An Aircraft Killed by its Government and Inter-Service Infighting

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

“All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.” – Sir Sydney Camm

The TSR-2 was designed as a tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), for the RAF during the 1950s and early 1960s. The aircraft was designed to penetrate a well-defended forward battle area at low altitude and high speed, to attack key enemy targets with conventional or nuclear weapons. It was also intended that the aircraft should be capable of aerial reconnaissance with side-looking radar and photo imagery, as well as gathering electronic signals intelligence.

Because of the non-permissive environments in which it was designed to operate, TSR-2 was provided with the most cutting-edge avionics technology, which would have made it the most advanced aircraft in the world. The TSR-2 fell victim to ever rising costs, inter-Service rivalry and political interference and the project was cancelled in 1965 by the newly-elected Labour Government. But in hindsight, the flight testing of the single flying airframe that was produced, indicated that the aircraft was not capable of performing all of the stringent mission profiles expected of it, which were reduced following flight testing.


The concept of TSR-2 traced its roots to the de Havilland Mosquito of the Second World War. Initially the Mosquito was intended as a light bomber with no defensive armament, but the aircraft was so versatile it became a multi-role aircraft and arguably the most outstanding aircraft of the war. The Mosquito was still flying in some roles when the TSR-2 project was scrapped. The Mosquito concept led to Air Ministry specification E. 3/45 and the winning design was the Canberra, the aircraft’s long, straight wings allowed it to operate at very high altitude, not only as a bomber but also a reconnaissance aircraft. Canberras were making incursions into Soviet airspace when the Lockheed U2 was still a drawing board concept at the Skunk Works. Interestingly, many of the U2’s first operations were flown by RAF pilots, because of the experience gained in the Canberra. The Americans built the Canberra under licence as the Martin RB 57D with a slightly longer wing span than the RAF’s PR9. The RAF Canberras continued to fly operationally over Iraq, Afghanistan and many other surprising locations shrouded by the Official Secrets Act until being retired in 2006.

The Soviets introduced surface to air missiles (SAMs) in the 1950s and aircraft operating at high altitude were vulnerable to these missiles. The first victim was a Taiwanese RB57, shot down by a SA-2 Guideline SAM in 1959. The solution was to operate at low level, below the radar, but the Canberra was designed for high altitude flight. The RAF’s V-Bombers switched to a low level role, which caused excessive airframe fatigue for the Valiant bombers and they were re-brigaded to the air-to-air refuelling and electronic countermeasures role.

The new operating environment called for a new type of aircraft that would need a strengthened airframe to cope with low level turbulence and an increased fuel load. In 1955 the Ministry of Supply in conjunction with English Electric began to scope a Canberra replacement. The aircraft would have a range of 2,000 nautical miles (nm), a ferry range at Mach 1.5 of 600nm and a low-level range of 600nm. The crew would be two with a pilot and weapons systems operator and a bombload of four 1,000lb nuclear weapons.

This scoping work was made official in November 1956 and General Operational Requirement (GOR) 339 was issued to the British aircraft manufacturers. It was a very ambitious requirement for the technology of the day, requiring an aircraft that could deliver nuclear weapons at low level and supersonic speeds of Mach 1.2 or high to medium level at speeds of Mach 2. A further complication was that the then current concept of operations (Conops), stated that nuclear strikes in the opening stages of war would damage most runways and airfields, meaning that aircraft would need to take off from “rough fields” such as disused Second World War airfields, or even sufficiently flat and open areas of land. Specific requirements of GOR 339 were:

• Delivery of tactical nuclear weapons at low level in all weathers, by day and night
• Photo-reconnaissance at medium level (day) and low level (day and night)
• Electronic reconnaissance in all weathers
• Delivery of tactical nuclear weapons day and night at medium altitudes using blind bombing if necessary
• Delivery of conventional bombs and rockets
• The aircraft was to operate in the strategic as well as the tactical role

Some have suggested that these overly ambitious requirements for the aircraft doomed the project from the start, but it was then that politics reared its ugly head. Defence Minister Duncan Sandys stated in the 1957 Defence White Paper that the era of manned combat was at an end and ballistic missiles were the weapons of the future. Within a decade, this philosophy became thoroughly discredited, but at the time, and in the climate of the Cold War and “mutual deterrence”, the missile as a weapons system appeared to make some sense, especially as it seemed missiles would offer significant cost savings over manned aircraft. Unsurprisingly this viewpoint was vigorously debated by the aviation industry and within the War Department (to become the MoD in 1964) for years. Senior RAF officers argued against the White Paper’s premise, stating the importance of mobility, and that the TSR-2 could not only replace the Canberra, but potentially the entire V bomber force.

