Whatever happened to British Aviation?


In 1952, Britain essentially led the way in terms of aviation technology. We had provided the world with the first commercial jet airliner, had pioneered the technology behind Turboprops that did away with clunky and inefficient Piston engines, and were in the process of developing aircraft that would be the envy of the world.

We were untouchable.

However, by the end of 1953 the dream lay in tatters, beginning what would become our downfall as the leading innovators of aviation technology and, by extension, our aviation industry itself.

So what the hell went wrong?

It could be easy for me to say it was all the Trade Union’s fault, or that the multiple crashes of the de Havilland Comet tarnished our reputation forever, or we just didn’t have a clue when it came to building planes, but the problems were much bigger, largely because they were based around the very ethic of our design and work ethos.

So, where to start? The end of World War II seems like a good place, largely because in the 6 years of wanton destruction, mutual hatred and mass-slaughter the likes of which had never been seen before, technology had come on leaps and bounds in an effort to make sure there were a lot less of us around to enjoy that new technology. We had new forms of medical practices and trauma surgery, new engines, ships and submarines, it helped kick-start the feminist movement by allowing women into jobs usually reserved for men (jobs they wouldn’t give up without a fight), but, most notably, aviation saw huge innovation in an attempt to make the best fighters and bombers to wipe out the enemy. Perhaps the biggest developments of that era of violence came down to aircraft range, the ability for aircraft to fly higher thanks to pressurised fuselages, larger aircraft designs and, most of all, the jet engine.

Britain’s pioneering jet aircraft takes to the air for the first time; this being the Gloster E.28/39 prototype of 1941.

Britain pioneered the jet engine thanks to Frank Whittle, an aspiring RAF officer who pitched the idea back in the 1920’s. While the RAF were quick to snub the concept on the grounds that it sounded like too much hard work and went against tradition, our ever innovative and eager to learn neighbours to the east, Germany, quickly began working on their own variation of Whittle’s technology. This was pioneered in 1939 by the Heinkel He 178, the world’s first turbojet aircraft. Following the declaration of war in 1939, Germany continued to develop jet engine technology, culminating in their magnum opus the Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter. While the 262 was unable to turn the tide of the war, only making its debut into combat in the last 12 months before the conflict ended, it did prove that such technology was viable. In the UK, we had noticed the jet engine and decided to once again take on Whittle’s idea, resulting in the initial Gloster E.28/39 prototype of 1941 and the later production fighter; the Gloucester Meteor of 1944.

However, even before the war’s end in 1945 the UK government was already considering numerous ideas for enhanced technology that would make our aviation industry truly the greatest. John Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara, launched a committee in 1942 to discuss multiple new designs for commercial aviation once peace was inevitably declared. These included a pioneering jet airliner, a turboprop airliner and a regional turboprop, each resulting in the de Havilland Comet, the Vickers Viscount and the de Havilland Dove. Each of these designs were somewhat pioneering, the jet airliner having its obvious advantages of speed and comfort, while the turboprop (which essentially uses a turbine engine to power a propeller rather than the previously used piston engines which work using cylinders in similar fashion to a car engine) allowed for faster, more reliable and more efficient propeller powered flight.

The gradual evolution of the Comet from a tiny, almost business jet size to an international airliner.

Each of these aircraft eventually made their first flight by the end of the decade, the Vickers Viscount turboprop in 1948, and the Comet jet in 1949. Both of these aircraft in particular appeared to herald the future of modern aviation, being smoother, more reliable, faster and more efficient than the previous slew of piston prop powered aircraft. Work on such aircraft, especially the Comet, was kept in absolute secrecy, and thus the introduction of the aircraft in 1949 took the aviation world by storm. While Turboprop technology was relatively easy to match, it wouldn’t be until Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter that the US would have a comparable aircraft to match the likes of the Viscount. As for jets, most US manufacturers were relatively slow to put turbojet technology into commercial aviation use for a number of reasons, most builders being preoccupied by military contracts, such as Boeing and its B-52 nuclear bomber, or were reluctant to invest in the new technology for fear of it being an expensive risk. This gave de Havilland ample time to develop the Comet from its original prototype to a production model, launched with British international carrier BOAC in 1952. The immediate advantages of jet air travel were made apparent when the Comet’s luscious lines and sublime profile first lifted off from London on an inaugural flight to Johannesburg, the aircraft being faster, having greater range, being more comfortable and less noise internally. The world fell in love with the Comet, which came to epitomise the pinnacle of international travel at the time of launch. The aircraft was seen to do no wrong, and the British aviation industry was set to have a secure and prosperous future…

…erm… no it wasn’t.

