RAF History 1957 - 1959

Fairey Aviation were one of the few British aircraft companies that made even a token attempt to return to the UK after the war was over. The company had evacuated to Canada during 1941 and had become established as a major supplier of components and equipment to the US aircraft industry. In doing so, it had become involved in the developing helicopter technology, supplying gearing and other essentials to the Sikorsky and Piasecki groups. In doing so, its design staff had become disillusioned with the approach being adopted by those groups. The concept of an engine driving a rotor that was used both for lift and propulsion seemed to be grossly inefficient. The weight of the gearing was excessive and its mechanics were complex to the point where Fairey doubted whether they could ever be made practical. In addition, the system generated great amounts of torque, to the point where a second rotor, at the tail, was needed to prevent the craft spinning hopelessly out of control.

Fairey engineers came up with what they believed was a much better solution. Instead of using the engine to drive the rotor directly, they used it as a gas generator, feeding the product out along the rotor blades to rotor-tip jets. The great advantages of this system was that it was mechanically much simpler and was also torque-free, eliminating the need for a tail rotor. The disadvantage was that it provided little or no forward propulsion and additional machinery would be necessary to propel the aircraft. By 1952, Fairey had designed a system (based on American automobile transmission technology) where two wing-mounted engines would act both as gas generators for the tip-jets and as forward propulsion. In vertical take-off mode, all the engine power would be used to power the tip jets but as the aircraft transitioned to horizontal flight, power would be smoothly transferred to driving forward flight. To increase safety, Fairey designed the system using a four-bladed rotor, each engine driving an opposed pair of blades.

In planning their move back to the UK, Fairey decided to leave their aircraft components and gearing industries in Canada and the US. The aircraft production side of the operation would move to Britain and concentrate on exploiting their new design as a civil airliner. In effect, the US and Canadian operations would act as a cash cow, funding the development of the vertical takeoff airliner. By 1955, they had re-occupied their facilities in the UK, modernized them to an acceptable standard and flown their first prototype airliner, now called the Rotodyne. The first public appearance of the Rotodyne was spectacular. A group of businessmen departed their offices in the City of London, took a coach to Heathrow Airport where they boarded a BEA Avro Jetliner for Birmingham. Arriving at Birmingham, they took another coach to a hotel in the center of the city for lunch. Only to find that somebody else had eaten all the food for at the same time as they had departed their offices in London, another group had taken a five minute ride to an area of cleared rubble in Londons Docklands. A Rotodyne Y was waiting for them and had flown them straight to the center of Birmingham, landing only five minutes from their destination. They had beaten the jetliner by more than two hours.

The Rotodyne Y used for this publicity stunt (for, in truth, it was little else) was a technology demonstrator, using a pair of Eland turboprops for power. By Fairey standards, it was undersized and underpowered, too slow and too short-ranged. A new aircraft, the Rotodyne Z, was already being built. Powered by two new Rolls Royce Tyne turboprops, it was sized for a passenger load of sixty people, could cruise at 225 miles per hour and had a range of 675 miles. Even more significantly, Fairey had entered into a joint sales and marketing agreement with Kaman Helicopters in Connecticut. Of the two prototype Rotodyne Zs, one stayed in the UK for demonstrations while the other was shipped to Kaman, who proceeded to do something quite unprecedented. The USAFs NORAD command had issued a requirement for a helicopter to evacuate the President and key members of staff from Washington in the case of nuclear attack. Kaman offered the Rotodyne Z, pointing out that it had the bulk and space to provide a complete flying emergency headquarters that would allow the President to remain in command of American nuclear forces while the evacuation was in progress, a facility quite impossible for a conventional helicopter.

Kaman invited President LeMay to visit the Rotodyne Z made up to simulate the proposed bid. The President spent all morning going over the mock-up and discussing technical details with Kaman and Fairey engineers. At the end of the meeting, he left the Kaman headquarters building and made a brief statement "I can find no cause for complaint." The staff of Kaman, assembled outside the building burst into thunderous cheering at this unprecedented vote of confidence in the Rotodyne Z. With a week, the USAF had placed an order for 18 Rotodyne Z aircraft with Kaman to equip the Presidential and Executive squadron.

With this order in place, the Fairey Rotodyne moved into high gear. If ever there was a case of the right aircraft at the right time this was it. The availability of the C-99 Cloudliners had revolutionized air travel. The civilianized derivative of the transport version of the B-36, the Cloudliner was capable of lifting 400 people at a time, they had reduced per seat-mile costs to unprecedently low figures, making air travel a routine daily event for all but the poorest Americans. The Cloudliner had been followed by the Skyliner, essentially a stretched C-99 fuselage married to the wings and tail of the B-60. The Skyliner, entering service in 1956, could carry six hundred people. Boeing had built the Jumbojet, a transport derivative of its B-52 that was capable of lifting 650 people and was significantly faster than the Skyliner. Douglas had followed with a 600-seat airliner derivative of its C-133 transport that was slower than the jets but was cheaper to buy and operate.

All these aircraft had one disadvantage, they were so big that finding enough passengers to fill them meant operating between large central transport hubs. People would have to get to those hubs to take their flight and it quickly became apparent that it was taking longer to get to and from the transport hubs than to make the flight. This was a severe cramp on air transport development. Small feederliners didn't solve the problem, they just dispersed it a bit. The Rotodyne solved it. The aircraft could act as a flying bus, stopping in city centers and rural communities, picking up its passengers and taking them direct to the hubs. The Rotodyne Z was the ancestor of the modern metro-airliner. Today, almost every airline passenger starts and ends his journey riding on a Rotodyne.

With American orders and options flowing in, Fairey in the UK set about emulating the success. On paper at least, Europe was perfect Rotodyne territory. Most major population centers were within the range of the Rotodyne Z and were spaced so that the aircraft had a major time and economic advantage over conventional airliners. Fairey started, naturally enough, with BEA - and had a shock. BEA management were cold to the aircraft, refusing to commit themselves to any purchase. They then demanded that the size of the Rotodyne Z be reduced so that it could carry a maximum of 20 passengers. This was highly disturbing; there was no economic rationale for such a reduction since the downsized aircraft would cost the same amount to fly as the larger type. In effect, the extra seats came free. So what was going on? Matters became worse when rumors started to spread that the Rotodyne was too noisy to fly from city centers, that it suffered from vibration and was difficult to control. All untrue; tests showed that the Rotodyne generated less noise than a London Underground train and that was only when taking off.

It is an odd thing, but corruption has a smell to it, a very distinctive smell indeed and by the middle of 1957, there was a lot of that smell around. One distinguished British aviation journalist visiting the Ministry of Aviation said that he got the distinct impression there were dead rats in the building. It was a Ministry of Aviation requirement that was to set the whole disaster in motion.

The MoA had issued a requirement for, amongst other things, a tactical transport that could carry a platoon of men and their equipment for a radius of 250 miles at 150 miles per hour. They had in mind a replacement for the DC-3/C-47 type aircraft and, from most companies, thats what they got. Fairey offered them a militarized version of the Rotodyne Z that could carry a fully-equipped platoon of infantry for radius of 350 miles at 250 miles per hour. The RAF took one look and bit as did the Royal Navy, seeing application for the aircraft for the Royal Marines. However, hopes of a quick (and large) sale started to fade as meetings dragged on without coming to a conclusion.

