The British Aircraft Corporation spent billions developing the TSR-2 for a multi-role mission that even today remains unattainable.
One of the most misguided, mismanistry of Defence scheme to build a futuristic aged, out-of-control and expensive military aircraft programs ever de- vised was the late-1950s British Min- Cold War nuclear bomber so advanced that it would be guided by as-yet uninvented terrain-following radar and an automatic navigation system. It would streak at near-supersonic speeds at 200 feet, day or night, good weather or bad, under Soviet radar and strike with impunity targets deep within the evil empire.
Oh, and it would also be able to use its 1,800-foot ground roll to operate from grass strips, be supportable at nonmilitary airports, fly at Mach 2.25 at altitude and have short-takeoff capability while carrying full fuel and a 5-ton nuke. At one point, the MoD enthused about putting vertical takeoff on the laundry list, but backed down after adding substantial time and expense to the project. The aircraft was also to be a photoreconnaissance platform and capable of providing battlefield support. About all the MoD didn’t demand of it was stealth.
The airplane was called the BAC TSR-2, and after the equivalent of $15 billion (in 2010 dollars) had been spent, the project was canceled in 1965. All the RAF had to show for its efforts was one plane that had flown several times, another that was about to fly and a handful of uncompleted production prototypes. The two finished aircraft were soon scrapped, as were all but two of the unfinished prototypes, which ended up on static display in museums. Everything else—jigs, tooling, tools, assembly facilities, plans, design documents—was destroyed. Everything.
By that time, the mission for which the TSR-2 was intended had disappeared. NATO no longer cared to smite the Soviet Union with nuclear Armageddon but instead was planning to make“measured responses”to any Warsaw Pact hostility. This required aircraft of vastly different forms and functions than the TSR-2: F-4 Phantoms, Blackburn Buccaneers and Hawker-Siddeley Harriers, all of which the RAF owned or was then developing.
One thing that sets the TSR-2 apart to this day is that a large group of British aviation enthusiasts is convinced the big beast was, other than the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the most advanced airplane ever to fly, and that cancelling the program bordered on treason. TSR-2 fans ascribe the darkest conspiracy theories to the cancellation: Prime Minister Harold Wilson was secretly a Communist and killed it at the Soviets’ behest. British ministers were taking money under the table from Lockheed and other American airframers. The UK needed an enormous loan from the International Monetary Fund because of devaluation of the pound, and part of the deal was the ruination of its costly aviation industry. The United States demanded the program be terminated because the TSR-2 was better than anything it could build.
Many of the Internet myths that surround the TSR-2’s cancellation invariably begin with something like, “My father-in-law had a friend who worked on the TSR-2 and told him…” Third-person evidence, after all, is often the mark of an urban legend. A frequently recounted element of the TSR-2 myth is that on one of its few test flights, the pilot lit one of the two afterburners—the only one that worked—and easily outdistanced the EE Lightning chase plane, at the time the RAF’s fastest fighter. Nobody bothers to explain that the Lightning pilot had shut down one of his two engines to conserve fuel and didn’t use reheat himself, probably because the notoriously short-legged Lightning wasn’t carrying enough gas to play mine’s-faster-than-yours games. Because of that single, short Mach 1.2 dash, the TSR-2 has somehow come down through history as “easily a Mach 2 aircraft.”
Some fantasists imagine the TSR-2 would have also been a dogfighter, and flight sim players create computer graphics of TSR-2s in tacair camouflage bouncing MiG-21s, perhaps the best dogfighter ever made. It’s akin to imagining a B-17 rat-racing with a FockeWulf Fw-190.
In 1957 British Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys issued a notorious and influential document—known ever since as the “1957 White Paper”—arguing that manned aircraft were obsolete, since missiles, not manned fighters, would henceforth dominate the sky. The government essentially bought into Sandys’ theory, leaving the RAF with just one already-begun manned aircraft program to pursue: the TSR-2.
English Electric, which had produced the 1940s-tech but very-high-altitude Canberra bomber as well as the superfast (for the time) Lightning point-defense interceptor, came up with the design that most closely matched what the TSR-2 would become. But Vickers Aircraft was also in the hunt with its proposal. So the British government forced the two to amalgamate, forming the British Aircraft Corporation, and for some reason made Vickers the lead company on the program, which infuriated English Electric.
Worse, the British decided to finalize the TSR-2 design and engineering by committee—not a committee of aviation experts, warfighters and engineers, but a group of harrumphing lords, bureaucrats, nonpilot “experts” and academics who argued endlessly about the position and labeling of each cockpit switch, among other things. Ultimately, most of the actual designers quit, and the airplane ended up without a chief designer. The committee filled that function.
The government also ordered BAC to use flawed Bristol-Siddeley Olympus engines for the TSR-2 rather than the Rolls-Royce Speys the company wanted. The Olympuses frequently blew up on tests stands, for they suffered from something called “bell mode.” Because a crucial bearing was removed to allow for a larger-diameter mainshaft, at a certain rpm“the shaft resonated and literally rang like a bell, and then disintegrated,” explains Derek Wood in Project Cancelled.
To many, the TSR-2 was beautiful; to others it resembled a mini-winged ice cream van atop a Kubota ditchdigger’s wheels. (The slab-sided TSR-2s were painted glossy white, to reflect some of the heat of a nuclear blast.) The main gear was a stalky, troublesome, double-articulated arrangement with low-pressure tires necessitated by the aircraft’s supposed STOL/unimproved field mission. Many feel that if only the TSR-2 had looked like a pig, its cancellation would have been easier to swallow.
Some urged the RAF to instead adopt a land version of the Blackburn Buccaneer, a robust and economical albeit subsonic low-level attack plane that remained in service for more than 30 years. But the Buc was a Royal Navy airplane, and the RAF would no more use an RN bird than Eric Clapton would sing Bing Crosby songs, even though it could have bought five multi-role Buccaneers for the price of one TSR-2. In the end, however, with the TSR-2 dead and no true tactical attack aircraft in its inventory, the RAF was forced to go with Bucs.
Derek Wood argues that the true fiasco was not that the TSR-2 was canceled but that it hadn’t been canceled years earlier, before so much money and effort had been wasted. He thinks it was madness not to keep the prototypes flying as pure research aircraft. They could have contributed much to Concorde development and the British aerospace industry in general.
Others wonder if the British aircraft industry in the late 1950s was perhaps too intent on pushing the envelope rather than designing and developing aircraft that could actually be built, flown and operated economically. (Consider the Concorde…) The UK aviation industry was far ahead of its time in many ways, having invented the jet engine (admittedly in parallel with the Germans), developed the world’s first jet airliner and pioneered much of high-speed flight, with fixed-wing VTOL and the world’s first supersonic airliner in development.
Ultimately, perhaps the TSR-2 should be regarded as the James Dean of airplanes—an image that even many British aviation enthusiasts readily admit. Be handsome and mysterious…then live hard, die young and let the legends grow and gather around your grave.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.