A BOAC Comet in flight during its early days, an image which capture the public’s imagination.

A year after entering commercial service, the Comets began suffering problems, with three of them breaking up during mid-flight in well-publicised accidents. Two of these were found to be caused by catastrophic failure resulting from metal fatigue in the airframes, a not well understood phenomenon at the time. Sadly no one gave the Comet the benefit of the doubt and after a third crash, which was caused by over-stressing of the airframe during flight through severe weather, the entire fleet was grounded and tests carried out to determine the cause of the fatigue. While BOAC and accident investigators worked strenuously to find out the cause of the accidents, waiting eagerly for the results were US rivals Boeing and Douglas, who were preparing to launch their own series of jets upon the world but needed to find out what was crippling the Comet. Once the result was found to be a mixture of metal fatigue, compounded by the fact that the Comet had square windows which didn’t support the frame, Boeing and Douglas put oval windows into their design that would help reinforce the general structure of the fuselage as the aircraft went through multiple pressurisation and depressurisation sessions.

The Comet did eventually return in 1958, complete with round windows and a new model known as the Comet 2, but in the same year Boeing unveiled its flagship, the Boeing 707. The 707 immediately filled the Comet’s shoes as the face of modern air travel, a smooth and sleek design with power and performance to back it up. Confidence in the British aviation industry on the other hand had waned considerably and Comets failed to sell internationally in any great numbers for the remainder of their production run. But our aviation industry was far from done as committee after committee was created during the 1950’s to determine future designs that would get us back in the game.

The Vickers Viscount was a huge success, selling all over the world, including in the USA.

This brings us on to one of the major problems with the UK aviation industry, government intervention. While designs of fighters and bombers were expected to be effected by the wants and demands of the government they wished to serve, commercial aircraft didn’t. The interests of commercial aircraft are based on those of the airlines they intend to serve, something that Boeing, with its 707 and later 727, and Douglas, with their DC-8 and DC-9, had free reign to do so with. While UK aircraft builders weren’t nationalised per se, they were still very much at the whim of parliament’s will. As part of a major cost-cutting exercise, aircraft and engine manufacturers were consolidated, resulting in the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) which encompassed Vickers, English Electric and Bristol, while the only engine builders who were allowed to provide powerplants for aviation purposes were consolidated into two companies; Rolls Royce and Bristol Siddeley. With its reputation destroyed de Havilland was bought by Hawker Siddeley, who used their technology to help invest in future commercial jet aviation projects. However, while consolidating the aviation builders into smaller, more profitable groups may have been seen as a good cost-cutting exercise, the other major issue that faced the construction of future aircraft was the airlines they were being built for; BOAC and BEA, both nationalised carriers. As arms of the government, BOAC and BEA’s demands for aircraft were both specific and somewhat obtuse.

The Hawker Siddeley Trident pioneered the automatic landing system we take for granted today.

While in the US there was a slew of private carriers such as Pan Am, American Airlines and United, each of which had their own demands for jet airliners, the companies such as Boeing and Douglas, as private entities, could invest in creating a simple, overarching airliner that satisfied the needs of pretty much all carriers; a universal aircraft. In the UK, BOAC and BEA’s specific demands had to be fulfilled by the aircraft manufacturers as part of the government’s contracts, and nowhere was this more prominent than the Vickers VC10 and the Hawker Siddeley Trident. While both these aircraft of the early 1960’s are highly advanced, incredibly reliable planes, their dimensions and performance were tailor made for BOAC and BEA’s requirements, which made them immediately unappealing to a majority of the world’s airlines. The VC10 was fitted with hot and high capabilities, which allowed it to easily land and depart from airports located at high altitudes in hot climates, places where most airliners struggled to get off the ground. The Trident pioneered the automatic landing system that we take for granted today, this feature being specific for use at London Heathrow where fog was a constant problem and caused major delays and cancellations. Both aircraft are beautiful and stylish, and proved their worth in spades, but proved themselves relatively pointless.

