Skip to comments.Cancelled: Britainís High-Mach Heartbreak (TSR-2)
Posted on 03/31/2013 11:03:38 PM PDT by sukhoi-30mki
Cancelled: Britains High-Mach Heartbreak
The TSR-2 bomber was a case of aeronautical genius foiled by political foolishness.
For an American teenager, 1963 was a great year to be living in London. Thanks to my dads job in international marketing, I was a Beatles fan six months before my pals back home knew there was such a thing as a Beatle. And as a budding airplane buff, I had a front-row seat for the emergence of another symbol of British national pride: the TSR-2 supersonic bomber, a twin-engine, low-level hotshot that I thought was the coolest-looking airplane ever.
Shivering in my prep schools unheated library, Id scan Flight International magazine for TSR-2 progress reports. Although over budget and behind schedule even before it flew, the TSR-2, I read, was going to best the General Dynamics F-111, a nuclear-capable jet being developed for the same terrain-hugging mission. The British bomber was crammed with cutting-edge design features like an automatic fuel-transfer system that maintained the airplanes center of gravity as fuel was consumed, and full-span flaps, made more efficient at low speeds by a system that blew engine-bleed air at high speed across them. With these innovations, as well as state-of-the-art radar and electronics, the TSR-2 would re-energize Britains weakened role as a world leader in aviation.
It never happened. Dogged by technical problems, cost overruns, political infighting, and bureaucratic ineptitude, the TSR-2 was cancelled after two dozen test flights. The programs cost: half a billion dollars. When I heard the news, I was crushed. British aviation fans have never gotten over what they consider a cold-blooded murder.
Nearly 50 years later, TSR-2 cultists still talk of conspiracies, coverups, and sinister U.S. efforts to sabotage the project. There was little doubt that America would have a definite interest in seeing the British aviation industry reduced to such a level of ineffectiveness that it would be unable to continue in its present structure, writes aviation historian Frank Barnett-Jones in his 1994 book TSR-2: Phoenix or Folly.
In 1957, the British Air Ministry set down extremely demanding requirements for an airplane to replace the Canberra light bomber: an all-weather, long-range, low-level penetrator that could deliver nuclear or conventional bombs, yet had high-altitude, supersonic dash capability as well. Oh, and one more thing: It would also have to operate from rough, short airfields.
The contract was awarded in 1960 to a consortium of three companies: Canberra manufacturer English Electric; Vickers-Armstrong, builder of the Valiant V-bomber; and engine maker Bristol. In a shotgun wedding, with the air ministry holding the gun, the three firms joined to form the British Aircraft Corporation, or BAC.
English Electric and Vickers-Armstrong, two proud old firms, were former rivals, and from the start there was hostility. Vickers had been named the prime contractor, despite the fact that English Electric had come up with a much more detailed proposalfor an aircraft it called the P.17Ato meet the Air Ministrys 1957 requirements. Moreover, English Electric had already created Britains two most successful military jets, the Canberra and the rakishly swept-wing Lightning fighter. By contrast, the Vickers only military jet, the Valiant, had been a disaster.
Muddled construction logistics for the TSR-2 program seemed to be setting the stage for another. The prototypes front half was designed and built by Vickers at its plant in Weybridge, the rear half by English Electric in Warton, 200 miles away. Despite the unwieldy arrangement, when the two halves were mated in Weybridge in March 1963, they miraculously fit together.
The project also suffered from political controversy. The influential Lord Mountbatten, Britains Chief of Defence Staff and a career Royal Navy man who preferred the Navys subsonic Blackburn Buccaneer, was a TSR-2 foe. And because the TSR-2 contract was awarded during the reign of the Conservative Party, it became a target of the Labour Party, which railed against the bomber as a white-elephant prestige project and colossal waste of the taxpayers money.
It didnt help that the program was struggling to get off the ground. In February 1964, during a ground run in a Vulcan testbed aircraft, a test TSR-2 engine blew up. The Olympus 320-22Rs low-pressure (LP) turbine drive shaft had fractured. Bristol engineers couldnt figure out why, but beefed up the shaft.
