One of the earliest Trans-Atlantic British airliners, the Bristol Britannia was constructed following the end of World War II to become the flagship of the ‘Empire’ service, connecting the UK with all of its overseas colonies. However, the Britannia, though a technical marvel, came at exactly the wrong time!
The origins of the Britannia, like most large passenger aircraft of the late 40’s and early 50’s, stemmed from developments made for World War II bombers. The Britannia specifically took technology made for aircraft such as the Lancaster and the Halifax. The first considerations for the Britannia began in around 1943, when it was found that due
to the War Effort, America had cornered the market for creating large passenger aircraft while the UK was bogged down with building bombers and fighters. Lord Brabazon of Tara, an aviation pioneer and Minister of Aircraft Production, formed a committee in 1943 to discuss the future for the British aviation industry. The proposal was for a long-range commercial airliner that could reach the furthest destinations of the British Empire without a need for multiple intermediate stops, as well as carry up to 48 passengers.
In 1944, the Bristol Aeroplane Company won the contract to built and deliver two variants of this proposed aircraft, dubbed originally the Type I and the Type III. The Type I, later named the Bristol Type 167 Brabazon (in honour of Lord Brabazon) was a large scale proof-of-concept. Comparatively, this aircraft was one of the biggest in the world, about the size of a modern day Boeing 767, and was unveiled in 1949 to a slew of mediocre reviews. At the time airlines were reluctant to buy such a gigantic plane, and only one prototype was ever built. The Brabazon, together with an incomplete Turboprop design, was scrapped in 1953.
For the Type III, Bristol had begun work on the concept in 1947. Initially, Bristol decided not to go for a Turboprop design, fearing that the technology was too early and too unreliable to consider, but they would eventually choose to fit the aircraft with 4 Bristol Proteus 765 turboprops producing 4,450hp. Taking many design qualities from the failed Brabazon project, the Type III was increased in size to a capacity of 139 passengers, and a Maximum Takeoff Weight of 185,000lbs. Crusing speed for the aircraft would be 397mph, with an operational ceiling of 24,000ft and a range of 4,430 miles, easily capable of crossing the Atlantic, as well as reaching the various British colonies in the Middle East and Africa.
The name, “Britannia” was chosen in April 1950 with Britannia 101 the designation for
first two prototypes powered by the early series Proteus 625, the follow-up from the 600 series engine that had successfully completed its type trials. The first prototype, registered G-ALBO, with Bristol Chief Test Pilot A.J. “Bill” Pegg at the controls, flew for the first time on August 16th, 1952, at Filton Aerodrome. The maiden flight was eventful as the over-sensitive flying controls led to a wild pitching before Pegg restored control. During the landing approach, smoke filled the cockpit and the main undercarriage bogie was stuck in its cycle, only fully deploying seconds before landing. The “snags” proved to be minor and by September, the prototype was cleared to perform at the 1952 SBAC Display at Farnborough where spectators commented on the “quietness” of the giant airliner.
In November 1952, Popular Science reported that by 1954 BOAC would have 25 of these aircraft on routes such as London-to-Tokyo over the Arctic and North Pole. However, in 1953 and 1954, three de Havilland Comets crashed without explanation, and the Air Ministry demanded the Britannia undergo lengthy tests. Further delays were attributed to teething problems with the engine resulting in the loss in December 1953 of the second prototype, G-ALRX, caused by a failed reduction gear that led to an engine fire and the aircraft landing on the mudflats of the Severn Estuary. Resolving easily avoidable inlet icing issues – by selecting a slightly different cruising height than that
specified – which were exaggerated by BOAC destroying the Britannia’s sales prospects and delaying the Britannia’s introduction by two years, also took time. The first prototype G-ALBO was subsequently modified to more closely approximate a production standard but was retained by the company to undergo engine testing and development.
In addition to the regular Britannia, from 1954 the Canadian company Canadair won a contract to build variants of the aircraft under license, creating the derivative Canadair CL-28/CP-107 Argus, and the Canadair CL-44/Canadair CC-106 Yukon. The Canadair CP-107 Argus (CL-28) was a marine reconnaissance aircraft designed and manufactured by Canadair for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Canadian Forces (CF). In its early years, the Argus was reputedly the finest anti-submarine patrol bomber in the world. The Argus served throughout the Cold War in the RCAF’s Maritime Air Command and later the CF’s Maritime Air Group and Air Command.
The CL-44 Yukon on the other hand was almost identical to the Britannia, though in place of the Bristol engines, Canadair opted for Rolls Royce Tyne engines that produced 5,370hp and a top speed of 402mph and a range of 5,588 miles. The CL-44 was a very innovative and interesting aircraft, but problems similar to those that plagued the
Britannia (that I’ll go into later), meant that only 39 of these aircraft were ever built, mostly in cargo configuration with a pivoting tail for rear loading.
However, the CL-44 did give rise to one of the most obscure aircraft in all history, the Conroy Skymonster, a singular conversion done in 1969 where the hull of the aircraft was enlarged for oversized goods. It was mostly used for the transporting of Rolls Royce RB.211 engines from the UK to California as part of the construction of the L-1011 Tristar, the first instance where aircraft parts were ferried from factory to factory by a modified commercial airliner. The Skymonster was used until 1999, whereupon it was retired to Bournemouth Airport in the UK, where it continues to reside even to this day, though plans are in progress to see this beautiful plane return to the sky.
