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TSR2 cubed

Gary Parsons reports from Duxford on another roll-out of the TSR2

For the third time in its forty-odd years, TSR2 was rolled out once again, this occasion being on Friday 16 December at a cold and windswept Duxford. A second restoration has just been completed on this unique airframe in readiness for its inclusion in Duxford's new AirSpace exhibition hall, charting the highs of the British aircraft industry over the last century.

The tale of the TSR2 is well documented elsewhere, especially on Damien's excellent Thunder & Lightnings website, so suffice to say the TSR2 is a case of what might have been - not just for the RAF, but also the British Aircraft Company that never really recovered from the cataclysmic effects of the programme's cancellation. Yes, there were doubts over much of the technology as it was years ahead of its time, and yes, there were concerns about the metallurgy and life expectancy of the airframe, but without pushing the boundaries the British aircraft industry wouldn't have been the world leaders they were at the time - or would ever be again after Harold Wilson's Labour Government wielded the axe in 1965.

In the late fifties, the RAF drafted a specification for the replacement of the Canberra with additional strike and reconnaissance roles in the form of GOR (General Operational Requirement) 339 in 1956. It was exceptionally ambitious for the technology of the day, requiring a supersonic all-weather aircraft that could deliver nuclear weapons over a long range, operate at high level (at Mach 2+) or low level (at Mach 1.2), with a short take-off ability from rough and ready airstrips. English Electric and Vickers combined their ideas for the specification and put forward their design, with a view to a flying aircraft by 1963, but by the time the Ministry had made a decision the various companies had been collected together as the British Aircraft Corporation in 1960.

The bold design was a large aircraft with a shoulder-mounted slab-wing with down-turned tips, all-moving swept tailplane and an all-moving fin. To achieve the short take-off and landing requirement the wing featured blown flaps, and engines were two Bristol-Siddeley Olympus afterburning turbojets, similar to hose used in the Avro Vulcan and Concorde. The aircraft featured some extremely sophisticated avionics for navigation and mission delivery — far ahead of anything else available at the time — which was also to be one of the reasons for the spiralling costs of the project. Some features, such as ground-following terrain radar, FLIR cameras, side-looking airborne radar and the sophisticated autopilot would become commonplace on military aircraft in later years. Although the wing loading was high for its time, this gave the aircraft the ability to fly at very high speed and low level with great stability without being constantly upset by thermals and other ground-related weather phenomena - this in turn made the innovative ground-following radar and autopilot system feasible. Certainly looking at the aircraft today, it's very easy to imagine it would still be in service, as its lines formed the basis for Tornado, which one assumes would never have been needed if the TSR2 had seen entry into service.

Wing Commander James Leonard Dell OBE

Probably best known for his work on the English Electric Lightning, Jimmy Dell used his skill, courage and intimate knowledge of aerodynamics to reach the very top of a highly demanding profession. Joining the RAF in 1942, Jimmy did his initial pilot training in Southern Rhodesia. By 1944 he had become a Flying Instructor for advanced trainers. After the war Jimmy performed various training and test flying roles on aircraft such as Spitfires, Meteors, Venoms and Hunters. He also led test flight teams to the USA and France to work on aircraft such as the F-100, F-104, F-105, F-106, Mystere IV and Mirage III.

In 1960 he joined English Electric on the Lightning development programme and was Chief Test Pilot from 1961 to 1970. Jimmy worked on the TSR2 programme and flew twelve of the aircraft’s twenty-four test flights, before its untimely cancellation in 1965. He worked on the French/UK Jaguar programme, and finally became Director, Flight Operations with responsibility for all Tornado test flight activities across the three participating countries. He retired in 1989, among his awards was the OBE for services to test flying.

Duxford's TSR2

Just two prototype aircraft were fully completed, XR219 and XR220, although the latter never actually flew. The first flight took place at 15:28 on 27 September 1964 and over the next six months twenty-four test flights were conducted, although none of the complex electronics were ready - all flights concentrated on the basic flying qualities of the aircraft, which were by all accounts excellent. Some problems with the landing gear were experienced, which took four months to correct - the first failure occurred on flight 5 on 14 January 1965, when test pilot Roland Beamont made a tentative landing without incident. 'Bee' Beamont made most of the early test flights, with later flights mainly the preserve of English Electric compatriot Jimmy Dell, although Don Knight was to make two trips before cancellation in April.

TSR2 first went supersonic on 22 February 1965 when, on flight 14, it achieved Mach 1.12 without the use of afterburner - was this the first 'supercruise'? Remarkably it's only now, forty years later, that Typhoon and F-22A can achieve this same feat. Its low-level capabilities were amply demonstrated on its next flight when 'Bee', on his last flight, took the aircraft down to 200 ft at high speed.

Most of the remaining test flights were hampered by fuel leak problems, before the last on 31 March when Jimmy Dell had ironically perhaps the most successful sortie - just days before cancellation was announced on 6 April. All partially completed aircraft were unceremoniously scrapped, together with the tooling jigs, with only two substantially finished aircraft surviving, though with substantial internal damage inflicted - these are the two currently extant at Cosford and Duxford. XR219 was taken to Shoeburyness and used as a target to test the vulnerability of a modern airframe and systems to gunfire.

Amazingly a government study into the feasibility of resurrecting TSR2 was carried out during the early 1980s shortly after Margaret Thatcher came to power but after the study concluded that as it would be far too expensive and that the technology was no longer cutting edge, TSR2 should be buried forever.

Duxford's TSR2, XR222, was donated to the IWM in the mid-seventies and initially restored in the mid-eighties, although this didn't include much more than a new coat of paint. Restoration for Airspace commenced in 2001 and went much further than the earlier operation, with a complete strip under the supervision of team leader Harmon King. Although many systems and instruments are missing, from the outside the aircraft appears complete and represents the prototypes as they would have flown during those active six months.

Unveiled to the aviation press by legendary test pilots Jimmy Dell and Don Knight at Duxford on 16 December 2005, the restoration of XR222 signifies the beginning of the process of installing aircraft into the new Airspace building as the TSR2 was to only stay outside for a few hours before joining Concorde, Vulcan and Lightning as the first aircraft to be positioned, although Airspace won't be fully open until 2007.

Asked what the TSR2 was like to fly, Jimmy Dell replied "It was easy to fly for such a big aeroplane - a great thrill, especially as you couldn't see any of it from the cockpit! We were devastated when it was cancelled, as we knew we had a world-beater. It was a great privilege to fly it." Don Knight agreed: "It was simply amazing. It flew just like a big Lightning - only faster! We couldn't imagine it would be cancelled - it was all going so well. After cancellation the Saudi Lightning programme kept us going, but it took us a long while to recover."


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