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« Blogging Note | Main | From Visitors 1: WWI Recommendations »

October 11, 2007

How Not to Create an Airliner

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It helps me to fall asleep if I read a book with lots of break-points that enable me to set it aside when my eyelids get heavy. Potted items about cars, ships and planes work well for me. Not long ago I was, for the umpteenth time, paging through Back to the Drawing Board by Bill Gunston, my favorite airplane writer.

This 1996 book has around 80 short essays (with photos) about aircraft that either (1) failed to fly, (2) had dangerously poor flying characteristics, or (3) fell far short of performance or other expectations.

One case interested me in particular -- that of the Avro Tudor, a British Airliner of the immediate post-World War 2 era. Not only did the aircraft have prolonged developmental problems, its specification was seriously flawed.

Avro Tudor

Gunston asserts (p. 123):

From fifty years on it is hard to believe that, at the end of World War II, we British thought we were world leaders in aviation. In fact, this merely betrayed our ignorance. At the same time, we fully recognised that for the moment we could not compete against properly designed American commercial transports, such as the DC-4 and the Constellation, with converted bombers such as the Halton and Lancastrian. Not to worry. Coming along fast were our own properly designed airliners, led by the Avro Tudor.

Tudor happens to be my middle name, and so I particularly wanted this to be a really fine aircraft, worthy of its great forebear, the Lancaster. Avro's design team, led by Roy Chadwick, could surely be relied upon to produce a real winner? But when the Tudor prototype appeared towards the end of the war, flying on 14 June 1945, I was not especially impressed. Two giant main wheels and a tailwheel smacked of 1935 rather than 1945, especially as it meant that passengers had to board a fuselage tilted like the side of a hill. And for a big 7,000 hp aircraft to be equipped to carry just twelve passengers seemed to suggest that the tickets would be expensive.

In fact the whole procurement set-up was ludicrous. The customer was the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which did not actually operate aircraft and knew nothing whatsoever about civil aviation. The airline, BOAC, was a government instrument which knew nothing about competition, or even whether its services were competitively priced. It carried mailbags for the Post Office, and government VIP and Service passengers whose tickets were paid for. Fare-paying passengers were a rare species. Thus, the Tudor was designed to carry twelve passengers in sumptuous comfort non-stop across the North Atlantic

But this book is not greatly concerned with economics. The Tudor gets in on much more certain grounds. To be frank, not only was it not in the same class as its transatlantic rivals, but the makers made the proverbial 'pig's ear' of it.

The third paragraph is particularly interesting as a cautionary tale regarding government trying to do things it was not meant to do. Market forces eventually prevailed, of course.



posted by Donald at October 11, 2007


The novelist Nevil Shute wrote an autobiography "Slide Rule" that covered his years as an aeronautical engineer: I recommend it. He's very scathing about government projects.

Posted by: dearieme on October 11, 2007 5:33 PM

From fifty years on it is hard to believe that, at the end of World War II, we British thought we were world leaders in aviation. In fact, this merely betrayed our ignorance.

Well, you can see how it would have been logical for them to think that. Many of their fighter designs in the war were excellent: Spitfire, Typhoon, Mosquito. The best American fighter, the P-51 was only successful after the British Merlin engine was installed. They led in radar research. The best jet engine of the war, the Whittle engine, was a British design built under license here by GE. They got the Gloster Meteor jet fighter operational long before the US was able to field the P-80.

From a contemporary perspective of 1945, I think it would be very reasonable for the British to assume they were at the cutting edge in aerospace. They would have had no way of knowing that bureaucratic idiocies (as described above) or the bankrupt RAF's inability to fund research would leave them behind in the race.

Thanks for the book recommendation, Donald. That looks very interesting

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 12, 2007 11:40 AM

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