In September 1957, things came to an unexpected and catastrophic head. Fairey Aviation were doing a sales pitch to Swissair when they were informed that a French company, Sud Aviation, were offering a Rotodyne also, identical to the Fairey design but at roughly 70 percent of the cost. This was obviously a very major blow. That could well kill any hopes of selling Fairey Rotodynes in Europe. Sud Aviation had made a bad mistake though; the Fairey bid was being underwritten by a Swiss bank and, in Switzerland, damaging the interests of a Swiss bank isn't tantamount to treason, it is treason. One of Switzerlands unofficial but very real government investigation groups took an interest and staged a late night raid on the Geneva offices of Sud Aviation, seizing all the documents and blueprints for their bid. Amongst those documents were plans of the Sud Aviation Rotodyne - and they were Fairey documents, the measurements even being in Imperial units rather than Metric. When Fairey were shown the documents they did a double take - they were of the military version of the Rotodyne Z, not the civilian version. And those documents were supposed to be highly classified and restricted to the British Ministry of Aviation.

It did not take long for the Swiss Police to unravel the affair. They intercepted a senior civil servant from the Ministry of Aviation, a rather sad and bedraggled figure called Kim Philby, in the act of delivering classified Fairey Rotodyne documents to Sud Aviation. On vigorous interrogation, he broke down and implicated a group of other civil servants in the Ministry of Aviation including Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Donald Maclean as being part of a large-scale commercial espionage ring working out of the Ministry of Aviation. It subsequently turned out the group had been involved in various forms of spying for many years, initially working for the Soviet Union before being abandoned when the USSR reverted to being Russia.

For all its UK location, Fairey was a highly Americanized corporation and there was a saying. When in trouble, American citizens look to their guns, American Governments look to their bombers and American companies look to their lawyers. Fairey promptly sued Sud Aviation and the Ministry of Aviation for damages. The British case was placed in British courts but, rightly perceiving taking an action in French courts would be futile, Fairey took Sud Aviation to the International Court. Sud Aviation was a state-owned company and that meant the French Government was being hauled before the courts. The case was complex but went quickly; both sets of court found in Faireys favor and awarded damages that were eye-watering even for a sovereign state.

Again, it is necessary to look at the events with the eyes of the times to understand why the French and British Governments were seized with what seemed to be a death-wish. Today we take the virtues of free enterprise and commercial competition so much for granted that we find it hard to believe anybody else could see things differently. In the mid-1950s, though, they did. A strong body of economic opinion still favored the idea of a single centralized company in each sector that would avoid wasteful duplication and 'put people before profits'. There was still a strong body of opinion that such single companies were best state-run and nowhere was that belief stronger than in the British and French civil services. Both governments simply refused to pay the court awards to Fairey and there were even noises made about nationalizing the group.

With some discrete prodding from Kaman, that woke the Americans up. Fairey were suppliers of a number of sub-systems to American bomber programs and the threat to the company suddenly became a matter of interest to the United States. The American Eagle woke, directed a sleepy eye on Europe and started irritatedly tapping its perch with a razor-sharp talon. In the UK, the Rotodyne was a matter of pride and the Governments action was universally reviled. In France, the opposition saw its chance and tabled a motion of no confidence. The British opposition did the same. What had started as a dirty, sordid bit of industrial espionage had suddenly grown into an international crisis. The spiral down continued when the French Government lost the motion and collapsed. The British government survived - by one vote despite having a theoretical majority of 56. Even that humiliating victory was only achieved by the Government promising a full, independent judicial inquiry into the conduct and actions of the Ministry of Aviation.

As 1957 ground into 1958, the situation got worse. The French, ever pragmatic, were the first to cave. They were completely isolated in Europe; at the negotiations intended to establish the North European Free Trade Zone, the other delegates rose and walked out when the French delegation entered the room. The new French Government approached the British Government with an urgent request for a summit meeting to resolve the problem. Only, the Judicial Inquiry had revealed there was a lot more going on than had been realized.

The Ministry of Aviation civil service had decided there was only room for one aviation company in the UK. There were two, the privately-owned Fairey Aviation and the state-owned British Aircraft Corporation. One had to go, and in the spirit of the time and place, that one, they had decided, was to be Fairey. It turned out that the stories leaked about Rotodyne shortcomings, the delays in placing orders and the leakage of confidential documents were all aimed at forcing Fairey to merge with BAC. Philby and his rather pathetic crew hadn't been acting on their own; they'd been implementing the Civil Service's privately-decided policy.

