When discussions of military aircraft that were lost opportunities comes up, two of the lead favourites are the British Aircraft Corporation’s TSR-2 strike and reconnaissance aircraft, and Canada’s Avro Arrow. Of course, these are just two in a host of “might-have-been” that never made it to service.
But interestingly, one aircraft often gets overlooked in this discussion, arguably an aircraft that may have had an even greater amount of potential than is generally realized.
It also came from an aircraft builder that might surprise some because when you mention the manufacturer Fairey, most aircraft-heads immediately think of probably their most famous product; the Swordfish AKA the “Stringbag”.
And that really epitomizes what Fairey was and is known for; aircraft, normally built for naval purposes, that generally emphasized solidity and steadiness…until the early 1950s, at which point Fairey suddenly jumped literally to the cutting edge of aeronautic research, with their efforts demonstrated by a remarkable test aircraft.
The Fairey Delta 2.
And this arguably represents one of the greatest “what-if” aircraft in history.
After the Second World War, Fairey had become very interested in the delta-wing and had made several proposals to the British government to develop aircraft to test the concept. This had led to an initial contract to build an aircraft, the Delta 1, to examine the flight characteristics of delta-winged aircraft.
This was followed by a contract in 1950 to build two experimental transonic aircraft, the Delta 2’s. These were a classic delta, with a tailless shoulder-winged configuration and a cylindrical fuselage designed to just about hold the Rolls-Royce Avon powerplant.
The wings had a 60 degree sweep and were exceptionally thin, a feature that was common to other aircraft of the day such as the Lockheed F-104. Because the cockpit was reduced to as small as size as possible and the long needle nose protruded so far forward (both for aerodynamic reasons) it was decided to give the Delta 2’s a hydraulically drooping nose that lowered during landing and allowed the pilot much greater visibility. (Yes, the same sort of thing they did with Concorde, more on that to follow.)
The first of the Delta 2’s, WG774, first flew on the 6th October, 1954. Things started off a little rocky when five weeks later the aircraft suffered an engine flame out at 30,000ft. The pilot, Peter Twiss, managed to make an emergency landing, though only his nose wheel deployed, and WG774 suffered damage that put it out of action until August the next year.
However, once repaired the aircraft proved that it was an exceptional performer. Almost immediately, WG774 broke the speed of sound during a test, without needing to engage its afterburner.
Fairey and the test crews were all convinced the design could go much faster, a belief that was encouraged when the second aircraft, WG777, achieved transonic speed on its first flight in February 1956. Despite indifference from the British government, who were starting to go cold on manned fighters, Fairey pushed ahead with the flight program to see what could be achieved with the Delta 2.
And on the 10th of March 1956, it showed just what it could do.
Peter Twiss, flying WG774, achieved a top speed of 1,132 mph, which with the local conditions measured at Mach 1.73. This broke the world speed record for a jet by a comfortable 300mph, which had been set by an American F-100 Super Sabre six months before and made the Fairey Delta 2 the first jet aircraft to exceed 1,000mph (1,600km/h).
This record, which beat the previous one by a rather handsome 37%, would stand until December 1957, which might not seem a long time, but throughout the 1950s this record was being broken about every six months, normally only in increments. In historic terms, it was a pretty big deal, and aeronautic designers were cueing up to look over the Delta 2’s data and design details.
The two Delta 2s would continue test flying for several years to trial new flight profiles and technologies and in 1960 it was decided that WG774 would receive a major rebuild to trial the proposed wing planform of a new project that was on the drawing boards – the Concorde supersonic airliner.
At this point Fairey had been absorbed into the new British Aircraft Corporation that had been formed by conglomerating many of the UK’s historic aircraft builders into one company and so WG774 was redesignated as BAC 221 after her alterations.
These included moving the air intakes to under the wing, enlarged fuel tanks, a new engine and, most notable, a new ogival delta wing. This design gives the leading edge a serpentine curve and which essentially gives a good compromise on high-speed drag and fuel efficiency and low-speed handling.
