Forgive the long preamble before I get to the point of the BAE146/RJ piece today as some other related points have to be said. Old soldiers, they say, never die and if that is right then the same is also true of well-designed military and commercial aircraft. For instance, it is hard to imagine that 43 years have now elapsed since the very first McDonnel Douglas, now Boeing, F-15 Strike Eagle advanced tactical fighter of which over 1,500 aircraft have so far been built flew for the first time as long ago as 1972. Is it really 41 years now since the first the 4,500 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter so far built and delivered first flew in 1974? Yes it is. Time flies for all of us of course but when it comes to aircraft really good designs are sometimes very hard to beat.
I could of course mention many excellent designs of military and commercial aircraft over the years including some that I would from personally experience place very high on the list such as the Vickers VC-10, the Panavia Tornado, the Boeing F/A-18 not already or about to be mentioned such as the Hawker-Siddeley Trident, the Boeing C-17, the very last of which aircraft is currently being built, the BAE Hawk, Eurofighter Typhoon, the Boeing Chinook, Apache and not forgetting the superb Airbus A400M. Add to these all the magnificent Boeing and Airbus commercial aircraft in production today and what more do you want?
There is one other military aircraft still being made today by Lockheed Martin that beats them when it comes to longevity of production beats them all. Known the world over as the Hercules, since its maiden flight in 1954 as the YC-130 prototype over 2,400 examples of this workhorse of the skies have so far been built in around 70 variant forms. They say that there is a Hercules flying somewhere in the world literally every minute of every day and I do not doubt that for a moment. And in its current C-130J Super Hercules production form there is as yet no sign of the popularity of this very fine aircraft diminishing.
The same is true for commercial aircraft. While British Airways may have just retired its last Boeing 737 aircraft the popularity of the aircraft in its latest 737MAX form has never been greater. First flown in 1967, edging ever closer to its 9,000th 737 aircraft delivery and with well over 4,000 on order the 737 remains the best-selling aircraft in the world. Hard on its heels is the single-aisle Airbus A320 challenger which flew for the first time in 1987. Since then some 6,740 of this fine and very popular aircraft have been delivered and the current order backlog stands in excess of 5,100 units.
While the UK may no longer build commercial aircraft it remains a centre of excellence for the manufacture of wings and jet engines. All Airbus commercial aircraft wings are built in the UK at the company’s Broughton plant in North Wales and it is timely to remind that Rolls-Royce has a 50% global market share in the wide-body commercial jet engine market. But while the UK no longer manufactures commercial aircraft there remains one UK built passenger jet that is still in airline service and that has also proved to be very popular as a cargo aircraft. Known as the whispering jet in its original BAe146 form and that following various upgrades would become Avro RJ just short of 390 would be built between 1978 and 2001, the last of these fine looking aircraft being delivered to a customer in 2002.
Still very much in airline service today and designed for the 85 – 100 seat market the RJ or Regional Jet remains extremely popular with airlines and passenger alike. It is, I agree, a matter of great regret that production of the fine aircraft was prematurely ended when it was and the plan to re-engine the aircraft was abandoned. While I can understand the reluctance to take risk particularly at a time when the aircraft market was going through a rough time it is a matter of regret, particularly when one takes a look at the new Antanov An-148 Regional Jet which, in my view, is a near perfect look-alike of how I imagined the originally planned 146 upgrade would have been.
While in terms of numbers produced the BAe 146 /RJ failed to beat sales of the hugely successful Vickers Viscount and which of a total 446 aircraft produced from the prototype in 1948 to the last in 1964 being delivered to China in 1967, was the most successful British commercial aircraft produced it has in terms of longevity and continued popularity undoubtedly been a great success. Just as the Viscount and the immediate predecessor aircraft, the BAC1-11 had done, the BAe146/RJ was to do amazingly well in export markets. Countries such as Switzerland, France and those as far away as Australia and New Zealand were large operators of the plane and in some cases still are.
Robust, reliable, flexible, capable and affordable in both military (the Royal Air Force owns four BAe146, two of which comprise the ‘Queens Flight’) are considered by many operators to be great all-round airlift platforms that fit well as replacement capability for thousands of ageing forty-year old turbo-prop platforms. Some have been converted to cargo-lifters while others can be found dropping water on wildfires. There seems to be a ready supply of potential 146 aircraft available and they are likely to be around for many a year yet.
Seating 80 to 109 passengers or in military cargo and freighter fitted with a wide side door and able to carry up to 12.5 tonnes of freight the 146/RJ remains a considered multi role solution capability. And BAE Systems which not only built the aircraft but remains responsible for supplying spares, has ensured that it is right up to the mark in terms of supporting 146/RJ users. Just last week Airlink, the largest independent regional airline in Southern Africa and that operates 12 of the Avro RJ85 variant became the first BAE Systems Regional Aircraft customer to sign up to the new remodelled JetSpares Rate-Per-Flying-Hour (RPFH) programme. Operated for over 20 years now the RPFH programme is crucial to aircraft operators such as this. Over 15 key component suppliers have signed spares support agreements with BAE Systems and I understand that 525 part numbers are already covered under revised vendor agreements. Efficiency of supply and cost are hugely important issues to airline operators and in modernising the JetSpares programme for the 166/RJ fleet users plus also the MACRO (Material and Component Repair and Overhaul) for remaining users of BAE Systems turboprop aircraft the company is demonstrating exactly what it should for aircraft users.
BAE Systems built commercial aircraft have over the decades been used for many scientific, technical and testing purposes. I well recall seeing the former QinetiQ owned 1980 built BAC1-11 aircraft and that became the last of its type to fly in the UK with its rather weird looking nose containing Enhanced Surveillance Radar which it was testing and that when finally retired in 2013 was flown and presented to the Museum of Cornwall. More up to date is the BAe 146-301 large Atmospheric Research Aircraft that has been used to measure methane escaping from the Arctic as the permafrost melts and that is aimed at providing a better understanding of the corresponding effect that extra heat in the oceans and lands and that adds energy to the atmosphere and for the better understanding of the precise impact this has on clouds, storms and where rainfall might be generated. The aircraft has also been used to gain a better understanding of volcanic ash in the air.
The BAE 146/RJ is still proving itself to be a very worthy aircraft in services with countless dozens of operators. And while its use in the years to come as a passenger aircraft will clearly diminish they will no doubt be around carrying out other duties for many years yet.
CHW (London – 21st October 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS