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.



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