Sunday, December 30, 2007


It does seem rather worrying to have anything approaching nostalgic yearnings about a machine designed to blow things up, but I suspect I am not alone.

My degree is in Aeronautical Engineering, and part of my training in the mid 60s was as an Apprentice with a newly created company called British Aircraft Corporation. As a still wet-behind-the-ears Graduate, I returned to the company in Weybridge after University, to work as what is probably best described as a trainee dogsbody (a puppybody perhaps?) on odds and ends in the Drawing Office. The place was then in the throes of designing two of the most exciting aeroplanes ever built in this country - Concorde, and a very advanced tactical bomber called TSR2.

Now, to a 20 odd year old, these things were serious Big Boy’s Toys. One was going to blast the Americans into the dark ages by blasting people around the world at such a speed that they got to their destination before they had taken off. The other was a huge leap into the military aviation future, allowing Great Britain to attack anyone in the world with relative impunity, using an aeroplane which could fly higher, lower, faster and further than anything an enemy could throw at it. And we were there making it all happen.

You can do all the moralising you like about such a project, but it was immensely exciting.

With a pencil (and quite often a rubber) in your hand, you didn’t think much about the politics behind these things, you just got on and did it. But, of course the politics did get in the way, and, with Harold Wilson’s accession to power, rather ironically calling on the country to follow him into the “White Heat of Technology”, on April 5th 1965, Denis Healey stood up in Parliament, and immediately cancelled it. At the time, I, along with most of the employees of BAC could cheerfully have fed Mr Healey head-first into one of the large engine intakes, with the reheat power fully on. Some 15-20,000 people had been working on the project around the country, and it was starting to prove that it actually did what it was supposed to do.

Looking back, 40 years on, in a rather more balanced frame of mind, the whole project now looks far more “on the one hand, on the other hand”, and having pondered a bit about it all over the last week, it wasn't as simple as an Aircraft Project. Britain’s Position in the World played against the hugely increasing cost of developing such a massive project fought against each other. The Military and some of the Body Politic in this country were at daggers drawn over it, all of which set the scene for one of the most important technological/political confrontations in many decades. And there was the aeroplane itself.

Britain’s Position in the World

Following the Second World War, Britain was broke. It had mortgaged itself to the USA, via the Marshall Lend-Lease Plan, and was struggling for survival. But, in spite of that, when the aircraft was conceived in 1955, Britain still ran half of Africa, was the dominating force in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and was “peace overlord” of the British bit of Africa, the Indian Ocean and great chunks of South and South East Asia. We tend to forget this these days.
The decline of British imperialism took place literally alongside the development of this aeroplane, and in some ways, TSR2 came to represent, in the eyes of part of the British Political spectrum, a symbol of times past an attempt to maintain a control over the world which was n ow only an illusion. You can still argue that military power is regarded as an index of World power and status, and in order to support this position, which Britain clearly had, there was a need for a strong and sophisticated capability in development and production of weaponry. We were then not in the Common Market, and there was another argument that the likes of Germany and France would look on the UK as a potentially stronger ally if its technology industries were seen to be thriving.

This period between 1955 and 1965 was one of remarkable change in the thinking about weapon systems in this country. There was an “infamous” White Paper produced by Duncan Sandys in 1957, which dramatically recorded a fundamental change in Govenment thinking. He announced that the UK now had stocks of Atomic Bombs, and that the hydrogen bomb development in this country was almost complete. He recognised the existence and potentially enormous consequences of the long range ballistic missile, and concluded that the days of the manned long range bomber were over. He decided that guided weapons and nuclear bombs were to become the means on which UK’s strategic defence would, in future, be based.
TSR2 survived this broadside only because it was seen as, or at least presented by the Military as, a Tactical rather than a Strategic weapon. But in spite of its continuation, you could hear a continuous sound of knives being sharpened in the political arena.

As can easily be imagined, the RAF were not too happy about this turn of events. Most people accepted that there was still a need for a flexible Tactical Support and Reconnaissance capability which could only be provided by a manned aircraft – hence the acronym. The “2” in the aircraft’s title was driven by its planned maximum speed – Mach 2. So, off the development went, and it was not until sometime later that some bright spark measured the bomb bay of the new aircraft, and then looked up the dimensions of the newest nuclear bombs which were being developed, and realised that the bombs could be fitted in the aircraft. At this point, the “S for Support” changed to “S for Strike” and the RAF was back in the manned nuclear bomber arena, by the back door.

