The British Airliner Collection at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford

The start of World War II meant the abrupt end to the once proud British aircraft building industry. In the wake of cessation of hostilities and the capitulation of Germany, the British naively believed that they could more or less pick up where they had left off. Little did they realise that by then the Americans had already widened the gap, technologically at least, that would make it near impossible for the British ever to catch up.

In any case, after the war Winston Churchill set up the Brabazon committee, the aim of which was to explore the needs of the British aviation industry for it to be best prepared to meet the needs of the British Empire. Which was probably the second mistake, because by then the cracks were already beginning to show that would eventually lead to the Empire collapsing under the heavy burden of the costs necessary to maintain it on the one hand, and the awakening urge for independence by the former collonies and dominions.

The Brabazon committee gets its name from the first Baron Brabazon of Tara. The committee came up with a list of five types of aircraft that would be needed in future. The list was later extend to seven to include sub-types and categories of aircraft.

Tragically, it is probably safe to say that every one of the aircraft proposed by the Brabazon committee, perhaps with the exception of the Vickers Viscount, was a commercial failure. And some of the aircraft, like the Bristol Brabazon, never even entered into service.

Fortunately, some of the aircraft the were built as the result of the Brabazon committee’s requirements are still perfectly preserved today in the IWM Duxford near Cambridge.

Type IIa – The Airspeed Ambassador

Type IIa described a medium-range piston engine aircraft intended as a replacement for the Douglas DC-3. The Airpseed Ambassador is often referred to as the Elizabethan, as British European Airways introduced its Elizabethan European Service with this aircraft.

The Elizabethan had a capacity for sixty passengers. Only 23 of the aircraft were built, of which BEA had ordered 20 and that operated with the carrier for six years between 1952 and 1958. They found a second home with charter operator Dan Air.

Type IIb – The Vickers Viscount

Type IIb described a medium-range turboprop aircraft with a pressurized cabin that was intended to serve not so busy short- and medium-range destinations.

The Viscount proved quite a success. It had a seating capacity of 75 and a total of 445 of the aircraft were built in different variants. Perhaps what makes the Vickers Viscount quite unique among the airliners of the Brabazon committee, is that it was the only one to be operated by a US American operator. The last operational Viscount was not withdrawn from service until 2009.

Type IV – The De Havilland Comet

Type IV described a highspeed jet engine passenger jet.

The De Havilland Comet is probably the most famous post-War British aircraft design – for a number of reasons. When the Comet entered into service in May 1952, it caused a sensation as the world’s first commercial passenger jet. At the time, the British had every reasons to be confident about their design. After all, the only competitor for the Comet at the time, the American Boeing B 707, was still years away from its maiden flight and the first year of operations with the Comet suggested that it might even be possible to operate a commercially viable service with the type, despite the limited seating capacity of only 36 seats in the configuration of its launch customer BOAC.

But then of course, tragedy occurred and in fairly short sequence two aircraft literally fell out of the sky. Eventually it was determined that the aircraft had broken apart in mid-air as the result of structural fatigue caused by repeated cyles of pressurization and depressurization as the aircraft climbed and descended. Eventually, the manufacturer had no other option but to withdraw the aircraft from service until a solution could be found – which eventually meant, among other things, redesigning the windows from square to round to more evenly distribute the stress to the window frame.

The Comet was the first of its kind and De Havilland paid dearly for that. Its competitors were mindful to avoid the many mistakes that were made with the design of the Comet, and were able to benefit from the ground breaking advanced that were made by the British. For the Comet though, it was too late. By the time it had re-entered into service, the public’s and the operators’ confidence in the type was gone and the Americans had made significant progress on their own design, which would later evolve into the Boeing B 707.

Only 114 De Havilland Comets were built.

The Bristol Britannia

The Bristol Britannia was an elegant turboprop airliner that probably never should have been built – even though it proved popular with passengers and operators. Its design was marred by two hull losses during the trialling phase, which subsequently lead to significant delays in its development. Eventually, by the time the Bristol Britannia entered into service with BOAC in 1957, it was already too late, because the Boeing B 707 was looming on the horizon. The Boeing B 707 outclassed the Britannia on most counts: it has a greater seating capacity and it was significantly faster.

But the Briannia certainly was pretty. Probably its most recognisable feature were its four powerful Bristol Proteus engines with their four large propeller blades – which were commonly referred to as the Bristol Spinners. The phrase was later used as a British slang term for large breasts, although I think that’s probably no longer in fashion in the age of political correctness.

The Hawker Siddley Trident

The Trident was the result of a call that was made by British European Airways for a jet airliner to serve its European network. The Trident’s claim to fame is that it became the first aircraft to do a fully automatic landing in bad visibility in revenue service. Perhaps its most unique feature though, was the nose wheel, which was offset to the left and after take-off would retract sideways to the right into its gear well and not forward, as most airliners do.

The Trident’s main issue was that it was developed around the same time as the American Boeing B 727. By then, Boeing had pretty much corrnered the market for passenger jets, following the success of the Boeing B 707. And in fact, the Trident entered into service in 1964, only two months behind its rival, the Boeing B 727.

BEA was the main operator for the type, with 24 aircraft being delivered to them. Subsequently, 20 were inherited by British Airways when BEA and BOAC merged. In total only 117 of the Trident were built. By comparison, 1832 Boeing B 727s were built, making it the most successful passenger jet until the B 737 came along.

The Vickers VC-10

And now, finally, we turn to the VC-10, which is, hand down, the most beautiful and elegant airliner ever built. I think. Technically, the VC-10 was quite a marvel. It was designed to operate long-range services with good hot and high performance characteristics for operations to and from Africa. In 1979 the VC-10 broke the speed record for the fastest transatlantic crossing of a subsonic aircraft, with a flight time of only five hours and one minute. It held that record until 2020, when a Boeing B 747 undercut it by five minutes.

Only 54 VC-10s were ever built, 29 of which went to BOAC. There are many reasons why the VC-10 failed, even though it was very popular with the crews and the passengers. For one, the Americans did everything they could to prevent it from becoming a success. For another, Vickers was already having serious financial issues by that time. But probably its biggest flaw was that it had been built too close to the specification of only one customer – BOAC. As such, many of the aircraft’s performance characteristics were of no real interest for many other operators.

But she was so, so elegant…!

2 thoughts on “The British Airliner Collection at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford”

  1. Thanks for posting this historical synopsis of British designed and manufactured planes post WWII! A great read!

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