By 1945, the Bristol Aeroplane Company had been one of the giants of British aviation for decades, producing engines and aircraft which were often game changers. The Bristol Blenheim (itself derived from the Type 142 ’Britain First’ monoplane, ordered by Lord Rothermere, the British press baron) was a major advance when it flew in 1935, and the Bristol Beaufighter of WW2 was a pugnacious brute. The bad news was that the company laid an egg with the attempt to change the game after WW2. The Brabazon Committee had been set up in1943 while Europe was still ablaze. This Government committee was intended to make recommendations for aircraft to be used by civil operators AFTER the war. One of the specifications (the Type 1) was for a giant airliner carrying a limited number of first-class passengers across the Atlantic. Power came from 8 coupled Centaurus engines (four pairs) – think eight Sea Furies worth! The plan was a huge dud, the Brabazon was cancelled…..and the company suffered. Obviously, the future lay with the jet engine, but these were not yet economical enough, so Bristol turned to the turboprop, and built what was to become known as the ‘Whispering Giant’.
The Britannia was built to another Brabazon Committee recommendation (the Type III) intended to be a long-range commercial airliner, powered by turboprops and built to Specification C2/47. There were some useful left-overs from the Brabazon programme that came in handy for the Britannia – the extended, 8000 foot runway at Filton, near Bristol and the massive, new, assembly building, big enough to take any commercial aircraft YET built. The first flight took place on 16th August 1952, but it wasn’t put into service until 1957, a deadly gap, as the Boeing 707 was on the horizon. There were constant problems, however, with the new ‘free turbine’ Bristol Proteus turboprops and they gave endless trouble at the start. For example, the second prototype, G-ALRX, suffered an uncontrolled engine fire, when the reduction gear of No. 3 engine exploded, and the ‘plane had to make a crash-landing onto the mud of the Severn Estuary. Embarrassingly, a technical team from KLM, the Dutch airline, where on board at the time….no-one was hurt, but the Dutch order went to the Lockheed Electra! British Overseas Airways Corporation took the first batch off the Filton line (the ‘Brit’ was also built in Northern Ireland by Short Brothers and Harland) and it sold in small quantities. According to the Britannia Pilots’ Notes, 108 passengers could be carried at a rather generous 39″ pitch, or a suitable load of palletized freight, or a combination of both. It was also obvious that the Royal Air Force would find such an aircraft useful in support of far-flung British bases (this was the days when the UK still had ‘legacy’ bases scattered around the world) and RAF Transport Command – No. 99 and 511 Squadrons - took delivery of the first of 23 Britannia aircraft on 19th March 1959. The total Britannia production run of 85 aircraft (the last one built in 1960) went through a remarkable number of owners and leasees; to the ex-BOAC aircraft were added the RAF machines as they were withdrawn and sold. Amongst the slew of users were, Transcontinental SA (Argentina), Canadian Pacific Air Lines (Canada), Cubana de Aviacion (Cuba), CSA (Czechoslovakia), Aer Turas (Ireland), El Al (Israel), Aeronaves de Mexico (Mexico), Transair Cargo (Zaire) and a whole raft of British passenger and freight operators including Air Charter, BOAC, Britannia Airways, British Eagle, Caledonian Airways, Monarch Airlines and Redcoat Air Cargo.
Here we can see a superb example of aircraft preservation; XM496, named ‘Regulus’ (RAF Britannias were named after stars), served at RAF Lyneham (the Britannia’s main base) until bought by Monarch Airlines in 1976. After many trials and tribulations, she is in the caring hands of the ‘XM496 Preservation Society’, and may be visited on her base at Cotswold Airport, Kemble, Gloucestershire, home of the Great Vintage Flying Weekend. Strangely, there is a major part of ANOTHER Britannia on the same airport. Remember the second prototype, G-ALRX, which crashed on the mudflats? Well, the nose section was re-used as a crew trainer, and eventually disposed of to the Britannia Aircraft Preservation Trust, which is now at Kemble, on display with the Bristol Aero Collection!
Finally, there was the odd case of Canadair, who had acquired a license to build their version of the ‘Brit’, the CL-44 (RCAF, CC-106 Yukon), and then a piston-engined derivative (4 x Wright R-3350 TC18EAI Turbo-Compound of 3700 hp), with a new fuselage, as a superlative anti-submarine aircraft, the CP-107 Argus (Mk 1 and 2).