Cancelled: Britain’s High-Mach Heartbreak
The TSR-2 bomber was a case of aeronautical genius foiled by political foolishness.
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
Ministry of Defense
(Page 2 of 4)
The project also suffered from political controversy. The influential Lord Mountbatten, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff and a career Royal Navy man who preferred the Navy’s 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 didn’t 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 320-22R’s low-pressure (LP) turbine drive shaft had fractured. Bristol engineers couldn’t 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 Kingdom’s 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 stand—the 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 project’s 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 can’t promise the engines won’t 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 takeoff—for 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 wouldn’t properly retract, an inoperative automatic fuel balancing system, unusable wing fuel tanks, and only partially functioning air brakes—and without automatic flight control and auto-stabilization systems—Beamont 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, Britain’s purchase of F-111s, and U.S. support for a desperately needed $8.4 billion loan to Britain from the International Monetary Fund.