However, as I mentioned earlier with the CL-44, the Britannia suffered heavily in terms of sales as it was built at completely the wrong time. In 1952, BOAC launched operations with the Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, and the success of these aircraft very quickly ushered in the jet age. Though the Comets suffered many early setbacks and multiple fatal crashes, the Britannia could have secured victory and higher sales as confidence in jet aircraft began to wane. However, the development of the longer-range Britannia derivatives, the -200 and -300, meant that by the time these aircraft entered service in 1955, development was already well under way for the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which had already garnered huge interest across the aviation world. As such, the idea of using turboprops on Trans-Atlantic services became a thing of the past, and while BOAC
continued to buy up Britannia’s, these were merely a stop-gap until the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1959 and the reintroduction of Comets the same year. At the same time, the Britannia’s troublesome development caused a loss of confidence in the British aviation industry overall, and smeared the name of later builds including the Trident and the Vickers VC10, neither of which sold in any great quantity.
By the time production of the Britannia ended in 1960, only 85 examples had been built, together with 39 CL-44’s used by the Cargo sector. While Britannia’s remained with BOAC, they were often hired out to other airlines such as Ghana Airways, Cathay Pacific and East African Airways. After 13 years of service, BOAC retired its last Britannia’s in 1965, with most being sold overseas to other airlines. Airlines including Aeronaves de México (precursor to Aeromexico) and Ghana Airways enjoyed the use of the Britannia, while Cubana de Aviación also took on several for Trans-Atlantic use, and despite the Cuban Revolution of 1958, the country maintained a special relationship with Bristol to provide and maintain the aircraft.
The late 1960’s saw the ex-BOAC aircraft spread across the world, including work with many notable airlines such as Monarch, Canadian Pacific, CSA, Britannia Airways, Caledonian Airways, Cathay Pacific and many more. An El Al Israel Britannia was used to smuggle Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the Holocaust, out of Argentina following his kidnapping. He was subsequently executed for crimes against humanity in 1962.
Aside from commercial aviation, the Britannia was also used extensively by the Royal Air Forces as a Troop and VIP transport, primarily by 99 and 511 Squadron. The Britannia was used by the RAF until 1975 when the entire fleet was retired as Comets, Nimrods and later VC10s started to take on their role. Britannia’s remained in commercial use into the 1990’s, with the last passenger operator, Cubana, retiring the aircraft in March 1990. Some Cubana Britannia’s saw extended use with Zaire based airline Zaïrois Airlines, which used them on regular cargo flights from N’djili Airport for another two to three years before full retirement of all Britannia’s in around 1994.
During its lifetime, the Britannia suffered 14 hull-losses with 365 fatalities.
The first crash was, as mentioned, when one aircraft had to ditch on Severn Beach during a test flight, but with no fatalities.
The first fatal accident was on another test flight, when a Series 300 crashed at Downend for unknown reasons on November 6th, 1957, killing 15 technicians and the flight crew.
Among the worst however was Britannia Airways Flight 105, which crashed at Ljubljana,
Yugoslavia on September 1st, 1966, resulting in 98 deaths out of the 117 aboard. The probable cause was the flight crew having failed to set their altimeter to QFE instead of QNH, creating a 980 feet error in indicated altitude.
The worst Britannia crash ever was Globe Air Flight 313, a flight from Bangkok to Basel which was performing a stop-over at Nicosia airport in Cyprus on April 20th, 1967. The aircraft was on the third attempt to land on Runway 32 in a violent thunderstorm when it flew into a hill near the village of Lakatamia and burst into flames. Of the 130 passengers and crew aboard, only 4 survived.
The last accident involving a Britannia took place on February 16th, 1980, when a Redcoat Air Cargo aircraft crashed at Billerica, Massachusetts, shortly after taking off from Boston. The probable cause of the accident was degraded aerodynamic performance beyond the flight capabilities of the aircraft resulting from an accumulation of ice and snow on the airframe before takeoff and a further accumulation of ice when the aircraft was flown into moderate to severe icing conditions following takeoff. Contributing to the cause of the accident were encounters with wind shear, downdrafts, and turbulence during the climb. Of eight crew and passengers on board, there were seven fatalities with one seriously injured.
Today, seven Britannia’s are known to survive in preservation, including two cockpits, one incomplete fuselage and four complete airframes, all of which are preserved in the UK. To extend this, there are also six Canadair CP-107 Argus aircraft preserved at museums in Canada, and only the unique Conroy Skymonster remains to represent the CL-44 Yukons, with all other members scrapped during the 1970’s.
Much like the VC10, the Trident and the Comet, the Britannia was something of a Greek Tragedy, a highly advanced aircraft which, if it had been built in the late 1940’s rather than when it arrived in 1952, could have been among the most successful aircraft in the sky. Instead, the Britannia would not live to become the star it was meant to be, and now barely anyone remembers it. It truly is a shame that this craft isn’t remembered like the beautiful Lockheed Constellation and other contemporary aircraft such as the DC-7, but those who do know what this aircraft was capable of, remember it fondly.