The British aircraft industry from the later part of WW1 up until the 1950’s was one of biggest in the world with a large number manufacturers building some of the most iconic planes of the time as well as creating groundbreaking technologies like the jet engine and onboard radar.
So how did such a great heritage end up like a Greek tragedy with on the one hand the decimation of the native aircraft industry and yet on the other, the UK having one of the largest national aerospace industries in the world?
The decline of the British aviation industry can be traced back to the end of the war. By then Britain was pretty much broke but there were still about 70 aircraft manufacturers, many of which were small and scattered around the country.
Whilst this decentralized approach to manufacturing suited wartime production and the threat of bombing, after the war there was too much duplication in the industry and the lack of orders made many of these companies unviable. Through takeovers, mergers, and bankruptcies by the 1960s this number had dropped dramatically.
But it wasn’t just market forces which brought about the closure of many businesses but also the action of the British government through what can only be described as incompetence, ignorance, political dogma and a belief by some in Whitehall that everything American was superior.
This can be exemplified by the case of the Miles M.52, a turbojet-powered supersonic research aircraft developed from 1942 to 47 in accordance with the secret Air Ministry Specification E.24/43. This was to build a supersonic aircraft capable of 1600km/h or 1000 mph and be able to climb to 36,000 ft or 11,000 meters in 1-1/2 minutes. This would be at the cutting edge technologies from aerodynamics to the engine design and would launch Britain into the supersonic age.
The M.52 was well on course to become the first supersonic jet by the end of 1946. But with the project was over 80% complete and the final tests just a few months away, the new Labour government under Clement Attlee cancelled it originally on the grounds of cost but also in that the Director of Scientific Research at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, Benjamin LOCKSPEISER, the man who actually cancelled the project, thought that planes were years away from flying supersonically or if it was even possible.
After the news broke there was a public outcry and the project was revived in 1947 but with scale models instead of full-size prototypes and just a few days before a test flight of a scale version M.52 that reached Mach 1.38, Chuck Yeager in the US broke the sound barrier in the Bell X1.
However, what wasn’t well known at the time was that the British Government had given the M.52 research to the US in 1944 on the understanding the high-speed research would be shared, though no such data was forthcoming from the US.
Unknown the British, The Bell Aircraft Company were given access to the research and came up with their own version but it had instability problems with the fixed tail. The Miles team had already come to the conclusion that an all-moving tail would be the solution.
When Bell switched to the same all-moving tail design the instability was fixed and the sound barrier was broken. Soon after the M.52 program was cancelled for good with the stated reason that the cost was “too high for too little return”, though follow on programs would eventually lead to the English Electric Lightning capable of Mach 2.27 in 1959.
It wasn’t until 1955, some eight years later that the British government finally acknowledged that the cancellation of the M.52 program had seriously set back the British progress in the field supersonic design and aeronautical progress in general.
This certainly was not the first time that government officials had failed to understand the potential of advanced aviation ideas. Frank Whittle patented the jet engine in 1930, 7 years before the Germans ran their first jet engine but it took until 1939 before the Air Ministry was finally convinced of the importance of his work.
Now whilst cancellation is an essential tool of the procurement process to weed out bad programs, ministerial shortsightedness and willingness to cut costs without understanding the implications had the effect of destroying even good programs.
But what would come later a few years later would deal a hammer blow to the British aviation industry. In 1957 the government published the now infamous white paper on defence, in which it thought that the British aircraft industry was in need of a major reorganization as it was deemed inefficient with too much duplication.
Although the had been mergers and takeovers the government wanted to force the remaining companies to merge into larger conglomerates by only issuing new contracts to the newly merged companies, those that didn’t follow the plan would be shut out of government money.
The paper was also influenced by the rapidly developing space and missile technologies of the day. Duncan Sandies, the then Minister of Defence stated in the paper that the era of manned combat was at an end and that high-speed interceptors and high altitude bombers would be redundant with the advent of surface to air missiles and Intercontinental ballistic missiles. A view that became thoroughly discredited in the following years.
The effect, however, was to stop many advanced aircraft programs dead in their tracks, aircraft that would have been a major boost to the industry and economy with export sales if they had gone ahead.
The Saunders Roe SR.177 was one such plane which not only combined jet and rocket power to give it an exceptional rate of climb and ability to operate where the jet engine would become inefficient due to the thin air but also had advanced interception radar which could scan for targets and lock on to them.
While the SR.177 was in the running to become the new NATO front line interceptor for Europe with Germany set to place orders, Aubry Jones the Minster of Supply had agreed to continued funding for five of the six prototypes and assured the Germans everything was going fine. Unbeknownst to Jones, Duncan Sandys also contacted the Germans and said the project was effectively dead.
These confusing messages from the British government and subsequent changes in the German Air ministries requirements eventually lead to the SR.177 being dropped in favour of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
Again, what wasn’t know at the time was that Lockheed had paid $22M in bribes and sales incentives to German, Italian, Dutch and Japanese officials to secure the so-called “deal of the century”. When it was made public there was outrage in Europe and the US. The deal very nearly collapsed Lockhead and was hugely embarrassing to the US which soon after banned any such payment to foreign government personnel.
