"All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR2 simply got the first three right." - Sir Sydney Camm.
Thus spoke the doyen of British aeroengineering, the man who had designed - amongst other aircraft - the Hart, Hurricane, Tempest, Sea Fury, Hunter and the Harrier.
Betrayal, lies, back-stabbing and revenge - no, we are NOT talking about 'Game of Thrones' here, we are talking about the 'state of play' in the British aerospace industry during the 1960s, and that goes for everything from missiles, to military jets, to commercial airliners. How a country that was at the cutting edge of so many aviation developments in the 1950s could end up playing second fiddle to almost every other major power inside a decade, is a long and wicked story. Since, however, we don't have time for a book, we will have to concentrate on only ONE disaster - the BAC TSR-2.
In the late 1950s, the Conservative Government of Sir Alec Douglas-Hume decided to rationalise the British aviation/aerospace industry by forcing the merger of many companies to form one or two huge entities (capitalism loves economy of scale, right?) Unfortunately, they did not realise that forcing the 'marriage' of companies with radically different design philosophies, specialist manufacturing processes, and commercial goals would lead to internal stagnation, fierce political clashes, and a general failure to thrive!
The Ministry of Supply was seeking a replacement for the much loved Canberra jet bomber in the low-level 'strike' (nuclear) role. They issued General Operation Requirement 339, then refined it as GOR 343 in March 1957.The Ministry bluntly stated that only consortia would be allowed to bid for this very lucrative contract. It was determined to force its reshaping of the aerospace industry through, against all opposition. Eventually, a merged group of companies including English Electric Aviation Ltd. (the manufacturer of the Canberra), Vickers-Armstrong (Aircraft) Ltd, the Bristol Aeroplane Company and several smaller firms, which now called themselves the British Aircraft Corporation, proved acceptable to the Government.
Shortly afterwards, the Minister of Defence, Ducan Sandys, (the former son-in-law of Winston Churchill) stood up in Parliament and spoke about the 1957 Defence White Paper, setting out the Government's position. It stately, flatly, that the era of manned aircraft was coming to an end. From now on, all that would be developed would be missiles, both for attack AND defence! Only a few existing projects, mainly the V-bombers (Britain's nuclear strike force) and the short-range interceptors to defend the V-bomber bases, would be allowed to continue. Perhaps appointing Sandys, a former commanding officer of the Royal Artillery's first 'Z Battery' of 3" unrifled anti-aircraft projectiles during WW2, and a complete rocket and missile fanatic, wasn't such a great idea after all......
TSR-2 was handicapped from the start by an incredibly ambitious specification. This required Mach 2 at altitude, and the ability to cruise at Mach 2.05 at 37-51,000 ft; dash speed, at Mach 2.35, was limited only by leading edge temperatures, with a theoretical maximum speed of Mach 3.0 at 45,000 ft. Mach 1.1 at 200 ft in all weathers, would be achieved using terrain-following radar (TFR - built by Ferranti) and an advanced autopilot. This was in the days before Very Large Scale Integration and the micro-processor, of course, and the earliest of the SSI - Small Scale Integration - digital circuits were just coming to market, so the electronics bay (seen open in the above photograph) seems rather crude by today's standards. All this, and the TSR-2 was supposed to have the ability to take-off from, and land on, non-conventional surfaces such as sections of the newly-built M1 Motorway between London and Leeds (rather like the tests which were conducted - much later - by the BAC Jaguar).
A reconnaissance package of cameras and sideways looking radar (SLR by EMI) could be carried as an alternative to 6,000 lb of internal stores and externally carried loads - although care would have had to be exercised when carrying nuclear weapons externally, due to the fact of their being heated too close to their safe limit by air friction! TSR-2 was to have a crew of two (pilot and navigator) in a incredibly slim fuselage, with a low-set tailplane and small wing - ideal for high-speed, low level flight. Power was to come from a pair of Rolls-Royce/Bristol Siddeley Olympus Mk 320 reheated turbojets (a close cousin to the engines which were used on Concorde) with a rated thrust of 22,000 lb each, or 30,600 lb with reheat.
The Ministry of Supply issued a contract in October, 1960; not for two or three prototypes, which would have been logical, to enable snags to be worked out, but for an initial batch of nine aircraft - to be built on production jigs! Any engineer will tell you that this is diabolical. You are 'freezing' the design at a stage where you are unsure WHAT problems might turn up in the flight test program (and there are ALWAYS problems). The Government made matters infinitely worse by keeping the 'dead hand of bureaucracy' firmly on the wheel. Not only did they keep control of everything through the Ministry of Defence (which would have been expected) but the Ministry of Supply kept incredibly tight control of certain contractors and sub-contractors working on the project, holding interminable meetings about almost anything. It is rumoured that a meeting about the placing of ONE switch in the cockpit layout took more than three hours! Also, the Government insisted on their choice of base for the test flying, which proved inconvenient for all parties. As can be imagined, this kind of meddling gave rise to both huge cost over-runs and demands for cancellation.
In the middle of all this, the elegant shape of 'XR219', the first TSR-2, was taking shape at the old Vickers facility at Weybridge, near London. This plant had produced hundreds of Wellington bombers during WW2, and it was trying to build another winner.
