River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Postwar British Aircraft

April 2011

Ron provides a fascinating account of post war british Aircraft

About two years ago I wrote a short piece for The Pump on the British aircraft industry - it was really a lament. Recently I have been reading a newly published book, "Empire of the Clouds" by James Hamilton-Patterson. He traces the history of many of the aircraft produced in Britain in the post war years and suggests some of the reasons for the decline of the industry. For me it was a very enjoyable nostalgic read and I thought some pump readers might like to have their memories re-awakened.

Immediately after the war our aircraft industry was in a good position, the German industry was non-existent, we had jet aircraft in service - the Gloster Meteor and deHavilland Vampire - no other nation had any. We had a head start in the development of the jet engine although, unfortunately, we did give the Americans the technology that Whittle and his company Power Jets had spent years developing.

The Russians had some very good aeronautical engineers with design ideas for high speed aircraft but their engineers, along with the Germans that they had conscripted, had failed to produce a satisfactory jet engine. It was claimed that, in 1945, someone in the Kremlin suggested that they should try to buy some Rolls Royce engines. Stalin is reported as saying that the suggestion was naive adding "What kind of fool would sell their secrets?" In the event we were that kind of fool. Those engines and their Russian copies powered the highly successful MIG 15s that proved to be such capable adversaries in the Korean war.

In the immediate post-war years the Meteor set a new air speed record, almost 50% faster than the previous record and deHavilland were pursuing research into high speed flight with the DH 108 Swallow (the flying wing) flying at near sonic speeds. Geoffery deHavilland Jr was killed flying this plane when its structure failed due the very violent buffeting it received when approaching sonic speed. The concept of 'the sound barrier' loomed large in the media and in the minds of the public - a number of authoritative engineers had claimed that it would not be possible to fly supersonically. Nevertheless in 1943 the Ministry of Aviation issued a specification for a plane capable of flying at 1000mph at 36,000ft. Miles Aircraft Co started on the design work and conducted much of the necessary research, they reached an advanced stage in the design for the plane, designated M52, and produced a mock up. At that point the government suddenly axed the project and ordered that the design data and test results be handed to the US. Some have argued that this provided valuable information that enabled the Americans to build the rocket propelled Bell X1, the first manned aircraft to go supersonic.

The post-war Labour government were in a difficult economic situation, they concluded that there would not be another war for at least ten years, they stopped most military aircraft production and cut back on funding research and development projects. As a result, by the time of the Korean war the Russians had the MIG 15 and the Americans had the F86 Sabre, both with engines derived from British designs, but the RAF found itself without a competitive interceptor for the first time in its history and we actually had to import some Sabres.

Nevertheless there was a lot of activity in the British industry. deHavilland were building the revolutionary 'Comet', a lovely looking jet propelled airliner capable of carrying 100 passengers at speeds nearly 200mph faster than its competitors at an altitude above 30,000ft clear of much of the weather. The Meteor and Vampire were selling well to overseas markets, Hawkers produced the beautiful 'Hunter', Vickers-Supermarine the 'Swift'. English Electric had returned to aircraft manufacture and produced the 'Canberra' as a 'Mosquito' replacement. Meanwhile the Americans had set a new airspeed record with a Super Sabre, this was reclaimed by a Hunter - in turn this was beaten by a Swift, only to be lost again to a Super Sabre (by 2mph).

For the 1952 SBAC show at Farnboro the British industry had a remarkable array of planes on show. The high performance aircraft included the Hunter, Swift and DH 110, all of them had demonstrated the ability to fly through the sound barrier. Gloster demonstrated their new Javelin, English Electric had their Canberra, the prototypes of the 'V' bombers were there, the Valiant, Victor and the amazing Vulcan, and deHavilland showed off their Comet. Vickers flew their turboprop powered 'Viscount', a medium sized civil aircraft setting new standards in performance and economy and Bristol demonstrated the large turboprop Britannia. They were all fundamentally good aeroplanes, if, perhaps, not all were quite fully developed at the time of the show, and they were nearly all very beautiful to look at. The nation was very proud.

Engineers were pushing forwards the frontiers of aviation whilst dealing with many difficulties. They had no computers to enable the sort of calculations that can be performed today, rather they were limited to the use of mathematical models based on classical mathematics, and their principal calculating aid was a slide rule. Their knowledge of stress distributions and concentrations in complex shapes was limited. Conditions in supersonic flow were not fully understood - supersonic wind tunnels were rare - a large supersonic tunnel requires an enormous amount of power. They did their best - their success was remarkable - but the final stage inevitably depended on test flying, test pilots were very brave men. The public and the media were excited by their achievements, men like Neville Duke, Peter Twiss, John Derry, Bill Waterman, John Cunningham were the superstars of the period (they were not rewarded like superstars, however), some died in their efforts to prove the viability of their aircraft's design.

