IN FOCUS Heroic failures: 11 aircraft that should have flown high but never quite took off

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In the first month of December 1942, initial glimpses of a still-distant and costly allied victory finally appeared. German armies were surrounded in Stalingrad and Tripoli, the German navy’s surface raiders were knocked out of the war at the Battle of the Barents Sea, and the Japanese army was on the verge of abandoning Guadalcanal.

In this atmosphere, the editors of Flight magazine were already looking ahead to the post-war air transport market – and what they saw worried them. American industry was still churning out new airliners such as the Lockheed Constellation and the Douglas DC-4. British companies, however, were devoted solely to an all-consuming war effort.

“It seems, therefore, that America will be the only nation which will be in a position to supply modern air transport at the close of the hostilities,” warns an article published on 17 December 1942. “It also seems that the mighty power of Britain in the air will have to start once more a belated though smaller programme of aircraft production to maintain equality in commercial aviation.”

The article’s writers could not anticipate the tragedy of the DeHavilland Comet or the historic negligence that doomed the Vickers VC7.

But the writers knew exactly how the war had already cost the UK’s air transport manufacturers.

The UK’s Air Ministry had anticipated the rise of the four-engined, pressurised airliner for non-stop, transatlantic voyages. In 1938, specification 14/38 invited bids for a long-range, high-altitude monoplane transport. The contract was awarded to Short Brothers, which had proposed a concept design known as the S-32.

If no war had intervened the following year, the S-32 would likely have entered service at the same time or slightly ahead of American rivals. Such an airliner could have served as the basis for a family of aircraft, which may have ensured the relevance of British airline manufacturing well into the 1950s, alongside the Constellation and the DC-4/6 series.

Instead, the contract to build three prototypes was cancelled in May 1940, as a defeated British army was being evacuated from Dunkirk.

Avro Canada C102

Canada invented the 50-seat regional jet twice.

The story of the Bombardier CRJ-100/200 in the early 1990s is well known. In the face of intense scepticism, a Canadian aircraft maker offered the 50-seat jet family, including the CRJ-440, to North America’s regional airlines. Twenty years and 1,121 deliveries later, it is a success story.

Less well known is the story of the Avro Canada C102 Jetliner, of which only one flying example was finished.

Circumstance robbed the C102 programme of a history-making effect in a variety of ways. If not for some ill-timed runway construction in Toronto, the C102 might have beaten the De Havilland Comet into the sky. In the end, it became the second commercial jet to complete a first flight milestone on 10 August 1949 – and only 13 days after the ill-fated Comet.

The C102 never faced the cabin pressurisation problems that doomed the Comet programme – but it had other problems. Most notably, by 1941 Avro Canada had fallen behind on delivering the CF-100 Canuck fighter to the Canadian air force. It was the start of the Cold War, and the Canadian government’s priorities were clear. With few commercial order prospects on the horizon Avro Canada’s decision was easy, and the C102 was cancelled in 1951.

The C102, however, was only slightly ahead of its time. It was never intended to compete with the longer-range Comet, but to complement it on regional routes, particularly on the US East Coast. A traveller from London could arrive in New York on the Comet and transfer to the C-102 to fly to a secondary city.

It turned out that the Avro Canada executives only had to be a little more patient.

Howard Hughes, the billionaire owner of TWA, had become fixated on jet travel. He imagined he could knock rivals out of the popular Florida travel market by being the first to offer jet service. But he learned of the C102 only a few months after the production line shutdown.

Never one to be easily deterred, Hughes had the only surviving C102 prototype delivered to his factory in Culver City, California in April 1952 for an evaluation. “Howard praised the plane’s capabilities and enjoyed his hours at the controls,” Donald Porter, author of Howard’s Whirlybirds, wrote.

Alas, Hughes would have to wait six more years for Boeing to deliver the 707 before he could fulfil his desire for a passenger-carrying jet.

Canadian industry, meanwhile, would have to wait much longer – four decades, in fact – for the 50-seat regional jet to finally become commonplace.

Fairey Delta 2

While British industry mainly ceded early supersonic flying to the Americans and Russians, Fairey began work on what then seemed a futuristic delta-wing fighter in 1950.

Although priorities and test glitches intervened over the next few years, the Fairey Delta 2 (FD.2) was finally ready to begin supersonic testing in late October 1955.