Two months later, the first TSR-2 prototype, tail number XR219, was disassembled and the pieces trucked to the United Kingdoms flight test center at Boscombe Down, a messy bit of logistics that delayed the start of testing by three months. During the summer of 1964, pre-flight tests progressed at a disheartening pace. Despite round-the-clock efforts, with engineers and technicians sleeping in tents next to the runway, the complex aircraft was plagued with myriad problems, particularly in the engines and landing gear.
In July, another Olympus blew up on a test standthe fourth failure of the low-pressure turbine shaft.
Desperate to get into the air before the 1964 election and the anticipated Labour victory, the TSR-2 projects top brass summoned test pilot Roland Beamont, a highly decorated fighter pilot, the first British aviator to fly faster than sound, and famous, as Bee, to anyone who could tell a prop from a turbine. We cant promise the engines wont explode above 97 percent power, he was informed. On the other hand, a safe takeoff requires 100 percent power for the first two minutes. What do you think about this, Bee? In a classic display of British stiff-upper-lipness, Beamont agreed to accept the risk of an engine explosion on takeofffor one flight. He later conceded, The first flight was more a political gesture than a logical stage in a professionally conducted technical programme.
And so on September 27, 1964, Beamont taxied the prototype out to Runway 24 at Boscombe Down. With explosion-prone engines, landing gear that wouldnt properly retract, an inoperative automatic fuel balancing system, unusable wing fuel tanks, and only partially functioning air brakesand without automatic flight control and auto-stabilization systemsBeamont took off. I felt we could cope with anything, he later wrote in Phoenix Into Ashes, except perhaps a disintegrating LP shaft.
Fortunately, the LP shafts held together for the required two minutes, and Beamont made two wide circuits of the field with gear down at 7,000 feet, pronouncing the handling qualities marvelous. But immediately upon touchdown, a jackhammer vibration in the landing gear so disoriented him that he nearly lost control. Luckily, after a few seconds the vibration stopped, allowing Beamont to pop the drag chute and bring the airplane to a safe stop. Total flight time: 14 minutes.
With the symbolic first flight out of the way and a doubter or two perhaps mollified, XR219 was laid up for engine replacement and landing gear work. In the interim, the Labour government won the election, and new Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Defence Minister Denis Healey paid a visit to the United States. Among the topics of discussion were the future of the TSR-2, Britains purchase of F-111s, and U.S. support for a desperately needed $8.4 billion loan to Britain from the International Monetary Fund.
Although it has never been proved, some believe the TSR-2s fate was sealed on that trip by an unofficial deal between Healey and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: Britain would cancel the TSR-2 and buy the F-111, McNamaras pet fighter-for-all-reasons, in exchange for U.S. backing of the IMF loan. Britain had little option but to comply with Americas conditions and cancel the TSR-2, Barnett-Jones concluded darkly.
On the last day of 1964, shortly after Wilson and Healey returned to London, the TSR-2 made its long-delayed second flight. Although Bristol engineers believed they had finally solved the LP shaft problem, they thoughtfully provided Beamont with two red lights in the cockpit to warn of an impending shaft failure. The lights didnt come on, but shortly after takeoff, the updated starboard engine began to vibrate so severely that Beamonts vision blurred. By jockeying the throttle, he was able to stop the vibration, and returned to land immediately. Once again the landing gear shimmied violently upon touchdown.
When no cause for either problem could be found, the test team tried again two days later. This time, right after takeoff, the two LP-shaft warning lights came on. But the preternaturally cool Beamont correctly dismissed them as false alarms. Moments later, engine no. 2 reprised its eye-blurring other vibration, and the pilot cut the third flight short; it lasted eight minutes, capped by the now-familiar post-touchdown landing-gear shimmy.
The engine vibration turned out to be caused by a faulty fuel pump. Replacing the pump solved the engine problem, but the landing gear continued to misbehave. On the fifth test flight, both two-wheel main gear struts froze in a position that would have allowed only the front wheels to touch on landing. It was not clear that a safe landing was even possible.