The inexorable slide of the UK from a Great Power to a Medium Power continued, and it was possible to see the planned areas of operation throughout the World for such an advanced Weapons System operated by the UK decreasing year by year. With the aircraft almost symbolising the incongruity of Past Desires being corroded by Current and Future Strategic realities, it became a major battleground for Britain’s political defence arguments with the Tories and the Labour Party, who were also turning themselves inside out over Nuclear disarmament, clashing continuously over the years. The “East of Suez” discussions raged for more than a couple of decades.

But meanwhile the aircraft development continued, with its first flight in September 1964, although its complexity had meant that the development costs were increasing in an alarming way, and the timescales were stretching out beyond the original planned introduction dates. On the political front, around the same time, the nation voted the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson, into power, and in their first budget in April 1965, they cancelled it.

This did not mean that they believed we had no need for such a weapon, and the Government immediately, and quite possibly with a lot of help from the Americans, ordered a replacement system from the USA called the F111 – a swing wing aircraft aimed at a very similar design specification. It gives pleasure to some, and presumably not to others that this aircraft in turn ran into significant development problems, with resulting cost increases, and it, in turn, was cancelled.

The RAF, in the normal inter-service infighting way, had for many years fought long and hard not to accept a similar (lesser, in their eyes) UK Naval aeroplane called the Buccaneer to do the Tactical Strike Role, then had to eat humble pie, and take this aeroplane onto their books, where it served them well for many years. Ho Hum.

The Structure and Control of the Aircraft’s Development

In many ways, the specification drawn up for the aircraft was a major seed in its undoing. It was probably the most ambitious and difficult to achieve set of requirements ever produced. If ever there was a “Cost” accident waiting to happen, this was it.

And it was going to be produced by an industry which was still very fragmented, with little known ability to collaborate with each other. The way of military systems at this time was such that the costs and complexities were increasing in a dizzying way. Most of the systems for the Engines, the Electronics, the Control systems were “Pie in the Sky” when General Operation Requirement 339 the detailed specification given out by the Military to Industry was published, and the aim of the project was to get all these new systems developed under the TSR2 banner, so they came together for the first time in the new Aircraft. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is the recipe for a few problems, and so it was. Another Grenade with the Pin out.

The Government decided that they would force the Industry to merge by only giving the contract to a company who had done precisely that. Thus it was that English Electric and Vickers got together and formed British Aircraft Corporation, who were granted the contract in 1959. The Government, at that time, ran such projects in a very old fashioned way, with little scope given to BAC for decision making in many areas of the Project. The Ministry controlled major parts of the project like the Engine development and much of the Electronics and Avionics, with the result that some 70% of the Cost base was under the responsibility of the Ministry of Aviation. There is no doubt that this in itself led to major cost, timing and control issues – it took until March 1962 for the first Cost estimate to be published. Indeed, not only were they trying to build the most complex aircraft this country had ever produced, but the whole project was also being used as a form of testing “guinea pig” to set against the American “Weapons System” procedure, where the whole programme is totally under the control of a prime Contractor.

The simple facts are that the Government did not keep anything like a tight enough control of its own costs and did not specify anywhere clearly enough what they wanted from its major contractors, with the predictable result that project control ran away from them. The remarkable thing, given all this is that the aircraft actually flew within 4½ years of “Go-Ahead”.

In a bizarre way, the fluidity of the cost position came to help Denis Healey, when he came to cancel it in 1965. No-one actually knew what it was going to cost, so when he stood up in the Commons, and announced that the final bill would be £750 million (an enormous figure 40 years ago), no-one could argue against him. In the event, no-one ever found out how that number had been calculated, and the more cynical among us might suffer a passing thought that the “back of a fag packet” had been used to generate a huge number which would frighten everyone to death – Healey was a very shrewd and wily Political operator.

Looking back, starting with a hugely ambitious programme, an Industry ill-equipped at the beginning to move the technology changes along quickly enough, a Government revue and control programme which dragged its heels and made the myriad of decisions needed very difficult, it is surprising that they got a design which actually worked, and an aircraft which looked, at the time of its cancellation, that it would end up being able to do the job it had been designed for.

The Aircraft Itself

Well, here’s the rub. If we’d been talking about some boring old transport aircraft, no-one would even have cared, and I wouldn’t be writing this now. But, when you saw it for the first time, and here’s the first picture released of the original prototype in 1963, it simply took your breath away.