In September 1957 the Ministry of Supply informed the aviation companies that the only acceptable proposals would come from teams from more than one company, in an effort to encourage mergers. And then there was the inter-Service dimension. At the time GOR 339 was being issued, the Royal Navy was in midst of the NA 39 Project, for a low altitude, subsonic, over the water strike aircraft, which eventually became the Blackburn Buccaneer. Blackburn offered the RAF a version of the NA 39 which would fulfil a few of the GOR. 339 requirements. The RAF rejected this plan because clearly the NA 39 offering was unsuitable in the operational environment the GOR. 339 aircraft was expected to operate. The RAF had nothing but contempt for this naval aircraft and inter-service cooperation was a concept far removed from their minds. Indeed they would make efforts to sabotage the navy’s acquisition of the type, and make significant enemies in the process. Over the next few years Blackburn would submit a number of improved Buccaneer variants, but they were always rejected.

The Chief of the Defence Staff and former First Sea Lord Louis Mountbatten pitched in and pointed out that five of the NA 39 type could be purchased for the cost of one GOR. 339, a fact not lost on the politicians. The Australians had shown an interest in purchasing the TSR-2 but Mountbatten said his piece to the Australian Air Ministry, the Ministry of Aviation failed to announce a firm order for the RAF, the Americans offered a cut-price deal on the TFX (F-111). As a result, in October 1963 the TSR2’s export prospects disappeared – the Australians had chosen to buy the TFX instead. That this would cost more than four times more than they had been told and would be 10 years late into service, which was not something they had expected.

Another political opponent of the TSR-2 project was Sir Solly Zuckerman, at the time the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence. Zuckerman had an extremely low opinion of British technological achievements and was much more in favour of procuring military hardware from the United States. The US was in the process of designing the F-111 strike aircraft and General Dynamics was less than delighted with the prospect of the RAF operating an aircraft with far more advanced avionics and technology that the F-111.

Work on GOR.339 continued, with a deadline for submissions on 31 January 1958. English Electric teamed up with Short Brothers and submitted its P.17A along with the Shorts’ P.17D, a vertical-lift platform that would give the P.17 a VTOL capability. Designs were also received from Avro, Blackburn (the NA.39), de Havilland, Fairey, Hawker and Vickers-Armstrongs. The Air Ministry eventually selected the EE P.17A and the Vickers-Armstrongs Type 571 for further consideration. The Ministry was particularly impressed with the Vickers submission, which included not only the aircraft design, but a “total systems concept” outlining all the avionics, support facilities and logistics needed to maintain the aircraft in the field. Official opinions of English Electric’s management found it decidedly lacking in comparison to Vickers, but the combination of the two was felt by officialdom to be a useful marriage and accordingly the development contract was awarded to Vickers, with English Electric as sub-contractor.

The existence of GOR.339 was revealed to the public in December 1958 in a statement to the House of Commons. Under pressure by the recommendations of the Committee on Estimates, the Air Ministry examined ways that the various project proposals could be combined and in January 1959, the Minister of Supply announced that the TSR-2 would be built by Vickers-Armstrongs, working with English Electric. The initials coming from “Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance, Mach 2,” the ‘Strike’ part of the designation specifically referring in RAF terminology to a nuclear weapons role. On 1 January 1959, the project was given an official go-ahead and in February, it came under the new designation Operational Requirement 343. OR.343 was more specific and built upon work from the various submissions to GOR.339, specifically stating that the low-level operations would be at 200 feet or less and that Mach 2 should be attained at altitude.

Details of the aircraft’s mission profiles were developed, specifically the carrying of a 2,000lb weapon internally for 1,000 nm. 100 nm was to be flown at Mach 1.7 at high altitude, 230 nm into and out of the target at Mach 0.95 under 200 feet and then returning at Mach 0.92, a high-low-low profile. If the entire mission was at low level the range was reduced to 700 nm. Later variants of the aircraft would be fitted with variable geometry swing wings.

The Red Beard tactical nuclear bomb was unsuitable for carriage on the TSR-2 as its 15 kt yield was considered insufficient. OR 177 was a bomb designed specifically for the TSR-2 with a yield up to 300 kt for targets such as missile sites, both hardened and soft, aircraft on airfields, runways, airfield buildings, airfield fuel installations and bomb stores, tank concentrations, ammunition and supply dumps, railways, railway tunnels, and bridges. However, a ministerial ruling on 9 July 1962 decreed that all future tactical nuclear weapons should be limited to a yield of 10 kt, so the RAF considered dropping the weapons in multiples of four. This led to the requirement that the TSR-2 must be able to carry four WE.177As, two internally and two on external underwing stores pylons—the width of the TSR-2 bomb bay (originally designed to accommodate a single Red Beard weapon) necessitating the reduction in diameter of the WE.177A to 16.5 in, the bomb’s width and fin span being constrained by the need to fit two WE.177 bombs side-by-side in the aircraft’s bomb bay. The requirement for stick bombing using nuclear weapons was soon dropped as larger yield bombs came back into favour. The delivery of the weapons would be executed at low altitude, using the toss bombing concept, lofting the bombs in a climbing turn and then hopefully outrunning the blast zones.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Toss bombing profile

