Cancelled: Britain’s High-Mach Heartbreak

The TSR-2 bomber was a case of aeronautical genius foiled by political foolishness

The British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2 was to have been a supersonic bomber that would have dashed in under the Soviet Union’s 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)
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For an American teenager, 1963 was a great year to be living in London. Thanks to my dad’s 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 school’s unheated library, I’d 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 airplane’s 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 Britain’s 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 program’s 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 proposal—for an aircraft it called the P.17A—to meet the Air Ministry’s 1957 requirements. Moreover, English Electric had already created Britain’s 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 prototype’s 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, 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.


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