Beamont nonchalantly radioed his backseat systems operator, Don Bowen, Okay Don, heres your chance to try out your Martin Baker [ejection seat]. After a long pause came the reply: Youre not going to get rid of me that easily. Beamont proceeded to grease a featherlight landing on the front wheels of the dangling gear, which then rotated into the proper position. The descent rate on touchdown was later determined to have been just six inches per second, a combination of piloting skill and aircraft controllability that perhaps saved the airplane, the crew, and the programfor a while, at least.
Due to a daunting array of glitches and misadjustments, it took five more flights to get the landing gear safely up and locked, a milestone that Beamont celebrated with a 550-mph, low pass down the runway. After five frustrating months and 10 white-knuckle test flights, the TSR-2 was finally flying like a real airplane. For all its mechanical malfunctions, the craft had at least one bright spot: It handled beautifully.
By this time, however, the customer was having second thoughts. An October 1964 Royal Air Force report on the airplane noted the high cost of the TSR-2 as its outstanding and all-pervading shortcoming, but went on to kvetch about other failings, including weapons load and rangethough both exceeded the original RAF requirements.
On the morning of April 6, 1965, the second TSR-2 prototype, XR220, was scheduled to make its maiden flight at Boscombe Down, but a bad fuel pump had needed replacement, so test pilot Jimmy Dell went out for lunch at a social club just up the road in Amesbury. There, on a television set tuned to the Chancellor of the Exchequers annual budget speech, Dell heard the announcement: The TSR-2 program would be cancelled. He rushed back to the airfield, but he was too late. Although XR220 was now ready to fly, the Air Ministry had already impounded the aircraft.
BAC pleaded for a limited test-flight program for the two flyable prototypes, but the Air Ministry refused. The wooden mockup in Warton was transported to the far end of a runway and burned. XR219, the only TSR-2 to have flown, was sent to a gunnery range for vulnerability testingand was eventually shot to pieces.
Two non-flying TSR-2 airframes survived the cancellation and currently reside in museums in Duxford and Cosford. They are the sole remnants of Britains most ambitious technological accomplishment in aviation up to that time.
After three decades of reflection, Roland Beamont concluded, The TSR-2 was simply too much for our industry to cope with. Hes probably right; the once-proud British aircraft industry, racked by massive consolidations, was never the same after the TSR-2s demise. With the exception of the subsonic Harrier jump jet, every RAF and Royal Navy combat aircraft since then has been developed jointly with, or bought from, other countries.
Ironically, after killing the TSR-2, Britain cancelled its plan to buy F-111s from the United States because their price had escalated beyond even what the TSR-2 would have cost. It wasnt until 1980 that the RAF finally acquired an aircraft that could match the TSR-2. The Panavia Tornado, jointly developed by Britain, Germany, and Italy, is still a mainstay of the Royal Air Force, along with another multi-nation product, the brand-new Typhoon. But, oh, what might have been.
David Noland, a lifelong TSR-2 fan, writes about aviation from his home in New Yorks Hudson Valley.
The British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2 was to have been a supersonic bomber that would have dashed in under the Soviet Unions radar to deliver nuclear weapons. Taking off from Wiltshire, England, the TSR-2 eventually pushed past Mach 1 but had to fly its first nine tests gear down.
Ministry of Defense
I’d still happily exchange that for the HS2 high speed rail boondoggle.
You mean like the XB70?
Note that the general configuration of the EAP was pretty much copied by the Typhoon.
They built two Valkyries - One was rammed by a second plane during a photo-op fly-by for GE engines with a couple of the Century-series fighters.
I am surprised the remaining B-70 wasn’t used for boost-launching orbiting satellites usin its very large bomb bay: The SR-71 can go higher, go faster, but can’t do that with an external load such as a rocket or anti-satellite missile. The B-52 regularly boost-launched X-15’s, but can’t go as high a B-70, nor as fast. If you boost-launch, the satellite-carrying missile can be much smaller, cheaper. Or the same missile can carry the more weight with less fuel. The SR-71 did attempt drone launches over China and Russia, so the “theory” of very high speed separation worked “some” of the time, but only a very specialized geometry could be used for the drone to match the external shock waves above the SR-71. There were a lot of drone failures, and that program was dropped as well.
