Tagged: Aviation

When jet fighters and cars meet: The story of the General Motors FIREBIRD hyper-car!

Firebird III..Holy Cow!

In his fascinating interview with Hush-Kit in May 2012, supercar designer Peter Stevens theorised on the often close relationship between aircraft and automobile design: “In aircraft terms all cars can be described as being reliant on ‘low speed aerodynamics’, but the actual shapes are often taken from very high speed aircraft”.

One of the most blatant examples of this idea at work was American car designer Harley Earl’s astonishing Firebird series of concept cars for General Motors (GM) during the 1950s. Powered by gas-turbine engines developed by Emmett Conklin and bristling with fins, bubble canopies and other aeronautically-inspired refinements, the Firebirds represented the high-point of America’s obsession with the jet age.

My other car is a P-38 Lightning!

Earl was no stranger to using aircraft as inspiration — his Le Sabre concept car of 1951 was, as the name suggests, directly influenced by North American’s F-86 Sabre jet fighter, then fighting it out with Soviet MiGs over Korea. He had also long admired the unorthodox twin-boom layout of Lockheed’s World War Two-vintage P-38 Lightning, reflected in the designer’s fishtail fenders for later GM products. Earl was fascinated by the impression of speed that aircraft imparted, fighter aircraft in particular adhering to his concept of cars looking long and low, alert, ready to pounce.

“You ready Robin?” “Yes Batman” “Stick on some ragga and get the afterburner lit- we’re off to Nandos!”

Having introduced sharply-swept fins and wraparound windshields, both a prevalent part of contemporary fighter design, on the Le Sabre, Earl felt compelled to push further into the realms of the fantastic, often making almost impossible demands on his long-suffering technical team in the interests of pushing the envelope of American automobile design.

King of cool, Earl Harley

Reportedly, Earl was aboard an airliner during one of his frequent trips across the USA in the early 1950s when he read a short article in an in-flight magazine on the futuristic Douglas A4D Skyray, which made its first flight in January 1951. Earl was fascinated by the new Navy fighter and stared at the photographs in the article for more than an hour. Remarking that it was “a striking ship”, he tore the page from the magazine and put it in his inside pocket before settling into deep thought. When his travelling companion asked whether he was thinking of next year’s model and what it might be, Earl paused for a moment before slapping his breast pocket and saying “I have it right here”. Earl later recalled: “I was only answering the banter in kind. Then bingo, I decided I had kidded myself into something”.

“A striking ship”- The Douglas F4D Skyray

Design and construction of the first Firebird began in 1953, the idea being to create a complete rolling laboratory in which state-of-the-art technology could be tested in real road conditions. It was also a clear opportunity for GM to showcase the extremes in technology and design that it was capable of. Given the company designation XP-21, the single-seat Firebird I was the first American car to be powered by a gas turbine engine, in the form of the 370 h.p. Whirlfire GT-302. Arguably the single most impractical car ever devised, the Firebird I comprised a bullet-shaped fibreglass fuselage with a single fin and short rounded delta “wings” (as on the Skyray), the driver being accommodated in a fighter-style cockpit with a bubble canopy. Flaps were also incorporated for braking purposes — another lift from aeronautical design. The car was driven by Conklin and racing driver Mauri Rose and found to be largely satisfactory, despite issues with noise, exhaust overheating and, unsurprisingly, extremely high fuel consumption.

Earl’s second Firebird, designated XP-43, was intended to parlay the lessons learned with the Firebird I into a more practical four-seat family car. With its distinctive double air intakes at the front, high bubble canopy and fin, the Firebird II was intended to be a component of GM’s “Safety Autoway of Tomorrow”, a rapid transit system which would take advantage of an “electronic brain” in the car, which received signals from a metallic conductor buried in the road, the magnetic device creating a form of autopilot for cars. The boffins at GM worked hard to get the system working and eventually conducted successful tests of what the company dubbed the “dream highway”. The Firebird II was the first car to have its entire exterior bodywork constructed from titanium, then being used in the construction of the USA’s state-of-the-art fighters such as the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo and Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter — another of Earl’s appropriations of contemporary aeronautical techniques.

The Republic F-105 Thunderchief. 1950s US design wasn’t good at ‘subtle’.

If the Firebird II reflected fighter aircraft design in the mid-1950s, the last  — and most extravagant — of the Firebirds anticipated the cutting edge of the next generation of American warplanes, typified by Republic’s super-sleek F-105 Thunderchief, which entered US Air Force service in mid-1958. While GM’s engineers were perfecting the “electronic chauffeur”, Earl and his team were going for broke with a design that incorporated no fewer than seven wings and fins protruding from a science-fictionesque wedge-shaped main body.

Build it, damn you!

