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TSR.2: The Cold War’s Cancelled Strike Aircraft

Written by George Colclough

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We are no strangers to ground breaking aircraft on this channel, machines that push the boundary of what is possible both within the drab groundings of reality and the extremities of our most wild imaginings: Airbreathing spy planes that can outrun a missile and commercial planes that can ferry the rich and powerful at over twice the speed of sound to name just two.

You might be forgiven therefore for assuming that technological progress is nought but a triumphant and unwavering endeavour that slowly ratchets mankind forwards; the best designs being selected to proudly fly their respective flag, and the duds being left at the wayside to gather dust in the footnotes of history….

Sadly this is not the case, and anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of having to deal with military procurement will be able to vouch that sometimes revolutionary designs are abandoned, and absolute duds are allowed to flourish in spite of obvious, and often dangerous flaws. This may seem counter intuitive, and indeed it is, but there is another dimension of military procurement that we have to consider when evaluating these historical designs.

A dimension that cares not for reality, cost, effectiveness, or other metrics that a rational being may use when procuring military aircraft… politicians. 

Today we look at TSR.2,  British rapid strike aircraft that had the potential to revolutionise the aviation world, before being fatally struck down by the machiavellian scheming of politicians who had never donned a flight suit, nor stood at a drafting table in their lives.

Today’s story starts in the late 1950’s, when British aviation was flying at an absolute high. Having pioneered the design and development of the first jet engines in the mid to late 1930’s, Britain had exploited this advantage to its maximum, and built early jet fighters such as the Gloster Meteor and the de Havilland Vampire during World War II. Britain went on to maintain this impressive record through to the 1950’s, and continued to build revolutionary aircraft, such as the lightning fast English Electric Lightning and the venerable Hawker Hunter.

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Concern was growing however among the powers that be that Britain would not hold this technological edge for long if it allowed itself to become complacent. The Soviet Mig-15 had demonstrated with bloody effectiveness in the Korean War that the British Empire’s eurasian rival was no technological backwater, having taken only 20 months to advance from its first jetfighter, the rather ramshackle and jury rigged Mig-9 to the aforementioned Mig-15 that was the terror of UN pilots on the Korean Peninsula. Britain needed something better, and it needed it now.

The situation was best described by Air Vice-Marshal Geoffrey Tuttle, who in 1952 wrote the following on the English Electric Canberra, Britains first jet bomber:

 ‘Frankly, I do not believe that we will get much operational value out of the Canberra from 1955 onwards…the aircraft is already out of date and I doubt it’s chances of survival in daylight against present MiG-15 opposition’

Responsibility for designing the next generation of aircraft fell on Britain’s eclectic and diverse range of aircraft manufacturers, of which Britain had surprisingly many for a small nation. Having this vast range of manufacturers was great in wartime, when military budgets were all but bottomless, but in the post war world, when the British electorate was less concerned about ending lives from rival foreign powers, and more concerned with preserving its own through social welfare and healthcare spending, supporting so many aircraft manufacturers simply wasn’t viable.

In March 1957, the government announced GOR.339, a formal specification sheet that outlined what was needed from the new aircraft, which was being pitched as a replacement for the increasingly aged English Electric Canberra. This specification stated that designs would only be considered from merged companies, all but killing Britain’s traditional aviation landscape with the stroke of a pen.

The British aerospace industry was no stranger to attempting to Wallace and Gromit its way out of tricky situations however, and thus put forward lofty specifications for the new aircraft. Firstly, the aircraft had to be STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) capable, so that it could take off from provincial airports and airfields, with no more than 600 yards of runway – the British government, in a rare moment of intellectual clarity had rightly noted that nuclear war tends not to be great for one’s primary infrastructure.

Furthermore, the aircraft had to be capable of Mach 2.2 at high altitude, have a range of 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometres), and feature a host of advanced electronic systems, including:  an automatic flight control system, a terrain following radar, a forward looking radar, a sideways looking radar, a inertial navigation system, and an electronic counter-measures.

With the looming threat of forced mergers, and the governments lofty specifications, intense competition set in among the various aircraft manufactures of Britain, all of whom wanted to make sure they were the top dogs of the new aviation scene, and soon several proposals and prototypes began to emerge.

Vickers-Armstrong proposed the Type 571. The 571 was detailed as a single engined tactical bomber constructed with light aluminium alloy and employing titanium in the engine bays. It would be powered by a Rolls-Royce RB.142 engine. Fuel was to be housed in two wing tip drop tanks. It also proposed an unusual feature of forward raked air intakes. Vickers’ experience building the Scimitar carrier fighter also led to the integration of blown flaps for short take offs. The proposal also included a second design, a twin engined version with much the same performance, but better range.

