Once upon a time this was Britain’s most popular passenger aircraft, even going so far as to make it big in America and behind the Iron Curtain. Today, the plucky BAC 1-11 has long since passed into history, but its legacy as one of the UK aviation industry’s last hurrahs lives on.
The BAC 1-11’s roots stretch back to the 1950’s following the disastrous crashes of the pioneering de Havilland Comet. Britain’s aviation industry had been rocked to its core by the incidents and needed to get back on its feet quick before the United States and other European manufacturers dominated the market. At the time, the Comet and following Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, though extremely popular, only focused on long-haul routes, with a large gap in the market for a short-haul jet airliner to replace the turboprops.
As such, in July 1956, British European Airways (BEA) outlined plans for a new short-haul jet airliner that was open for tender among Britain’s aviation manufacturers. Hunting Aircraft started design studies on a jet-powered replacement for the successful Vickers Viscount, developing the 30-seat Hunting 107. Around the same time, Vickers started a similar development of a 140-seat derivative of its VC10 project, the VC11. Many other aviation firms had also produced their own designs.
In 1960 Hunting, under British government pressure, merged with Vickers-Armstrongs, Bristol, and English Electric to form the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). The newly formed BAC decided that the Hunting project had merit, but that there would be little market for a 30-seat jet airliner. The design was reworked into the BAC 107, a 59-seat airliner powered by two 7,000lbf Bristol Siddeley BS75 turbofan engines. BAC also continued development of the larger, 140-seat VC-11 development of the Vickers VC10 which it had inherited. Other competing internal projects, such as the Bristol Type 200, were quickly abandoned following the absorption of Hunting into BAC.
Market research showed that the 59-seat BAC 107 was still too small, and the design was again reworked in 1961, with passenger capacity growing to 80 seats, and the BS75’s being discarded in favour of Rolls-Royce Speys. The revised design was redesignated the BAC 111 (later becoming known as the 1-11), with BAC abandoning the VC11 project to concentrate on the more promising 1-11. Unlike other contemporary British airliners such as the Hawker Siddeley Trident, the 1-11 was not designed to specifically meet the needs of the state-owned British European Airways or British Overseas Airways Corporation, but on the needs of airlines around the world, and BAC expected that they could receive orders for as many as 400 aircraft. Test flying was conducted by Squadron
Leader Dave Glaser.
The aircraft was officially launched on May 9th, 1961, when British United Airways (BUA) placed the first order for ten 1-11 200’s. Completely out of the blue however came the Americans, with Braniff International Airways ordering six, followed by Mohawk Airlines with four. Other orders followed from Kuwait Airways for three, and Central African Airways for two. Braniff subsequently doubled their order to 12, while Aer Lingus ordered four. Western Airlines ordered ten aircraft but later cancelled. As can be expected though, the idea of American carriers buying non-American products left a sour taste in the U.S. Government, who attempted to ban the nation’s airlines from buying the BAC 1-11. The U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), claimed that subsidies would be needed to operate a jet on the routes operated by American airline Bonanza (who had ordered three 1-11’s, an action which was claimed by some at the time to be protectionism. The CAB also stopped Frontier Airlines and Ozark Air Lines from ordering 1-11’s, although allowing Ozark to order the similar Douglas DC-9 and Frontier to order Boeing 727-100’s. The CAB had also unsuccessfully tried to block Mohawk’s orders. The biggest slap in the face to CAB was when American Airlines, the U.S. national carrier, purchased thirty BAC 1-11 400’s, something that probably drove the CAB insane!
The prototype (G-ASHG) rolled out of the Hurn assembly hall on the 28th July 1963, and carried out its maiden flight on the 20th August the same year. Crucially, however, the aircraft’s first flight took place nearly a year before that of the Douglas DC-9, with BAC complimenting the 1-11 for being technically more advanced than its American rival. This was highly important for marketing purposes as well, since, as shown by the Bonanza Air Lines case, US authorities could refuse to approve sales of foreign aircraft to domestic airlines where an American alternative existed.
However, disaster struck the project on October 22nd, 1963, when prototype 1-11 G-ASHG crashed near Chicklade in Wiltshire after being struck by a newly discovered phenomenon known as Deep Stall. This is caused by reduced airflow to the tailplane brought on by the combined blanking effects of the wing and the aft-mounted engine nacelles at high angles of attack, which prevents recovery of normal (nose-down) flight. The accident resulted in the deaths of 7 people, including 5 primary BAC engineers who were behind the project. To prevent such stalls, BAC designed and added devices known as stick shakers and stick pushers to the One-Eleven’s control system. It also redesigned the wing’s leading edge to smooth airflow into the engines and over the tailplane. Regardless of the crash and the loss of the engineering team, confidence in the 1-11 remained high, with Braniff and American Airlines continuing to honour their orders.
The first 1-11 was handed over to BUA on January 22nd, 1965, and after weeks of training and route familiarization, made its first revenue earning flight from London Gatwick to Genoa on April 9th. Braniff took delivery of its first aircraft on 11th March, while Mohawk received its first on 15th May. Deliveries continued, and by the end of 1965 airlines had received 34 aircraft. Such was the popularity that a second production line had to be setup at the Vickers factory in Weybridge.
The original 1-11 was followed by the 1-11 500 in 1967, the largest variant of the type with 119 seats and stretched by 8ft 4in. The wing span was increased by 5 ft, and the latest Mk. 512 version of the Spey was used. The new version sold reasonably well across the world, particularly to European charter airlines. In 1971 it received an incremental upgrade to reduce drag and reduce runway requirements.
However, by far the most interesting version of the BAC 1-11 was the license built Romanian derivative known as the ROMBAC 1-11. Requested by Romanian president Nicolae Ceauşescu himself, the 1-11 was to be built under license by Romania for use as government aircraft and for national carrier TAROM. The 1-11 had previously been very popular with the Romanian national carrier, being used on a variety of the airline’s
domestic and international routes. The tender was put out in 1979, and construction of the first aircraft was completed in 1982, the same year production of the original British 1-11 was concluded. Eventually, 9 ROMBAC 1-11’s were built when production was finished in 1989, with the 10th and 11th examples being abandoned before construction was complete. Though it was intended that more were to be built, the ROMBAC 1-11’s failure for mass-production was due largely to Romania’s frail economy and restrictions for nations outside the Iron Curtain to assist.
The BAC 1-11 remained popular in both Europe and the United States well into the 1980’s and even the 1990’s, with airlines such as Ryanair and British Airways continuing to use them. Eventually, the Stage III noise abatement regulations, which came into effect from March 2003, meant that the 1-11 was out of favour with this new legislation, and almost overnight the aircraft disappeared from European skies. This wasn’t the end though as African and Asian operators made extensive use of the former European examples. As of 2016, only two aircraft were still in service used by Northrop Grumman as airborne test beds for the F-35 programme.
However, like many other aircraft, the BAC 1-11 has had its fair share of tragic accidents. In total, the aircraft suffered 12 incidents, including 11 hull losses and the deaths of 389 people both aboard and on the ground. However, none of these incidents was related to a design flaw in the aircraft itself, being attributed to bad weather or poor maintenance.
The first fatal crash happened on the 6th August, 1966, when Braniff Airways Flight 250 was torn apart by a thunderstorm near Falls City, Nebraska, killing all 38 passengers and crew.
Another notable crash was Paninternational Flight 112 on September 6th, 1971, which suffered multiple engine failure after departure from Hamburg due to incorrect preparation of the aircraft. The 1-11 attempted to land on the A7 Autobahn but crashed into an overpass, killing 22 of the 121 people aboard.
Perhaps the most famous incident involving a 1-11 was that of British Airways Flight 5390 on June 10th, 1990. After improper maintenance the previous night, the portside cockpit window blew out during flight, sucking the flight’s captain, Captain Tim Lancaster, partially out of the cockpit. His feet however became caught on the yoke which stopped him from being taken away to his death, but instead left him pinned on the roof of the 1-11’s cockpit, whilst also forcing the aircraft into a nosedive. The several passengers and flight attendants held his legs until the co-pilot made a successful emergency landing at Southampton. Captain Lancaster suffered frostbite, bruising and shock, and fractures to his right arm, left thumb and right wrist, but eventually made a full recovery.
However, the worst 1-11 crash happened much more recently than some, and was largely attributed to being the reason why no more continue to fly in commercial service. On May 4th, 2002, EAS Airlines Flight 4226 crashed in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria shortly after takeoff, killing 71 of the 77 people on board and 78 more on the ground. Following an investigation by the Nigerian Minister of Aviation, the cause of the crash was ruled to be pilot error. The findings of the investigation stated the engines failed following their intake of a large amount of dust. This occurred as a result of the pilot overshooting the runway and continuing the take-off through a grassy area at the end of the runway.
Today, 10 BAC 1-11’s are on display around the world in varying conditions. 6 are in the UK, 3 are in Argentina and one is in the United States.
Today, the BAC 1-11 is remembered fondly by most as a truly revolutionary yet simple little plane that kept the British aviation industry alive into the 1980’s. A compact build, some good performance and a loving style made this the most popular British export until the BAe-146 came along in 1984. I personally adore the BAC 1-11 in all its incarnations, a truly beautiful little plane and a testament to British engineering.