The Vickers VC10 was expensive and difficult to maintain, but could easily outperform the 707 under certain conditions.

The VC10 was built specifically for the Empire service, operating flights to Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Rhodesia, places where its hot and high capabilities were a major requirement. This, however, doesn’t translate well for any other major destinations, and not all major carriers went to these destinations, thus rendering this capability almost pointless. It was extremely expensive to maintain and operate, considering the fact that the VC10 ended up being seen as overpowered and complicated, while the 707 was simple and cheaper. BOAC saw this and flat out refused to buy the VC10 that had been tailor made for them, instead taking on a fleet of Boeing 707’s. Eventually, the UK government had to bend BOAC’s arm behind its back for them to buy a small fleet of VC10’s, but not enough for this expensive project to break-even, thus resulting in Vickers making a loss on the entire project. The VC10 was made even more pointless as the British Empire surrendered its colonies during the 1960’s, with many of the routes it was built to operate on being severed as political relations deteriorated. The only real distinction the VC10 was able to garner during its short and seldom remembered passenger career was it holding, to this day, the fastest subsonic Transatlantic crossing.

As for the Trident, the aircraft’s autoland feature made it very useful, but this was again very complex to maintain and operate. It was also very humdrum when it came to performance, taking a very long time to takeoff due to its somewhat underpowered engines. A common joke was that the only reason a Trident would become airborne is because of the curvature of the Earth! Compare that to the much simpler and universal Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-9, which both sold in massive numbers and could be found with airlines all over the world. The Trident on the other hand sold only in the UK, some European countries and in China before disappearing quietly in the 1980’s. BEA were once again reluctant to take on the later versions of the Trident, instead hoping to garner themselves some Boeing 737’s, but were eventually forced to take on Tridents by government pressure.

The BAC 1-11 truly became Britain’s first successful jet airliner design, enjoying global recognition for its sturdy design.

However, there were some success stories for our aviation industry, namely the Vickers Viscount and the BAC 1-11 short-range jet airliner. These aircraft succeeded for two reasons; one; they were somewhat pioneering, the Viscount being the first mass-production turboprop airliner while the BAC 1-11 was essentially first of its type for small regional jets, beating the Douglas DC-9 into the air by a year, and two; because they were essentially universal. These two aircraft had been built to an overarching principle for the airlines rather than what BEA or BOAC required, thus making them capable of handling any major task laid onto them. As such, these aircraft worked long and fulfilling careers, only being retired due to changing legislation on noise and exhaust emissions in the 1990’s. One could argue the lack of success of UK airliners is because they didn’t exactly kick it off in the United States, but, in contrast to that argument, the 1-11 and Viscount were both huge successes in the USA, working for the likes of American Airlines, Braniff and Mohawk Airlines. While US Legislation and Congress attempted to block American carriers from purchasing aircraft types built outside the mainland USA, they weren’t able to halt the arrival of these two little beauties, which served their masters well throughout the decades.

The 1970’s, however, are truly what split the UK aviation industry into its success and failure, coming down to two aircraft that are worlds apart in terms of performance and technical innovation; the Concorde and the Bae 146. In terms of everything that was right and everything that was wrong with the UK aviation industry’s ethos on building airliners, Concorde and the 146 were the aircraft that defined our technical capability, but also our ability to appeal to the masses in the same way American aircraft did.

Concorde may have been the pinnacle of human endeavor, but it was extremely expensive and dragged down by numerous practical problems.

