In September 1949, just over four years after the end of World War Two, the first flight of a stunning new British airliner took place – the Brabazon. This new aircraft was innovative and truly vast: it was the largest landplane ever built in Britain at the time, with a wingspan more than twice that of the largest wartime RAF bomber.
The span of its tailplanes alone was over 75 feet and it was provided with eight engines that were relatively quiet while providing a cruising speed of 250 mph (some reports claimed 350 mph) at an altitude of over 30,000 feet and with a range of over 5,000 miles.
The Bristol Type 167 Brabazon was a truly luxurious transcontinental airliner that was intended to provide passengers with lots of seat space as well as a cocktail bar, a dining area, a lounge, a bullion store and even a cinema.
Yet what was called the Brabazon airliner never advanced beyond the construction of a single flying prototype. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why. The Brabazon would have represented the last word in long-distance luxury. But it soon became apparent that wasn’t what post-war airlines or passengers wanted.
Affordable long-distance flights meant packing as many passengers as possible in aircraft that were economical to operate. Even when it first flew, the Brabazon was an anachronism, but what a bold and beautiful aircraft it was!
During World War Two, Britain founded a committee with the express purpose of creating airliner designs that would be built after the war had ended. Chaired by aviation pioneer Lord Brabazon, the committee first met in December 1943 and continued issuing reports up to November 1945.
Several projects considered by the committee involved the conversion of existing RAF heavy bombers into passenger aircraft: the Avro Lancaster was modified to become the Lancastrian airliner, the Handley Page Hermes and Halton airliners were developed from the Halifax bomber and even parts of the Vickers Wellington bomber were recycled to produce the Viking airliner.
However, these were all temporary solutions and one of the boldest proposals to come from the committee was for a piston-engine airliner capable of flying from London to New York (3,500 miles) non-stop and in any weather conditions.
One of the companies that submitted a bid for the design and construction of this aircraft was the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
During World War Two, Bristol had produced, amongst other aircraft, the Beaufighter multi-role aircraft and the Blenheim bomber, but it also submitted a design for what became known as the “100 Ton bomber,” a vast aircraft capable of delivering a bomb-load of 80,000 lbs as far as Berlin – in comparison, the American B-17 Flying Fortress carried a bomb load of under 10,000 lbs.
This giant bomber was never built, but Bristol used their experience of its design to submit a proposal for an equally large airliner.
In March 1943, the Ministry of Supply placed an order with Bristol for two prototypes of the new airliner with the possibility of an additional order for 10 production aircraft.
Design and Development
The design department of Bristol worked closely with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the British state airline formed in 1939, on the design of what came to be called the Type 167.
BOAC believed that passengers would find a long, non-stop, transcontinental flight unbearable unless each was provided with at least 200 cubic feet of individual space, with at least 270 cubic feet being needed for luxury accommodation (in modern airliners, each passenger in economy class is provided with less than 40 cubic feet of space) and that all passengers should have access to common areas including walkways, a lounge, dining area, and a cocktail bar.
However, this notion of how much space each passenger needed was based on the pre-war concept that long-distance travel was the preserve of the wealthy, and it drew from the experience of creating accommodation on luxury liners and airships.
This notably limited the number of passengers that the new aircraft would be able to carry: the design envisaged a cabin crew of fourteen serving 96 passengers on day flights or just 52 in sleeping berths on night flights.
It was this single decision, taken early in the design process, that would effectively doom the Type 167 as a viable commercial airliner.
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To provide the required passenger space, the most notable feature of the new airliner was its sheer size. It was to have a wing span of 230ft. In comparison, the wartime Lancaster bomber considered a large aircraft at the time, had a wingspan of 102ft, and even the Boeing 747-100 “Jumbo” which would first fly in 1966 had a wingspan of 196ft.
The fuselage of the Type 167 was 177ft long and the tip of the massive rudder stood 50ft above the ground. Fuelled weight of the completed aircraft was estimated to be 290,000 lbs.
The circular fuselage of the new airliner was to be 25 feet in diameter and fully pressurised and air-conditioned to allow flight at up to 35,000 feet.
It was to be powered by four pairs of Bristol Centaurus 57 air-cooled radial engines, each producing over 2,300hp and driving four pairs of contra-rotating propellors. The pairs of engines were to be buried deep inside the six-foot deep wings, with each pair arranged at an angle of 64˚ to the aircraft centreline, creating a “Y” configuration with each pair of engines driving through a pair of output shafts to a common gearbox.
A large circular cooling air intake for each engine was provided in the leading edges of the wings.
The short, tricycle undercarriage comprised two large wheels for the nose gear and four even larger (over 5ft diameter) wheels on each main landing gear leg. All flying controls were to be hydraulically controlled and engine control was achieved entirely through a complex electrical system.
