The last mass-produced British turboprop, the BAe ATP (Advanced Turbo Prop) was the end of an evolutionary arc which had started with the Vickers Viscount of the 1950’s, the pioneer of modern turboprops. However, when the ATP was launched into revenue earning service in 1988, the aircraft was so far behind the times it was practically in the wrong century!
As mentioned, Britain led the way when it came to turboprop technology, the Vickers Viscount being the first commercial aircraft of this class when it took its maiden flight in 1948. The turboprop did away with the archaic, unreliable, noisy and inefficient piston-powered engines which had powered commercial aviation up to that point, bringing the world a new era of high-speed and extremely efficient propeller powered flight. Upon the launch of the Viscount in 1953 with British European Airways, other aircraft manufacturers were caught napping and it would be years before a comparative turboprop could successfully rival it. The Viscount ruled the roost for the remainder of the 1950’s, bridging the gap between propeller and jet powered aviation while also continuing to be relevant after it had been displaced from top-line operations by jets.
Viscount production ended in 1963, with the design evolved into the larger Vickers Vanguard of 1959. This failed to grab the market as, by the time of its entry into commercial service, jets such as the Boeing 727 and the Trident had stitched up the market, relegating propeller aircraft to regional and short-haul roles.
With this mindset firmly placed, rival company Hawker Siddeley developed their own medium-range, small capacity turboprop on similar principles to that of the pioneering Viscount. The HS 748 of 1960 was originally designed way back in 1958 by Avro, prior to the merger of the two companies under the British government’s plan to rationalise aircraft manufacturers. Hawker Siddeley honoured the design efforts of Avro by completing the project under its own designation of HS 748.
While the Vickers Viscount had come to dominate the turboprop market for the larger end, short-haul market, the HS 748 was designed not to compete with it directly, but more to undercut it. As such, the 748 became one of the world’s first Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft, being able to land and takeoff on incredibly small strips, usually inner-city airfields or ex-fighter bases. The 748 didn’t pioneer the STOL concept, that distinction going to the Fokker F27 of 1955, but it did settle down nicely into a niche in the ever expanding aviation market. The HS 748 was an ideal replacement for many Douglas DC-3’s and C-47 Dakota’s which had been left over from World War II and were now operated by short-range operators. The comparatively heavy Viscount couldn’t match the 748 for its STOL performance, thus allowing it, and the comparative F27, to essentially become the reigning champions of regional airport operations throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.
The 748 and its derivatives were built from its launch in June 1960 to as late as 1988, selling 380 units all over the world. As such, by the early 1980’s the 748’s design was looking very long in the tooth and the STOL market had grown up around it. Most notably, the likes of comparative regional jets such as British Aerospace’s own BAe 146 and the Fokker F28 were now starting to make their mark on regional airports across the globe. The biggest competitor, and one that had seen the replacement of many early HS 748’s, was the De Havilland Dash 7 and Dash 8 of Canada, and the ATR 42 of France. While the 748 was based on a design which dated back to as early as 1958, the Dash 8 and ATR 42 were on the cutting edge of STOL aviation technology.
The most important requirement for this new breed of STOL aircraft was to be both fuel efficient and quiet. The fuel crisis of the 1970’s had made the idea of economy and efficiency paramount to prospective manufacturers, while increased amounts of air traffic at the world’s regional and inner city airports had been met with complaints by local residents and businesses. This drive to make more efficient planes spawned the likes of the Dash 8 and ATR 42, aircraft which could meet these criteria while still being able to maintain a minimum performance for aircraft of their type.
In a bid to update their flagship STOL models, both Fokker and BAe went about designing a replacement for their original aircraft to fit them with modern day performance and efficiency to rival their upstart competitors. Fokker revised the F27 to become the Fokker 50, launched in 1985 to include many of the accomplishments and features used on the Dash 8, including the same Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127B turboprop engines.