On the occasion of that 1952 Farnboro show, the twin boom DH110, flown by John Derry, demonstrated a supersonic bang for the crowds. In the performance demonstration that followed it appeared to get into a situation where the highly disturbed flow over the wings at near sonic speed impinged on the tailplane setting up some violent structural vibrations causing the structure to fail. To the horror of the spectators the aircraft broke up as it was approaching the crowds and tragically one of the engines crashed into the crowded stand, killing and injuring a large number of people. Surprisingly, perhaps, the show went on and Neville Duke also demonstrated a supersonic boom with a Hunter. John Derry and his observer were both killed, it was a major tragedy and a major story and the news went round the world. It was a big blow to the prestige of the British aircraft industry. An even bigger set back soon followed; there was a series of crashes of the Comet. The first two occurred at take off, one was almost certainly due to pilot error, but these two were followed by three crashes that happened when the aircraft were flying at high altitude, all Comets were grounded. With no 'black boxes' it took a time to establish the cause of the crashes, locating and retrieving parts of the wreck of one plane from the sea finally gave the clue. The structure of the pressurised cabin had suffered a fatigue failure due to stress concentration around the square windows and the planes had simply broken apart. It was a catastrophe, the public were understandably horrified as they imagined the fate of the passengers. Without doubt it very seriously damaged the reputation of the British aviation industry. It was ironic because the Comet had undergone more thorough testing than any aircraft ever before. The problem with the 110 and the Comet was that they were both pushing the frontiers of knowledge, the nature of transonic flow and the manner in which stress concentrations can occur in stressed skins were not fully understood, although some have argued that the problems might have been foreseen.

It was an enormous set back and a godsend for the Americans, not only were they able to learn from deHavilland's experience but, in the three or more years whilst deH were investigating the failures and modifying the Comet, they were able to introduce their own jet liner, the Boeing 707, that had a greater seating capacity and easier maintenance. Britain had lost its lead.

Nevertheless we did continue to make some very good aeroplanes. The Viscount and the Canberra were excellent and they were both made and sold in fairly large numbers, similarly the Hunter and Vulcan were successful in their own way. The Comet 4 was a reliable safe aeroplane, but it had missed its time, deH went on to produce the Trident and the executive 125 and Vickers the VC10. The VC10 was specifically intended for operation on the 'colonial routes' where airports were often situated at altitude and runways rather short. I remember well its impressive acceleration and climb rate at take off - definitely my favourite aeroplane of that era. English Electric made the Lightning, a truly supersonic fighter with outstanding performance, if rather limited in range, that went into service with the RAF. Almost forgotten now is the Fairey Delta FD2. This aircraft was built in response to a ministry spec, it was another plane with a truly supersonic ability. Unlike the Lightning, which achieved its performance with massive engine thrust, the FD2 was an elegant and sleek design. In 1956 it set a new airspeed record of 1132mph, as far as I know that record still stands. Just like the Miles supersonic design, this project was cancelled.

So where did it all go wrong?

Hamilton-Patterson offers a number of explanations: He suggests that, whilst many British planes were very good they were not without faults, many of them minor but a source of dissatisfaction among pilots and operators. These faults were capable of correction but the manufacturers were reluctant to put in the effort/money/time. He claims that there was an epidemic of lethargy through the industry - industry chiefs enjoyed a relaxed lifestyle, typified by their extended lunches. I don't believe that to be true, although I can confirm that there were some extended lunches. On those few occasions when I was invited to lunch with the top brass, you went in to find a tray of aperitifs set out to help oneself, then there was a three course lunch followed by brandy and a smoke, it could last best part of two hours. In fairness I don't believe that all of them indulged in this way every day by any means and often decisions were made over lunch, they were not plagued by the number of committee meetings to make decisions that I encountered in the public sector, but I admit it did give a bad impression. I cannot say very much for the aircraft manufacturers, but, on the engine side there certainly was no lethargy, when we had difficult development problems we worked 24/7, literally. There were times when I would go home at 11.00pm, after observing an engine test, return again at around 3.30am to inspect the engine that the night shift had stripped down, then decide future action, and then go home for breakfast.

The problems for the industry were much deeper than supposed lethargy, however. When the war ended there were 22 separate companies producing aeroplanes and 5 major engine manufacturers. Most of these companies were founded by aviation pioneers and run by them and their families, grandees who had done well out of the war and were rather self important and unwilling to consider mergers. The government continued as they had during the war, issuing specifications and inviting tenders, several companies would submit proposals and receive funding. Aeroplanes had become far more complex and these companies did not have the resources to tackle the new problems well enough. In retrospect it seems ridiculous that small companies like Miles, Fairey and Saunders Roe should be invited to build supersonic aircraft. It is to their credit that they had as much success as they did and it is not surprising that, with their limited resources, they were slow to correct the many minor problems identified during development. Even so the real headache for the industry was the on/off support from the government and the way in which projects were axed at short notice. Civil aviation projects had to be funded privately and required strong customer support (US companies had military contracts for planes similar to their civil designs). There were fewer airlines in the market at the time, the Viscount met a need and sold in fairly large numbers to BEA and around the world, subsequently BEA also bought and operated deH Tridents. The Comet never recovered from its set back, by the time the Comet 4 was back in service the Boeing 707 was more attractive to operators. The British airlines BEA and BOAC merged to form BA. The new BA management decided to follow a policy of buying American planes. Their justification for doing so was questionable. They did buy VC10s but only in limited numbers and restricted them to certain routes. The worst example of prejudiced purchasing, in my view, was in relation to the Bristol Britannia, this was a large turboprop with probably the largest passenger compliment around at the time. Although slightly slower than the contemporary jets, it was an excellent plane capable of very economic operation over long distance routes. BA had shown considerable interest but, in the end, bought very few. The fact that the national airline chose not to buy British was probably the final straw for the British civil aviation industry. They soldiered on for a while; deH produced the 146 and the executive 125, the companies finally did merge to form BAe, rather too late perhaps. BAe went on to produce the incredible Concorde, in conjunction with the French, incredible but of dubious commercial value. They cooperated on the Airbus projects, and European military types. Such cooperation may be necessary but we are not the world leaders we once were. Rolls Royce, however, are still holding their own up there with the leaders.

Ron Watts

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