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 3 of 4)
Although it has never been proved, some believe the TSR-2’s 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, McNamara’s pet fighter-for-all-reasons, in exchange for U.S. backing of the IMF loan. “Britain had little option but to comply with America’s 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 didn’t come on, but shortly after takeoff, the updated starboard engine began to vibrate so severely that Beamont’s 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, here’s your chance to try out your Martin Baker [ejection seat].” After a long pause came the reply: “You’re 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 program—for 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 range—though 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 Exchequer’s 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.