Let’s start with Concorde, the world’s first *cough* successful *cough* supersonic airliner. While the Soviet Union’s copycat, the Tu-144, made it into the air and through the sound barrier first, it was Concorde that truly epitomised the very forefront of aviation technology, quite possibly the most innovative aircraft built since the Wright Flyer. The aircraft had been in development since the early 1950’s and was intended to become a mass market tool for airlines across the globe, whisking passengers to all points on the map at twice the speed of sound. Initially, airlines worldwide placed orders for the aircraft, even in the USA, though at the time Boeing and Lockheed were developing their own supersonic aircraft to do battle with Concorde. However, in 1973, Concorde’s Russian ripoff, unaffectionately dubbed Concordski, crashed at the Paris Airshow during a display flight. While this saw an end to most of Concorde’s international orders, confidence in the abilities of the aircraft were already rumbled. Problems began to crop up regarding its fuel consumption, its noise levels and its capacity, compounded by the fact that Rolls Royce, Concorde’s primary engine provider, had gone bankrupt in 1971, meaning confidence in the ability of the company to provide powerplants was put into disarray as well. While Rolls Royce was eventually able to get its finances back on track, American contemporaries could exploit the use of manufacturers such as Pratt & Whitney and General Electric. Another issue were Sonic Booms, which had been proven to cause damage and disruption to areas underneath the aircraft’s flightpath, and many nations were very hostile to the idea of this happening. In the few times Concorde did fly over land, it had to fly at subsonic speeds which rendered it almost entirely pointless. Instead of being a faster-than-sound rocket, it was reduced to an extremely expensive and relatively small plane which was complex and difficult to work with.

The Boeing 747 of the USA had mass-market appeal at half the cost of Concorde, making it a shoo-in for most major carriers.

At the same time, Boeing had just unveiled their magnum opus, the Boeing 747, a plane capable of carrying over 400 passengers in speed and comfort to a variety of destinations. The 747, much like its predecessors, was a comparatively simple piece of kit, being based on very conventional aircraft manufacturing principles in terms of wing configuration, engine type and layout and fuselage design, the only major innovations being it incorporating design traits from large troop carrying aircraft such as the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy so as to make the aircraft bigger and capable of carrying more passengers. Airlines saw this and immediately went for it while Concorde was left out in the cold. Eventually, only two carriers, British Airways and Air France, would operate Concorde in mainline service and the aircraft would only really make money by being promoted to the wealthiest members of society. While hundreds of 747’s have been built and operated, with more still being built today over 40 years on, Concorde only saw 20 members of its fleet built, with all retired by 2003.

The BAe-146’s STOL performance made it ideal for flights to inner-city airports and it sold like hotcakes.

However, we now move on to the other major British aircraft of the period, and what is often quoted as the last truly British built airliner, the Bae 146. By the time the 146 made its first flight in the late 1970’s, the UK aviation industry had been nationalised as of 1977 to form British Aerospace. Essentially, the last remnants of the UK aircraft building sector, including Hawker Siddelely (under which the 146 was developed), BAC (which included Vickers) and Scottish Aviation, were pulled under one roof, but basically nothing was done with this. Bae essentially just ticked over for the next 20 years, helping to maintain or modify existing models while only producing a small number new civil aviation ranges, the 146, the ATP turboprop, the Jetstream regional turboprop and the 125 business jet. However, the 146 persevered, the result of 12 years planning by Hawker Siddeley, initially starting out as a twin-engined airliner that was about the size of a Boeing 757, evolving into a trijet and finally a four engined regional jet airliner with wings above the fuselage. The aircraft was launched in 1978, and was promoted to be the quietest jet airliner in the world, as well as pioneering Short Take-Off and Landing capabilities.

Originally, it wasn’t expected that the jet would be a major hit, the likes of the Boeing 737 and the new MD-80 Series being the big players in modern short to medium haul aviation. However, Bae’s market research team had worked wonders by predicting the rise of small city airports with short runways. A new trend was to take small airfields only a few miles from the city centre and have small turboprops like the upcoming Dash-7 serve them, essentially cornering the market on easy access regional and business travel. The 146 would become the world’s first STOL jet airliner, and fitted into this category with such a plumb that it went on to become the UK’s best selling aircraft ever. All over the world 146’s were exported, including making it big with airlines such as United, American, PSA and USAir for services across the continental United States. The 146 was used on both operations into small fields in the Midwest and California, but also for relief and rush hour duties on short-haul flights out of some of the nation’s bigger airports such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The 146 had an impressive reliability streak and was the pride and joy of many airlines, even to this day. The aircraft would eventually be built as late as 2001, with multiple variations under its belt and 387 aircraft produced. Though plans were in progress to develop an advanced version of the 146, the attacks of September 11th, 2001, sent the global aviation market into a tailspin, and all development ceased due to lack of demand, bringing an end to the last British built airliner.