Promotional material of the time dispensed with any pretence of subtlety and announced that the new Firebird would be “an entirely different kind of car, in which a person may drive to the launching site of a rocket to the moon”, the aeronautical terminology being supercharged to include the rapidly escalating space race. The new car, which incorporated double bubble canopies, cruise control and air-conditioning, was to be fitted with an extension of the Firebird II’s “ping-pong ball” control system, known as Unicontrol, in which steering, acceleration and braking would be performed by means of a single control stick, again echoing fighter cockpit design.

The initial tests of all three Firebirds were referred to as “first flights”, that of the Firebird III taking place at GM’s Desert Proving Ground in Phoenix, Arizona, in August 1958, the machine subsequently undergoing extensive trials in a windtunnel, as used for testing aircraft.

The Firebird III, one bad motherfucker.

Publicly unveiled at GM’s 1959 Motorama show in New York City and Boston (actually held in October 1958), the Firebird III was a hit; the two-seat rocket-ship of the road fired the imaginations of the young and old alike. As on the Firebird II, Earl had sought to exploit aerodynamic braking in the form of air brakes, which emerged from flat panels in the Firebird III’s main body. The 225 h.p. Whirlfire GT-305 engine provided propulsion power only, a separate 10 h.p. two-cylinder powerplant being installed to drive the electrical and hydraulic accessories.

The Firebird III was not just a hit at the car shows; in April 1959 it was exhibited at the World Congress of Flight in Las Vegas, its space-age looks fitting right in with the highly advanced military hardware on view at nearby Nellis AFB.

GM Modified!

The Firebirds were never seriously intended to be put into production, however earnest the brochures of the time were in suggesting otherwise, and although a Firebird IV ground-effect machine was built in mock-up form, GM decided that the III was the end of the line for the ambitious space-age Firebirds. The name, however, lived on in a series of Pontiac “ponycars” from 1967.

All three Firebirds still survive and have been acquired by GM, which aims to restore them to roadworthy status and possibly tour them at some stage. Happily, car designers are still very much taking cues from aeronautical developments, as Peter Stevens explained in his Hush-Kit interview: “I do think that designers are looking at things like the F-117 stealth fighter for inspiration; the Lamborghini Aventador is a good example of this trend”. Long may it continue.

This Stealth Car can seen in Pearsonville, California. My guess is that it escaped from China Lake.

1993 custom car designed to defeat police speed radars. Designed by Jim Router (formerly of Lotus and Mclaren). Not in any way mental.

By Nick Stroud, Editor of The Aviation Historian

The interview of Peter Stevens by Joe Coles can be found here

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit


Elsa Andersson: Sweden’s flying farm-girl


“Our times may not understand the work you’ve now completed”

This line was spoken at the funeral of Elsa Andersson, who died at the age of twenty five. These words share something of the enigmatic quality that Elsa had, both in life and in death.  Her gravestone read ‘First and only female aviator in Scandinavia’.

A slender boy-girl Icarus, a Puck, an adventuress; a fatalist, a yearning, a sign of modernity…one can easily get lost in the mythology.  To find the real girl I had to peel away all these veils, added by writers, artists and gender theorists. Here I will add my own sketch of her- as a young woman fascinated by technology, an adrenalin junkie and a true artist, proud and dedicated to her craft.

On a cold January day in 1922, 4000 people gathered to watch an aerial show. This was a popular family entertainment, where all ages and social classes mixed. Picnic baskets were packed and Sunday best put on; it was an event to see and be seen at. It was a spectacular show, demonstrating the success of man in conquering the sky.

A yellow Albatros sails up to 2000 feet, a small figure climbs out onto the lower port wing and waves to the crowds below.

This is the highlight of the show, the famous girl who jumps.

Here she goes head first.

I know something about the capturing horizon of Skane, South Sweden. Like Elsa, I too grew up in this topsy-turvy medley of yellow fields, hills and a sky constantly changing like the sea. There’s a struggle between ground and heaven here. I know something about the longing it can instil in an impressionable child.

Growing up on a farm as the eldest child, Elsa became motherless at the age of six. She grew very close to her dad and his work with the land. It is a time where new technology is revolutionising the farming industry. From an early age Elsa studies the new equipment and techniques that her progressive father invests in.  He takes her shooting with the boys and she develops a taste for physical activity, innovation and adventures, preferably all together.

She learns how to drive, and must have cut the image of a pioneering flapper girl in her car, sailing through the Swedish landscape as a teenage girl…

Her brother is smitten by the America bug and leaves for an adventure overseas.  Elsa too dreams of America, but when she is 16 her life changes course.  She is taken to an aerial exhibition created by Enoch Thulin.


Thulin was an early pioneer of flying in Sweden. He owned the Thulin Aeroplane Factory which was not too far from Elsa’s childhood home. This was a visit that seemed to distil Elsa’s passions.  Like a 1970s touring groupie, she chased Swedish air shows around the country, hungry for the thrill that aviation gave her.

It seems almost morbid that families would gather to watch such dangerous shows. The flying machines were rickety wooden structures, held together by little more than piano wires, sailing cloth, spit and hope.