Within a few weeks the prototype had achieved Mach 1.56. Despite its late start, Fairey realised the FD.2’s slender, sleek frame could make a run for the world speed record – then claimed by a North American F-100C at 714kt (1,320km/h).

Overcoming official disinterest by the Ministry of Supply, which owned the prototype, Fairey finally staged the record run on 18 March 1956 – the birthday of chief designer H.E. “Charlie” Chaplin.

Flying 11 runs on a figure-eight pattern from Boscombe Down to Chichester, pilot Peter Twiss shattered the speed record by nearly 270kt. Almost in a blink, it seemed, Twiss and the FD.2 had re-established British aeronautic supremacy and set the stage for a new family of Fairey-built supersonic fighters.

But the narrative quickly started eroding.

First, the UK passed a law banning supersonic flight below 30,000ft (9,140m). That drove Fairey to accept an invitation from Marcel Dassault, who was trying to conquer the problems of supersonic aerodynamics himself, to test the world’s reigning speed champion in France. A prototype design called the MD-550, bearing a striking resemblance to the FD.2, would quickly emerge from Dassault’s factory.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the political winds had placed Harold Macmillan’s conservative government in power, with a plan to dramatically change the military’s spending priorities. In 1957, Duncan Sandys released the famous White Paper that led to the consolidation of the British aerospace industry and a new emphasis on missiles rather than manned aircraft.

The results – not unexpectedly – were disastrous for the FD.2. A follow-on design that retained the wings of the FD.2 with a larger fuselage to house an even bigger engine was shelved. Fairey itself was acquired in the government-sanctioned consolidation spree by rotorcraft specialist Westland, which had no interest in Fairey’s non-rotodyne projects.

The MD-550 prototype subsequently evolved into the Mirage III, which became one of the highest-selling fighters in history. Another legacy of the FD.2 is Chaplin’s design of a droop nose, which BAC acquired and adapted for Concorde.

Vickers V1000

The age of the jetliner had not quite taken hold by 1955, but there was no doubt it was coming quickly. The Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 were both nearing operational service by the end of the decade.

Seeking to establish British industry in the emerging long-range jet segment, Vickers had a long-range rival expected to be ready by around the same time: the VC7.

With four turbojets embedded into the wings in classic British style, Vickers adapted the 100-seat VC7 airliner from the jet-powered V1000 military transport on order by the Royal Air Force.

In the same way that Boeing adapted the 707 from the KC-135 in-flight refuelling tanker, Vickers would supply the RAF and BOAC with companion aircraft in the V1000 and VC7 – each powered by Rolls-Royce Conway turbojet engines.

The RAF, however, became alarmed by the increasing weight of the V1000. It was feared the Conway engine was no longer powerful enough to meet the military’s unique requirements for a jet-powered transport to complement the V-bomber fleet. BOAC had already ordered 707s and operated Comet 4s, and appeared to make no strenuous attempt to rescue the commercial variant.

With dwindling resources and a new emphasis on developing fighter interceptors and air-to-air missiles, both the V1000 and the VC7 were cancelled by the government in late November 1955.

As the age of routine jet travel was dawning, British industry would have to stand aside as American competitors developed the booming long-range jet transport market.

Then-Vickers managing director George Edwards immediately described the government’s cancellation order of both projects as a “national disaster we shall regret for many years”.

Debate in the House of Commons shortly afterward revealed the calculation that clinched the cancellation order. Nearly £3 million – which equates to £66.7 million ($109.7 million) in 2012, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator – had been spent on the V1000 through 1955. Another £1.25 million – or £27.8 million, adjusted for inflation – was necessary to complete the project by 1959 or 1960.

Several members of parliament, however, spoke in favour of the cancellation. The government had in the past sponsored too many projects, spreading resources too thinly, they argued. The British aerospace industry operated at productivity levels far below the national average, another claimed.

However, those arguments did not sway Paul Williams, the member from Sunderland South. He called it “one of the most disgraceful, most disheartening and most unfortunate decisions that has been taken in relation to the British aircraft industry in recent years”.

Baade 152

Among the numerous fruitless attempts by European manufacturers to build commercial aircraft for the international market between the 1950s and 1970s, there is one project that has not only been widely forgotten, but was vigorously brushed under the carpet – Germany’s first passenger jetliner.

This was not built by any of the former veteran manufacturers, such as Heinkel, Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf successor VFW, in the federal republic, but the people-owned Flugzeugwerke Dresden on the other side of the Iron Curtain in East Germany.

