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TWO BRITISH might-have-beens made aviation history 60 years ago. Each was the largest aircraft of its type in the world. Each extended the state of the art in design, fabrication and operation. And each failed—albeit gloriously.
Today, let’s celebrate the Bristol Brabazon, the world’s first jumbo airliner. Tomorrow, the Saunders-Roe Princess Flying Boat displays similar high ambitions with a nautical base. There are fascinating books on these projects. Each aircraft made a wonderful project for my Microsoft Flight Simulator modeling.
In the years prior to World War II, passenger airliners became larger and more luxurious. See www.wp.me/p2ETap-1aP. Those responsible for post-war planning anticipated a continuation of this trend, particularly in a lucrative transatlantic market.
Even before the war ended, design of the Bristol Brabazon had begun. Its 230-ft. wingspan was greater than the largest of today’s Boeing 747’s. Its eight piston engines spun pairs of counter-rotating propellers, each propeller 16 ft. in diameter. The Brabazon’s cruising speed was envisioned as 250 mph at 25,000 ft. Its range of 5460 miles gave transatlantic capability, even with a headwind.
Initial specifications called for Bristol Centaurus engines, each a twin-bank 18-cylinder sleeve-valve air-cooled radial of 53.6 liters. This was the last and largest of Bristol’s sleeve-valve piston engines, as opposed to the first of the technically superior Proteus turbine engine being developed by the company.
The Brabazon was designed to carry no more than 100 passengers with a crew of six to twelve. Its prospectus showed a double-deck configuration, with First Class private bedrooms, lounge, cocktail bar and 32-seat cinema.
Fabricating such an aircraft called for special manufacturing bays at Bristol’s Filton facilities, just north of Bristol, about 115 miles west of London. For example, stressed skin is a normal feature of aircraft today, but in the mid-1940s this technology was in its infancy.
Manufacturing delays arose—and airframe weight increased—as technical problems were identified and addressed.
The Brabazon’s first flight—of 27 minutes, and two years behind schedule—occurred on September 4, 1949. “I will fly the cockpit,” said Bristol Chief Test Pilot A.J. ‘Bill’ Pegg, “and I imagine the rest of the aeroplane will follow.”
By February 1950, the Brabazon had completed 14 test flights totaling 29 hours. Then came a flight of five hours covering 1000 miles. Others later in 1950 assayed the Brabazon’s speed capabilities, which achieved its piston-engine design goals.
A luxury cabin of 30 seats was installed and Members of Parliament as well as Lord and Lady Brabazon of Tara were taken on demonstration flights.
The air trials revealed problems that were to seal the Brabazon’s fate. Engine mountings failed prematurely; fuel consumption rates proved excessive; the proposed Proteus turbine project encountered delays. Scrutiny of the Brabazon’s actual performance, weighed against the evolving realities of transatlantic travel, complicated matters.
A Proteus-powered Mk. II was being assembled at Filton. And at venues such as Farnborough Airshow in 1950 and the Paris Air Show in 1951, the Brabazon Mk. I enthralled everyone.
Well, not everyone. Not airline bean-counters, who sensed that the sums just didn’t compute. The Brabazon project was scrapped on July 17, 1953.
Bristol’s Evening Post headline said it all. “And so Farewell to the Great Might-Have-Been.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013