Construction of the first prototype, funded by the Ministry of Supply, began at Bristol’s headquarters at Filton, South Gloucestershire, in October 1945. It was quickly recognised that a longer runway would be needed to fly the giant airliner and the nearby village of Charlton was demolished (despite a great deal of local outrage and opposition) to allow the existing runway to be extended to over 8,000 feet.
Larger hangers and construction facilities also had to be built to accommodate the new airliner
On 8th October 1947 the prototype, still unpainted and not yet complete, was rolled out for a formal naming ceremony as the Bristol Brabazon.
In late 1948, the now-completed prototype finally began engine tests and, by September 1949, it was declared ready for flight testing.
Bristol Chief Test Pilot Arthur John “Bill” Pegg was given the responsibility of heading the team that would fly the new aircraft. In preparation, he spent several weeks in the United States where he was permitted to fly the ten-engine Convair B-36 Peacemaker, another giant aircraft that was only a little smaller than the Brabazon.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Brabazon proved simple and relatively easy to fly. When, after an early test flight, Pegg was asked by a reporter what it was like to fly, he answered:
“It is quite easy, we just fly the cockpit and the rest of it trails along.”
In general, test flying proceeded without major problems, though on one flight in early 1950, another Bristol test pilot, Walter Gibb, was forced to land at high speed and without flaps after a hydraulic leak.
Fortunately, this was achieved without damage to the aircraft and the ability to use reverse pitch on the propellors helped to bring the aircraft safely to a halt.
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The Brabazon was demonstrated at the Paris Air Show in June 1951 and (as a static display) at the Farnborough Air Show later the same year. It was also flown on demonstration flights to other parts of the UK, landing in Belfast in Northern Ireland and Prestwick in Scotland in August 1951.
Test flying revealed no major problems other than the development of minor fatigue cracks in some of the propellor mountings, though this was not assessed as a serious problem and would have been addressed through a minor design change in production aircraft.
A second prototype was under construction at Filton, and this version was intended to be powered by eight new turboprop Bristol Proteus engines, but it was never completed.
The simple truth was that no airline had shown any interest in a giant (and expensive) aircraft capable of carrying relatively few passengers. In September 1952, the prototype Brabazon made its last flight after having spent more than 380 hours in the air in the course of more than 150 flights.
It was estimated that the whole Brabazon project, including building the new runway and hangars, had cost somewhere in the region of £6 million. In July 1955, the flying prototype and the second, still uncompleted, prototype, was sold by Bristol to a local scrap merchant for £10,000. A sad end for an innovative and lovely aircraft.
By the time the Brabazon first flew, the concept on which it was based was already out of date. There simply wasn’t a sufficiently large market for luxury air travel to make the Brabazon a viable commercial proposition for any airline.
The Boeing Stratocruiser, first flown in 1947 and a distant relative of the B-29 bomber, was much smaller than the Brabazon and had only four engines. It was significantly cheaper to purchase and more economical to operate too, and it could carry up to 114 passengers. Just five years after the last flight of the Brabazon, the first Boeing 707-120 jet airliner took to the air.
It could carry up to 180 passengers at speeds never attainable by a piston-engine aircraft.
It was these smaller and more efficient airliners that would herald the arrival of long-distance mass air travel, not the huge and luxurious Brabazon.
Technically, the giant aircraft performed just as the design team had hoped, and it proved reliable and safe during test flights. The project was cancelled not because of any design issues, but because no one (including BOAC which had contributed to the design) wanted to buy the Brabazon.
The next time you’re enduring a long flight, with your knees pressed into the back of the seat in front and your elbows tight by your sides, just try to imagine how different that experience might have been if the Bristol Brabazon really had heralded the beginning of a new era of passenger flight.
Even in the economy section, you’d have over 200 cubic feet of space around you in your seat (that’s about the same as the whole interior of a medium-sized family car). If you still felt the need to stretch, you could take a stroll to the cocktail bar, the lounge, the dining room or the cinema. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me!
- Crew: 6–12
- Capacity: 100 passengers
- Length: 177 ft (54 m)
- Wingspan: 230 ft (70 m)
- Height: 50 ft (15 m)
- Empty weight: 145,100 lb (65,816 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 290,000 lb (131,542 kg)
- Powerplant: 8 × Bristol Centaurus 18-cylinder air-cooled radial sleeve-valve piston engines, 2,650 hp (1,980 kW) each paired, driving contra-props through combining gearboxes.
- Maximum speed: 300 mph (480 km/h, 260 kn) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m)
- Range: 5,500 mi (8,900 km, 4,800 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 25,000 ft (7,600 m)
- Rate of climb: 750 ft/min (3.8 m/s)