Despite and (partly because) of the dangers involved, Elsa was determined to fly and her father supported her ambition.

At the age of 24, when most other girls were safely married off and busy breeding, Elsa got accepted into Thulin´s flying school.  It was an expensive venture, until then only accessible to well-to-do and middle-class men. The fee, roughly equivalent to £200 (and a further £200 deposit for possible repairs of equipment) was paid by her father.

She did not let anyone down.  Elsa was an embodiment of her own motto that ‘courage and determination are the best qualities in a human being’. She passed theoretical and technical tests with distinction and also found a social scene where she felt at home amongst the other (all male) aviators.

Elsa was to be Thulin´s last student when he died in a flying accident only a few months after enrolling her. Elsa was given her aviator diploma (now Flying Certificate).

An article from this time, describes how a group of young aviators from Thulin’s School take a journalist with them on a flight excursion up to Gothenburg.  They set off on a warm and clear summer’s day and navigate by tracking the railway line. After a while, encounter strong turbulence and the reporter fights a violent nausea and feels how his ears block. Lifting his gaze he describes the sight of Elsa seemingly in her own world engrossed in a book- “Such a curious woman; silent, serene and completely lacking of nerves!” – An interesting observation in a time where nerves and women were more or less synonymous.

Whether Elsa’s next decision is based on a career strategy or a craving for adventure we will never know. What were the prospects for a female pilot in 1921… in Sweden?  It seemed like there were none. So what’s a girl with an flying certificate to do? Adventure over, point proven; back to conformity? Not Elsa.

She decides to become a parachutist.

The only parachute expert in Sweden, Raoul Thornblad, is of the popular opinion that jumping is a man’s territory and he refuses to take on a female student. Therefore Elsa packs her bags and sets off to the wild excitement of  Weimar Berlin to train under Otto Heinecke, parachuting instructor. Parachuting from aeroplanes was in its infancy, and fatal jumps were far from rare.Image

The course only lasted a few weeks. In September 1921 Elsa had her parachuting certificate, despite not having actually done a real jump from an aeroplane. However, in typically dauntless act, she had already enrolled her virgin jump. The jump was to be mere days later during an aerial exhibition in South of Sweden. Elsa was far and away the most novel and titillating act on the bill.

It’s a glorious autumn day and 2000 spectators watch Elsa throw herself out head first (as one should at the height of 2000 feet). It’s a perfect jump and she lands gently amongst the lake grass, a bit wet, but one can assume pretty jubilant.

Perhaps still elated from her first success she returned the following Sunday to do it again.  Before her jump, she meets a fellow Swedish aviator, senior in both years and experience along with a German ex-fighter pilot. The men make fun of her choice of parachute, referring to it as a ‘Heinecke sack’.

“ You’d never get me in one of those… not for a million kronor!” exclaims the German.

The Swedish man said he would only use one of those in the face of imminent danger.

“It’s a piece of cake”  Elsa cuts back with a smile.

However just before jumping she gives instruction to return her bag to her father “Should I come down quicker than I ought to”

She does get to carry her own bag home, albeit with a twisted ankle that forces her into a short period of rest.

By now Elsa was living like a traveling circus artist. Far from sailing smoothly on her novelty status as Sweden’s only female aviator, not to mention show parachutist, she relentlessly pushed herself and her shows forward. Her performances become increasingly dare-devil. One can understand why many people ascribe her with a taste for self-destruction.

Many have questioned her motives, was it an eagerness to appease a sensation-hungry audience? Or was it, as many continue to speculate today, that she nursed a growing taste for danger, a heightened sense of life when faced with the very real possibility of sudden death?

Was she making a political act for gender equality?

Maybe the girl just liked to feel the wind in her hair…

She got signed up as a parachute performer with a new aerial company in Orebro, Sweden. Amongst fellow aviators she is known and appreciated for her sprightly and courageous nature and the passion that she invested in her art.

Cold Sunday in January 1922, 2000 feet in the air.

4000 people below, her biggest crowd yet. The jump she has planned is a new style, that she has never done before.  She has planned her boldest and most showy jump yet. She’s going to jump standing from the wing, rather than from the cockpit.

She is upbeat, excited and focused. Left hand holding onto a rail on the lower port wing. Wave to the crowd. Jump, head first.

A few somersaults, a black speck in the air. A figure that is meant to change shape into that of a jellyfish as the parachute folds out…

but doesn’t.

Those with binoculars have witnessed the struggle she had with a cord, that was stuck under her arm. Elsa is a heartbeat over the tree tops when the parachute finally begins to unfold.

And she crashes. But she will forever keep falling and flying in the imagination of the masses. With all the ballads, stories and films she continuously inspires, her story is more that of a momentarily arrested movement than a work completed.

By Cecilia Lundqvist artist and mask maker (currently learning the aerial hoop)

If you enjoyed this, you may get a thrill from this love letter to Swedish aeroplanes or this Viggen tribute.

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

What-if: The Griffon-engined Hawker Hurricane Mk XIV

Following Vickers decision to rationalise its aviation interests and close the Supermarine design office in 1936, the RAF’s high performance fighter needs were served purely by the Hawker Hurricane. The Mk XIV was developed as a matter of urgency following the cancellation of the Typhoon programme in 1942 due to insuperable aerodynamic problems and the simultaneous failure of the Napier Sabre to mature into a viable powerplant.

Hawker had no choice but to look to the proven Hurricane airframe and the Rolls-Royce Griffon. The Centaurus was considered but marriage of the radial engine to the slender Hurricane fuselage was rejected as too complicated. Along with the engine change, aerodynamic and practical improvements were made to the airframe. Cutting down the rear fuselage proved relatively simple due to its steel tube and fabric construction, stability was retained by use of a large fin fillet. The tailwheel was arranged to retract into the ventral fin and the large radio mast was replaced with a simple whip aerial, further reducing drag.

Armament was unchanged from the Merlin Hurricane though the new aircraft benefited from a cleaner gun barrel fairing for its four 20 mm Hispanos.

If you enjoyed this check out the Super Lightning

Hush-kit is reminding the world of the beauty of flight.

follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit 

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The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird- Impossible to describe in conventional terms.

Peter Stevens designed the beautiful curves of the Mclaren F1, which has been described as the finest car in history. The F1 was the fastest production car for an incredible twelve years (1993-2005) and clocked an insane 231 mph in 1993 (seventy years earlier, the Nieuport-Delage aircraft had surpassed the 230 mph barrier in the air). As visiting professor of car design for the Royal College of Art and a lover of aviation, Hush-kit decided to grill Stevens on planes, beauty… and flying-cars!

From where does your love of aviation stem?

Principally from my Godfather who was a Wing Commander in a Lancaster squadron, I built him an Airfix model of one when I was about 12 years old, and as a scientist he then built a scale wind tunnel at Birkbeck College so that he could demonstrate the principals of flight to me. He lived just at the back of Duxford air field and we would often sneak in there.

What was your most notable flying experience?

When I first discovered what ‘wake turbulence’ meant! Not long after qualifying for my PPL I was taking off from Leavesden air strip near Watford and was instructed by the tower to depart right after an HS 125, at about 250 feet the little Grumman Tiger that I was flying, just about fell out of the sky. I will be forever grateful to my instructor Keith who had drilled in to me ‘lower the nose, level the wings and then regain control’, it worked, hence these replies to your questions. Or maybe the idiot who flew in on finals at Elstree beneath me and never even saw me. He was excellently roasted by the tower after I had gone round again!

What is your favourite aircraft and why?

No question, the SR-71 Blackbird! When you consider that the project was underway back in 1955 and that part of the brief was to make an aircraft that would be almost impossible to describe in conventional terms at that time, in order to protect the secret nature of the project, it put all forward thinking into perspective. For any designer this is a crucial thing, the ability to think beyond contemporary norms is very difficult but it is what you have to do if you want to make progress.

Witness the fitness! Without doubt the most beautiful aircraft ever built, the Supermarine Spitfire.

What do you consider the most beautiful aircraft (if different from above)?

It sounds so easy to say the Spitfire but for me it’s true. Most summer weekends a couple of Spitfires fly low over our house, either on their way to or from air displays. They come from a strip just a bit North of where we live in Suffolk. And the reason they still look (and sound!) so beautiful is part of a personal theory that I have. The Hurricane is a fabulous aircraft but I suspect that the draughtsmen who would have drawn the full-size lines of the ‘plane would have been local to Hatfield and would most probably have had amongst their drawing kit ‘railway curves’. These are very large radius curves used during the laying out of railway tracks. If you then connect these very big radius lines, often almost straight lines, with regular corner radii you get a Hurricane. The Spitfire, on the other hand was drawn up in Southampton where the draughtsmen would have come from the boat building industry, and they would have amongst their drawing kit ‘ships curves’, these are transitional curves that slowly tighten or flatten over their lengths. Hence the more sensuous lines of the Spitfire. Despite the arrival of CAD I still use ships curves for the most important lines on a car. These curves are sometimes call ‘French curves’ and are some of my most valued studio possessions.

The architect Norman Foster has a model of the Northrop YB-49 flying wing in his studio, do you have a model aircraft in yours? 

Two little models, a Gee Bee (such outrageous proportions), a DC-3 (first plane I flew in with my Godfather), and a BIG model of a Bleriot Monoplane (those first days of flight were just so romantic).

The bananas Gee Bee racing plane

What effect has aviation had on car design, if any? For instance has the faceted, angular stealth shape of modern aircraft influenced any designs?

In aircraft term all cars can be described as being reliant on ‘low speed aerodynamics’ but the actual shapes are often taken from very high speed aircraft. This could be considered dishonest but designers are so often looking for the ‘next new thing’. When designing a fast road-car the whole aero thing is so different from that to be considered when designing a race car. On a road car you do not want lift but you also do not want much downforce at all, otherwise the springs will need to be so stiff to avoid scraping the ground at high speeds that the thing will ride like a truck at low speeds. I do think that designers are looking at things like the F-117 stealth fighter for inspiration, the Lamborghini Aventador is a good example of this trend.

Lamborghini meets the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Painting by Upshaw.

What was the most beautiful era for aircraft design?

It’s easy to get carried away with the romantic notions of early aircraft and see Golden Eras in the past, or to use the daft old adage used in race car design that ‘if it works well and wins it’s automatically beautiful’, but that is just not true. There are aircraft from all eras that are beautiful and many that are not.

Do you have any thoughts about the crossover (if any) between the purely aesthetic design fields and that of applied design (like in aviation).

I suppose that in the past designer were more inclined to be just surface decorators, this was particularly true in the Victorian age. But as popular ideas of design focused on simpler forms the designer took charge of both the form and the surface decoration. Whether this time line followed or preceded that of painters and sculptors, I am not sure (subject by a PhD I think). What I have observed is that some pure engineers have a very real sensitivity towards the difference between a ‘good line’ and a ‘poor line’, Both Patrick Head and John Barnard, ex Formula One designers, were very aware of the importance of a ‘good line’ to them. This comes back to the Spitfire and Hurricane debate.

Like the Spitfire, the Bloodhound yacht was born in 1936; Did the boatyard influence the shape of the famous British fighter?

A related point – cars and aircraft that are designed apparently for purely aerodynamic concerns are often very beautiful, indeed often the most beautiful examples of their kind. Why should this be?

I think that a sensitivity for what airflow wants to do is an unusual trait, these days CFD (Computational fluid dynamics) can produce technically correct solutions that lack any degree of harmony in the resultant forms. You can push the airflow around but you cannot force it to do what it does not want to do, I see the air as being lazy and wanting to take the least stressful path and it is the same for your hand when passing over a form. Natural transitions as seen in nature almost always have something to tell us about the best aerodynamic shapes. A good example in car design is the Jaguar XJ 13 of 1966/67; Designer Malcolm Sayer was an aerodynamicist at Jaguar but also a superb designer and the car exudes style.

What will be the next technology to move from aviation to motoring or vice versa, for example have F1 drivers used helmet mounted displays or have any advanced materials recently passed into cars from the aerospace world?

I think that more specialised carbon composites, particularly penetration resistant ones could find their way into race cars. The head-up display thing (the HUD) or the much more complex Apache helmet mounted system is now not needed in F1 cars because (unfortunately) there is an army of guys monitoring all the systems in the car and making strategy calls from the back of the pit garage, or even in some cases monitoring stuff back at the factory.

Nice chassis! Auto-genius Peter Stevens in his studio.

What will aeroplanes look like in 100 or even 1000 years time?

In 100 years I suspect that military aircraft will be pilotless but I think that private flying will remain popular but the machines will be so much more efficient and ‘drama’ proof. The huge amount of progress made in automated systems for cars, like stability control etc will find their way into aircraft in the near future. In a 1000 years we will without doubt travel virtually or maybe in person, very rarely, using our rare and expensive carbon/energy credits that we will have to earn by our ultra low energy personal lifestyles. How grim is that!

A soviet vision of the future from 1966

Will flying cars ever become popular?

As popular as amphibious cars. Who would want a crap car that is also a very poor aircraft? Just like who wants a miserable car that is also a thoroughly poor boat?

Hush-kit is reminding the world of the beauty of flight.

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Crap cars that are also very poor aircraft

The BAC TSR.2: Bombing the myth

ImageGive a British aviation enthusiast more than two pints and he will invariably tell you the story of TSR.2. This tale of an axed nuclear bomber will be told to you in a far more tender tone than he used to talk about his family. This bar room lecture will climax in an angry rant at the crass, penny-pinching government that killed Britain’s flying dreams. 

The story goes: Britain produces a world-beating aircraft, technologically superior to anything else- a fast, long ranged, survivable strike aircraft. A foolishly short-sighted Labour government cancel it. The British aircraft industry was already in terminal decline from Duncan Sandys’ mad announcement of the end of manned aircraft in 1957. The killing of TSR.2 was the final act of vandalism, leaving the industry that had given the world the Spitfire, the Hurricane and Hunter to wither and die.

This idea was fed to me from the rather good Take-Off magazines I read as a child. The story is a compelling one, it reaches into the recesses of the British psyche. It plays to the heart of a faded colonial superpower and affectionately pats the chip that sits on many British (particularly English) men’s shoulder.

‘You could have been the best, if only…’ is a powerful sentiment, and always reassuring, as it can’t be disproved. The only problem with the TSR.2 story is the foundations it rests upon are very shaky. Let’s imagine a world where TSR.2 was not cancelled in 1965….

 A World where TSR-2 was not cancelled

Several events conspired to save the TSR.2 from cancellation. The replacement of the MoD chief scientific advisor Solly Zuckerman (inventor of both the helmet and ‘folly’ of the same name’) certainly helped. Zuckerman, a fierce opponent of TSR.2, quit in 1964 amid allegations that his personal beliefs regarding nuclear weapons were affecting his professional decisions. With the appointment of a new, pro-TSR.2 advisor, things were looking brighter for the ‘white bomber’, which took to the air on 27 September 1964 confounding the critics with its superb performance.

Meanwhile, backroom dealings between the Royal Navy and the RAF were taking place. This unusually cordial discourse took place amid fears that inter-service squabbling could see the end of funding to both air carriers and manned land-based bombers. Though by this time RAF fears that the subsonic Buccaneer would be forced on them in place of TSR.2 were dispelled, it was clear to both services that the effectiveness of future nuclear-armed submarines threatened traditional ideas of how big air forces and navies needed to be.

Click here for the story of the Hawker P.1154, Britain’s cancelled superfighter

The Ferranti company was found to be grossly overcharging for  Bloodhound missiles (surface-to-air missiles designed to defend V-bomber and Thor missile bases) and this scandal led to big questions being asked about the survivability of V-bombers in a full-scale war and lead to further support of the TSR.2. Meanwhile Prime Minister Wilson’s commitment to ‘ the White Heat’ of technology, saw R&D investment increase (though initially only for civil aircraft projects). As money poured into Concorde, the coffers were also opened for TSR.2.

However, the development of TSR.2 was proving to be a nightmare.  The highly advanced avionics system caused huge delays and saw the price of the project sky-rocket. To survive against the world’s biggest integrated air defence network, the bomber would use a combination of speed, electronic counter-measures and flight profiles below enemy radar. To safely fly at speeds approaching Mach 1 at 200 ft,  in the murk of Northern European weather or at night would require a new technology.

UK electronics giant Ferranti was charged with developing the world’s first terrain following radar (TFR) for TSR.2, which it had been working on since 1958. It initially made excellent progress, flying successful trials in its test Dakota and Canberra (WT327). The radar was first fitted to a TSR.2 in late 1965. Initial tests concentrated on testing the radar at low level (200 ft) at speeds approaching the speed of sound, it been flown this low before, but not at these speeds.

The severe vibration proved too much for the pioneering radar and Ferranti went to back the lab to start a virtual redesign. This meant that TSR.2 entered service without its most vital sensor- the radar. After soaking up millions of pounds in, the Ferranti TFR was eventually cancelled, and the UK turned to the US company Texas Instruments to provide the TFR.

It wasn’t just the avionics that were causing problems, BAC itself had issues. The British Aircraft Corporation, formed in 1960, was a forced merger of English Electric Aviation Ltd., Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft), the Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft. Though the company had one name, BAC was still a patchwork quilt of different, often incompatible cultures. The pressure of TSR.2 development made the already fragmented world of BAC even worse, with arguments over factory work-share and work practice leading to drawn-out industrial debates, and in early 1968, the infamous strike.

The USA strikes back

The RAF had ordered 300 TSR-2s, and the type entered service in 1969. Confident in the aircraft’s abilities, Britain was actively marketing the aircraft to several nations including Australia and Iran. This alarmed the US aerospace industry, fearful of a new contender in the fiercely competitive export market. The closest US aircraft was the F-111, which was not receiving much export interest, being seen as too expensive and complex (many air arms were also put off by its initially poor performance over Vietnam), others saw it as inflexible, as it could not perform the fighter mission. Due to its advanced nature, export limitations where also in place. McDonnell Douglas responded with a ground attack optimised F-4 Phantom II in the early 1970s. Primarily aimed at the European market, this impressive aircraft was fitted with TFR, FLIR and a laser target designator. A fuselage ‘plug’ and uprated engines gave the new Phantom impressive range/payload performance. The aircraft was dubbed ‘Strike Phantom’. The US mounted a covert anti-TSR.2 campaign, sowing doubt on the type’s maturity and highlighting the growing cost. Strike Phantom were sold to Italy, West Germany and Iran (which used them to great effect in the Iran-Iraq War). Meanwhile the TSR.2 was struggling to achieve its first export sale. Compared to the Strike Phantom, TSR.2 was big, very expensive, hard to maintain and lacking a laser-guided bombing capability.

The big tree that took all the sunlight

With TSR.2 going ahead the Anglo-French AFVG (Anglo-French Variable Geometry) aircraft, a swing-wing carrier compatible fighter (for interceptor, tactical strike and reconnaissance roles), was discontinued. In turn the UKVG was also not proposed and so did not lead to MRCA, which would have grown into Tornado. With the future of  the ground attack mission safely in TSR.2’s hands, the Anglo-French Jaguar went back towards its Taon roots, becoming a small (marginally supersonic) trainer with next to no offensive capability. The Jaguar’s success as a trainer meant the Hawk was never built. Without the collaborative base of Panavia, attempts by various European companies to start work on a new fighter in the 1980s failed to gain momentum, and the Typhoon never was.

Though in many ways a capable aircraft, TSR.2 was ultimately the aircraft that killed both Britain and Europe’s warplane industry and left it dependent on the United States.


TSR.2 Timeline

First flight 27th September 1964.

In 1968 TSR.2 was named ‘Tornado’

The TSR.2 entered service on April 1st 1969 in interim TSR.Mk 1 standard.

Upgraded to definitive Tornado TSR.Mk 2 standard with fully functioning Texas Instruments TFR in 1978.

Two TSR.2s crashed on the infamous failed ‘White Buck’ mission against Argentina in 1982.

TSR.2s were suggested for US attacks on Libya 1986, but declined for political reasons. Upgraded in 1986 to Tornado TSR.Mk.3, TSR.Mk.3A (recce) and TSR Mk.3B (anti-shipping with Sea Eagles) standard. UK buys 165 F-15F Eagle (enhanced two-seat F-15C fitted with Sky Flash and radar upgrade) in 1986 to replace Lightning and complement F-4 fleet.

During Desert Storm the large low-flying TSR.2 (with its significant IR signature) proved vulnerable to SAMs, 8 lost (of 30 sent) to enemy, 4 lost in accidents.

Fatigue problems and increased attrition rate causes a search for a replacement.The US offered F-15E and second-hand F-111s, France offered Mirage 2000D/N derivative with UK systems, Sweden offered upgraded AJ 37 Viggens. After prolonged procurement assessment the F-15G was chosen in 1994 (124 ordered). The F-15G features UK ECM equipment, weapons and Martin-Baker ejection seats.  The F-15G entered service in 1998, Tornado TSR.2 was withdrawn from attack role in 2000 (after Balkans deployment). 12 recce versions upgraded to TSR.2.Mk 4As standard and remained in service until 2004, used in Afghanistan.

2012 RAF fast jet fleet: 110 F-15Fs, 100 F-15G(UK).

If you enjoyed this, check out our exclusive article on Britain’s P.1154 STOVL fighter: https://hushkit.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/the-hawker-p-1154-britains-supersonic-jumpjet/ and remember to donate if you’d like to.



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Penetrate the last redoubts of nature, make space retreat, make death retreat!


JG Ballard on the modern experience of flight:

Before take-off the cabin crew perform a strange folkloric rite that involves synchronised arm movements and warnings of fire and our possible immersion in water, all presumably part of an appeasement ritual whose origins lie back in the pre-history of the propeller age.

The success of human flight presents a trajectory of unfathomable bathos: beginning impossible, aviation moves quite swiftly through the exhilaratingly dangerous before settling inexorably into the banal. That my life has been punctuated by family Journeys between England and New Zealand has ensured that air travel for me conjures solely endless and excruciating cramping of limbs, parching of skin and eventual jetlag. It was only when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano wafted out its great clouds of ash in 2010 and grounded Europe’s aeroplanes that I experienced a glimmering of the poetic possibilities of aviation.

The combination of the boring, the sacred and the ritualistically troubling that Ballard ascribes to the modern flight reminds me of my childhood relationship with poetry. Although its joys and grandeur were glimpsable through the classroom’s assorted mires, it was an as distant and exam-related topic for me as any other. A literature degree later I am employed once a week to help ignite a passion for literature in an eight year old and a twelve year old boy. They attend one of London’s most creative and expensive primary schools and whilst both are astute, artistic and enjoy school, their mother had noticed that both tend to see literature as more of a daft chore than the inspirational seat of all human passion and achievement that she herself perceives. Poetic attempts to render flight’s thrills are often similarly laboured, coming off romanticised and unmagical (Google aviation and poetry for a look). These were my favourite lines:

…penetrate the last

redoubts of nature, make space

retreat, make death retreat.

  • Romain Rolland, 1912


I like how this most deathly and spatial of pastimes is modelled as postponing both space and death. Rather than approaching the exhilaration of people in flight, it extends the unnaturalness of the activity into a distilled moment of godlike atemporality. Language’s inadequacy to emulate precisely the thrills of humankind taking to the skies is superseded by its excellence at spatial and temporal distortions.

To my small protégés I attempt to present poetry as just this kind of nebulous layering of estrangements. Perhaps the medium lends itself so tenuously to early aviation (even in Robert Wohl’s chapter on ‘Poets of Space’ most literary reference is to prose) just because of this curious distortionary similarity. Both are, to quote Ballard again, exquisitely tailored relations of ‘line and function’. My students’ professed mounting dread and pre-emptive boredom is something I try to harness rather than deny.

The functions of the poetic line is to create something akin to that moment in 2010 where emptied skies created in me the excitement of aviation. If their dreaded poem can be seen as this kind of vessel to be guided into some kind of revelation of meaning, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the underwhelming experience of modern air travel can yet be shown to contain some of the dreadful awe of the first human flights.