A drawback of carrying WE.177 on external pylons was a limitation due to aerodynamic heating of the bomb’s casing. WE.177A was limited to a maximum carriage time of five minutes at Mach 1.15 at low level on TSR-2, otherwise the bomb’s temperature would rise above its permitted maximum. This would impose a severe operational restriction on TSR-2, as the aircraft was designed for Mach 1+ cruise at this height. Nuclear stand-off missiles were also proposed for the TSR-2 early in development but not proceeded with. Already the problems were mounting, the aircraft having to deliver unsuitable weapons systems.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A training version of the WE. 177


Throughout 1959 the joint English Electric and Vickers team worked on combining both of their designs with a view to having the aircraft fly by 1963. The two companies were merged into the British Aircraft Corporation with Bristol Aircraft. English Electric’s design was a delta while Vickers opted for a swept wing. The final aircraft would have a Vickers front half and an English Electric rear and wings.

The engines would be two Bristol-Siddeley Olympus reheated turbojets, advanced variants of those used in the Avro Vulcan. The Olympus would be further developed and would power the supersonic Concorde. Blown flaps were fitted across the entire trailing edge of the wing to achieve the short take-off and landing requirement, something that later designs would achieve with the technically more complex swing-wing approach. No ailerons were fitted, control in roll instead being implemented by differential movement of the slab tail planes. The wing loading was high to allow the aircraft greater stability during high speed at low level. The theoretical performance was remarkable for any aircraft at that time. TSR-2 was capable of sustained cruise at Mach 2.05 at altitudes between 37,000 feet and 51,000 feet and had a dash speed of Mach 2.35 (with a limiting leading edge temperature of 140° Celsius). Its theoretical maximum speed was Mach 3 in level flight at 45,000 feet.

But there were problems in producing the design, the same problems that had bedevilled the British aeronautical industry since the early 1930s. Some contributing manufacturers were employed directly by the Ministry rather than through BAC, leading to communication difficulties and further cost overruns. Equipment, an area in which BAC had autonomy, would be supplied by the Ministry from “associate contractors”, although the equipment would be designed and provided by BAC, subject to ministry approval. The overall outlay of funds made it the largest aircraft project in Britain to date. The choice of proceeding to production tooling turned out to be another source of delay, with the first aircraft having to adhere to strict production standards or deal with the bureaucracy of attaining concessions to allow them to exhibit differences from later airframes. Four years into the project, the first few airframes had effectively become prototypes in all but name, exhibiting a succession of omissions from the specification and differences from the intended pre-production and production batches. As Wing Commander R. P. Beamont the first TSR-2 test pilot put it:

The practical solution of appointing one prime contractor to manage the whole programme with sub-contractors operating under strictly controlled and disciplined conditions was, if considered at all, waived aside.

Engine development problems had also surfaced. The Bristol-Siddeley Olympus engines were an all-new development and suffered various problems, which resulted in the destruction of a Vulcan testbed aircraft on the ground, putting back the first flight of the TSR2 as a result. With the first aircraft now complete, it was transported by road to Boscombe Down. Vickers had wanted test flying to begin at their airfield at Wisley, but the chief test pilot, Roland Beamont, objected to this because of the shorter runway there. English Electric’s airfield at Warton would have been ideal, but the Ministry of Aviation forced the firm to use Boscombe Down instead. This meant more delays; neither company had a base of operations there, and the aircraft had to be reassembled at Boscombe over a period of a month. On the 6th of May 1964 the fully assembled first development batch aircraft, XR219, was removed from its hangar at Boscombe Down to begin testing, including taxi trials. Various minor problems occurred, including the failure of the braking parachute to deploy on one fast taxi run, but most were overcome.

Each engine produced thick black smoke, which, with the TSR2’s distinctive wingtip contrails, meant that it was not hard to spot a TSR2 in the air. Other problems continued also. Serious vibration problems related to the undercarriage meant that at the instant of landing, the crew were violently thrown around. Further serious vibrations at certain throttle settings were also intolerable, with the vibration being at the resonant frequency of the human eyeball thus causing loss of vision to the pilot. This was finally traced to a faulty fuel pump. Malfunctions varied from doors refusing to close to more serious problems like one leg staying extended while the others had retracted correctly. On one occasion the undercarriage came down but the main bogies did not lock into the correct position. Nothing could be done to get the gear down correctly, so Beamont told his navigator, Don Bowen, that it could be time to leave by Martin Baker’s finest. The boffins on the ground, however, thought that a safe landing could be made if the descent rate was very low. Beamont and Bowen elected to stay with the aircraft and try to land it. In the event, the landing was successful, the bogies rotating into the correct position as the aircraft settled onto the extended gear. Finally, on flight number 10, after four months of attempts to fix the problems, the undercarriage was successfully retracted. Beamont soon decided that XR219 was ready to continue its flight test programme at Warton.

