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British Airliner Development

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As the tide of the Second World War turned in the Allies favour, some eyes were already looking towards peaceful times. One set of eyes was the committee headed by Lord Brabazon of Tara and they were focused on the civil aircraft scene.

The committee saw that Britain's aircraft industry had, by necessity, specialised in warplane production. Promising modern civil designs of the 1930s had been cast aside in the race to defeat Hitler's Luftwaffe and bomb his cities and industry. The USA, on the other hand, had no such specialisation. They had time to develop and prefect civil air transport and looked like cornering the market after the War. Something had to be done about that.

The purpose was not to design immediate post-war aircraft, as war surplus equipment and bomber conversions would meet that market. The aim was to develop the next generation of civil aircraft for Britain and the Commonwealth, to improve links and transport quality, to economise and reduce transit times.

The Plan

The plan was to develop and produce a range of aircraft types that would be useful to the British Civil market and, of course, to the rest of the world. The Americans had a head start, but by using modern technology, the British would give them a run for their money. So advanced were they, that some were before their time and destined to fail. The biggest failure was the biggest aircraft, the Bristol Brabazon I, which was too advanced for the construction methods of the day. However, much was learnt from it. The US industry was more concerned with developing the old technology to worry about this failure, but the Brits had a few tricks up their sleeve.

The De Havilland Comet

The DH106 Comet was the world's first jet airliner. Powered by four Rolls-Royce Ghost turbojets, it was designed to fly high and fast. High meant flying above bad weather and air turbulence, fast meant getting there in less time; New York was only twelve hours flying time away from London instead of eighteen hours by piston-engines competitors. This was a dead cert to win long and medium distance routes. The competition at the time were all US aircraft, developed from wartime transports and bombers.

 Service Ceiling (ft)Cruising Speed (kts)
DH Comet42,000452
Douglas DC625,000308
Lockheed Constellation23,700265
Boeing Stratocruiser27,000295

It had four-engine safety, as had the others, and looked like a world leader when it entered service with BOAC1 in 1952. Unfortunately, it was let down by poor technology, not in its engines, but in the pressurised fuselage. Geoffrey De Havilland insisted on square windows to be different from the round portholes of the US competition and this proved to be the downfall of the design. There were some pilot error accidents that could be put down to lack of familiarisation with a pioneering design but there were a number of unexplained accidents with the aircraft disintegrating in mid-air. Services were suspended.

After much investigation and testing, it was found that the thin exterior skin of the aircraft was subject to metal fatigue2. Stresses built up due to the pressurisation-depressurisation cycle during landing and take-off and cracks developed from the corner of one of the square cabin windows which lead to a catastrophic depressurisation; it literally blew itself to pieces in the air.

After redesign, it was reintroduced in 1958, but it now had a reputation. In the meantime, the Boeing 707, the first US jet airliner had entered service with a similar performance, followed by the Douglas DC 8 of similar appearance and technological superiority3. The 707 and Boeing never looked back as the Comet slid into the also-ran's place. Only 69 improved Comet 4s were built, a victim of pioneering design.

Note - Both designs are still going strong as military aircraft. The Comet 4 was the basis for the RAF's Nimrod Maritime Reconnaissance and Patrol aircraft and the Boeing 707 is the basis for the E3 AWACS aircraft used by the USAF and NATO.

The Vickers Viscount

Another Brabazon design was for a medium range turboprop. Vickers developed their Model 609 carrying 32 passengers powered by four Rolls-Royce Dart turboprops. It was redesignated the Model 630 and given the name Viscount. Once again, it was a first, the first turboprop airliner to enter service. Unfortunately, by the time it was ready for airline use in 1950, it was not an economical aircraft in terms of passenger capacity, so Vickers 'stretched' it to carry 53 and redesignated it the Type 700.

This was the winner that entered service in 1953. Vickers had also incorporated modifications to allow it to be used in the USA and the US operators snapped it up. It was a success, 436 being built and operated by 60 companies in 40 countries. The last one left the production line in 1964 and most lasted until the mid-70s in commercial service. Some are still being used as executive transports.

The Bristol Britannia

This was the long-range turboprop airliner of the Brabazon committee's types. It was designed closely to BOAC's requirements but, unlike the Viscount, it had developmental problems, some of which were linked to the requirement for an alternative piston-engined design and some to icing of the four Rolls-Royce Proteus engines. As the design progressed, the capacity rose from only 36 passengers to 90 but by the time of its introduction into service in 1956, the writing was already on the wall for long range propeller airliners.

It was a handsome aircraft, of that there was little doubt, but looks do not win orders. Only 85 were built. After BOAC service most survived as charter aircraft (Britannia Airways started with them), some as freighters into the mid-70s and the last survivor flew into preservation in 1997.

Note - Once again, the military aspects have been more successful. Canadair built a model of the Britannia, the CL 44 which, as the CC106 Yukon, were used as freighters by the RCAF. This was developed into the CP 107 Argus Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft, although re-engined with piston-engines for low speed economy. This was replaced by the CP 140 Aurora which is a Canadian version of the Lockheed P3 Orion, itself a development of the Lockheed L188 Electra airliner!

The Result

Once again, the British paid the price for being innovative. The other big problem was that, apart from Vickers, the design companies stuck to BOACs requirements, which made them less competitive in the World Market. They were aiming for only one market. Boeing, on the other hand, had a basic design that could be tailored to the customer's requirements and so were able to adapt to the changing demands of their customers.

Thus the Brits lost again – or did they? Our aircraft did have an aesthetic appeal that some of the US aircraft lacked. Let us take pride in the fact that the first, and still only, supersonic transport had a great deal of our research. technology and skills incorporated in it. At least we did it with the French and not the USA. Vive le Concorde4. And that looks good too!

1British Overseas Airways, the national international carrier, which combined with BEA (British European Airways), the domestic carrier, to form British Airways in 1974.2The Vickers Valiant (in service from 1955), one of the trio of V Bombers, was designed at the same time as the Comet and it too suffered from metal fatigue, this time in the wing main spar. It was discovered by routine testing in 1965 after the role was changed to Low Level Penetration and withdrawn before any accidents occurred.3This Researcher thinks that, despite the technology, the Comet was by far the most aesthetic of these aircraft.4Also known, in France, as l'oiseau magique (the magic bird) apparently.

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