By Emily McCarthy

Writer, tutor and research student of the Wellcome Trust’s utopias, built and unbuilt, at the London Consortium.

Confessions of a pteromerhanophobic

I maintain a fear of flying is normal and anyone who claims to enjoy it is lying. Virgin’s choc-ices aren’t that great. Aerodynamics isn’t that fascinating. I mean, please: sitting up in a truly weighty metal tube thousands of feet up in the sky being driven by someone you’ve never met? Jesus. The irony is, from the age of 16 to 21, I lived in Chard, a small town in Somerset which happens to be the birthplace of powered flight after inventor, John Stringfellow, flew a model plane in a disused lace mill in 1848. Whoopydoo, Icarus, because having lived there, I can safely say that Chard is crap and ugly and nothing good came of it. Not even planes. I haven’t always been afraid of flying. As a child, sure. I would hysterically sniff Chanel no 5 from a hankie for entire flights. But as a teenager, I was fine. So fine in fact that in my early twenties, when I lived in Italy, I virtually commuted from London to Turin on a monthly basis. Then, 9/11 happened (see above), I went to Morocco, and, like a nostalgic dormant STD, my fear re-found me My symptoms are similar to those experienced during a panic attack. Heavy heart thumping, fast, hard, tight breathing, a dry mouth and a general sense of impending doom during which I whine like a small dog. Suffice to say; I know my fears are illogical. It’s not the claustrophobia, the vertigo (two very real fears which make sense), which scares me. It’s not even the lack of control – I’m a trusting person. It’s the FEAR that I fear. A mid-air explosion? What can you do? One engine failing when three will more than efficiently get us to B and then being told this? Fuck Me. My fear pans out fivefold. Firstly, for around 48 hours before departure. To wit: I recently fainted in Clarins and sicked up some French toast out of pure terror. Then, en plane, as we journey from the slow runway to the fast runway. Then, as we begin our super fast runway bit (the WORST), followed by takeoff and finally throughout turbulence, a vile, vile thing, which usually makes me cry. Naturally I turned to Dr Alan Carr, a man who really gave it his all in helping me overcome my fear, and who rather romantically calls turbulence ‘the potholes of the skies.’ (I try to remind myself but more often forget). Alan wrote a very good book – much better than the smoking one – about flying. He aims to make you not only NOT fear flying, but actually enjoy it. A little optimistic, Alan, but still, there are some great facts (and I paraphrase): ‘there are half a million planes in the sky at any one time and none of them have crashed to earth’, and, some woefully ineffective ones: ‘Lockerbie was a one-off’. We sell fantastic high quality aviation-themed gifts here
Got you there, Alan! Because it wasn’t, was it? We all saw The Towers! We all remember Richard and his shoes! We’ve all seen United 93 – and it must be a trend if they made it into a film, right? Why else do we have to decanter our toothpaste in Departures? Because somewhere, out there, loads of people want to blow up planes. And for any number of causes! The EDL (swathes of Europe), The Fundamentalists (everywhere else) and narcissists (all of us). Everyone. So, you ask, why fly? The problem is I have to fly a bit for work. Generally to cool stuff – interviews, press trips – but still, I have to go. And trains are apparently too Medieval for journalists. Quite frankly, I find this ludicrous but whatever. I remember going on a press trip to a six star hotel in Croatia last October. The kind PR put us up in the business suite of Radisson Blue (no ‘e’) with wide views of Stansted airport. Wicked, I thought, and slept for about 23 minutes. And yet, it’s never stopped me. I’ve tried to remedy it: pre-flight acupuncture (no); ear beads inserted to treat anxiety (nope) and hypnotherapy (which helped for, like, a minute). How do I cope? Valium, primarily. I’m now on repeat prescription, which is great. 1 x glass on wine + 1 x 5mg pill = a blissful disinterest in either living or dying. During the flight, equally, I sustain myself on cockpit communication. El Capitaine can discuss anything: crap, mountains, wee, marital problems, so long as he sounds calm. I also stare at the air stewardesses, searching for signs of content. They smile, I smile. They laugh, I laugh. If they look worried I deem that a pretty serious breach of trust. Sometimes they see me looking at them, unblinking, over the blue lights flickering from the sleeping screens at 3am. It’s pretty awkward but I don’t care. That said, I hate the young ones. They lack life experience. If shit literally went down they would suck. I plan to take a Fear of Flying course. Chances are it won’t work. But anyway, I’m off to Berlin next week. By plane. (A disclaimer: I’m actually brilliant at flying when I’m by myself. If there’s no one to listen to my fears, those fears, unobserved, cease to exist. But otherwise I’m truly shit at it.) By Morwenna Ferrier Features Editor at Grazia If you enjoyed this, have  a little peek at Amber Jane Butchart’s fantastic piece on Amelia Earhart and how she still navigates the catwalk