Flawed Concepts: a Litany of Failed British Aircraft

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“We are all failures – at least the best of us are”.

—  J.M. Barrie   (author of Peter Pan)

The British love a failure — from the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade, hair-raising stunts of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ to the jokes of Sir Alan Sugar, failures are far more acceptable than successes. And so it is with the history of British aircraft, where some deeply flawed machines are lovingly remembered. Of course, Britain has created some excellent aeroplanes — moments where engineering genius, right-headedness and timing where all happily aligned. But let’s turn our backs on the Spitfire, Lancaster and Mosquito and other success stories, and instead turn toward some aircraft with more complicated stories. Many of the aircraft listed below were not absolute stinkers — in fact one of them was the pinnacle of technology — but they were (often brilliant) answers to the wrong questions. I turned to brothers Jim and Ron Smith , two unsung heroes involved in the development of many British aircraft, to look into these intriguing stories. 

“The history of British aviation is littered with designs that appeared to hold great promise, and on which a great deal of money, time and effort was spent, but which ultimately were failures. The reasons for failure were many and various, including the following: 

Brilliant innovative concepts let down by unexpected issues. These would include design and technology aspects, together with the late realisation that apparently ‘peripheral’ issues were critical to the success of the concept.

Ghastly blunders, often due to heading down blind alleys – typically total failure to understand the market

Wasteful duplication of effort

and Flawed requirements.

This list is predominantly made up of post-war programmes, with the exception of one glaring example of a flawed wartime requirement. It is perhaps a sad reflection on the state of the industry during this period (and the opinions and constraints imposed by the state airline, governments, civil servants and the RAF), that an initial list of possible aircraft to include ran to more than 30 different types!
10th Place: de Havilland DH106 Comet I

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Design purpose / intent
The World’s first jet airliner to enter service, intended to offer fast comfortable travel on BOAC’s routes to South Africa, Japan and Singapore.

Key features
The elegant Comet featured four Ghost engines, a pressurised cabin allowing flight above the weather, and a passenger capacity of 36 – 44 seats. It offered a cruising speed around 460 mph at 36 – 40,000ft, about 50% faster than contemporary piston airliners. London to Johannesburg (five stops) was scheduled for 21hr 20 min, with London to Tokyo (nine stops) in 46 hr. The Comet also introduced high pressure refuelling to speed turn-round times at intermediate stops.

History
First flown on 27 July 1949, and entered scheduled airline service from London to Johannesburg on 2 May 1952. A source of immense pride in Britain and, shortly after the death of King George VI, seen as heralding ‘a new Elizabethan age’. The BOAC Chairman at the time said that the Comet would “mark a new era in aviation history and will in effect halve the size of the World.” Unfortunately, early operations were marred by take-off accidents at Rome and Karachi; a break-up in mid-air near Calcutta and landing incidents at Entebbe and Dakar.

Reasons for Failure
The end came with the mid-air break-up of G-ALYP near Elba on 10 January 1954. This resulted in a suspension of Comet flights, which resumed on 23 March 1954. Just 17 days later, on 8 April 1954 G-ALYY broke-up in similar circumstances near Naples. After the recovery and reassembly of wreckage and fatigue testing in a water tank of the fuselage of G-ALYU, it was concluded that these two accidents were caused by fatigue failure of the fuselage after a much lower number of cycles than Hawk Sidd Comet 4 small a.jpghad been anticipated.

The vulnerability of the construction to pressurisation fatigue failure was unexpected and perhaps only anticipated by the writing of the engineer – author Nevil Shute Norway in his book ‘No Highway’, first published in December 1948, some seven months before the Comet’s first flight.

It was to be April 1958 before the definitive Avon-powered Comet 4 was flown, entering operational service in October 1958. The Boeing 707 eclipsed the Comet in terms of sales, but it was the Comet that had demonstrated that civil jet transport would be both popular and commercially viable.

Legacy
Changes in design assumptions and new structural test and certification procedures were introduced following the Comet accidents to create ‘fail safe’ structures and ‘safe life’ components. This approach has served the word-wide industry, and its many passengers, well ever since. The development of the ‘black box’ flight safety recorder was also prompted by the Comet accidents.
9. Fairey Rotodyne

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A very advanced concept for a VTOL transport rotorcraft that was undoubtedly ahead of its time. Streaking from city centre to city centre with a top speed twice that of helicopters of the time, the Rotodyne, could have been a major transport innovation. As the world’s first vertical take-off airliner it could have revolutionised air travel, removing the need for remote airports for everything but long haul journeys. 

The concept was extremely innovative: for takeoff and landing, the rotor was driven by tip-mounted jet engines. The air for the tip-jets wasn’t bled from the engines. The engines were connected with clutches to axial compressors in the rear of the nacelles, which had flush inlets above the wing, and the compressors fed the rotor. The turboprop-powered propellers on the wings provided thrust for horizontal flight while the rotor autorotated (‘autorotation’ is when rotors turn around while unpowered, but in flight). Thanks to its tip-mounted jets, the Rotodyne was exceptionally noisy, an undesirable trait in a city centre airliner, and was cancelled. Debate still rages about the degree to which the Rotodyne’s noise levels could have been reduced.

Design purpose / intent
Commercial city centre to city centre passenger transport (e.g. London – Paris) using advanced VTOL configuration.

Key features
The Rotodyne had an 89 ft diameter rotor driven by tip jets in hover, with pressurised air supplied from two 3,000 ehp Napier Eland NEL.3 turboprop engines. Fuel was supplied along the blades and burnt in the tip jet units (hot jet) to power to the rotor for the hover. Cruise was achieved using wing lift and propeller thrust (with the rotor autorotating, benefitting its rotor flight envelope). Prototype all up weight was 33,000 lb with capacity for 40 passengers.

History
Initial research was carried out on the small scale Gyrodyne and Jet Gyrodyne (with cold jet tip drive). A single Rotodyne XE521 was built, and flown for the first time on 6 November 1957. The first transition from hovering to forward flight was made on 10 April 1958. XE521 set a 100km closed circuit record at 190.9 mph, well above the maximum speed of contemporary helicopters. The Rotodyne could also hover with one engine shut down. By the end of its flight test programme, the Rotodyne had flown almost 1,000 people for 120 hours in 350 flights and conducted a total of 230 transitions between helicopter and autogyro flight.

Reasons for Failure
Although only required for a few minutes at take-off and landing, the external noise of the hot jet tip drive was unacceptably high. Various contemporary sources quote the noise as ‘intolerable’, ‘the chief deterrent to would-be purchasers’, and ‘from two miles away it would stop a conversation …’

The project was further hampered when, after the enforced take-over of Fairey’s helicopter activity by Westland Helicopters in 1960, it became clear that substantial further development would be required to meet BEA’s desired performance. Furthermore, this would require more powerful engines when Napier had decided not to develop the Eland further. The production machine was being proposed around two 5,250 shp RR Tyne engines, rotor diameter of 104 ft and all up weight of 53,500 lb to provide a 60 passenger capacity – a complete re-design, requiring considerable investment from both manufacturer and airline customer.

The Chairman of BEA was quoted as saying “the Corporation wants the Rotodyne … provided we can operate it. We don’t want to spend £5 million on an aircraft, if the Minister says it is too noisy and that we can’t operate it from city centres.” In the event, letters of intent from BEA and the RAF were not converted to orders and Westland ceased investment in absence of BEA order. Let down by the failure to realise that acceptable noise in the hover was a critical success factor for city centre operations.

Legacy
A really advanced compound helicopter concept. High speed rotorcraft are the focus for current US Army developments (FARA). The Eurocopter X3 and Airbus Racer adopt similar configurations to the Rotodyne, albeit without the noisy tip drive rotor.

Ahead of its time; with modern materials, engines and control technologies, the Rotodyne could have been successful – if only the noise problem could be solved.


8th Place: Short Sperrin and Supermarine Swift
Two different outcomes from parallel risk reduction development programmes.

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Design purpose / intent
Sperrin: Back-up aircraft due to perceived risk in V-Bomber programme.
Swift: Duplicated super-priority programme (with the Hunter) to produce a high-subsonic swept wing fighter

Key features
Sperrin: an enlarged four-engine Canberra. Four Avon engines.
Swift: Similar in many respects to after-burning Hunter.

History
Sperrin: Two prototypes. Second used for engine test (Gyron) and bomb development trials.
Swift: Two Type 541 prototypes and 193 production aircraft in six Marks. WK198 broke World speed record 737.7 mph September 1953 (broken 8 days later by Skyray).

Reasons for Failure
The Sperrin was a complete success. It was simple and sound, but was simply not needed, due to the success of all three V-bombers (itself representing considerable duplication of resources).
Swift: The type suffered from development issues, poor serviceability and handling deficiencies, particularly pitch-up in turns, with a high accident rate in operation despite a long list of flight restrictions. The photo-reconnaissance Swift FR.5 was used for low level operations, thereby avoiding the engine, handling and flight control issues encountered at altitude. By the time the problems of the Swift were sorted, investment in Hunter (even though it had its own problems initially) was seen to be a better bet.

Legacy
Sperrin: Contributed to engine and bomb development. Swift: Most of the issues were solved by the appearance (too late) of the Swift F7. Although still having inadequate manoeuvrability, the 12 F.7s that were built were used by No1 Guided Weapons Development Squadron at Valley for development trials of the Fairey Fireflash air-to-air missile,

Two investments in parallel programmes with different outcomes. The Sperrin was a complete success, but totally redundant in the light of the success of all three V-bombers (Valiant, Vulcan and Victor) all of which achieved full production and Squadron operational service.

 

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Copyright BAE Systems

The Swift was a failure, ordered into production as a super-priority design and proved to have handling problems, engine afterburner constraints, a very poor accident record and inadequate agility for an interceptor fighter. Thank goodness that the Hunter became a complete success, possibly due to the underlying merit of the design combined with Hawker’s ability to troubleshoot and cure deficiencies more effectively than was achieved at Supermarine at this time.

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Copyright BAE Systems

7th Place: de Havilland DH 108

A step too far on the path to a transonic fighter

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Design purpose / intent
Initially proposed as a demonstrator for the Comet airliner, when first boldly proposed as a tailless flying wing. Subsequently developed to investigate its potential as a transonic fighter configuration, and to inform the design of the DH110, which was later developed into the Sea Vixen.

Key features
The aircraft used a lengthened Vampire fuselage, with a single fin added. The wing was swept at 43 degrees for the first aircraft, and 45 degrees for the other two. Control was by rudder and elevons; powerplant was a single Goblin engine.

History
Three prototypes were built, and all were destroyed in fatal accidents. The first aircraft was to investigate low-speed flight and featured a 43 deg sweep wing with fixed outboard slats. This aircraft flew on 16 May 1946, and was limited in speed to about 200kts. It was destroyed in low-speed trials on 1 May 1950, failing to recover from an inverted spin, the pilot being killed when his parachute failed to open in time.
The second aircraft flew in June 1946, and had a 45 deg sweep wing with automatic leading edge slats. This aircraft crashed in a high-speed accident on 27 September 1946, killing the pilot, Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. The accident resulted from a massive structural failure, the cause of which seems to have been a high-speed pitch oscillation at about Mach 0.9.
The third aircraft featured a more refined fuselage and cockpit shape, a more powerful Goblin 5 engine, and, critically, power-boosted (hydraulic) elevons. This aircraft made its first flight on 24 July 1947, and on 6 Sept 1948 exceeded Mach 1 in a shallow dive, the first British-built aircraft to achieve this. The aircraft was lost in another fatal accident on 15 February 1950, again following a structural failure, possibly following pilot incapacitation due to oxygen system failure.

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Reasons for Failure
Loss of control of the second aircraft in transonic flight. The DH108 had low pitch inertia because of its tailless design. At transonic and supersonic speeds, changes in the pressure distribution over the aircraft result in the centre of lift moving aft, requiring nose up control input to trim the aircraft. Given the short distance between the DH108 elevons and its centre of gravity, control loads are likely to have been high, and with low inertia in pitch, pitch oscillations are likely, and appear to have resulted in structural failure and the loss of the aircraft.
As a result of the loss of the second aircraft, the third DH 108 was built with hydraulically-assisted pitch controls, a key step in the development of supersonic aircraft. Powered controls enable the trim change associated with high-speed flight to be negotiated safely.

Legacy
Improved control systems allowing transonic and supersonic flight to be achieved safely. The next aircraft to use this configuration after the DH108 was the Northrop X-4. This also had manual controls, and suffered from significant transonic pitch oscillations. The X-4 was never flown at supersonic speeds. However, the Vought F7U Cutlass used a similar configuration, but with powered controls. The F7U was a particularly unsuccessful aircraft, suffering a 25% accident rate in service, although this was probably due to the combination of an under-developed engine rather than control problems.
6th Place: Armstrong-Whitworth AW 52

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Visionary concept for the aerodynamicist’s ultimate airliner, paradoxically defeated by a previously unknown aerodynamic problem.

 

Design purpose / intent
Half-scale prototype for a proposed six-jet flying-wing airliner, intended to have low drag due to extensive laminar flow over the wing (see below for explanation).

 

Key features
Twin-engine aircraft with an unswept centre-section and outboard wings with 35 degree sweep. Control by elevons, wing-tip-mounted fins and rudders, and spoilers. It was built to the highest possible standards with the intention of maintaining laminar flow over the wing. The desired wing profile was maintained to within 2/1000th of an inch (.05 mm).

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History
The proposal for the intended turbo-jet flying wing airliner dates back as far as 1943. The first step was the construction and test of a sub-scale glider, the AW52G, half the size of the 90 ft wing-span AW52, which made its first flight on 2 March 1945.
Following a successful test program of the AW52G, the first AW52, itself half the size of the proposed airliner, flew on 13 November 1947, followed by the second on 1 September 1948.
The second aircraft suffered an accident on 30 May 1949, due to a pitch oscillation, thought to have been caused by elevon flutter. In ejecting from the aircraft, the pilot became the first to be saved by a Martin-Baker ejection seat. Following this, the first aircraft was passed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) for aerodynamic research.

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Reasons for Failure
It proved to be impossible to maintain laminar flow on the outer wings of the aircraft. Laminar flow is achieved if the air next to the wing surface (in the boundary layer) can be maintained in steady and smooth flow. This is desirable, as it results in less drag than the alternative turbulent flow, where the flow in the boundary layer is unsteady. Maintaining laminar flow requires a smooth surface, and careful attention to the shape of that surface to delay the transition to turbulent flow in the boundary layer as long as possible. Laminar flow aerofoils were researched extensively by NACA, and appeared in operational use on the P-51 Mustang, and the P-38 Lightning.
The AW52 was unable to deliver the expected laminar flow on the outer wing because of a previously unrecognised phenomena called attachment line transition (ALT). The attachment line is the location along the leading edge of a wing, dividing the flow which passes above the wing from that which passes below. On a swept leading edge, a flow develops along the leading edge from root towards the wing tip, and at some point along the span, this flow will itself naturally transition and become turbulent. Once the attachment line has become turbulent, laminar flow can no longer be sustained over the wing.
Research at RAE showed not only that ALT was occurring on the AW52 and limiting its performance, but that it also occurred on all contemporary swept-wing aircraft, including, for example, the Sabre. Consequently, the performance achieved by the AW52 was disappointing and there was no civil or military customer interest to fund further development.