Remember, the project was started only 10 years after the Spitfires and Lancasters had been doing their bit in the Second World War, and to come face to face with something like this was a major shock. Readers of the Eagle, and Dan Dare would have felt at home, but the rest of us, me included, gasped in amazement.

It was however, the logical result of the Operational Requirement which the RAF had demanded. They wanted it to carry a decent sized bomb load whilst having the ability to do three things –

- Fly very high and very fast (Mach 2+) for a long distance
- Fly very low (200 feet), at transonic speeds, hugging the ground to avoid radar and guided missiles, and
- To take off from semi prepared runways in forward positions, in not more than a few Football pitch lengths

Trust me, each one of these requirements is quite challenging, particularly the low flying one, but put them all together, and for the designers, you immediately add Orders of Magnitude into the Degree of Difficulty figures. Flying fast, both high and low, demands a small, thin, swept back wing like a dart, to give a decent “gust response” and low drag characteristics – exactly the opposite of the requirements for taking off heavily laden in a short distance, where you need a wing more like a glider.

The clever souls who designed it came up with a really elegant solution. For take-off, they bled copious quantities of air from the engines and blew it out in a thin sheet across the aircraft wings and control surfaces, thereby hugely increasing the lift at low speed and getting it airborne much earlier.

They filled every mortal space in the airframe which wasn’t used for people, engines, systems or undercarriage with fuel, so it could fly prodigious distances. Wherever you looked in the fuselage was fuel.


They designed an undercarriage with huge baggy tyres which could absorb the undulations of the rough ground, and gave the supporting mechanism for the front wheel the capability to rise up enormously on take-off to lift the nose up into the optimum position for maximum lift.

And lastly, they gave it two huge Olympus engines of the sort which would also power Concorde. In the past, the only thing which had got Bombers off the ground was the curvature of the earth, but this beast was from a totally different planet. Lightly laden, it had more power than it weighed, so in theory, it could fly vertically upwards and accelerate into who knows where. Even early on in its testing, when it was accompanied by a Lightning Chase Plane, the RAF’s fastest fighter, the TSR2 Test Pilot, Roland Beamont, lit the blue touch paper and left the Lightning for dead. I bet you could have seen his smile at the end of that flight from Outer Space.


That is not to say the aircraft was without its technical problems when it first flew. The undercarriage, on landing, vibrated at just the resonant frequency of the pilot’s eyeballs, which made landing the thing very unpleasant. Bristol Siddeley had encountered considerable difficulties in developing the engines, and the original ones fitted to the first prototype were only certified by the manufacturers for 5 hours running at Maximum power. After that, you were on your own –not a terribly comforting feeling for the pilots as they shoved the throttles wide open on take-off.

The complexities of the undercarriage were such that, to start with, the retraction mechanism could not be relied upon. On test, one leg would work, and the other not, again not something to make the pilot sleep easily, so for the first few flights, they left it down.

But these things are to be expected, for that is what a flight test programme is there for. On the positive side, the flying characteristics were excellent, and the beast flew supersonically very early on. But politics is no respecter of engineering excellence, when it goes against its own agenda. In fact, it spurs them on to take urgent action to nip things in the bud, before it’s too late.

One the one side, the engineers at British Aircraft Corporation were pushing as hard as they could to get the second prototype in a position where it was ready to fly, which they did just before Budget Day 1965. The company requested permission from the new Labour Government to let it go, but this was refused. Come April 6, Healey cancelled it, and the Government set about ensuring that there was no way any further development on the project took place.

They went into Weybridge where the airframes were being assembled and insisted that all the manufacturing jigs (which they owned) were destroyed immediately. Within a couple of days, the Assembly Hall production line was decimated, with the whole line being attacked with Welding Cutters, destroying it irrecoverably. At Warton, near Preston, the full size wooden mock-up used to ensure all the components fitted together properly, was taken out and burned in front of all those employees who had spent the last few years of their working lives living and breathing the project. And the prototypes nearing completion on the Production Line were unceremoniously hauled off to Shoeburyness where they were used as Gunnery targets for the Army.

If you thought political ruthlessness only existed on the other side of the Iron Curtain, you could think again. Someone very high up in the Labour Government was going to ensure that there was no chance of the project ever being resuscitated.

The first two prototypes still survive, albeit in a completely non-flying condition – one at Duxford and the other at Cosford.