English Electric proposed the P.17, a rather orthodox twin engine design that had one peculiar novelty. Stapled to the back of the specification, was a further specification for the P.17D, a lifting platform with no fewer than 56 jet engines which would lift off vertically and from which the P.17 would then launch.

The government saw merits in both of these designs, and jointly awarded the contract to both companies, after aspects of both designs were amalgamated into one working brief. Sadly however, the Thunderbirds-esque P.17D launch platform was not selected for further development.

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The government rationed out design duties for the new aircraft, with Vickers being responsible for the front fuselage, weapons, and cockpit, and English Electric being responsible for the tail, wings, and rear fuselage. The two companies, along with Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft would eventually merge formally in 1960 to form the British Aircraft Corporation.

This rationed out development and production of what would become the TSR2 was hardly conducive to streamlined working. The two companies had different ethos, different approaches, and different prejudices. English Electric, who had considerably more experience building supersonic aircraft thanks to the Lightning, looked down upon Vickers for being dinosaurs unable to adapt and innovate, and likewise Vickers looked down upon English Electric for being newcomers, with much to learn and prove. The companies were also literally split, with English Electric being based in Lancashire, and Vickers being based in Surry – over 200 miles apart. All of this lack of streamlining in design and production led to delays, cost overruns, and the frequent locking of horns over design choices.

Despite the conditions of the split labourforce, great minds at both companies continued to design and innovate, and soon enough the Type 571 – P.17 amalgamation began to take its final shape. It was finally given its final name too, when in January 1959 the Minister of Supply dubbed the project the Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance, Mach 2, or TSR.2.

The aircraft was to be powered by two Rolls-Royce Olympus’. Seemingly quite an old engine, the design of which went back as far as 1946, continual development, refinement, and the addition of an afterburner left the Olympus as one of the greats of jet engine history, up there with the Pratt & Whitney J58 and the General Electric GE90. Capable of producing 11,000 pound feet of torque at maximum output, it was easily upto the task of pushing TSR.2 up to speeds of Mach 2+. Beyond the TSR.2, the Olympus also had a short but impressive resume, being used to power the Avro Vulcan and BAC Concorde.

The refinement of the Olympus into an engine fit for TSR.2 was not a process free from nuisance and headaches however, as continually every new step and refinement brought new issues which themselves had to be refined and overcome. This is typified by an incident on the 3rd of December 1962, in which an experimental Olympus engine burst into flames during a test run, burning its testbed, Vulcan XA894 completely to the ground, fortunately with no loss of life.

Despite the constant hurdles in development, a complete flying prototype was eventually finished, and on the 27th of September 1964 XR219 took its maiden flight. All in all, the test flight was a success, and when in the air the prototype supposedly handled beautifully, not just meeting, but decimating the lofty specifications laid down by the government.

On the ground however was a different story, and immediately issues were noted. Upon touchdown the landing gear would shake profusely, rattling the entire airframe with all the vigour of a poorly maintained two-stroke motor. Hardly ideal in itself, the problem was compounded by the fact that the shaking just so happened to match the resonance of the human eye, and therefore temporarily blinded the pilot until the aircraft was slowed down.

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These issues, although far from ideal, were hardly enough to condemn the whole project to the scrapyard however, and after 24 test flights all issues were addressed and worked out, and by early 1965 XR219 was flying flawlessly.

TSR.2 only flew supersonic once, on its 14th test flight. It achieved greater than Mach 1 flight without the use of its afterburners, and raced towards Mach 2 with only a single afterburner engaged. Its Lightning escorts struggled to keep up – and had to use both their afterburners on full reheat – borderline melting their engines to be able to keep pace. The test pilot Wing Commander James Dell, was certainly pleased with the results of test flight 14, describing the TSR.2 as handling “like a big Lightning”.

Soon after the 24th test flight, all the kinks had been worked out, 17 airframes were in various states of completion, and all looked well. BAC had what was undoubtedly a phenomenal aircraft in their possession. The RAF ordered 150 airframes, and the Australian Airforce ordered 30…  but then the politicians got involved.

Following the 1964 General Election, the Conservatives were removed from power and replaced by a Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, who was keen to not only cut costs, but to be seen to be doing so by the electorate. This did not bode well for the very published, and very expensive TSR.2.

