Bristol Brabazon Airliner

The Bristol Type 167 “Brabazon” is one of the more remarkable planes in the history of long range aircraft. The Brabazon was conceived by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in the United Kingdom during the mid-1940s and was envisioned as an early entrant into the trans-Atlantic airline fleet.

The Bristol Brabazon being towed to the flight line

The Bristol Brabazon being towed to the flight line

Incredibly, only one Brabazon aircraft was ever built and it never entered commercial service. There were important aircraft development lessons in how this came about that are being following by the Boeing and Airbus companies to this day.

I can recall seeing only a few radio control model versions of the Brabazon. Taking a view at the pleasing lines leading to generous wing and tail surface areas as well as the favorable nose and tail moments, the Brabazon has ideal dimensions and would make for a very well behaved and distinctive RC model airplane.

Painting of the Bristol Brabazon taking off

Painting of the Bristol Brabazon taking off

Even though Britain was in the midst of intense fighting during World War II, government leaders recognized that the newer, long range bomber aircraft developed during this period (1939-45) had the necessary range and payload to make non-stop flights across the Atlantic a reality.

Keep in mind that at the start of World War II there was not a single four-engine aircraft in commercial service anywhere. The standard airliner during this time was the twin engine DC-3 with a range of around 1,000 miles carrying 35 passengers.

Britain commissioned a study of what the post-war world would be looking for in regards to long range commercial aircraft. This committee was headed up by Lord Brabazon of Tara, thus the nickname for the resulting aircraft.

Good view of the immense task with framing the Brabazon fuselage

Good view of the immense task with framing the Brabazon fuselage

The Brabazon Report offered that the best way ahead was to construct four prototypes, of differing sizes and power arrangements that would allow non-stop flights across the Atlantic.

Jet engines were far too early in their technical development to be realistically considered as a feasible option for these aircraft. The decision was made to use eight piston powered Bristol Centaurus 18 cylinder radial engines installed in pairs along the wing, with each engine driving a contra-rotating propeller in four engine nacelles.   The Centaurus developed around 3,000 horsepower.  The twin-engine concept driving two propellers was an incredibly challenging engineering effort which had not been attempted before at this scale.

Bristol Brabazon being prepared for a test flight

Bristol Brabazon being prepared for a test flight

As an historical aside in 1942 there was real concern among the Allies that Britain would fall to the Germans. The UK was the launch point for all Allied air raids on Germany until the D-Day landings in Europe in 1944.

Plans were drawn up to prosecute the war with bomber missions originating in the United States that would entail very long range flights. This plane was the B-36, which was so complex that it did not complete development until 1946, a year after the war ended.  The B-36 had six rear-facing piston engines, the Pratt and Whitney “Wasp Major,” producing an incredible total of 22,800 horsepower.

The Brabazon Committee assumed that only wealthy people would be able to afford a non-stop flight in an airliner across the Atlantic. Keep in mind that during this time that no one had the ability to fly across the Atlantic without a stop for fuel somewhere.  Even the latest four engine bombers being ferried from the United States to Europe during the war, such as the B-17 and the B-24, has to make refueling stops along the way in Greenland, Iceland or the Azores.

Bristol Brabazon outside assembly hangar

Bristol Brabazon outside assembly hangar

The Brabazon Committee’s approach was reasonable at the time considering governments world-wide regulated airfares and not that many people flew commercially. Each passenger in the Type 167 had the interior space of a small car.  The aircraft layout was modeled after the only other known form of long range transportation, an ocean liner, and included such extras as a movie theater and dining room.

To meet these requirements the Type 167 design specified ambitious dimensions. The fuselage was originally planned for 25 feet in diameter (five feet greater than a B-747), two full length upper and lower decks and a wingspan of 230 feet.

The British were skilled aircraft designers and builders. Engineering and technical tasks were met and overcome to include a variety of techniques to keep the aircraft weight as low as possible to allow flight range targets to be met.  Even such mundane issues as the width of the landing gear had to be thought through to allow use of existing runways in the United Kingdom, the United States and other international destinations.

The Brabazon’s first flight occurred on September 4, 1959. The aircraft flew well and handled as predicted.  Further test flights occurred over the next two years.  However, technical issues still needed to be solved and the aircraft never received an airworthiness certificate.

The cost of the aircraft combined with limited seating capacity dampened interest from England’s flag carrier, British Overseas Air Corporation (BOAC) and made further development of the Brabazon economically infeasible. After 164 flights and 382 test flight hours the Brabazon was broken up and sold for scrap value.

All was not lost, however. Engineering and development work helped solve many problems with the follow on de Havilland Comet, the world’s first commercial jet powered airliner.

With 20/20 hindsight we can see that the commercial layout of the Brabazon did not make much sense. The concept of a separate dining room and small cinema seems fantastic to today’s air traveler.  There clearly needed to be a greater seating density to allow for more passengers and more revenue.

The other critical decision was the use of a complex piston twin-engine power solution for the Brabazon. Practical jet engines were in the earliest stages of development at this time.  Boeing started design work on the turbine powered prototype B-707 airliner in the mid-1950s with the first flight in December 1957.  This pioneering aircraft quickly made existing piston powered long range airliners obsolete, to include the ground-breaking Brabazon Type 167.

These types of critical engineering and program management decisions face aircraft designers today with the use of composite structures, geared turbofan engines, four vs twin engine designs and the need for super large size airliners such as the Airbus A-380. If nothing else, the Brabazon offers an interesting historical perspective on these types of issues during a pivotal time for airliner development.