Almost 50 years on, it’s still a remarkably modern looking plane. Although it’s hard to keep the Rose coloured spectacles in your pocket, it’s difficult to think of one aircraft even today which can do what TSR2 was looking as if it could achieve when it was cancelled. Yes, it’s become a bit of a cult, but only because there was such enormous potential there. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know how much pressure the Americans put on Healey to cancel it, allowing their own equivalent aircraft a clear run at the market.

It’s an almost perfect example of your head taking you in one direction, and your heart taking you in completely the other. All I can say is I was proud to have played even a small walk-on part in it.

Such is life.



Saturday, December 29, 2007


Rummaging through a few things this Christmas, I came across a picture I thought I’d lost. A few years ago I had a visitor at work who was a Motor Racing fanatic, and we rabbited on for a while about a mutual hero – Jim Hall of Chaparral fame. He gave me a picture of Jim Hall taken in the early Sixties, and here it is. Most of the images you see of the great man were taken from his 1964-70 Can-Am era, but this one, which is signed by Mr Hall, is of his earlier racing life when he put his toe into Formula 1 in 1963 and raced a BRP Lotus 24 machine around Europe for a season or so.


I’ve written eulogistically about him before (see Beep-Beep The Man’s a Genius posted on 10th April 2007). In my humble view, Jim Hall was responsible for some of the greatest racing car designs ever created. He was a pivotal and a major player in a marvellous period, when the Motor Racing scene saw the creation of a formula where almost anything went. The rules were simple - you had to have four wheels, you had to have the body covering the wheels, you had to have some rudimentary (for the era) safety equipment on the car, and well, that was about it. Anything, literally anything went and you could almost do whatever you liked, and as a result of that never to be repeated design freedom, we saw some of the most awesome (absolutely the right word here), frightening, innovative and utterly fantastic racing cars the world has ever seen.

Even today, when you go to the mid summer Goodwood meeting, and these monsters blast past you, all the youngsters’ jaws drop. Last June, Hall brought the 2J “Sucker Car” over from America, and for most people this was the first time they had laid eyes on it. It was driven by Vic Elford (a very intelligent, very under-rated driver – not nicknamed Quick Vic for nothing!), who was one of only two men who raced the thing for real – the other was a young up and coming guy named Jackie Stewart. It was an immense pleasure to see it roaring its way up the hill. One young guy standing near me who clearly hadn’t seen it before, stared at it almost unbelievingly as it went past, and simply said “What the f*** was that?”


There’s never been a car which looks remotely like it, some wag once quipping that it looked as if it was still in the box it came in. But, by the Lord Harry, could it go. Hall (and General Motors, his secret backers) got the idea to enclose most of the bodywork onto the ground with moveable plastic screens and to use an auxiliary Snowmobile engine to suck the car onto the ground, like a massive Vacuum cleaner. So simple, so brilliant, so ahead of its time, and so good the only way the other teams could compete with it was to get it banned. They only built one in 1970, and with it now sitting in the Chaparral Museum in Texas, most people over here never imagined they would ever see the beast in the flesh. Many, many personal thanks therefore to those people who got it over here.

The Chaparral people apparently thought for quite a while that it wouldn’t run again properly because they had some major problems with the Snowmobile engine. But, talking to Vic Elford at Goodwood last June, he told me that the team had bizarrely found a replacement engine on E-Bay (still in its original packaging!) a few weeks before, and lo-and-behold, it now runs as originally planned. It’s quite amazing to watch it start up and suck itself a couple of inches down onto the ground – very spooky. A bit like the All Blacks’ Haka at the beginning of a Rugby match, the psychological effect of seeing this car squashing itself onto the ground to get ready for business, must have been quite demoralising to anyone else on the grid. You just knew “they” had got something you hadn’t, and if it held together, you and the rest of the grid were then racing for second place.

A truly remarkable piece of motor racing machinery, built by a remarkable man.

Pictures taken by yours truly at Goodwood 2007 of the Chaparral 2J in action




Thursday, December 27, 2007


You've possibly seen this before, but if you haven't, it's one of those clips that make YouTube worthwhile. Utterly stupid, quite mad, completely pointless and brilliant to watch.

If anyone says we're basically all the same the world over, can you remotely imagine anyone from Harrogate or Croydon doing anything like this?





