|How They Almost Killed British Aviation||A tale of muddle, surrender and betrayal, as told by Paul Flavelle|
IN THE FIELD of aviation in this beleaguered country of ours we come across a phenomenon with which many of us will be familiar: great ideas and great potential which so often come to nothing.
How many schoolchildren today know that, since the earliest days of flight, Britain has shown herself capable of producing aircraft as good as, and in many cases better than, those of any other nation? This capability places formidable economic and military weapons in our hands. Yet, as in so many fields of British endeavour, the exploitation of great opportunities has been missed. Through bungling, incompetence, ineptitude and downright betrayal, both Labour and Conservative governments have robbed us of chances to lead the world.
Britain has always played a major role in the development of aviation. During the First World War she produced some of the most effective aircraft used in that conflict. There was the Sopwith Camel, the Sopwith Triplane, the SE-5A and the Bristol Fighter. At the end of that war we possessed the largest air force in the world, with over 22,000 planes in service.
After the war British designers produced a series of sleek and fast seaplane racers, which won the coveted Schneider Trophy three times, and thus enabled us to claim the trophy permanently. The inter-war years also saw the rise of the great Empire Flying Boats, the first experiments with air-to-air fuelling, sleek airliners like the De Havilland Albatross, the development of radar, and stories of adventure and courage written by the great lady fliers of the 1930s, Amy Johnson and Jean Batten (the latter's original British-built Percival D3 Gull-Six, in which she made many of her historic flights, still survives at Old Warden, Bedfordshire, with the Shuttleworth Collection).
Most effective warplanes
During the Second World War British-designed and built aircraft again played a major role. Indeed, in this period Britain produced some of the most effective war-planes ever flown. They included the Spitfire, Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest, Beaufighter, Lancaster and Sunderland. The British pioneered the concept of integrated all-round air defence which prevailed during the Battle of Britain - although this was less successful against night attacks. Towards the end of the war the British produced one of the few jet aircraft to see service during the conflict: the Gloster Meteor.
Against this background there began the "post-war period", a phrase which for many Britons has become synonymous with failure, decline, national humiliation, loss of confidence, anxiety and heartache. Presiding over this dark chapter right up to the present day have been a miserable succession of Labour and Tory governments. And nowhere does their failure - not to say treachery - become more apparent than in a study of post-war British aviation. In the words of the immortal Bard, "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now" (Julius Caesar).
To begin at the beginning, as World War II drew to a close it was clear that aviation technology had leap-frogged ahead since 1939. Aircraft could fly further, higher and faster than ever before. Man was close to travelling in excess of the speed of sound. At that time there were just two countries that might achieve it: Britain and the United States.
In Britain the Miles Aircraft Company was given the task of producing Britain's (and the world's) first supersonic aircraft. The heads of the company were confident that they could do it. They based the design of their aircraft on that of a bullet: sleek, clean and aerodynamic. The project was proceeding apace; all that was needed was continuing support from the then Labour Government to ensure technical back-up. It is generally accepted throughout the industry that, had this been forthcoming, the British would have been the first to break the sound barrier (probably by early 1947), and well ahead of the Americans. Yet early in 1946 the Miles Company received a curt letter from the Ministry of Aircraft Production cancelling the project and giving the Americans a clear field. No logical reason was given for this decision.
Forward to the 1950s, in which time, despite Labour and Tory governments, much glory was achieved by British aircraft designers, test pilots and workers. The De Havilland Comet, the world's first commercial jet airliner, and the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor V-bombers, represented staggering technical achievements, especially when we consider the speed with which the projects were carried to fruition. Then there was the Canberra jet bomber, which became a major export success and was even built under licence by the Americans; the Hunter and Lightning jet fighters; and turbo-prop airliners like the Vickers Viscount. In addition, there was the highly promising development of our own own strategic rocket, Blue Streak. Yet even more could have been achieved had a party like the BNP been in power at the time, working with our designers and manufacturers instead of against them.
One of the greatest single disasters in the history of Britain's post-war industry and technology was brought about by a Conservative defence minister, Duncan Sandys, in 1957. This has generally been referred to since as the 1957 White Paper. The thinking behind this White paper was that all manned aircraft would have been replaced by guided missiles by no later than the 1970s, and thus that all the promising projects in development could be cancelled - as most were.
It is interesting that governments of no other country on earth reached the same conclusions as did this Tory Government. Just when the Tories were effectively destroying our domestic aircraft industry, the United States, Russia and France were doing everything possible to build up theirs. The damage inflicted by this lunacy can perhaps never be fully quantified, but we can get an idea of it by looking at just one of the cancelled aircraft programmes.
Another winning project scrapped
The Saunders Roe SR177 was designed as an interceptor to counter fast, high-flying Soviet bombers. It was known as a "mixed-power" aircraft in that it was fitted with both rocket and turbo engines. It could climb rapidly to 60,000ft (it could even have reached heights of 85,000ft) and it could fly at well over the speed of sound. The first in-service versions would have been armed with two British-built air-to-air missiles. Negotiations had been entered into with the then West German Government with a view to producing the aircraft on a joint basis, the aircraft eventually equipping the Royal Air Force, the Fleet Air Arm, the German Navy and the Luftwaffe. This joint production programme would have been the largest in Europe, and it would have brought down the unit cost per aircraft by huge economies of scale. Conquering world markets with the aircraft would then have become a real possibility.
