UK AEROSPACE INDUSTRY – FIFTY YEARS OF FASCINATING CONTRAST
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
20 Aug 14. Fifty Years on since the P.1127 Kestrel vertical take-off and landing aircraft made its maiden flight in March 1964; fifty years on since VC10 entered service with BOAC in April that same year and since the first Short Brothers Belfast cargo aircraft flew for the first time in January 1964; 50 years since the BAC TSR.2 also made its maiden flight in September of the very same year and since the Hawker Siddeley Trident received certification, the UK aerospace industry has gone through some very interesting times. Even though the following year would witness the premature and unnecessary cancellation of the TSR.2 programme I suspect that in time history could well decide that 1964 marked the end of the old era of UK aerospace manufacturing and also that it marked the start of the initial planning stage for the fantastic UK aerospace industry that has grown from the wreckage of TSR.2 and, of course, that would be encompassed in the subsequent Plowden Report into the Aircraft Industry the following year.
Back in 1964 when the economy was to all intents and purposes to be considered unsound, discussion was predominantly built around whether big projects such as the Anglo-French Concorde and TSR.2 were affordable and perhaps whether or not it would be better that they would be cancelled. Indeed, virtually the first move of the Wilson Labour Government when it took office in October 1964 was to attempt to negotiate a way out of Britain’s involvement in Concorde with the French. Thankfully the previous administration has tied Britain in to the point that cancelation was no longer an option. There was also much concern and discussion whether the Boeing 727 competitor to the Hawker Siddeley Trident would, (just as interference from the UK state owned airline BOAC combined with a low level of support from the previous Conservative government had by then seriously damaged the Vickers VC10 in respect of future international sales) given British European Airways (BEA) insistence on making the Trident commercial aircraft smaller and more short range, wreck its chances of international sales success too. It did not take long to find the answer to that particular question and as we look back on various aircraft programmes in existence in 1964. The bottom line would be to suggest that, apart from Kestrel, which would eventually emerge years later as the Harrier V/STOL aircraft, none of the above mentioned British aircraft developments made a penny of profit for their respective manufacturers or government sponsor. Indeed, in terms of commercial aircraft development since the end of WW2, it is worth remembering that only the Vickers Viscount would make any money for its industry manufacturer and government sponsor, although that said, later commercial aircraft development programmes such as the excellent BAC1-11 short-haul jet and BAE 146/Regional Jet did quite well in international markets.
Today the UK aerospace industry is much changed to the one that we remember in 1964 and that change means that we no longer produce any large commercial aircraft at all. Despite this we are still a very large player in the world of commercial and military aerospace and if anything from a bottom line perspective very much more successful.
Today Airbus UK at its Broughton and Filton sites remains responsible for the manufacturing and supply of wings that are fitted to around half of all commercial aircraft under construction worldwide. That success is shared by many others. For instance, having delivered a record number of 2,646 engines in 2013 the UK, in the form of Rolls-Royce, received new orders last year covering another 5,000 engines, according to a ‘The Aerospace Industry’ a report from the Government’s Economic Policy and Statistics Section and that was supplied to Members of Parliament in April this year.