1960s with the final squadron, No 899, disbanding in January 1972. A few Sea Vixens lingered on as test and trial aircraft and three were converted into target drones. One of the latter remains airworthy today and is operated by de Havilland Aviation Ltd at Bournemouth; this machine continues to make appearances at air shows throughout the country.
Sea Vixen XJ580 entered service with No 892 Squadron on HMS Victorious in November 1960 and was the first FAW1 to be converted to an FAW2 some four years later. Her last service at sea was with No 899 Squadron on HMS Eagle during 1970-72 after which she served at Llanbedr until 1980. She is reported to have been the last Sea Vixen flown in Royal Navy colours and is now owned by the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum.