The worst British aeroplane manufacturer? Blackburn – a history of infamy

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It seems hard to even mention Blackburn  (‘Blackburn Aircraft Limited’ – and boy, weren’t they) without eliciting anecdotes about terrible, stolid, ugly or fatal aircraft. But does Blackburn deserve this reputation? Matthew Willis finds out. 

A few years ago this author proposed, half-jokingly, the Twitter hashtag #FirebrandFriday which was met, within minutes, with shrieks of horror – ‘but it was a godawful deathtrap!’ – from a prominent defence expert not entirely unknown to this blog. Mention of the Skua invariably leads to someone repeating ‘a seabird that folds its wings and dives into the sea’ before too long. The Botha is one of those aircraft about which a mythical test pilot is rumoured to have written ‘entry to the aircraft is difficult. It should be made impossible.’

Half of the aircraft on this list of the 10 worst British aircraft are from Blackburn

Blackburn seems alone in the largely awful reputation of its products. No UK aircraft manufacturer has escaped its share of unfortunate aircraft – much of the latter designs of Supermarine were clumsy, dangerous and had a loss rate that made them virtually disposable. Avro, meanwhile proved itself incapable of designing an airliner bigger than a regional feeder machine that didn’t kill frighteningly high numbers of passengers. In most cases this didn’t define the company. With Blackburn, it seems, all the mud stuck.

The company was one of the earliest manufacturers in Britain to attain much success. Robert Blackburn was an engineer who became obsessed with flight in the 1900s while working in France, taking more time off work than his employers appreciated to go and see the Wrights, Blériot and Hubert Latham in their ‘flying machines’. On his return to England in 1908, he immediately began his efforts to emulate these pioneers, and built a monoplane that was completed the following year. This was a rather unconventional affair with several touches that marked it out as the product of an engineer rather than an aeronaut. For one thing, it was built for strength – something that Blackburn products would be accused of throughout the company’s life – and incorporated interesting features such as a fore-and-aft sliding seat to adjust the centre of gravity. The general arrangement was disposed to confer great stability in the air, with all the heavy items – pilot, engine and fuel/coolant tanks – suspended well below the wing. Blackburn failed to appreciate that this might involve too much of a good thing. He made a few hops with this aircraft along a beach in Yorkshire, but sideslipped into the ground on attempting to turn, against the mass trying to prevent the aircraft from rolling.

Top 16 Royal Navy aircraft here. 

Unhurt and undeterred, Blackburn tried again, and this time produced an elegant if conventional monoplane that flew well. At this point he went into the aircraft-manufacturing business, offering to build aircraft to others’ designs, while putting the successful second monoplane up for sale. A larger development of this aircraft, called the Mercury, was produced in 1912 and nine of them were built – a decent production run for a pre-WW1 aircraft. Further aircraft along the same lines were produced in ones and twos, each slightly more refined than the last, until the outbreak of war in 1914.

If Blackburn had continued remained unambitious, perhaps it might have become known as a competent if unimaginative maker of attractive aeroplanes. The outbreak of war, however, saw Blackburn’s unconventional, engineering mindset imposing itself once again. The Admiralty called for an aircraft of unparalleled endurance that could hunt Zeppelins, remaining aloft for many hours, even through the night, on patrol for the menacing dirigibles. For its ‘TB’, Blackburn came up with a layout that wasn’t repeated on a production aircraft until the P-82 Twin Mustang of 1945 – two fuselages, each with an engine and cockpit (although only one had controls).

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The TB was intended to be powered by a new 150hp engine of low fuel consumption, but beginning something of a trend for Blackburn, this powerplant failed to become available and it had to make do with lower-powered units. The TB was perhaps over-ambitious, and an alarming flex between the two fuselages could never quite be overcome. Not giving up, Blackburn went back to the drawing board and applied the TB’s wing cellule to a conventional twin-engined layout, with a long, narrow fuselage. The resulting aircraft, known as the Kangaroo, was pretty good, and with decent power (250hp RR Falcon), it made the perfect long-range anti-submarine aircraft. In August 1918, a Kangaroo of 246 Squadron RAF discovered the U-boat UC70 lying on the bottom, reported its position and bombed it, causing sufficient damage that it was easy prey when a Royal Navy destroyer reached the scene.

Seafire story here

Blackburn was best known over the company’s life as a provider of aircraft carrier-based aeroplanes. Unsurprisingly this began with an aircraft that was as innovative as it was clunky. Blackburn was developing a talent for creating solutions that were elegant in engineering terms while being shockingly inelegant visually. The 1919 Blackburd – yes, that was honestly what they chose to call it – torpedo bomber was among the most hideous of the company’s many unattractive products. The reason for this was mostly in its fuselage. For many years aircraft manufacturers had simplified wing construction with constant-section mainplanes.

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the aesthetics of a brick.”

For the Blackburd, Blackburn applied this principle to both wing and fuselage. This had certain advantages – the four longerons were identical to each other, as were all the vertical and horizontal members. It was ideal for wartime mass production – a feature which was largely useless now the war was over – but conferred the aesthetics of a brick.

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The Blackburn Blackburn, so bad they named it twice. 

The Admiralty rejected the Blackburd, and Blackburn tried again in 1920. This resulted in the Dart, an aircraft that was beautifully svelte compared to the Blackburd and unappealingly stodgy compared with just about everything else. But the Dart was a fine aeroplane. It handled beautifully and was a thoroughly practical carrier aircraft. It was easy to land on the small carriers of the early interwar period, even at night, and served for ten years. The Dart was replaced by evolutions of the concept, the Ripon and Baffin, which made Blackburn the sole supplier of torpedo aircraft to the RN between 1921 and 1936.

With the follow-up to the Baffin, the Shark, they almost did it again. The Shark was a thoroughly modern machine for the time (more modern than its competitor from Fairey). Unfortunately for Blackburn, this was where things started to go wrong. Blackburn wanted the Bristol Pegasus engine, but the Air Ministry insisted on the unreliable Armstrong Siddeley Tiger. Problems with the oil system and engine mount were easily resolved, but gave the aircraft a terrible reputation with aircrews (unsurprisingly, given that the engine on the Mk.I had the unpleasant habit of trying to detach itself in flight). Sharks were introduced in 1935 and retired in 1937, despite being fundamentally a good design.

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The Shark was a thoroughly modern machine for the time (more modern than its competitor from Fairey)

The next two service types from Blackburn only served to reinforce this ill fortune, in many respects ill-deserved though it was. The Skua dive bomber-fighter was, again, in many respects a very good aeroplane. It was a superb dive-bomber, but the Admiralty had decided in its wisdom that it needed its dive bomber to be a fighter too, and this was the use to which it was most often put in the early years of WW2. Once again, Blackburn did not get its choice of engine, and a two-seat fighter stressed for dive-bombing with a 900hp Bristol Perseus was never going to sparkle in the air. In 1940, the idea of a fighter with a maximum speed of 225mph was laughable to everyone but the aircrews who had to go to war in it. It didn’t help that being the first monoplane in service with the Fleet Air Arm meant a painful adjustment to new characteristics. The Skua could catch the unwary with its stall. Then there was the fact that the worn-out machines were repurposed as fighter trainers, and most pilots’ experience of them was in this state – hardly likely to endear itself to would-be aces. The Skua’s contemporary, the Botha, was intended to be a coastal bomber and torpedo aircraft on the same lines as the Bristol Beaufort. While both the Botha and the Beaufort ended up overweight, only Bristol was granted permission to use more powerful engines. The Botha was retired ignominiously in less time than the Shark had been.

Blackburn’s follow-up to the Skua was typical of the company in so many ways. Innovative engineering, solid – perhaps too solid – construction, but denied the best engine, and suffering from official meddling and poor timing. The Firebrand started life as a two-seat fighter and was endlessly mucked about with by changing Admiralty requirements and Air Ministry diktats. The original, Hercules-powered aircraft was to have a lightweight fixed undercarriage and twin tails.

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The next iteration was to be even more unconventional, with full-span slotted flaps and spoiler-type ailerons allowing good carrier landing characteristics with a smaller wing for higher performance. It was poked and prodded into a Napier Sabre powered single-seat fighter, then attack aircraft, with by now conventional wings. Again, it had much going for it – a huge load-carrying ability and range, and despite its large size, it was reasonably manoeuvrable, including being fully aerobatic with a torpedo attached. Then the Air Ministry struck again, insisting that the Navy could not have any Sabres and the Firebrand would have to be redesigned with Bristol Centaurus power. Years were spent working the Firebrand into a useful aircraft, and it could have been something like a British Skyraider, but we will never know as it could only be accommodated on the larger fleet carriers, and none of these took part in the Korean conflict. (The RN’s Nato commitments also meant that it had to retain torpedo squadrons in Northern waters).

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After WW2, Blackburn continued to plug away, submitting designs for Air Ministry requirements and mostly being rejected. They built a prototype strike aircraft based on Firebrand experience but there was no call for it, and a prototype anti-submarine aircraft that lost out to the Fairey Gannet.

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Amazingly, the aircraft that defeated the B-88 to receive an FAA order, the Fairey Gannet, was even uglier.

The one major success of the immediate postwar period – the Beverley transport aircraft – began life as a General Aircraft project and was only inherited by Blackburn when it took over that company in 1949. The company’s redemption, when it came, was dramatic. Finally, by the mid-50s as naval aircraft were approaching transonic speeds, it was appropriate to build them like tanks. The NA39 – later named Buccaneer – was tendered for a requirement for a nuclear-armed carrier strike aircraft to operate at high subsonic speeds at low levels. Blackburn pulled its trademark characteristics together – innovation, engineering elegance, pugnacious appearance and bulletproof construction. And this time, it all came right. Well, almost – as usual, it was the engines that initially let the Buccaneer down, with the de Havilland Gyron leaving the Buccaneer S.1 somewhat underpowered. The RR Spey-engined S.2, however realised the huge potential in the Buccaneer and the aircraft proved a potent weapon in the FAA’s armoury from 1960 until the service gave up fixed wing flying in 1978 (including a ‘show of force’ to persuade Guatemala not to invade Belize in 1975), and then for the RAF until 1994 (including highly accurate strikes during the first Gulf War of 1991).

Blackburn was undoubtedly unlucky with some of its aircraft. Had things turned out differently, the Shark might have been the hero of Taranto and the Bismarck, the Skua might have been the British answer to the Douglas SBD, the Firebrand might have been a feared mud-mover in Korea. The unfortunate looks of many Blackburn aircraft probably didn’t help. After all, in a world where the myth of ‘If it looks right, it probably flies right’ still persists, looks count.

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I say it’s time to celebrate Blackburn. Sure, it never produced anything with the perfect poise of a Spitfire, Mosquito or Hunter, but most of its machines were surprisingly good and the Buccaneer was one of the outstanding strike aircraft of the 20th century.

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#FirebrandFriday anyone?

— Matthew Willis

Matthew Willis’ book on the Blackburn Shark, featuring 100 historic photographs, detailed scale plans, and colour artwork by Chris Sandham-Bailey,  is now available from MMP Books 

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4 comments

  1. kimmargosein

    It seems part of the problem was it was stuck with bad engines, but that is not unique. See the curse of the Allison T-40. Another problem was they built exactly what the FAA wanted. This seems to be a problem of the FAA in the 30s when they didn’t seem to know what they wanted. More on this thought in a minute. The Firebrand had a parallel with the Curtis P-60, which went through several major revisions due to changing requirements until everyone lost interest.
    Speaking of the FAA. this thought just occured to me. Both the US and Japan were stuck with unfinished battlecruisers that couldn’t be finished due to treaty obligations, and had a substantial sunk cost. So, both navies found themselves gifted with two 40,000 ton carriers, almost sister ships. These fast large carriers (they were the largest built until the Midway) allowed the USN and IJN to think large.

    • Duker

      In the 1930s it wasnt the FAA who were deciding the types of planes , it was the RAF.
      Inskip , who was a legal high flyer not the aviation kind, when made Minister of Defence Coordination , only let FAA have control over its planes in design and production in 1937.

  2. Jim Smith

    Roy Boot was one of the design team of the Buccaneer, and was a friend of my then wife’s family. As a result, I had the privilege of reading, and discussing with him, the author’s proof copy of his autobiography, ‘From Spitfire to Eurofighter’ shortly before its publication in 1990.

    Two comments about the Buccaneer stand out from that discussion. Roy said that ‘We decided we would need 9 prototypes, bacause we expected to lose three of tham. And we did’.

    He also said that they had no idea how the innovative rotating bomb bay would affect either external or internal aerodynamics as it rotated open or closed. So ‘we simply made it rotate very quickly, reasoning that any forces that developed would not have time to significantly disturb the aircraft’.

    Only met him that one time, as I moved to the USA before the book came out, but he impressed me as both interesting and authentic.

  3. hammarbytp

    Very good article. It is a mystery how a company with such a dismal track record, stayed in business so long.

    You also managed to miss out the Blackburn Roc. The strange mutant hybrid brought about by mating a Skua with a defiant and getting the benefits of neither, but all the vices

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