Airborne Awesomosity

BAC TSR-2: When An Aircraft Plays (Political) Football


The aeronautical landscape is littered with the rotting shells and mylar prints of cancelled aircraft programs. Setting out to push the boundaries of man’s capability often goes hand in hand with rising costs and lengthened schedules. These two things also give opponents of said programs leverage to do away with them at their first opportunity. Such is the story of the British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2.

In the late 1950s the two superpowers were in an arms race like none other. However, it wasn’t just limited to the Arsenal of Democracy and the Reds. Nope. Europe wanted to play in the military sandbox, too. Not the least of which was an island empire on which the sun never sets.

The aircraft they wanted to build would be nothing short of awesome. Propelled by 2 turbojet engines with afterburners to supersonic speeds, it would fill two roles. The first would be a low altitude penetrator capable of delivering conventional or nuclear tactical weapons behind enemy (read: Soviet) lines. The second would be as a high altitude reconnaissance plane. It would be packed with the most high tech of high tech wizardry including forward and side-sweeping radar systems, terrain following radar with integrated autopilot, and radio systems that would make a HAM operator wet the bed. These systems, while commonplace today, were nearly unheard of and only dreamt about by electrical engineers at IEEE conferences.

The engines would be a variant of the Bristol-Siddeley Olympus turbojet which was powering the Avro Vulcan and was further developed to propel the incomparable Concord SST. The plane was to cruise at Mach 2.05 between 37,000 and 51,000 feet and have a peak speed of Mach 2.35 (limited by heating on the leading edges). Based on its final weight, drag and engine power it would have a theoretical top speed of Mach 3.0.

Unfortunately, it had its detractors. Budget overruns (due to both the high tech guidance and radar systems and government ineptitude) and schedule delays made it a target of budget hawks in Parliament. Weight gains to meet the specifications and the corresponding performance shortfalls made it a target of military leaders. In 1965, the Cabinet announced that the TSR-2 program would be cancelled and the Brits would instead look to the Yanks and their fancy F-111 to fulfill the the penetrator/reconnaissance role.

According to aeronautical engineer Sir Sydney Camm, “All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.”

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[Image Credit: RuthAS]

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