(F-15 can carry anti-satellite missiles, don’t recall when the last ASAT test was run. No way a plane can deploy high enough, fast enough into the right flight profile to intercept a ICBM though.)
Not quite. In 1973, Aviation writer Bill Gunston said if he had to pick two British jet aircraft progans that were a success, one would be the Valiant. To specificarions, on budjet, on time. From prototype contract to produvrion deliveries. six years, only one more than Boeing took for the B-47.
Where fatigue problems developed in the 60s was bringing it down from high alitude to low level strike which it wasn't designed for. But even here there was a solution, which Vickers had flown in 1953: The Vickers Type 673 Valiant B.2, where the only low altitude limitation was thrust available
In many ways that was symptomatic of the real problem with British Military aviation. They'd produce an aircraft, put it into production. Then develop an improved version, and do nothing with it.
How many B-52s would be flying today is the Pentagon froze the design at the B-52C?
Panavia was helped a lot because BAC had kept the plans for the Vickers-Supermarine 583 circa. 1962
OR.356 1962 planned in service date 1970
MRCA agreemaent 1969 ISD 1979
Consorting is nice, but maintaining a healthy industry ans the political will to use it is what really counts.
From the nation that gave the world the Spitfire - how far the mighty have fallen.
When the current generation of British Baby Boomers stumbles into it's early grave brought on by their lifetimes of juvenile behavior, all that will be left is a grim encampment of Muslims and Jamaicans regressing to the Stone Age.
It will be a place of no importance, sort of a comedy show.
Things like the aircraft and electronics that they used to be famous for will be just an asterisk in the Chinese history books that will dominate the future.
The destruction of English Electric, the makers of the incomparable Lightning, and the failure of the TSR-2 was one of aviation history’s great tragedies. It’s possible that no airplane, not even the Spitfire, was loved as devotedly by its pilots as the Lightning.
After English Electric was folded into BAC and the TSR-2 was cancelled, the UK never again made any truly great aircraft by themselves. Concorde, Jaguar, Tornado, and Eurofighter/Typhoon were all joint ventures with the perfidious Continentals.
Another great crime against the lady in blue was the cancellation of the Canadian Avro Arrow interceptor. Like the TSR-2, there are still angry conspiracy theorists who blame it all on American meddling in order to build up our own aviation industry.
The Avro Arrow was another great design that unfortunately would have turned out to have not much of a mission had it gone into production.
The Mach 2.5, 50,000 foot interceptor mission became obsolete pretty quickly. About all the Arrow could have done effectively would be to serve as a deterrent against the B-58 Hustler (which some Arrowphiles probably think would have been an OK role.....;-)
My mom called in an order to the Ascani grocery for later delivery (as small stores did in those days before supermarkets took over).
Some time later, the back door bell rang and I went to answer it. There, with boxes of mom's groceries, was none other than Gen. Fred Ascani! (The general was visiting his parents while on leave and was helping out with orders.) He and I got the groceries into the kitchen and he left.
Just after he left, mom came back to the kitchen and saw the groceries were on the table. “Mom, do you know who delivered the groceries? Fred Ascani; GENERAL Fred Ascani!” Mom acted as if generals delivered groceries to her every day — I don't think she really believed me. I could hardly wait to tell my friends.
The Harrier for one.
The only comedy is your ridiculous prattle about the UK.
Britain, from 1945 to the mid/late 60’s, built not only aircraft which matched and surpassed America and the Soviet Union, but built rockets and other advanced weapons which were the equal and in some caees, the superior of the US/USSR. All this with less resources than the US or USSR.
The tragedy is that unlike America and Russia, the UK govts, both Conservative and (esp) Labour, utterly failed to support these superb breakthroughs, and cancelled many of them.
By the time the Panavia Tornado was developed in the early 1970's, better quality aerospace materials made it possible to lighten the weight of a "swing wing" plane quite a bit, and that's why the Tornado came out to be a physically small plane.
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