The only aircraft project to survive the white paper was the English Electric Lightning because that was deemed too far in its development to cancel.
Although the war focused all the efforts of the British aviation industry on military aircraft, there was still the realisation that after the war Britain would need new civilian aircraft for transport around the empire and commonwealth.
In 1942 the Brabazon Committee was set up to look into this and came to the conclusion that the massive infrastructure that had been created in the US to build bombers and military transport could be readily converted to build the future civilian aircraft, which the British and Commonwealth countries had little experience in the design and manufacture of, and would be forced to buy from America.
It was recommended that interim conversion of bombers including the Lancaster, Lincoln and Halifax should be done into civilian airliners but also that seven new types of aircraft be developed from small short hop versions to transatlantic airliners to fly popular routes like London to New York.
Of all the Brabazon designs, the most adventurous and risky of these would become the De Havilland Comet, the worlds first jet airliner. The design was so advanced De Havilland had to develop both the airframe and the engines because in 1945 there were no turbojet engine manufacturers anywhere in the world working on a design that was powerful enough or economical enough for transatlantic flight at the proposed altitude of 40,000 ft.
The Comet first entered service in 1951 and by 1953, Popular mechanics wrote that Britain had a three to five year lead over the rest of the world in jet airliners. Although during the design, the Comet was subject to the most rigorous tests of any contemporary airliner, it was still the first aircraft of its type and many of the features of the advanced design had not been tried in service before so it was effectively a flying testbed which the rest of the world looked to for not only inspiration but to see if there were any flaws.
But in 1953 the first of 3 fatal crashes due to structural issues grounded the Comet fleet. After intensive pressure testing in a custom made water tank it was found the stress created around the corners of the large square windows was much higher than expected. This combined with less than perfect holes from punch riveting instead of drilled rivets and the repeated pressurisation at altitude caused metal fatigue and cracks in the airframe which in time lead to catastrophic decompression at altitude and the loss of the aircraft.
In the years that followed the Comet was redesigned but Britains lead in the airliner business was lost. All the existing Comet orders were cancelled which allowed the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 to catch up and avoid the mistakes of the Comet.
Although the Comet was the first transatlantic jet airliner, by the time the Comet 4 returned the market in 1958, the American 707 and DC-8 were larger, faster, cheaper and more economic to run.
Even though other technically advanced British built airliners were launched in the 1960’s including the Vickers VC-10, Hawker Siddeley Trident and BAC One Eleven, none of them could compete with the dominance of the American manufactures.
As the 1970s and 80’s came around it looked like the British aviation industry might go the same way as its car and motorcycle industries with the remaining businesses consolidating and gradually moved away from building complete aircraft and becoming partners in multinational programs like the SEPECAT Jaguar, Panavia Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon.
By the time we get to 1999, what was left of the old aviation companies, namely the General Electric Company and British Aerospace were finally rolled into one with the formation of BAE Systems and in 2006 they sold their 20% share of Airbus which it had inherited from British Aerospace and this saw the end of UK owned civil airliner production.
Now while BAE Systems may have pulled out of assembling complete aircraft, they have diversified across the military sector and have grown to become not just Britains biggest military supplier but Britain largest manufacturer and the third-largest military contractor in the world.
No other defence company covers such a broad range of platforms and services including everything from warships to armoured vehicles to aircraft to advanced intelligence and cyber operations. Only Boeing and Lockheed Martin are larger.
Through acquisitions of US defence contractors like United Defence and Amor Holdings, BAE systems is now one of the largest defence contractors to the US DoD with over 30,000 workers in the US alone.
They are also only Non-US military supplier allowed to participate in the Pentagons most sensitive technology programs, not least the F-35 joint strike fighter as well as other top-secret cyber and intelligence work.
The other British success story is Rolls-Royce, again through mergers and acquisitions of not only the major players in the British aero-engine industry but also international acquisitions like the American Allison Engine Company, Rolls-Royce has grown to be the second-largest maker of aircraft engines in the world after General Electric and a major player in marine power systems and power generation and is also a supplier to the F-35 project.
So from the dark days of the past, the British aviation industry has morphed into a world-leading Aerospace and defence industry, quite a turn around from the 1950’s. Its used technical expertise and ingenuity to become a world leader by proxy, by supplying the parts and systems that go into what was the competition.
With new groundbreaking technologies like the Sabre Hypersonic hybrid air-breathing rocket engine developed by Ex Rolls-Royce engineers and which could revolutionise future air travel with hypersonic speeds to the announcement of the 6th generation Tempest fighter project being developed in corporation with the UK Ministry of defence, BEA Systems, Rolls-Royce and Italian Leonardo S.p.A, it looks like the future could be even brighter for the British Aerospace industry.
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