British Aerospace, on the other hand, took a more minimalist approach to their reworking of the 748. The 30 year old fuselage design was stretched by 13 feet, the wings were shortened by 2.5 feet and the original Rolls-Royce Dart engines, which dated back to 1948’s Viscount, were replaced again by Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127B’s. Aside from these minor modifications, the BAe ATP is essentially the same aircraft as the 748 it replaced, making its first flight on August 6th, 1986. The aircraft was eventually launched into commercial service in 1988 with British Midland, BAe’s hopes being placed on the ATP’s larger size having a greater attraction for customers who wanted more capacity than the competition.
The ATP could carry a total of 64 passengers over a range of 1,134 miles. By comparison, the largest model of the Dash 8 at the time, the Dash 8-300 of 1989, could carry 56 passengers over a range of 1,063 miles, while the ATR 42 could only carry 48 passengers over 528 miles. Though fitted with comparable engines, the ATP was limited by speed. being slower than the competition and even the outgoing 748 due to the added weight. Regardless, BAe were certain that their thoroughbred would whip the competition with its extra capacity, being able to carry more passengers from small city airports like the then newly opened London City airport.
However, upon its launch, the BAe ATP was trounced. The main issues regarding the ATP was the fact that while it offered better size, it was far too slow for what was required. Furthermore, the aircraft was introduced very late in the day when compared to its rivals; the Dash 8 having been on the go since 1983, the ATR 42 since 1984 and the Fokker 50 since 1985. By the time the aircraft did make it into service in 1988, the market had been completely sown up by its opponents and the ATP was left to stagnate in the cold grips of sales failure; with only 64 examples built during its short production run of 8 years. BAe’s idea of the ATP being a true British pioneer like the Viscount didn’t take account of the fact that there were viable competitors now in the same market, all of which had proven their mettle in spades. The ATP was seen for what it was, a 748 with new engines and a stretched airframe, nothing else really distinguishable about it.
As such, the last ATP, and indeed last British turboprop, slipped off the production line at BAe’s Prestwick factory on the Ayrshire coast in 1996, once again adding to the lifelong British tradition of pioneering a technological concept, like the tilting train, only to have it sold back to us when our enthusiasm to develop and adapt the idea was lost.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the ATP, however. The aircraft did find its way into several important airlines, including British Midland, British Airways and Sun Air of Scandinavia. The aircraft even made a minor splash in the USA, with units being operated by United Airlines franchisee Air Wisconsin on services throughout the American Midwest.
The ATP also has an impressive safety record, having only suffered two incidents with the loss of 50 people.
The first crash was Merpati Nusantara Airlines Flight 106, which crashed on approach to Tanjung Pandan-Bulutumbang Airport in Indonesia on April 19th, 1997. Improper feathering of the propellers by the pilot was determined to be the cause of the crash. The crash killed 15 of the 48 passengers and crew aboard.
The second crash occurred on December 11th, 1999, when SATA Air Açores Flight 530 crashed into a mountain on the Sao Jorge Island, Açores, Portugal. All 35 passengers were lost in the incident. The aircraft crashed into the Pico da Esperança due to crew disorientation in low cloud.
By 2000, most ATP’s had been retired from front line passenger operations, having been replaced by either small Embraer jets or Dash 8’s. In 2001, British Aerospace launched the ATP Freighter project, which fitted a HS 748 pivoted freight door to the fuselage of the aircraft for use as a cargo plane. The larger size of the ATP over comparative Dash 8’s and ATR’s, as well as its low mounted wings, made it ideal for the purpose of freight haulage, with West Air of Sweden taking on an initial 6 units.
Today, only four ATP’s are in passenger service, these being with NextJet Sweden. The remainder have been repurposed or converted for use carrying freight and cargo, operating primarily in Europe. West Air Sweden and Atlantic Airlines are the largest users of the type; both having 12 aircraft each on their books. With only 40 examples now remaining in commercial service, this aircraft, which failed to break the barrier of obscurity, appears destined to have spent its whole working life in obscurity, a turboprop which failed to evolve with the times and became a carryover from the 1950’s.