The Bizarre and Incredibly Ambitious World of 1950s British Aviation

World War 2 had left the United Kingdom in a spot of financial bother. The war had been phenomenally expensive, and Britain could hardly demobolise its military fast enough. Unfortunately, conflicts were breaking out in Malaya, then eventually in Korea too, and soon the empire was melting away, as Britain could no longer afford to keep it and local opinion favoured independence.

However, one thing that the war had blessed Britain with is technical expertise. In particular, Britain now led the world in aviation; she had produced the legendary Spitfire and pioneered the jet engine. This in turn led the UK to sell jet engines to the Soviet Union, allegedly only for civilian use, which were in the end used in the MiG 15, a fearsome fighter that shot down many Allied aircraft over Korea.

Such expertise could be put to different uses. Britain had begun developing a nuclear weapon, determined to remain a world power after the Americans refused to share the ones developed under the Manhattan project. They would need a delivery system for this weapon and so the air ministry issued several operational requirements and finally a specification for a long range, jet powered bomber which could lift a large bomb load with a range of 2000 nautical miles and a cruising speed of 500 knots. The idea was to have something that would fly higher and faster than any interceptors.

This was way beyond what had been done previously, but Britain had the expertise. 3 designs, the Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan and Handley-Page Victor, were produced, and were collectively known as the V-Bombers (you might know the Vulcan better than the others – XH558 was flying until very recently). It quickly became clear however that newer Soviet surface to air missiles were very capable of shooting down the V-Bombers, and that something would have to be done.

One way of solving this would be to produce a new aircraft. Within this, there are several options. One way of doing this is to go low and fly below the radar (I will probably write a post some day about what came of this, but for now, suffice to say that it was tried). The other method was to go even higher and faster.

So an operational requirement was drawn up by the Air Ministry. This proposed, in all seriousness, a Mach 3 capable reconnaissance and strategic bomber aircraft, which would cruise at 60,000 ft. As if this wasn’t ridiculous enough, several manufacturers, including English Electric, Avro and Handley Page, submitted designs, to go into service in the early 1960s.

Most ambitious was the English Electric design, the P10, which featured 12 (yes, 12) ramjet engines, mounted inside very thin wings (a model can be found here). Extra fuel pods would be carried on the wingtips, which would be jettisoned once the fuel ran out. Needless to say, even the Air Ministry thought this was a bit much, and plumped for the much simpler Avro 730 instead.

Meanwhile, there was a fear that the Soviets might be developing their own supersonic bomber aircraft. At the time, the RAF was using the Gloster Javelin, a subsonic aircraft that would not be capable of intercepting a supersonic raider, and converting to the famous English Electric Lightning, which was much faster, but still considered insufficient.

Again, an operational requirement was drawn up, proposing an aircraft that could fly faster than Mach 2, to make intercepts in a very short time, and carry infra-red or radar-guided missiles (in development at the time) to shoot down Soviet bombers before they got near the UK. This spawned a range of designs. Some, like the Fairey Delta 3 and English Electric P.8, were derivatives of existing aircraft, but others were radical new designs, featuring such advanced technology as rocket boosters. You can see some artist’s impressions of what these would have looked like here.

Suffice to say, for a country with slender resources, all of these aircraft (and these are just 2 operational requirements, there were many others) were vastly over-ambitious. To put this into context, at this time, most of British Railways was still using steam trains, and wouldn’t get rid of them on the main line until 1968. Even if there had been a real need for them, the development costs would be prohibitive, even with American money.

Really it was the advent of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles that completely changed the game. No longer would the Soviets attack Britain with supersonic bombers (they didn’t actually have one at the time), but they would attack with missiles that would be impossible to shoot down. Equally, it would be far easier for Britain to strike at her enemies with American made missiles than home grown sci-fi technology. Furthermore, surface to air missile technology had advanced to the point that an aircraft flying at 60,000 ft and mach 3 could in theory be brought down over the Soviet Union.

The 1957 Defence White Paper pointed out this obvious trend towards missiles, and cancelled all of the projects described above. In fact, it only recommended one aircraft to be developed, but that really is a story for another day.


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