The American government was also not happy about TSR.2. Not because it viewed it as an inferior weapons platform, and was worried for the defence of the west, but because it was worried about the project being too successful, and damaging the international sales of its comparable aircraft, such as the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark.

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Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense soon appeared whispering into the ears of Denis Healey and Shane Paltridge, the UK Secretary of State for Defence and Australian Minister for Defence respectively. The TSR.2 was a dead end, it was going over budget, and would never deliver on its promises, if it was ever built at all, he claimed. What’s more, he’d be more than happy to sell them F-111s at mates rates and solve their problem.

Eventually the inevitable happened, and TSR.2 was formally cancelled by the British government in 1965, purportedly due to budget cuts and overruns in TSR.2’s development costs. The final cost of the project was two hundred million pounds, or 3.3 billion pounds adjusted for inflation, all money that went straight down the drain with the project’s cancellation.

But not to worry, remember, both nations had the promise of dirt cheap F-111s. The Americans would even design a special variant, the F-111K just for the UK. Australia made no arguments about TSR.2’s cancellation, and happily accepted the F-111, and Britain eventually followed suit and committed to purchasing 50 F-111K’s in 1966.

Shortly after the F-111 deal was closed, government officials stormed the various BAC factories and design studios. On government order, they took the plans, the tooling, the design documents, everything related to TSR.2 they could get their hands on, and destroyed them. Papers were shredded, mockups were burnt all because SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE wanted to make sure the TSR.2 stayed dead. We don’t know who gave the order, and historians disagree wildly on their guesses.

1,200 BAC staff involved in the design of TSR.2 were laid off and made redundant, and most JUST SO HAPPENED to receive new offers of employment from American aviation companies.

SHOCKINGLY, problems then began to emerge with the UK’s F-111 order. Due to supposed cost overruns from General Dynamics, and the devaluation of the pound, that ridiculously low price that was initially offered was withdrawn, and now they were just going to have to charge the normal market price! What a shame it was that the TSR.2 project had been completely sabotaged beyond recovery by SOMEONE.

In light of this, the UK boldly told Robert McNamara to stick his F-111’s where the sun doesn’t shine, and the deal ended up completely collapsing. The role intended for TSR.2 was eventually filled by the Avro Vulcan, Blackburn Buccaneer, and newly ordered American F-2 Phantoms, the latter of which were purchased at a significantly higher cost than even the wildest predictions for TSR.2’s retail tag.

To say this soured the special relationship would be an understatement, and according to some sources WHATEVER HAPPENED with TSR.2 was a major motivation behind Harold Wilson’s refusal to commit ground troops to Vietnam later in the decade.

With TSR.2 well and truly dead, BAC scrambled to find any use for the sole airworthy airframe, XR219, and subsequently offered it to Aérospatiale’s Concorde team to be used for 100 hours of high speed research, for one and a half million pounds. Aérospatiale was interested, afterall the two planes were going to share the same engine, but again FOR SOME REASON the UK government refused to greenlight the deal.

The death of TSR.2 was an absolute tragedy for the British aerospace industry, and in many ways the end of the project was the closing chapter in the golden age of British aviation. Britain, twenty years prior, had been littered with pioneering aviation companies, which trail blazed many of the standards and technologies which are commonplace today: The first jet engine and the first jetliner, for example, were both British.

Soon after TSR.2’s cancellation those pironeering companies were amalgamated into just one, BAE. Despite limited production of aircraft such as the British Aerospace 146 in the 1980’s, to all intents and purposes indigineous British aircraft production was over, big projects in the future, while certainly technologically impressive, would be transnational cost cutting efforts, lacking the optimism and the glory of that past golden age.

Despite the devastation of THAT raid on BAC’s facilities, three airframes did actually manage to survive the cancellation. XR219, the TSR.2 that actually flew, was dragged out onto a firing range and used as a target dummy, and was ultimately destroyed. XR220, a 90% complete prototype, managed to be spared the heartless fate afforded to its sibling, and survives today at the RAF Museum, Cosford. XR222, only a third complete at the time of the project’s cancellation, was cosmetically restored by veterans of the TSR.2 project, and is now on display at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford.

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As for the conspiracy that saw the cancellation of TSR.2. I’m not saying it was definitely a US government conspiracy that killed TSR.2, as we really do not have the evidence to make a solid conclusion, but if something looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck… I’m generally inclined to believe it’s a duck.

Ultimately, I shall leave the last words of today’s post to Alexander Hunter, an RAF veteran contemporary to TSR.2, and author of TSR.2 With Hindsight:

“The truth always comes out, but so often when it is too late to rectify the situation”

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