The implications ran far and deep. BEA were shown to have cooperated in the scheme, attempting to cripple the Rotodyne project by demanding unrealistic and uneconomic design changes. BAC were, of course, deeply involved and in their case the scandal reached more serious proportions. It was shown that they had systematically understated the design costs of the new generation of aircraft; the individual design groups were presenting data honestly enough but at the senior civil service level these figures were being buried and replaced by much more optimistic ones. The reality was that the combination of BAC-730 and TSR-2 aircraft development costs were far beyond British means. In addition, they would not be available for years after the scheduled dates.

In the end, the BAC-730 was beyond saving; the project was canceled and the uncompleted prototype broken up. This, of course, meant that the ballistic missile development teams at Vickers Dynamics were now the only source for a British strategic force. For want of any alternative, Bomber Command would become a strategic missile force. The fate of TSR-2 hung in the balance and was eventually decided by the intervention of the Triple Alliance who bought the program, the companies, factories and everything else and shipped it to Australia. This was the formation of Alliance Aviation. The TSR-2 survived, the first aircraft entering service with the Royal Thai Air Force in 1968 and with the Australian and Indian Air Forces a year later. The type never saw service with the country for which it was originally designed. The amount received for the program just about paid the damages to Fairey Aviation.

These two designs out of the way, the British Aircraft Corporation was wound up. The British government decided that supporting both civil and military aviation industries was beyond its resources and one had to go. Events had meant that it was the military aviation industry that was terminated and from now on British resources and investment would be concentrated in the civil sector, headed by privately-owned Fairey Aviation. This was undoubtedly a wise and far-sighted decision, one that lead directly to the 600 mph, 200 seat Rotodynes familiar to us today. In fact, military aviation didn't die completely. The Rotodyne proved an amazingly versatile shipboard aircraft. Troop-carrying, ASW and radar picket versions have all been developed and are in widespread service.

Despite their opposition, the French Government also settled their debts with Fairey. In their case they transferred the assets of Sud Aviation to Fairey in full payment of the outstanding award. This effectively represented the French dropping out of the civilian aircraft industry to concentrate on military aviation. In the final analysis, the rationalization of the European aircraft industry was a sound one; instead of two weak industries each trying to do everything, the British concentrated on civilian aircraft and the French on military.

This left a few issues flying in the breeze. One was Blackburn Aircraft and the Buccaneer. This was too important (and too successful) a program to be abandoned. In the end, Blackburn was sold to the French Dassault Group, the payment being in the form of Super-Mystere B2 fighters for the Royal Air Force. The French had their own carrier strike aircraft under development, the Etendard, and this was re-ordered as a shipboard fighter. Thus, the Royal Navy had its air groups of Tigers and Buccaneers and the French Navy of Etendards and Buccaneers. All in all, not a bad solution and one that was to provide some interesting aircraft designs in future years.

And so the great scandal of 1957/58 reached its conclusion. In retrospect, the solutions arrived at were workable and effective. The decision to cancel the BAC-730 was sad but correct; with much greater resources, the Americans were unable to get the B-70 Valkyrie into service before 1970 and it is unlikely the British could have done better. The TSR-2 has served its new owners much more effectively than it would have done in Northern Europe.

Only the decision by the British to concentrate on ballistic missiles for their strategic force proved to be wrong. They were fine missiles, probably the best on the world at their time. The problem was that the decision was based on the presumption that missiles could not be shot down and that presumption was horribly wrong. NORAD quickly proved that shooting down missiles was much easier than shooting down bombers; Britains strategic missile deterrent was obsolete before it ever saw service.

Not that it mattered in 1958 but in 1959, the world changed. (To be continued).

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