Legacy
Improved understanding of swept-wing aerodynamics. Development of devices to prevent the fuselage boundary layer from being entrained into the wing attachment line, delaying ALT as far as possible.

5th Place: Saunders-Roe SR53

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Outpaced by changes in the threat, and in government policy.
Design purpose / intent
The Saunders Roe SR53 was proposed to meet a requirement for a point-defence interceptor capable of climbing to 60,000 ft in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The driver for the requirement was concern about the threat posed by Soviet bombers armed with nuclear weapons.

Key features
Compact, delta-winged mixed power aircraft with 1,640 lbst Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine and 8,000 lbst de Havilland Spectre rocket. The armament was intended to be the Blue Jay infra-red air-to-air missile. The operational concept was to climb to altitude using the rocket motor, accelerate up to a maximum speed of Mach 2.2, complete a ground-guided interception, and then return to base using the jet engine.

History
The contract to develop the aircraft was signed on 8 May 1953. Although Saunders-Roe’s initial schedule called for a first flight in July 1954, development of the aircraft and its rocket motor took longer than expected, and first flight did not occur until 16 May 1957, with the second prototype following in December of the same year. The aircraft was reported as pleasant and easy to fly. The second aircraft was lost in a fatal aborted-take-off accident in June 1958, and the program was eventually cancelled in July 1960, after 56 test flights. The highest speed reached in the flight test program was Mach 1.33.

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Reasons for Failure
During the 7-year development and flight programme, a great deal of change had occurred in aerospace capabilities. Jet engine development had produced high power, reliable engines; radar had improved its ability to detect targets at long range; the Soviets had moved towards the development of stand-off weapons; and surface-based guided missiles had improved in capability.
These technical advances had the effect of invalidating the operational concept for the aircraft. In future, it would be possible, and necessary, to defeat threats at a greater distance, before the release of nuclear stand-off weapons, and there was no way a short-range point-defence interceptor such as the SR53 could achieve this.
Furthermore, the first flight of the aircraft occurred just two months after the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper, which suggested new manned aircraft were no longer required for air defence, and that surface-based air-to-air missiles would in future fill this role. The first flight of the SR 53, just after this policy announcement, could not have been more badly timed, but the operational concept had already been superseded.

Legacy
The programme left no direct legacy. Air defence has evolved through point defence interception, to barrier combat air patrols, and to beyond visual range engagements using air-to-air missiles, supported by distributed and networked sensors. Low signature capabilities and geo-political instabilities are pushing air defence in the direction of cooperating manned and unmanned aircraft, armed with long-range weapons, and supported by distributed and networked sensors.

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4th Place: Boulton Paul Defiant / Blackburn Roc turreted fighters

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A flawed concept that could never have competed with higher speed, more manoeuvrable fighters with forward-firing cannon armament.

Design purpose / intent
Turreted interceptor fighters (Defiant for RAF, Roc – carrier based for fleet defence). Intended to achieve kills by surprise and defend easily against tail attack.

Key features
Two crew and four-gun turret. Defiant powered by 1,030hp Merlin III; Roc by 890hp Perseus XII engine.

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History
Defiant: First flown in August 1937 and entered service in December 1939 with 264 Sqn. Achieved some initial success over Dunkirk – mainly because it was misidentified by the Germans as a Hurricane. Thereafter suffered crippling losses and was withdrawn from daylight operations after August 1940. Later used with some effect as a night fighter and subsequently as a target tug. 1,060 Defiant aircraft were built.

Blackburn Roc followed the same concept with the additional penalties associated with carrier operation. First flown in December 1938 and having a gross weight of 7,950 lb (compared with a Hurricane at 6,447lb) and 890hp (rather than 1,030hp) its performance was entirely inadequate for the role.

Reasons for Failure
Lack of fixed forward firing armament, weight and manoeuvrability penalties. Low overall firepower. The performance penalty of carrying the turret armament can be gauged by the fact that the empty weight of the Defiant was within 200lb of the gross weight of the similarly powered Hurricane. The Blackburn Roc never went to sea and some aircraft ended up as airfield defence posts.

The Defiant has been described (by FK Mason) as “hopelessly inept … quite useless in combat … lamentably possessing no fixed forward firing guns”. These statements apply equally to the Blackburn Roc, although perhaps ‘woeful performance’ could be added in that case, with a maximum speed of barely 220 mph.

Legacy
There is little more to say about these two-seat turreted fighters, other than that they proved to be a fundamentally flawed concept, particularly given the lack of any fixed forward-firing armament.
Subsequent experience has shown that a two-seat fighter with higher firepower (20-40mm cannon and, later, missiles and target acquisition sensors) allows greater stand-off ranges and higher lethality, while sharing the crew workload.
3rd Place: Saunders-Roe Princess and SR.A/1

 

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The victims of ill-judged requirements, which failed to account for legacy infrastructure from WW II

Design purpose / intent
Princess: Spacious, indeed luxurious, transport from London to New York, and on broader routes around the Empire to destinations that did not have large airports.
SR.A/1: Pacific War concept to provide air superiority over archipelagos without needing to build runways.

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Key features
Princess: The largest all-metal flying boat ever to have been constructed. Powered by no less than 10 Proteus turboprops, it was capable of carrying 105 passengers, at the modest cruise speed of 360 mph.
SR.A/1: Flying-boat fighter, powered by 2 Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbo-jets. A small, single-seat, airframe armed with 4 20mm cannon.

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History
Princess: Developed in response to a 1946 Contract from the UK Ministry of Supply for a long-range civil flying boat, 3 aircraft were built, but only one was flown. This made a total of 46 flights between 22 August 1952 and 27 May 1954, totalling 100 flight hours. The prototype and two other essentially complete airframes were stored for an extended period before being scrapped in 1967.
SR.A/1: The aircraft was first proposed in mid-1943, the combination of jet engine speed and the flexible basing options of a flying-boat being regarded as advantageous in the Pacific theatre. Development lagged, and the aircraft did not fly until 16 July 1947. Three aircraft were built, two of which crashed. The simultaneous development of the Princess contributed to the slow development of the SR.A/1, and this was compounded by the decision of Metropolitan-Vickers to cease turbojet engine production.

Reasons for Failure

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Princess: The initial interest in the aircraft had come from BOAC, whose predecessors had operated large flying boats across the British Empire between the wars. However, as a consequence of World War II, runways of suitable size for commercial aircraft had been built world-wide, removing a key rationale for a flying boat airliner. A further key issue was the decision by BOAC to operate the de Havilland Comet. The huge leap in speed and comfort offered by this aircraft only under-scored the significant performance and operating cost penalties of the large flying boat, with its 10 turbo-prop engines and cruise speed at least 100 mph less than even the early Comet.
SR.A/1: Although exhibiting quite sprightly performance, by the time it had flown, the Pacific war was over, and no requirement for the aircraft existed. In addition, the Fleet Air Arm was operating numerous aircraft carriers, and the development of capable jet-powered carrier-based aircraft allowed power projection without the need for airfield construction. Additionally, of course, the large number of airfields constructed during the war also provided many basing opportunities for conventional land-based aircraft.

Legacy
Japan and Russia continue to operate capable military flying boats and amphibians. No large flying boat airliners or fighters are in operation.

2nd Place: Bristol Brabazon
A ‘Jumbo’ airliner for the privileged few.

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Credit: BAE Systems

Design purpose / intent
Trans-Atlantic passenger operations. Type 1 from the Brabazon Committee’s range of projects intended to revitalise the British commercial aircraft industry.

Key features
Luxury travel, eight 2,360hp Centaurus XX piston engines, 230 ft wing span, 20 ft diameter fuselage with accommodation for 96 day passengers or 52 in sleeping compartments. Target performance was 5,000 miles range cruising at 20,000 ft and 250 mph, with a maximum speed 300 mph at 25,000ft. All up weight 290,000lb.

History
Two prototypes, of which only one, registered G-AGPW, was flown, taking to the air for the first time on 4 September 1949. Its construction led to the building of a large three bay, eight-acre, assembly hall and lengthened runway at Filton. A crew (flight crew and cabin staff) of fourteen was envisaged, serving 94 passengers.
By 1952, it was clear that there was no customer interest in the type and Bristol were, by that time, heavily engaged in the design of the Bristol Britannia. The project was quietly abandoned, the prototype being scrapped in October 1953 after only 400 hr flying. The second prototype G-AIML was substantially complete but was never assembled.

Reasons for Failure
The fundamental failure was that the Brabazon Committee failed to recognise that the future of flying would be to offer affordable travel for the masses, not the privileged few (who had formed much of the pre-war airline customer base).
Linked to this was a failure to appreciate that the key parameter for profitable airline economics were load factor (percentage of seats occupied by paying passengers) and aircraft operating cost per passenger seat mile.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Brabazon wing span and area were similar to those of the Boeing 747-400, for a payload of, at best, 96 passengers.

Legacy
Years ahead of its time, as shown by the success of the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. The project provided Bristol Aircraft with the experience to produce the Britannia, which proved to be a successful design once its development problems were solved.

1st Place: BAC / Aerospatiale Concorde

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Credit: Ron Smith

Pinnacle of aerospace technology and an iconic symbol of supersonic passenger travel.

(Editor note: We know it’s half-French, but thought it gallant to take it as British in this context.)

Design purpose / intent
Supersonic passenger transport worldwide.

Key features
Advanced ogival wing planform, four Olympus 593 engines 38,050 lbst with afterburning, intake management, M=2 supercruise, carbon fibre brakes, drooping nose, fuel management to control centre of gravity, electrical flight and engine controls. Carried 100 passengers on trans-Atlantic routes, typically cruising at M=2.02 and 58,000ft.

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History
Anglo-French collaborative programme. Manufacture comprised two prototypes; two pre-production; two production prototypes, and 14 production aircraft. The Governments wrote off the development costs (£1.3 billion) and seven production aircraft were used by each of the national flag carriers (British Airways and Air France).
First flight of first prototype F-WTSS 2 March 1969; entry into passenger service 21 January 1976; withdrawal from service 23 October 2003. Fatal accident to F-BTSC on 25 July 2000 after hitting debris on the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Reasons for Failure
Despite its technical brilliance and unmatched capability, Concorde was ultimately commercially unsuccessful. A major constraint was that the aircraft was not allowed to fly supersonically over land due to concerns over its sonic boom. Airport noise was also a concern, considerably delaying approval to fly into the New York’s John F Kennedy Airport.
The aircraft’s economics were impacted by the OPEC-inspired oil price rises of 1973. In today’s world, it is possible that the decision to write off the substantial development costs would be seen as an inappropriate government subsidy under World Trade Organisation rules.

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Other considerations included the inability to develop the aircraft further; a finite spares pool; and the cost of certification of any new modifications required.
The price of speed was high and, ultimately Concorde travel became the province of the select (and wealthy) few – the very market originally envisaged for the Bristol Brabazon.

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Legacy
Many aspects of the technology remain in use across the spectrum of civil and military aerospace. The programme established certification approaches for aircraft with novel technologies and operational envelopes. There remains on-going interest in supersonic flight with reduced sonic boom energy, and in supersonic business jets.

This article is restricted to a top ten. This has been achieved by focusing on aircraft that actually flew and for which there was a genuine expectation of production and sales. This has meant excluding many well-known concepts (for example Vickers 1000, Hawker P.1154, HS681 V/STOL transport) that never reached flight status. Also excluded are research aircraft such as the Handley Page HP115, Hunting 126, Boulton Paul P.111, designed to examine specific configurations and/or technologies.

