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BAC TSR-2

The British Aircraft Corporation's TSR-2 was an ill-fated cold-war project in the early 1960s to create what would have been one of the most advanced aircraft in the world at the time.

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

In the 1950s, the British Royal Air Force was aware that the Canberra bomber would need to be replaced, and a specification for its replacement with additional strike and reconnaissance roles was drafted in the form of GOR 339 in 1956. This specification 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 or low level, with a short takeoff ability from rough and ready airstrips. As this specification was being studied by various manufacturers, the first of the political storms that were to dog the project reared its head - the then defence minister stating that the era of manned combat was at an end and that guided missiles were all that would be needed in future. In hindsight we can see that this is clearly a very silly position to take, but at the time, it may have made a great deal more sense in the climate of the cold war and "mutual deterrence".

Another political matter that didn't help was the mutual distrust that the various services had of each other - the air force were looking at GOR 339, but it was clear that the development of the Blackburn Buccaneer[?] for the Royal Navy was competitive with this project, so the RAF ignored or derided that project in order to ensure that they got the aircraft they wanted (all at taxpayers expense of course). In any case, various proposals were submitted and in 1959 the go-ahead was given for the BAC entry, named the TSR-2, for Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance 2 (the TSR-1 being a pre-war biplane aircraft fulfilling a similar role).


BAC TSR-2 prototype on its maiden flight

The TSR-2 final design was a large aircraft with two Bristol-Siddeley Olympus afterburning turbojets (similar, but a much more powerful variant of those used in the Avro Vulcan and Concorde), a large shoulder mounted slab-wing with down-turned tips, all-moving swept tailplane and a large all-moving fin.

The design featured blown flaps to achieve the short take off and landing requirement, something which later designs would employ the technically more complex "swing-wing" design to achieve. 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 spiraling costs of the project. Some features, such as ground-following terrain radar, FLIR cameras, side-looking airborne radar and the sophisticated autopilot are only now becoming commonplace on military aircraft.

Despite the rocketing costs (which were inevitable, given the ridiculously low original estimates), two prototype aircraft were completed, and the first flight took place on 27 September 1964. Over the next 6 months, many test flights were conducted, though none of the complex electronics was ready, so those flights were all concerned with the basic flying qualities of the aircraft, which were by all accounts excellent. A few niggling faults with the landing gear came to light but were relatively straightforward issues.

In the meantime, the politicians got busy. A change of government in 1964 meant that the costly project, which had received a lot of negative public attention due to cost, was held up as an example of waste and inefficiency of the previous government, and without notice, the project was cancelled on April 6, 1965. At that moment, the leadership in world aviation that Britain had enjoyed for much of the 20th century was reversed, and has never been regained to this day. Some face was saved by the Concorde project, but from then on the Americans took the lead and have never looked back. The TSR-2 tooling and partially completed aircraft were summarily scrapped, though the two finished aircraft survived and can be seen in the RAF museum at Cosford, and the Imperial War museum at Duxford. Instead of the TSR-2, the RAF decided to equip with the American General Dynamics F-111 design, which itself was subject to enormous cost escalation, leading the the cancelation of that project too. The F-111 did go into service with the USAF and the Royal Australian Air Force ultimately. Eventually, the RAF requirement was vested in the Buccaneer, the very same aircraft that the RAF chose to badmouth in order to get the TSR-2 the go-ahead! In fact, this aircraft proved itself very capable and was still in service into the early 1990s.

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