The TSR2, Tactical Strike/Reconnaissance aeroplane was designed as the most advanced strike aircraft in the world in the late 1960's. Capable of speeds above Mach 2, at hedgerow height, its destruction and the end of the project is one of the most controversial episodes in British aviation history. Not simply scrapped or closed down, everything to do with the project was destroyed, including setting fire to the airframes.
The TSR2, Tactical Strike/Reconnaissance aeroplane was designed as the most advanced strike aircraft in the world in the late 1960's, destroyed in an act of political sabotage.
The performance of the TSR2
The prototype was limited to 80% of its engine power, but an English Electric Lightning was used as the camera plane to film its flight tests, as the Mach 2 interceptor was the only thing that could keep up. It would have outperformed the majority of modern fighter and interceptor aircraft.
"All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR.2 simply got the first three right."
- Sir Sydney Camm
The TSR2 in flight
Ungainly on the ground, the idea was that nothing could match it in flight. The camera plane was an English Electric Lightning, the Mach 2 interceptor. During the test flights shown here the TSR was not allowed to use more than 80% engine power...
Here is the newsreel for the maiden flight of the TSR2. Sadly, the politics and thinking that destroyed it can be heard in the narration.
The TSR2 Test flight
Interviews with the people who were there
The test flight video shows the original test flight where the pilot touched down a little fast. It covers the test flight program with over twenty test flights, including narration by the pilot of the Lightning who was left in the dust when TSR2 went supersonic - even though he had engaged full reheat on both engines!
The destruction of the TSR2
In 1965 on 6th April, Harold Wilson's Labour government closed the project, ordering the destruction of everything associated with the TSR2.
Sometimes closing a project is not enough. The prototypes, the notes and the equipment to build it were destroyed in one of the most controversial episodes in British aviation history.
It was claimed this was due to cost, but major doubts have been raised that this was the main reason and rumours of international involvement in the cancellation were rife. Some blamed the US, believing similar politics to those that destroyed the Avro Arrow were in play. Others blamed the USSR, since the TSR2 would have outperformed their own aircraft.
The Capabilities of the TSR2
The technical details of the TSR2 are obscured by the fact it was never allowed to reach its potential. The details we do have are for one prototype that was never allowed to fly at full speed and a limited number of test flights. With the notes and details destroyed we will never know how good this plane might have been.
|Max Speed:||Flown at Mach 1.5*|
|Service Ceiling:||54,000 feet*|
|Engines:||2 x Bristol Olympus|
|Height:||23 ft 9 inch|
*these were known from the test flights - the design specs were much higher
+assumed and never tested.
Not so much of interest for the history of the plane, the book below covers the avionics systems and technical details for the BAC TSR2. For the politics behind it, Stephen Hastings' hard-to-obtain "The murder of the TSR2" gives a full view of the project's cancellation.
The pilot's manual for the BAC TSR2 is available in PDF from Amazon. PDF'd from high quality photocopies, this is an interesting piece of nostalgia for pilots, as well as a sad look at what might have been.
**Update** The manuals have been withdrawn from Amazon However they are still available on CD:
The Surviving TSR2
The TSR2 prototypes
If orders had been carried out correctly, it seems there would have been no trace of this beautiful aircraft left in existence. However, two complete prototypes survive. Some rumours suggest they were smuggled out in crates marked "Spares" to ensure they survived the project's destruction.
XR222 is at Duxford.
XR220 is at Cosford.
Classic British Jets: TSR2 covers the history of the TSR2. The DVD is only available from Amazon.co.uk, but is region-free so will play anywhere in the world.
Consequences of the project
The moral of the TSR2 is that brilliance, courage and technological excellence can be defeated by bureaucracy, government and politics. It is not a story that any government comes off well in, while the design team's efforts are heroic. When the flight team for the second prototype found out it was cancelled (on a public radio programme) they rushed back to try and get her off the ground before she was destroyed. They were refused permission.
One of the consequences was the merger, and effective destruction, of the British Aviation Industry forced by the government of the time when it cancelled TSR2. The other consequence was that future projects such as the Tornado ended up as multi-country projects, largely to ensure that the politics that killed TSR2 could not be repeated.
The technology that designed the TSR2 was destroyed, but the lessons learned went into Concorde. It is hard not to feel the destruction of this aircraft was a crying shame that set not just British but world aviation technology back to the stage where it is still recovering.
To the current date, no plane has been designed likely to out-perform the TSR2. It was an all-round aircraft capable of bombing, interception and reconaissance roles, and in each of those roles it excelled.
For more details: Thunder and Lightings: history of the TSR2
The TSR2 project was nearly restarted in the early 80's, but the miner's strike and Falklands War resulted in this never being implemented. Thatcher was considering restarting the project to create jobs in the north, but following the miner's strike she concentrated her efforts on the south instead.
Another petition was put in to 10 Downing Street on 15th December 2008.
There are regular attempts to bring the project back to life, but in most cases lack of political will scuppers them, much as it did the original project.
Comments from the old guestbook
This article was original on Squidoo. These comments were salvaged from the old guestbook. To leave your own comments, scroll to the end.
ruaria 5 years ago
Such a shame the project was cancelled.
anonymous 3 years ago
Impressive (& detailed) Article, apart from a couple of Typo's ("Interdicter" being "Interdictor" ) i otherwise cannot fault it.
It's also the first time i've seen my Youtube "Tribute to a Areospace legend" video quoted on another website (not that i mind at all, quite the reverse ; )
anonymous 3 years ago
In the early 1960's I was responsible for designing the flight computer for miltary simulators, working for a General Precision Systems in Aylesbury, a derivative of the designers of the Link Trainer. After succesfully installing the Simulator for the Lightning Mk3 test rig at Warton, I moved onto the TSR2 project. Until then all flight simulators had used special prupose analogue computers, and valve technology. The TSR2 spurred us on to the development of a digital computer using a magnetic drum, for which I wrote machine code to reflect the flight test equations defining the TSR2's performance envelop. The simulator was almost complete and under test when the TSR2 project was cancelled. I have no idea what happened to the simulator, but fortunately, the experience gained in its development was not lost; future simulators all use digital computers for which that for the TSR2 was the forerunner.
jadehorseshoe 3 years ago
anonymous 2 years ago
You may be interested to learn that I once worked at General Precision Systems where among other projects I managed the Design and Development of the prototype Flight Simulator for TSR2. Had it been completed it would have been ,like the Aircraft itself,the most advanced product of its kind in the world at the time.It is conceivable that information gathered during development of the weapons systems simulation aspects ,may well have led to the decision not to proceed with it. Certainly I can confirm that cancellation of the programme was considerably politically motivated