07 September 2010

The Canceled British Aircraft that Cost the UK Industry

I bet you thought you were going to be reading about the BAC TSR.2 when you came across the title of today's post, but while there's no arguing the effects that the TSR.2 cancellation had on the British aerospace industry, there was a canceled aircraft that came before the TSR.2 that some have argued cost British industry far more than could ever have been imagined. In 1951 the government had issued a specification for a new long range strategic transport that would be able to move 120 troops long distances to replace the elderly piston-powered Handley Page Hastings. It was envisioned that this new transport could also move personnel and equipment rapidly around the world and deploy as necessary with the new V-force bombers that were soon to enter service with the Royal Air Force. The main condition of the specification was that it had be based on existing design. 

Five companies submitted proposals, with Bristol submitting a version of the Britannia turboprop transport, Saunders Roe submitting a variant of their Duchess flying boat, and Handley Page, Avro, Vickers, and Short submitting transports based on their bomber designs (Victor, Vulcan, Valiant, and Sperrin, respectively) and powered by the new Rolls-Royce Conway turbofan. De Havilland submitted a stretched version of its Comet 1 jetliner. Bristol's Britannia variant was eliminated early due to it being too slow, along with Saunders Roe's flying boat. The Sperrin was next eliminated as the transport version had a fuselage only 9 feet wide with accommodation for only 50 passengers or personnel. Handley Page and Avro's submissions were judged too risky for the RAF contract, leaving only Vickers and De Havilland as the remaining designs not eliminated.

It was realized early on after Vickers was named the winner of the RAF competition that what the RAF needed was not terribly dissimilar with BOAC's need for a long range jetliner that offered more capacity and range than the De Havilland Comet 1. The original specifications that Vickers won was then amended with the requirement that the jet transport also earn a certificate of airworthiness from the civil aviation authorities. With the new amended specifications in place, an order was placed with Vickers for the V1000 prototype aircraft, serial number XD662, in March 1953. 

The V1000 would be the RAF transport version and the anticipated civilian version was the VC7. With construction of the V1000 prototype underway in the summer of 1954, the RAF ordered six aircraft with an eventual requirement of twelve aircraft. BOAC was regularly consulted through this phase as they wanted to put the VC7 on the North Atlantic routes to Canada and the United States as well as on the longer Empire routes that couldn't be served by the Comet 1 jetliner. Besides BOAC, Trans Canada Airlines (Air Canada's predecessor) and Pan American showed significant interest in the VC7. Even BEA expressed an interest in the VC7 for its longer European services.

To meet BOAC's wishes, the V1000/VC7 was a bit larger than the RAF desired, mainly out of a need for the wing fuel capacity to meet BOAC's range requirements. Four Rolls-Royce Conway engines were mounted in the wing root similarly to the Vickers Valiant only the wing was larger and more swept with Kuchemann wingtips (similar to the 707-320BAdv and 707-320C's wingtips) and low mounted. The fuselage had six-abreast seating with a 12.5 foot diameter. This was significant at the time, as Boeing was wrestling with the cabin diameter on its anticipated Boeing 707 and Douglas at the time was still contemplating five-abreast seating for its coming DC-8. Unfortunately prototype construction at Vickers' Wisley facility showed that the V1000 prototype's weight would be about 18,000 lbs higher than planned.

It would have been a simple matter to have upgraded the Conway turbofans, but for whatever reason, BOAC's enthusiasm for the VC7 cooled as the planned weight with the intended engine would rule out London-New York nonstop services. Ironically, several years later when BOAC ordered the 707-430, it would have Conway turbofan engines that were upgraded that would have worked on the VC7! Government meetings in September 1955 formalized BOAC's disinterest in the VC7 and suggestions were made that De Havilland put forth a stretched version of the Comet as well as refinements to the Bristol Britannia as being suitable for BOAC's needs. In addition, BOAC looked further ahead to the mid-1960s for a possible supersonic transport. Despite BOAC's incomprehensible stance, Vickers anticipated the V1000 prototype's first flight in June 1956 with the first production aircraft flying in 1959 with inaugural airline services in late 1959/early 1960 (not too far off from when the Boeing 707 began its passenger services). In a bid to maintain the competitiveness of the VC7, Vickers explored other engine options and even looked at a version of the VC7 with each of the Conway turbofans in its own podded nacelle under the wing, not unlike that of the 707 and DC-8's layout.

By this point the RAF was entering a period of fiscal austerity and it's most expensive item to date was the V1000/VC7 project. Without mentioning the V1000/VC7, the British government cautioned the RAF to scale back its expenditures. Politics came into the picture with the prospect of the end of Comet production which would have affected one of the Comet's main subcontractors, Shorts in Belfast. A desire to keep Shorts busy shifted the support amongst some MPs in Parliament against the Vickers jetliner. In addition, the Britannia was having teething problems with its turboprop engines and was selling slow. Some ministers in the government felt that support should be given to the Britannia program instead of embarking on the all-new Vickers jetliner. 

Some historical accounts point the finger at BOAC for planning to procure US jets from the start and with the support of some in the government, did what it could to commit formally to the VC7. A spirited debate in Parliament dragged on for weeks with the supporters of the Vickers projects openly declaring that the VC7's cancellation would "give the large jet market to the Americans for the next 20 years". Rather obtusely, several government officials proclaimed that the planned performance of the Boeing 707 and DC-8 would make them cost-prohibitive for many of the world's airlines and the speed advantage over the Comet and Britannia would not matter to most passengers! With the V1000 prototype 75% complete, the project was ordered shut down by the British government on 11 November 1955, and this was despite intensive lobbying by Trans Canada Airlines. 

For many observers, it was the cancellation of the Vickers VC7 and not the TSR.2 where the British aerospace industry lost its way. Sir George Edwards, managing director of Vickers and the chief designer of the V1000/VC7, had lamented that BOAC and the government had simply handed over the lead in jetliner technology to the Americans for "generations to come."

Source: Stuck on the Drawing Board: Unbuilt British Commercial Aircraft Since 1945 by Richard Payne. Tempus Publishing, 2004, p38-42


  1. BOAC's disinterest? Uninterested surely? Very interesting article though with much to contemplate. More "What if's"!

  2. It makes me want to beat MY head against the wall.... How could they have just given up on it.... I can see why the 707 was successful.... It was supposed to be a tanker.... Boeing (if) it won the contract would have sold the airframe but as an airliner it got the glory for changing the world and went on to dominate civil aviation... something Europe had literally in the palm of its hand from the get go... which it has only recently been able to capture albeit through cooperation... but what if? Seriously? What if???