From Brabazon to Britannia: Bristol’s Post-War Civil Aviation Developments

Bristol BrabazonOn 23 December 1942 the British government established a special committee chaired by Lord Brabazon of Tara to investigate the country’s post-war civil aviation needs. The Brabazon Committee’s final report outlined the need for a number of key aircraft to be developed, which included a long-haul transatlantic airliner, a smaller shorter-haul airliner that could service the Empire routes and a high-speed jet-engine airliner capable of speeds in excess of 500mph.

Bristol introduced the Brabazon in 1949 in response to the report’s requirement for a transatlantic airliner. This cumbersome aircraft was taken out on its 25-minute maiden flight by Bristol’s chief test pilot Bill Pegg on 4 September 1949. The Brabazon could have a crew of between six and 12 and could carry 100 passengers in spacious comfort, despite the aircraft being comparable in size to today’s Boeing 767-400ER , which can carry up to 375 passengers.

Bristol Brabazon Maiden Flight 4 September 1949 (Picture: Alfred Thomson)The Brabazon was 177 feet in length, had a wingspan of 230 feet and stood 50 feet high. It was fitted with eight 2,650hp Bristol Centaurus radial engines, with paired contra-rotating 3-bladed Rotol propellers 16 feet in diameter and supported by a fuel capacity of 13,650 imperial gallons. The aircraft had a maximum speed of 300mph, a cruising speed of 250mph and a range of 5,500 miles.

The Brabazon report stipulated that the aircraft should provide 200 cubic feet for every passenger and 270 cubic feet for premium passengers, which is comparable to the space within a small hatchback motor car today. In order to provide this amount of space the design included a fuselage that was 25 feet wide, which is around 5 feet more than the Boeing 747. BOAC agreed to an interior layout with a forward area consisting of six compartments for six passengers and a seventh with three passengers. The mid-section, above the wing that was 6 feet deep, had 38 seats laid out in groups of four around small tables, with their own pantry and galley. The rear section was to house a 23-seat cinema, cocktail bar and lounge. It is perhaps little wonder that only one aircraft was ever built and was subsequently scrapped as most airlines decided that it would be too large and costly to operate.

The construction of the Brabazon prototype required an expansion of facilities at Filton and an extension to the runway from 2,000 feet to 8,000 feet. The aircraft was flown at the Farnborough Air Show in 1950, at Heathrow Airport in London in the same year and at the Paris Air Show in 1951.

The following year, after BOAC had cooled on the project, the British government announced that development work on the second prototype would be halted and on 17 July 1953 Edwin Duncan Sandys, the Minister for Supply, announced that the project was cancelled. In October 1953 the Brabazon, which had flown for only 382 hours was scrapped along with the partially completed second prototype.

RAF Transport Command Bristol Britannia 1964 (Picture: Arpingstone)

Despite the failure of the Brabazon aircraft Bristol were awarded a contract to develop the propeller-driven airliner for the Empire outlined in the Brabazon Committee’s report. This became the Bristol Britannia and Bill Pegg took the Britannia out on its maiden flight from Filton on 16 August 1952.

By the time the aircraft was introduced in 1957 competing jet-engine airliners from de Havilland and Boeing were already waiting in the wings and quickly superseded the slower Britannia. As a result only eighty-two machines were delivered. The mysterious crashes of three de Havilland Comet aircraft understandably led the Air Ministry in 1953 to demand a further more rigorous set of aircraft tests. This decision inevitably delayed the introduction of the Britannia, a situation that was made worse when in December 1953 the second Britannia prototype was forced to land on mudflats on the Severn Estuary.

The first eighteen Britannia aircraft to be delivered were received by BOAC from September 1957 and the airline made its first non-stop flight with a Britannia on 19 December 1957 when one of the fleet flew from London to Canada.

The Bristol Britannia 310 Series had a crew of between four and seven and could carry up to 139 passengers. The aircraft was 124 feet 3 inches long, had a wingspan of 142 feet 3 inches and was 37 feet 6 inches high. It was fitted with four 4,450hp Bristol Proteus 765 turboprops, which gave it a maximum speed of 397mph, a cruising speed of 357mph at 22,000 feet, a range of 4,430 miles and an operational ceiling of 24,000 feet.

For more information on Britain’s many and varied aviation heroes and landmarks take a look at Heroes and Landmarks of British Aviation by Richard and Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback. The ISBN reference number is 9781848846456. Click here to order your copy.

For more information on military conflict in the Pacific in the first half of the twentieth century take a look at The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Imperial Naval Air Service by Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback. The ISBN reference number is 9781848843073. Click here to order your copy.