When XR219 was finally fitted out and ready to begin the flying program, it was delivered to RAF Boscombe Down, the home of the famous Empire Test Pilots' Schools, in Wiltshire. The first flight, on 27th September, 1964, was left in the capable hands of Wing Commander Roland Beamont, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, Croix de Guerre (Belgium). I was very fortunate to meet 'Bee' on several ocassions, and it would be true to say that his war exploits were only exceeded by his consummate skill as a test pilot; this was demonstrated during one test flight when the complex undercarriage of the TSR-2 deployed with the front pairs of the multi-wheel units pointing almost straight down, when they should have been nearly level. 'Bee' brought XR219 in for a 'greaser' of a landing, and the wheel bogies pivoted downwards as they touched the runway. Other snags followed, and along with weight growth (rather like my own - inevitable in aircraft!) this meant that the impossible original estimates had to be revised somewhat. However, despite the acrimony, by the 31st March, 1965, XR219 had completed 24 flights, and 'Bee' deemed it 'an outstanding technical success'.
There were, however, storm clouds gathering. The Conservative Government had fallen, and the new Labour administration, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was looking to cut costs. As well as this, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of the Defence Staff (until 1965) had been pressing the Australian Government NOT to buy the TSR-2, a course of action that they had been seriously contemplating, following several approaches by BAC. Mountbatten wanted the Australians to buy the Blackburn Buccaneer instead, a program he was very supportive of as it was designed as a strike aircraft for the Royal Navy's fleet carriers. Finally, General Dynamics stepped in and offered the Royal Australian Air Force a deal on their new TFX program, which was soon to be called the F-111. British politicians, alarmed at the TSR-2's cost over-runs, and ignoring the growing protests by over 10,000 BAC and Hawker Siddeley workers who had staged a rowdy march through the center of London, decided to pull the plug on the TSR-2 - and this is where the story becomes really nasty.
XR220, the aircraft pictured above, now on display at the RAF Museum, Cosford, was about to make its first flight on 6th April, 1965. It had been meant to join XR219 on the flying program much earlier, but whilst being delivered to Boscombe Down (on two low-loader trucks) it had suffered a bad accident. The driver of the first truck, which was carrying the fuselage onto the base at Boscombe Down, had swerved to avoid hitting the parked English Electric Lightning T.4 in which 'Bee' Beaumont had just arrived. The result? One test aircraft dumped unceremoniously on the tarmac, and the flight test program's expansion to cover carriage of external stores and high Mach numbers at low level well and truly delayed.
Now, on the morning of the 6th, XR220 had developed a faulty fuel pump during the pre-flight checks. Wing Commander James 'Jimmy' Dell, the Deputy Chief Test Pilot, had shut everything down and said that he was going to go to lunch and that they could make XR220's very first flight after that. At about this time the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan (later Prime Minister) stood up and gave a speech in Parliament during which he announced the cancellation of the TSR-2. 'Jimmy' Dell rushed back to the airfield, intending to get XR220 into the air, but was stopped from flying - the Ministry had impounded the aircraft where it sat!
The contractors - BAC - were instructed to hand over all materials, airframes, data and the vital jigs 'where is, as is'. Three of the airframes, including the only one to fly, XX219, were taken to Shoeburyness Ranges to act as targets for various munitions, and the rest destroyed. One nose section, used in crew testing, is on display on Brooklands Aviation Museum (and will be restored); an incomplete example, XR222, is with the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, and the most complete TSR-2 left, XR220, is featured in the above photograph, thanks to it being claimed by the RAF Museum.
What happened to the RAF's need for a low-level bomber, you say? I remember seeing a certain recruiting poster, the original of which is now VERY rare; it said (paraphrased) 'Join the RAF as an Engineering Officer and work on state-of-the-art aircraft like the F-111K!' Yes, the British ordered 50 'Aardvarks'.......which were later cancelled when that program's costs spiralled upwards faster than the F-111! How did the RAF manage, then? The Royal Air Force used a mix of F-4 Phantoms and Buccaneers, which is not what they wanted at all, and although the Buccaneer did turn out to be an excellent aircraft, it remained stubbornly subsonic (the developed, supersonic, stretched version which was offered by Blackburn's was turned down).
The TSR-2 program was the very last hurrah for the independent production of both fighter and bomber aircraft in the U.K. Thereafter, the only way that Britain could take part in front-line military aircraft production was in co-operation with either the French or the Germans, sometimes in conjunction with some of the smaller nations. The Douglas-Hume administration and Duncan Sandys had been devilishly effective in strangling creativity and reducing competition to almost zero in the aerospace industry. They wanted control - and got it. However, just like the committee who set out to design a horse, they ended up with a camel. Successive governments tried to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but the death of so many cutting edge programs was too much. The aerospace industry was reduced to being a minor player on the international stage, and tens of thousands lost their well-paid engineering jobs. The real irony in this, is that the truck carrying what turned out to be Britain's last bomber 'prototype', swerved and damaged it when trying to avoid what turned out to be Britain's last fighter (Roly Beaumont's parked English Electric Lightning). Oh, and the Australians? Well, the RAAF did indeed get their F-111 Aardvarks - just TEN years late and at a cost three times more than what they were expecting!
We had a potential winner in TSR-2 - and threw it on the scrapheap. Truly, this was the U.K.'s equivalent to Canada's CF-105 Arrow.