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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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.

BAC pleaded for a limited test-flight program for the two flyable prototypes, but the Air Ministry refused. The wooden mockup in Warton was transported to the far end of a runway and burned. XR219, the only TSR-2 to have flown, was sent to a gunnery range for vulnerability testing—and was eventually shot to pieces.

Two non-flying TSR-2 airframes survived the cancellation and currently reside in museums in Duxford and Cosford. They are the sole remnants of Britain’s most ambitious technological accomplishment in aviation up to that time.

After three decades of reflection, Roland Beamont concluded, “The TSR-2 was simply too much for our industry to cope with.” He’s probably right; the once-proud British aircraft industry, racked by massive consolidations, was never the same after the TSR-2’s demise. With the exception of the subsonic Harrier jump jet, every RAF and Royal Navy combat aircraft since then has been developed jointly with, or bought from, other countries.

Ironically, after killing the TSR-2, Britain cancelled its plan to buy F-111s from the United States because their price had escalated beyond even what the TSR-2 would have cost. It wasn’t until 1980 that the RAF finally acquired an aircraft that could match the TSR-2. The Panavia Tornado, jointly developed by Britain, Germany, and Italy, is still a mainstay of the Royal Air Force, along with another multi-nation product, the brand-new Typhoon. But, oh, what might have been.

David Noland, a lifelong TSR-2 fan, writes about aviation from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley.


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