Over this weekend I attended a fantastic event which was extremely interesting. There were lots people there to which I could relate to very easily. The nature of the event led us naturally to consider aspects of Britain’s military history, present and future. There are few countries which can be so wholesomely buggered as Britain when it comes to research. We have this inane ability as a people, to have these wonderful, marvellous and quite frankly, crazy ideas – but we never have the money to fund them.
I was once told that what is now ethos in the MoD is to have British scientists dream up the ideas, sell them to American, let America develop the idea into a final product, and finally buy it back and improve it. This have been done a lot over recent years in the UK with regards, at least, to military hardware. The Apache is perhaps a quasi-example; the UK did not buy the supplied avionics software for the apache but instead developed their own, which turned out to be so good that eventually the Americans bought it back from us. Who’da thunk?
Which leads us to perhaps the most depressing story yet in Britain’s aviation history; the cancellation of the English Electric/Vickers-Armstrong TSR-2 which was terminated in 1964. This aircraft was so revolutionary that even today it would be modern and it was designed 50 years ago. The whole story is drenched in failure and political dereliction. It has produced one of the, to my mind at least, finest but most depressing statements to date
All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.
Sir Sydney Camm
There are of course many theories surrounding the whole sorry story of the project mainly relating to economics and politics. The British economy in the 1960s was in huge financial debt and was still struggling to pay back monies owed to America from WW2. The Labour Government was politely told you will buy the F111E, you have no choice. All tooling and production lines of the TSR2 are to be destroyed. This is the unofficial version of the reason why the project was cancelled. Over the years the government has denied these accusations completely. They of course would, but most people who worked on the project know that this is precisely what happened. All tooling, production lines and blueprints were certainly destroyed, so afraid were the Americans that they had their British embassy personnel shipped into the factories to personally make sure that everything was destroyed.
There is more to this shameful piece of British history than meets the eye. The only remains of the project are the prototypes XR220 and XR222. They only survived because they were shipped around the country for engine testing and evaluation. It would have been a scandal to chop up and burn these aircraft in front of the public. Instead a team was dispatched to the testing grounds and took pick axes to the inside of the prototypes so they could never be flown again. Their internal organs were ripped out like savages, where cold calculated economics destroyed one of the finest machines ever built.
I am in favour of the ‘special-relationship’ and I have vigorously defended it in times of need on this blog. But 50 years ago American politicians were frightened TSR2 would affect their exports of aircraft. Coupled with Lord Mountbatten’s desire for this plane not to succeed and personally telling the Australian government not to pursue its commitment to purchase 30 airframes. Previously before being made aware of the whole TSR2 scandal I would have defended the ‘special-relationship’ but what they did was just mean to put it politely. There is not even a hint of good sportsmanship and while the defence industry in this country is still going fairly strong, Great Britain has never recovered its lead in the aviation world since the destruction of the TSR2 project.
I am often called an ‘old man’ by my friends and I think that is because I am very cynical about the world, I think this is fairly obvious when you realise how often we do not end up on top on every sphere of international cooperation. We always manage to get ourselves screwed, this if anything has been the enduring ethos of the past century. There have not been many international cooperations where we have actually benefited. This is not to say that we should not cooperate, we most certainly should, but not in engineering. This is something we do much better on our own and always have done.
There is hope though at least if you are willing to look outside the box and look back to a time when we could built very gucci stuff. TSR2 was to be nuclear weapons capable, and also able to carry conventional bombs. The roll of the fighter/Bomber was to fly from a short runway from within the UK to attack Russia, remember the Cold War was very much still on. The aircraft was to enter Russian air-space at extreme altitude over 58,000ft. Then descend to under to under 200ft to avoid ground radar. Once near the chosen Russian target a nuclear bomb or missile would be released to devastating effect. Now the Cold War is over but the Tories are committed to a new nuclear deterrent in the form of nuclear submarines. I suggest you consider the content of the article below if you have not already guessed where I am going with this.
The TSR2 story is one of incompetence, mismanagement and failure. It is also a story of brilliance, determination and courage. It might sound crazy but if we want to we can build things like the TSR2 again -if we want to. Someone only needs to tell the boys in Whitehall that British manufacturing is nails.
The TSR2 story ended with XR219, XR221 and XR223 being taken to the shooting ranges at Shoeburyness, all eventually to be destroyed as ‘damage to aircraft’ targets. XR220 was kept at Boscombe for a year or so for engine noise testing and then placed in storage at RAF Henlow after it had much of its flight test equipment ripped out (even the wires were cut rather than disconnected). It was later transferred to RAF Cosford’s Aerospace Museum. XR222 was gifted to the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield for instructional use. She was later donated to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. All the other airframes were scrapped. In the months after cancellation, all the tooling and jigs were destroyed, and a wooden mockup of the TSR2 was burned while BAC men filmed it for publicity purposes.
In many ways the destruction of so many aspects of the project reflected the even greater act of vandalism that had been perpretrated on the British aviation industry.
And what might have been