The BAe-ATP proved to be the last mass-produced British airliner; a dated design which was released far too late to combat the de Havilland Dash 8.

Now, one might argue that Britain still maintains an aviation industry in the form of Airbus, and while Airbus is incredibly successful with the A320, the A330 and the A380 Superjumbo, it still technically isn’t a fully British operation, being formed through the merger of multiple European manufacturers and the investment of many EU member states. It does, however, have the distinction of putting into practice what the British rarely did, creating universal, easy to use, simple as a barn door technology to make it appealing to any and all carriers, a flexible range of aircraft covering all possible operations.

And what of the Trade Unions? Surely in the 1970’s these bringers of corporate destruction helped in wrecking our aviation industry like they did every other industry in the UK? Well, surprisingly they didn’t do much to the manufacturing side of UK aviation, but wreaked havoc with the airlines themselves. As far as I recall there were only a few minor strikes held in the ranks of Hawker Siddeley around 1975 to 1976, but largely the industrial action was reserved for BOAC, BEA and their successor British Airways, which suffered heavily at the hands of their wrath.

The BAe-125 business jet would be the final mass-produced British aircraft, eventually ending construction in 2013 after 35 years.

So, to summarise, the British aviation industry was destroyed because of three factors; case specific aircraft, the Comet crashes and government intervention. While the Comet crashes of 1953 put a dark tint on the UK aviation industry and allowed its American rivals to get ahead in the game, there was no real effort on the part of the government to try and regain that lead. While the industry turned out some of the most reliable, innovative and beautiful aircraft ever built to fly, they were bogged down by too many strenuous design requirements which made them unappealing to the mass market of carriers. Carriers wanted a basic, easy to manage aircraft that could fly from A to B lots and lots of times before needing major attention. US aircraft, such as the 707 and the DC-8, as well as the smaller 727 and DC-9, filled this demand perfectly, being simple to maintain, easy to operate, relatively fuel efficient, highly flexible in the roles they could perform and general performing any task that may be required on a day-to-day basis.

The British equivalents, the VC10, the Trident and Concorde, were built to be massively innovative in order to fill a requirement made by the nationalised carriers BOAC and BEA, as if they were the only airlines flying. As such, their specific requirements and the demands of the government meant that aviation builders had their hands tied when it came to expanding or improving the design further for a wider appeal. The Trident was built to merrily buzz between Paris and London 3 times a day, whatever the weather thanks to its autoland, but was not seen as suitable by carriers other than BEA who simply didn’t find the high maintenance of the aircraft and operating costs appealing. Same with the VC10, which could fly out of troublesome hot and high airports like Nairobi and Singapore until the end of time, but at more conventional airports they were seen as overpowered, noisy, highly expensive and difficult to maintain. The VC10 and Trident, on average, would be out of service for regular maintenance much longer than the equivalent 707 or 727, which could have its routine exam in a couple of days and be back flying for the weekend, while the British aircraft were stuck in the hangar for weeks making sure the complicated autoland systems, engines and everything else were functioning normally.

Most of all though, Concorde was the aircraft that came to symbolise where America essentially won and Britain lost. Concorde could never have been a mass-market airliner as there was too much against it practically. It was too loud, there were issues with Sonic Booms, it was massively expensive, too difficult to maintain on a regular basis and was marred by the crash of Concordski. The equivalent Boeing 747 on the other hand was flexible, could carry twice the number of passengers over a longer range, was more efficient and cheaper to run, all of these making up for the fact it was infinitely slower. The US aviation industry knew that the barn door approach was the only way to win over potential customers and make a profit, while the UK industry saw only itself and no one else, thus rendering their concepts impossible to market outside of Britain.

Though I personally adore UK aircraft, the VC10, the 146, the Trident and Concorde being among my all time favourite aircraft, the truth can’t be denied on how these aircraft tried and failed to win over an audience. They did have potential and a lot of endearing features, but they never thought to open them up to a wider market and truly exploit them.