The 1950s and ’60s were the best of times and the worst of times for the British aerospace industry. They were the best because the country’s engineers were at the top of their game, producing excellent machines like the Vulcan, Canberra, Lightning, and ground-breaking TSR-2. The worst because of the government’s disgraceful and vicious assault on a world-class industry.
During that era it was thought that air travel from city centre to city centre would become the standard for business elites. The VTOL utility of the helicopter was seen as the ideal solution but helicopters of the day were too small and too slow. The visionaries at Fairey Aviation were quick to take up this challenge, and set about the task in 1947. Their solution was a technologically-advanced gyroplan called the Rotodyne.
The Fairey Rotodyne used a four-bladed helicopter rotor that was powered by compressed-air driven jets on each rotor tip. On take-off and landing jet fuel was shot into the jets and lit for extra power. This system eliminated the need for a tail-rotor and allowed the collective pitch to be cut back in forward flight to reduce drag; stub wings then provided about half the aircraft’s lift.
First flight was in 1957 and the Rotodyne soon proved to be a scorching performer. It could cruise comfortably at 150kts and maximum speed was a record-setting 190kts (set over a 100km closed-course). Safety was excellent as well: the Rotodyne could hover with an engine out or land in either helicoptor or autogyro mode. However, on take-off and landing the tip jets were loud for about sixty seconds. This was later used in the machine’s assassination.
The program ran well from 1957 until late 1961. Fairey worked successfully to reduce the tip jet noise – and proved it by taking off from central London and flying at low level over the city without a single noise complaint. Close to 1000 passengers were transported safely (40 at a time), and airlines from Europe to North America to Japan expressed keen interest, as did the US Army. Technological advancements in engines and aircraft systems meant the Rotordyne would only get better and better.
And then the government stepped in with the collectivization model that would later gut the UK auto industry. They decided that the country needed only one helicopter manufacturer, which would be Westland. Fairey was absorbed into Westland in early 1962 and the Rotodyne was squashed under the scandalously-thin pretense that the noise was unacceptable (it was proven neither by measurement nor complaint). As with the Canadian Avro Arrow program, the Rotodyne and all the associated manufacturing equipment was broken up and scattered to the winds. Today barely a rivet remains of this incredible machine and only recently has anyone taken up the idea once again. Click here for an awesome Fairey promo vid on the tewbs of yew.