Flight 14 was XR219’s trip to Warton, during which it went supersonic for the first – and only – time. The TSR2 was taken smoothly through to Mach 1.12 with one engine in reheat, briefly leaving the Lightning chase aircraft behind until it engaged reheat to catch up.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
TSR-2 and Lightening chase aircraft on first and only supersonic flight

Poor project management and lack of inter-company cooperation meant that the entire project was under concerted political attack, from the newly-elected Labour government. In early 1965 the national newspapers reported that an RAF team was in the USA to consider purchasing the TFX (F-111) instead of continuing the TSR-2 programme – despite Labour promises to aviation industry workers that ‘Your jobs are safe under Labour’. Urgent discussions between BAC and the new Labour government ensued, and there was even a protest march in London where 10,000 BAC and Hawker-Siddeley employees demonstrated against cuts in the industry. The government issued such strong denials of cancellation that The Times quipped that they had ‘struck fear into the heart’ of the industry. The problem was simply the money the TSR2 was soaking up. The aircraft’s development costs had gone up time and time again and the entire programme had been continually under threat nearly from day one. Labour believed the TFX could be a cheaper alternative, and that they could re-deploy aviation workers to ‘more productive’ work.

That the aircraft was incredibly advanced was not in question and the problems besetting development were being solved one by one. But the specification was continually being downgraded to allow BAC to meet it, and the RAF was getting ever colder feet. All of the hard work would be to no avail. XR220 would never fly. The government, in the Budget Day announcement on the 6th of April 1965, announced that the TSR2 programme was to be terminated immediately.

The Air Ministry placed an option for the American F-111K, a modified F-111A with F-111C enhancements, but also considered two other choices: a Rolls-Royce Spey (RB.168 Spey 25R) conversion of a Dassault Mirage IV and ironically an enhanced Blackburn Buccaneer S.2 with a new nav-attack system and reconnaissance capability, referred to as the “Buccaneer 2-Double-Star.” Neither proposal was pursued as a TSR-2 replacement although a final decision was reserved until the 1966 Defence Review. Following the 1966 Defence White Paper, the Air Ministry decided on two aircraft: the F-111K, with a longer-term replacement being a joint Anglo-French project for a variable geometry strike aircraft – the Anglo French Variable Geometry Aircraft (AFVG). A censure debate followed on 1 May 1967, in which Healey claimed the cost of the TSR-2 would have been £1,700 million over 15 years including running costs, compared with £1,000 million for the F-111K/AFVG combination. Although 10 F-111Ks were ordered in April 1966 with an additional order for 40 in April 1967, the F-111 programme itself suffered enormous cost escalation coupled with the devaluation of the pound, far exceeding that of the TSR-2 projection. Many technical problems were still unresolved before successful operational deployment and, faced with poorer-than-projected performance estimates, the order for 50 F-111Ks for the RAF was eventually cancelled in January 1968. The replacements included the Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, both of which had previously been considered and rejected early in the TSR-2 procurement process. Eventually, the smaller swing-wing Panavia Tornado was developed and adopted by a European consortium to fulfil broadly similar requirements to the TSR-2.

None of the main players covered themselves with glory during the TSR-2 project. The squabbling senior officers of the RN and RAF. The Chief of the Defence Staff attempting to scupper a major project that provided employment for highly skilled British workers. The RAF’s senor officers that behaved like petulant children, looking for a solution elsewhere when the project didn’t meet expectations, instead of sticking with it and making it work. The inept handling of the construction by the aircraft manufacturers. But it was the political vandalism of the Labour government who possibly cancelled the project with good reason, but ensured that it could never be resurrected by destroying the tooling and jigs. Some may well wonder if Harold Wilson was given his orders by his alleged Soviet handlers. Harold_Wilson_conspiracy_theories  The TSR-2 tooling, jigs and many of the part completed aircraft were all scrapped at Brooklands within six months of the cancellation.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Two airframes eventually survived: the complete XR220 at the RAF Museum, Cosford near Wolverhampton, and the much less complete XR222 at the Imperial War Museum Duxford. The only airframe ever to fly, XR219, along with the completed XR221 and part completed XR223 were taken to Shoeburyness and used as targets to test the vulnerability of a modern airframe and systems to gunfire and shrapnel. But just for a moment consider what could have happened if the project had been a success. The British could have had the most technologically advanced aviation industry in the world and upgraded TSR-2s might still be flying today. It was never to be.

© Blown Periphery 2019

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