Even with these restrictions, there are plenty of other types that could have been included. This list does not include, for example, the Westland Wyvern, Armstrong Whitworth Apollo, Short Belfast, Nimrod AEW, Nimrod RMPA or the TSR.2.

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8 comments

  1. skippybing

    Minor point, contrary to popular opinion the Blackburn Roc did go to sea in the early stages of the war. ‘The Dawn of Carrier Strike’ by David Hobbs has more details/is the most recent book I’ve read that mentions it. It was if anything a more terrible idea than you’d think.

    • Ronald V Smith

      Thanks for that. AJ Jackson in the Blackburn Putnam book says: … “Rocs flew only from shore stations and never made a deck landing”, so you can see where that came from. I have not seen the more recent book, but it does not seem to be a credible package. “British Aircraft at War 1939-45” is more ambiguous, saying “A few Rocs served operationally with 801 and 806 Sqdns (alongside Skuas) for a few months in 1940”, leaving open the issue of operations at sea. Can you give me a relevant direct quote from “The Dawn of Carrier Strike”? If so, I will get the BAE Systems Heritage page for the Roc updated to reflect this information.

      • skippybing

        Hi Ron,

        There’s a few references in Hobbs, pp 306-9 includes crew compositions and launch times for Roc CAPs on 28 April, with other sorties through to 1 May. Lt R C Hay RM was one of the pilots involved. The end notes for the chapter states that the detail was compiled from the Home Fleet War Diary, individual ship and squadron Reports of Proceedings from the National Archives, along with records of strike missions and individual fighter combat compiled by J David Brown when head of the Naval Historical Branch and left to the author in his will.
        He also makes reference to the Report of Operations by Lt-Gen Massy who was C-in-C North Western Expeditionary Force in Norway which is available at this link https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/37584/supplement/2607 and clearly references operations by Skua and Roc.
        My understanding is the Rocs were withdrawn from use part way through the Norwegian operations to make room for more Skuas.
        Matthew Willis book on the Skua and Roc also states the Roc briefly operated afloat but it’s been a while since I read that so it would take a while to extract the relevant detail.
        Unfortunately neither book has a photo of a Roc clearly on a carrier deck.

    • Ronald V Smith

      Many thanks. Based on the above, I think that the following is probably a fair statement.
      “Although the Blackburn Roc is widely stated not to have been flown operationally from aircraft carriers, there is evidence (eg in D Hobbs: The Dawn of Carrier Strike) backed up by the Report of Operations in Norway by Lt. Gen Massey (published in The London Gazette), that the Blackburn Roc was briefly used for carrier based operations in support of the Norwegian Campaign in late April and early May 1940. The limited performance of the Roc resulted in its early withdrawal from operations to allow more Skuas to be deployed.”

  2. Ronald V Smith

    A further comment on carrier operations of the Blackburn Roc:

    Aircraft of the Fighting Powers (Vol 1 1940) says: “Contrary to popular opinion, the Roc was never at any time used from the decks of aircraft-carriers and during the period of its operational service its use was restricted to the shore stations of the Fleet Air Arm”.
    FK Mason in The British Fighter since 1912 says: …”none was ever flown from a carrier”.

    I have no first hand knowledge of whether the Roc ever carried out carrier operations and three of the references that I have consulted state that it did not. If anyone can produce a flying log book or a photograph of it doing so, it would be a delight to change this view, citing the appropriate evidence.

    The Roc does, however, remain an ill-conceived design.

  3. Jim Smith

    Noting the comment on our latest piece, I offer this from William Green’s Warplanes of the Second World War – Fighters, Vol 2, first published 1961:

    The Roc, contemporary with the Boulton Paul Defiant and its shipboard equivalent, was the Fleet Air Arm’s first aircraft to be equipped with a power-driven turret, and after a brief period in first line service during which it never operated from an aircraft carrier, it was withdrawn, subsequently serving as a trainer and a target tug.

    The Complete book of Fighters, Salamander, also states that the aircraft was never operated from aircraft carriers.

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