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BAC TSR2 – the supersonic low level strike bomber

Some projects that never saw the light of day shaped the history of aviation. Some saw part of a light, and got cancelled nonetheless. This is the story of the BAC TSR2, a supersonic low level strike bomber that never existed. After completing the maiden flight of Britain’s dramatic-looking new supersonic strike jet in 1964, the test pilot Roland ‘Bee’ Beamont stated that the TSR2 *looks like being a real winner’. After what had been a difficult gestation, perhaps the aircraft, needle-nosed and beautiful in an all-over white paint scheme, had turned a corner. As the test programme advanced, Beamont’s initial assessment was only reinforced. “One of the most remarkable designs in aviation history,’ he said. ‘In a class of its own.’ What could possibly go wrong? As it happened, nearly everything. TSR2 was conceived in 1957, the same year Britain’s Defence Secretary announced that the RAF was *unlikely to require’ another generation of manned fighters or bombers and would instead use missiles. Somehow the nascent TSR2 programme slipped through the net. The price extracted by a government desperate to rationalize the aviation industry was that any company hoping to build the new jet had to do so in partnership with another. The British Aircraft Corporation had not existed the year before it won the contract. Somehow BAC, a forced marriage between Vickers-Armstrong and English Electric, forged ahead with what appeared to be a promising design. But such a technically ambitious project was, almost inevitably, subject to delays, complications and rising costs. That made it a target. For those with an axe to grind, TSR2 became a byword for waste and hubris. Against this backdrop, BAC continued to develop its aircraft and, in 1963, released a photograph of a very sleek and purposeful-looking machine approaching completion. It was too little too late to turn the tide, though.

Early supporters in both the government and RAF were losing faith. Worse, there was an election coming and the opposition’s views were clear: TSR2 was a scandal. Then, in June 1964, they won the election. Three months later, the fuselage of the second prototype was badly damaged when it fell off the back of a lorry. It was a cruel humiliation for the men trying to bring TSR2 to life. But it wasn’t to be. ‘This inherited monster has gone on long enough,’ said the new government, and cancelled the programme. Roland Beamont thought TSR2 was `potentially one of the most effective military aircraft of all time’. It would most likely have been in RAF service well into the l99Os. Instead, of the airframes in various stages of construction at the time of cancellation, a couple were used for target practice, and ten found themselves in the hands of R. J. Coley & Son Limited of Hounslow. The claim made on the Middlesex company’s advertisement ends our story: The once-great British aviation industry would never again build on its own an aircraft even remotely as ambitious as TSR2. The tragedy of it all was that it had shown that it could.

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