Yet all of this, and more, was thrown away by Duncan Sandys and the Tory Government, which at the time was under the premiership of Harold Macmillan. One cannot help but ask the question: "How do such people come to be in such positions of power?"
One of the very few aircraft to survive the charnel house of the 1957 White Paper was the English Electric Lightning. This British all-weather jet entered service in 1960, but due to lack of funding to ensure ongoing development the aircraft was never allowed to achieve its full potential. It could easily have become a great export success, and its parent company was working hard towards that end, despite officialdom. This was an important time for the industry in Britain, as most of the NATO air forces were about to re-equip their fighter forces - one of the biggest being the West German. Whoever won the order to supply the West Germans would very likely win the order to supply most of NATO. What a prize this would have been for British aviation!
Yet at this crucial time English Electric was staggered to discover that a British Government official in Bonn was actively persuading the West Germans not to buy the British Lightning! One can only assume that this official was doing what he was doing under government orders, but as to who gave those orders and what their motives were we can but guess. How much money and work our country lost due to this act of treachery will never be known, but the episode must surely rank alongside the damage inflicted by outright and acknowledged traitors like Philby and McLean.
What we can say, however, is that the Americans subsequently "cleaned up" with their F104 Starfighter. You can draw your own conclusions!
By the mid-1960s British aviation had indeed been struck several hammer blows by Labour and Conservative governments. Yet despite everything there was still hope; there remained a few very promising projects - but not for long.
The TSR-2 fiasco
One of the most ambitious of the projects British designers undertook was the truly remarkable TSR-2. This aircraft was designed to replace the highly successful all-British Canberra jet bomber. The TSR-2 (Tactical/ Strike/Reconnaisance) would have been able to penetrate enemy air space at low level and at very high speeds, guided by what at that time were the most advanced avionics in the world. These included Doppler radar, moving map display, terrain-following radar, ground-mapping, head-up displays, automatic flight control and even a sideways-looking radar. Many of these innovations developed by British brains, although well known today, were then at the very cutting edge of aero-space technology.
The TSR-2 was capable of delivering a large payload of conventional or nuclear weapons with great accuracy and had a greater chance of survival than any comparable aircraft envisaged at that time. Proposals also existed to take advantage of the aircraft's large internal fuel and weapon capacity and develop it into a long-range fighter capable of combat air patrols as far north as the Arctic Circle. Once again, the British had a world-beater in their hands.
The prototype TSR-2 was in the air by early 1965, and the test flight programme was proceeding well. Then with the second prototype on the brink of flight the entire project was cancelled by the Labour Government on Budget Day 1965 - alongside several other aircraft projects and the new generation of aircraft carriers.
The TSR-2 project was singled out with particular venom. Orders from the Government were such that even the jigs, photographs and drawings were to be destroyed. It was as if Labour recognised the project for the brilliant technological achievement that it was and, spurred on by whatever anti-British motives, was determined not only to destroy it but, as far as it could, eliminate the facilities by which it might be reactivated by order of a future government.
It should also be noted that up to that time £195 million had been spent on the TSR-2. This amounts to approximately £2.3 billion at today's prices.
Today the RAF is equipped largely from non-British sources. The Tornado bomber is an Italian/German/British project. The so-called "Eurofighter" is a Spanish/Italian! German/British design (the French wisely withdrew from this project and went on to build their own indigenous modern aircraft, the excellent Rafele fighter). The Hercules, Tristar, Boeing AWACS and Apache helicopter were all built in the United States. The Harrier, the world's first vertical-take-off (VTO) fighter-bomber, designed and first built in Britain, has now largely been taken over by the American McDonnell Douglas Corporation. Even the RAF's basic trainer is a Brazilian-designed aircraft. Only the Hawk advanced trainer and the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft can be claimed as truly British (the Hawk, incidentally, has been a huge export success). Labour and the Tories will of course answer their critics in the usual way by saying tha we cannot afford to develop advanced aircraft on our own, and must submit to "international consortia". But they lie - as they have always lied.
We can afford it. Billions of pounds of British money flows out of the country each year to fund a myriad of projects in foreign lands. Billions more are wasted on overseas "aid" or on white elephants like the Millennium Dome. Even a small country like Sweden can afford to design and produce a series of first-rate combat aircraft like the Draken, Viggen and Gripen. France, as mentioned previously, continues to design and build its own aircraft and maintain a thriving aero-space industry, as well as being the leading light behind the so-called "European Space Consortium". Clearly, it is not a question of money but of "attitude". It's a question of belief in one's own country, its health and vitality, and of the desire to push it back once again to the status of world power and world leader. It's also a question of confidence.
It must by now be clear to all but the most myopic of political observers that there can be no renaissance of anything in Britain under Labour or Tory governments. Even as you read this, the present Government is busy selling us out to Europe, flooding our land with "asylum-seekers", butchering what remains of our industries and trying to demonise the very word "British". If ever there was such a thing as the "enemy within", we have it now!
The sad tale of the demise - some would indeed say the murder - of British aviation can of course be seen mirrored in many other areas of our national life. An eventual BNP victory in this country is an absolute imperative if we are to have any future. If - perhaps I should rather say when - this happens we must set free once again the genius of British invention, in aviation as in so many other things, and back it to the hilt with all the power at our command.