The 152, as the 50-seat aircraft became known, was based on an early military proposal which a group of German aeronautical designers – who had been forcibly recruited to the Soviet Union after Second World War – developed under former Junkers designer Brunolf Baade. The troupe returned to the German Democratic Republic and continued their work in Dresden in 1955.

Material shortages delayed the programme, however. When the prototype V1 was rolled out before the GDR’s head of government, Walter Ulbricht, in April 1958, the engine nacelles were still empty and just about a third of the assembly work was complete.

Four Pirna 014 turbojets were to be installed in two pairs on the high-wing aircraft, but the engines had not been completed in time and the prototype was subsequently equipped with military powerplants from Russian manufacturer Tumansky. But perhaps the most striking feature was the landing gear. This comprised two wheel bogeys under the fuselage, while small stabilisation wheels under the wing tips provided balance.

First flight took place, two years behind schedule, on 4 December 1958. While that sortie lasted only 35 minutes, the crew was asked before the second flight – four months later – to conduct a low pass over Dresden airport for some film shooting. The aircraft crashed few miles from Dresden airport, killing all four on board, after it stalled while descending toward the runway.

Pilot error was the official cause for the crash on 4 March 1959, although there has been suspicion that flaws in the fuel tank system – which were later discovered – may have starved the engines and thus prevented the crew from increasing thrust. What exactly happened is still unclear as the government rushed the accident investigation and confiscated the report on completion.

The second prototype V2 was redesigned with a conventional, three-legged landing gear – whereby the main wheels retracted into the engine nacelles – and equipped with Pirna engines. However, the additional engineering delayed the programme further, and the aircraft did not take off until 26 August 1960. It made a second sortie on 4 September, but this was the 152’s last flight.

The Berlin government cancelled all East German aircraft manufacturing in 1961 due to lack of profitability, after sales for the 152 within the Eastern bloc collapsed and no interest could be generated in other markets. The hangars at Dresden airport subsequently focussed on aircraft maintenance for the GDR’s flag carrier Interflug and military aircraft. Workshops were converted to other products, including potato harvesters.

Convair Kingfish

The first mission for the Lockheed U-2 inside Soviet airspace yielded a most unwelcome surprise: while it could fly higher than any Soviet fighter or missile, the Central Intelligence Agency’s supposedly invisible spy aircraft was easily spotted by Soviet radar

It would be another four years before Soviet weapons technology would catch up and finally shoot down a U-2 flown by Gary Powers, but by then the CIA was nearly ready to select a successor.

Starting in 1959, Lockheed and Convair were locked in a heated competition for the contract. Lockheed’s first aircraft designs failed to impress the CIA’s technical evaluators. They recommended a proposal from Convair called the “Fish”, which on paper could fly faster, higher and be harder to detect.

But Lockheed was not out of the competition. The Fish proposal was tantalising, but it raised several practical issues. Convair’s design proposed two ramjets for cruising at Mach 4.0 above 90,000ft (27,000m), but needed another type of engine at lower speeds. So, as the Fish slowed to fly a landing approach, two Pratt & Whitney J58 engines would pop out on either side of the fuselage.

The Fish could not take off by itself, but needed to be carried beneath a Convair B-58 supersonic bomber. It was never clear how the pilot would eject if something went wrong before the Fish separated from the host aircraft. Arguably the biggest problem involved a requirement to lengthen and widen the fuselage of the B-58 to carry the Fish.

The CIA sent both companies back to the drawing boards.

Convair came back with a new design called the Kingfish. Although based on a similar delta-wing with rounded edges, the ramjet engines placed underneath the Fish were removed on the Kingfish. Instead, two Pratt & Whitney J11s capable of generating thrust for a M3.2 cruise speed were placed on top of the fuselage. Two vertical tails were moved outboard to the mid-section of the wings.

Feeling suddenly like the underdog, Lockheed was finally moved to address the CIA’s demand for an aircraft that could not be seen on radar. The result, ultimately, was an aircraft with a delta-wing and sloping chines hiding radar absorbing materials and radar attenuating saw-tooth structures. Lockheed called the aircraft the A-12 for the CIA, and a slightly modified variant for the US Air Force became more widely known as the SR-71.

Dornier Do-31

When the development of vertical take-off and landing aircraft became a priority for NATO during the 1960s, German manufacturer Dornier was working on the Do-31 transport. While most other VTOL programmes focused on single-seat combat aircraft, Dornier’s brief was to develop a tactical airlifter with a 3.5t (7,720lb) payload and 21t maximum take-off weight.

