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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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.

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.


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