One of the real pleasures of owning a Sky Box is to watch top class cricket all the year round. Recently, the rains have transformed my garden into a bit of a quagmire, and the damp, freezing weather has occasionally turned the usual pleasure of walking the dogs into a bit of a duty. Switching on to watch a game in the Southern hemisphere has been like flinging the central heating on and getting the sun to shine, on demand. The only frustrating bit of sand in the oyster, it has to be said, is that one of the teams playing was England.

Sri Lanka are a really good side, especially on their home ground, but then again, so are England supposed to be. Starting out rated second in the World, England were expected to give the Sri Lankans a good run for their money. The three match Test Series will go down in the history books as a 1-0 win for the home side. But the reality was, it was nowhere near as close as that. Apart from the first morning of the First Test, where England had Sri Lanka on their knees at 40 for 5, they were pretty comprehensively outplayed by the opposition for almost the rest of the series.

In all departments of the game, bowling, fielding, wicket keeping and batting, we deserved to go down 3-0, and only a series of timely interventions from the weather helped us keep the difference to one match.

You can trawl through the details but the simple facts are we do not have a truly world class batsman in the line-up. Cook was the best with a disastrous start in the First Test slowly being turned into a match saving hundred -the only one scored by anyone in the England side on the tour. Interestingly, only Tendulkar, Miandad, and a certain D Bradman, have scored more or as many Test Hundreds by the time they were 23 as Alistair Cook has. Just think how many good players are NOT on that very short list. He may not be the most attractive player to watch, but England really, really needs someone like him.

The rest of them dillied and dallied with Petersen being as dreadful as I can remember. Bell flattered to deceive, suffering from the new contagious English disease of not being able to turn a 50 into a 100 (once again, look at Cook’s record here – it’s in a completely different league). Bopara and Collingwood seemed to suffer a massive crisis of confidence, although Prior stepped up to the mark on occasions. Apart from Cook, the only English player whose batting you could say allowed him to hold his head up was Sidebottom, who played some terrifically gutsy and intelligent innings at No 7. The whole middle order seemed to be totally unsettled by Peterson’s continual failures, showing that building a batting side around one person, who then singularly fails to deliver the goods, can destroy a side’s confidence very quickly.

The fielding, in recent times a real England strong point, was simply average at best, and unacceptably poor for much of the time. Prior’s wicket keeping was shambolic and he let through far too many chances which should have been taken. It would be an interesting exercise to work out how many runs Sri Lankan batsmen went on to score, following a dropped catch by Prior. My guess is in the many hundreds – simply not good enough, and possibly match losing on occasions. If he’s the best we’ve got, we’ve got a real problem.

The bowlers toiled doggedly, with Hoggard in the First Test being outstanding. Quite how we managed to lose a match when we had them 40 for 5 before lunch on day 1 is quite beyond me, and them as well, I suspect. Anderson was very disappointing. Sidebottom bowled better than his figures show, and Broad had a baptism of fire. Harmison struggled to dominate, and where Malinga got some real bit on occasions, Harmison should have but didn’t. Panesar was far too expensive, but at least had three matches to see, at close quarters, just how Muralitharan does it all.

But none of all this takes away the pleasure of watching the Sri Lankans play. To my untutored mind, they play some of the most exciting cricket in the World today. Players like Sangakarra, Jayawardena, Jayasuriya, Vaas and Murali are all men who can turn matches on their own, as well as being an utter delight to watch. Just at the moment, England has none of these – at least I hope it’s only “just at the moment”.

On a completely different level, one small nugget of pleasure in the series was watching Bob Willis who did the summing-up role for Sky. Now Willis was a tremendous bowler in his time, but, as a TV Pundit, until recently he qualified as the honorary Scotsman in PG Wodehouse’s comment "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”

You never saw Willis smile. Someone in the Sky hierarchy however, has clearly noticed this and sent him on a Smiling Course recently, with devastating results. As he is introduced to the viewers now, he stares at you with this amazing face on, which one suspects is his early unfinished version of a genial smile. He looks as if he has unintentionally just sat down, quite hard, on the handle end of a cricket bat. Having got the smile out of the way, his face reverts to the grumpy, tetchy man we have grown to know and love. Come the end of his bit, the rictus smile is switched back on – talk about Jekyll and Hyde.

Somebody should tell him to wait until he’s finished the course.

If you don't believe me, the camera can't lie - pictures below.


...... AND AGAIN!

....... AND YET AGAIN!