The aircraft needed to be capable of carrying 36 soldiers or a standard 3t NATO truck that could be driven on board via a tail ramp. Ling-Temco-Vought worked on a similarly capable transport for NASA, the XC-142, but pursued a tilt-wing design with four turboprop engines. Dornier decided to employ jets – as a high cruise speed was considered crucial for quick tactical deployment of troops and equipment – and follow a fixed wing layout for greater simplicity. The Do 31 thus became the world’s only jet-powered VTOL transport, offering a maximum speed of 380kt (710km/h).

Two 15,500lb-thrust (69kN) Bristol-Siddeley Pegasus 5-2 turbofans with swivelling, thrust-vectoring exhaust nozzles were installed for both cruise and VTOL operations. However, additional lift was necessary from eight 4,500lb-thrust Rolls Royce RB 162 turbojets that were vertically installed in two wing-tip pods. In total, the 10 engines produced about 67,400lb-thrust to blast the 21m-long transport with 18m wingspan off the ground.

Bleed air was directed to the aircraft’s tail to provide pitch control through two pairs of down- and upward nozzles. Each set of four RB162s could be tilted 15˚ forward and aft to yaw the aircraft, while asymmetrical thrust was used to create roll momentum during VTOL operations.

After building two flying, metal tube test rigs to assess purely thrust-based flight and engineer a control system, Dornier manufactured two Do-31 prototypes, E-1 and E-3. Although E-1 was not fitted with lift jets and used only to assess aircraft handling in aerodynamic flight. The type was fully capable of conventional take-offs and landings and showed excellent, fighter-like flying characteristics with fast roll rates, test pilot Dieter Thomas told a German TV documentary.

In spite of mastering VTOL operations with the Do-31, handling the vertical thrust nevertheless remained a challenge. Tarmac was melting within seconds and even concrete shattered as enclosed water within the cemented material evaporated under the immense heat. Noise inside the flightdeck was so loud that the pilots could not communicate with each other during the demanding take-off and landing phases, Thomas said.

E-3 conducted its first vertical take-off in November 1967, and completed the first full VTOL cycle in February 1968. Two months later, it was flight-displayed at Hannover air show. But when the aircraft returned to the biennial event in 1970, NATO’s new strategy required no more VTOL aircraft and Germany’s air force cancelled the programme. It was the last time that the Do-31 was publicly shown, and soon thereafter E-1 and E-3 were retired.

Thomas – who died in April 2013 – praised the type’s handling and technology which, he said, was far ahead of its time. However, given that other VTOL programmes suffered fatal accidents, he also told Süddeutsche Zeitung that “I am glad to have survived it”.

Lockheed L-2000-7 Supersonic Transport (SST)

Pan Am’s order of the Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde in 1963 sent the US government scurrying to sponsor a domestic alternative. Three years later, the Federal Aviation Administration, promising to subsidise 75% of development costs, had to choose between two proposals: the variable-sweep wing Boeing 2707-200 or the less complex, fixed-wing Lockheed L-2000-7.

On New Year’s Eve 1966, the agency delivered its verdict: Boeing, which still had no supersonic military or commercial aircraft in production, would build America’s answer to the Concorde. Lockheed, despite already fielding the Mach 3.2 SR-71 and the supersonic F-104, lost the battle. Boeing’s variable-sweep approach was deemed riskier, but it was quieter and potentially more versatile.

Lockheed’s disappointment could only grow deeper two years later, when Boeing unveiled the redesigned B2707-300, which removed the variable-sweep mechanism and replaced it with a double delta-wing not unlike the one on the L-2000-7.

Whatever disillusionment Lockheed felt would have been short-lived, however, as the FAA’s forecasts predicting a market for 500 supersonic transports (SSTs) never materialised.

In his memoir, Lockheed’s legendary chief engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, said his employer was “fortunate” to lose the contract.

Despite the backing of the Nixon administration, a US Senate nervous about government spending and inflation refused to pass a 1972 budget that included funding to continue developing the B-2707.

It was the end of a potentially transformative programme. The US government’s specification for the SST would have produced a more attractive product for airlines. Though narrower than the widebody B-2702, the L-2000-7 still would have seated 258 in dual-class layout, compared to about 100 for Concorde.

Lockheed’s thinner fuselage minimised drag, allowing it to fly hundreds of miles further than the B-2707, while faster by nearly one-third compared to the Mach 2.0 Concorde.

All of those advantages may still have not been enough to make the L-2000-7 truly practical as a commercial product. Johnson himself acknowledged the limitations of propulsion technology in the early 1970s – especially in terms of take-off noise. At the time of his memoir in the mid-1980s, Johnson believed the industry was still at least one or two generations away from producing an engine with the right thrust-to-weight and noise characteristics.

Boeing 7J7

It is a list that could describe Boeing’s replacement for the venerable 737 series in 2030: open rotor engines, full fly-by-wire controls, composite structural materials and a twin-aisle lay-out for 150 passengers.

Instead, it was actually proposed by Boeing for the 7J7 – in 1985.

The mid-1980s were a confusing time for a strategic planner in the air transport market. Fuel prices were unexpectedly trending downwards, but the threat of oil embargos and sudden price jumps still lingered. Boeing also faced a new competitor: by 1988, Airbus would introduce the A320.

Boeing’s first instinct was to leapfrog the competition and field a radical 150-seater by 1992: the 7J7. It would be more fuel-efficient, comfortable and advanced than the Airbus product, and it would retire the 737 family for good.

The ‘J’ signified Japanese industry’s risk-sharing role and 25% contribution to the cost of development, deepening ties with Boeing that would finally come to fruition on the 787.

But the key to the programme was a major leap in propulsion technology – the General Electric unducted fan. With a fan diameter unencumbered by the width of an engine nacelle, the unducted fan could deliver a huge leap in fuel efficiency.

The 7J7 also would have marked Boeing’s first application of a fly-by-wire system and flat panel displays.

Boeing spent three years and up to $500 million working on the project. Fuel prices, however, continued to fall in 1986 and 1987, making the expense and risk of developing the unducted fan seem less attractive. Concerns about the noise generated by the unducted, counter-rotating blades were never resolved.

By mid-1987, Boeing had re-classified the 7J7 as one of several potential single-aisle projects that could be delivered in the 1990s. Boeing cancelled the 7J7 only a few months later.

Instead of facing a more advanced rival, the A320 was left free to compete on attractive terms until Boeing delivered the next-generation 737 family in 1998. Boeing was still not ready to retire the 737 in 2011, choosing instead to re-engine and update the aircraft for another long run of production.

Fairchild 728Jet

The next decade promised a burst of demand for regional jets in a neglected market segment for 70-120 seats, and several companies were already lined up by the late 1990s to claim a share.

Embraer would be first to market with the E-Jet family, but it appeared that it would not be alone. Bombardier had proposed the all-new BRJ-X airliner. The Alenia/Aerospatiale partnership behind the ATR turboprop family teamed up with British Aerospace for the proposed AirJet 70-seater, and there were rumours of a new Chinese project.

Finally, there was the project with perhaps the greatest potential of all: the Fairchild Dornier 728Jet.

As the new millennium dawned, the competitive field had thinned significantly. The BRJ-X concept was still alive, but it would soon be canceled and replaced by two more stretches of the CRJ700. The AirJet did not survive beyond the preliminary financing stage, and the Chinese project also went nowhere.

Still alive – and the closest any of the original competitors came to challenging the E-Jet in a head-to-head battle – was the 728Jet.

Germany’s aerospace industry had long dreamed of becoming a global player in the regional aircraft market. A twinjet project called the MPC75 – involving a joint venture between then-MBB and China’s CATIC – had surfaced as early as the mid-1980s, but led to nothing.

Then, US-based Fairchild Aerospace acquired the maker of the 328Jet – Dornier Luftfahrt – in 1996, and launched the 728Jet at the Dubai air show a year later.

Eight customers – led by Lufthansa Cityline – had signed firm orders for 125 aircraft, with options for 164 more.

The aircraft promised a unique, five-abreast layout in the cabin, and a sophisticated full fly-by-wire system for the flight controls. Financing had appeared shaky at first, but a $1.2 billion capital injection in 1999 by leveraged buy-out specialists Clayton Dubilier & Rice and Allianz Capital Partners seemed to stabilise the development costs.

Although a minor redesign slipped the development schedule by a year, the programme publicly seemed more confident than ever for a dramatic roll-out of the first aircraft in March 2002.

Inside Fairchild Dornier, however, the company’s finances were running perilously low and, this time, there would be no rescue. Fairchild Dornier filed for bankruptcy less than a month later – before the first prototype could achieve first flight.