BAC 221 would test this planform design and this work fed directly into the Concorde program, playing a critical part in creating the only successful commercial supersonic passenger aircraft to fly to date.
-221 would carry on flying until 1973 as a test bed, and was then retired, which it is fair to say, was a truly remarkable career for a test aircraft.
So why then did I say that the Delta 2 represented a lost opportunity? After all, the aircraft was amazingly successful at what it did; demonstrating cutting edge technologies and laying the groundwork for a range of aeronautical developments, on top of breaking the jet airspeed record – something that it hadn’t been expected to do.
But the thing is, it possibly could have been far more, especially from a military point of view.
The British ended the Second World War in what appeared a strong position in jet fighter aircraft. The Gloster Meteor had entered squadron service even before the end of the war, and with the introduction of the De Havilland Vampire in 1946 the Royal Air Force was able to replace many of its propeller driven fighters with superior jets in short order throughout the late 1940’s. Both these fighters would enjoy considerable export success as well, forming major components in NATO and western-allied Air Forces in some cases for decades.
But as is typical when a new technology becomes available, the pace of advance was positively breakneck and the Korean War of 1950-53 proved a shock. Here the United Nation forces encountered the Soviet MiG-15, a fighter as good as any built in the West and far superior to the Meteor Mk.8, which had only entered service in 1950 with the RAF as its main fighter.
The British did have more powerful aircraft in development, principally the Hawker Hunter, which would enter service in 1953, and the English Electric Lightning, which was still some years away in the future. But it was recognized that the Hunter, as a subsonic aircraft, would soon be overtaken in performance terms as a fighter.
The Lightning, on the other hand, was still a design early in its development cycle and which, as a cutting-edge design pushing the limits of what was thought was possible, was far from guaranteed to be successful.
When they were issued with the requirement to build what became the Delta 2, Fairey recognized that there was a strong possibility that there might soon be a need in the RAF for a new supersonic fighter, both to replace the large numbers of first-generation jet fighters in service with the RAF and as a guarantee against the failure of Lightning,
In fact, this was explicitly highlighted in a letter from Fairey’s Chief Engineer to the Ministry of Supply in 1955. This spelled out that Fairey thought they could provide “…a very high-performance fighter [which] can be available in squadron service, well in advance of any new type.”
In fact, Fairey proposed two versions of an upgraded Delta 2 for possible service; the first essentially a slightly enlarged version of the current aircraft which would have a different engine fit, and the second a much larger aircraft with a two-man crew, radar and carrying air-to-air missiles.
Because the flight data for the aircraft had essentially been provided by Delta 2, Fairey believed they could the first version into squadron service in as little as eighteen months from go ahead, the second in two and a half years. That is probably optimistic, but Fairey were flying an aircraft that, shortly after this proposal, proved to be an outstanding performer.
Fairey also proposed a new version, the Delta 3, to meet the RAFs 1956 requirement for a new supersonic interceptor that would have had twin engines and been able to carry active radar missiles that were being developed.
This specification would come to nothing when in 1957 the British Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, effectively terminated practically all fighter aircraft development for the RAF. This also scuppered any hopes of a military version of the Delta 2 being built.
One last attempt was made by Fairey to sell this concept, with a bid made to build a new fighter for the West German Air Force. This would have been a European collaboration, with French and Belgian companies participating, but ultimately led to nothing, because the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was chosen instead.
OK, so, the Delta 2 didn’t make it, too bad but so what? This is a story we’ve heard countless times.
Except there is another additional detail to the “what-if?” story of the Delta 2.
Despite the aircraft’s quite remarkable record breaking, the British government was, as said, moving away from the idea of manned fighters and this began to display itself in obstructive behaviour even before the axe fell.
In 1956, after WG774’s record run, they banned further supersonic flights over the UK on the grounds that they had inflicted damage on civilian buildings for which compensation had had to be paid. This left Fairey with the problem of where to carry on test flights.
Fortunately, they had friends abroad who were more than happy to collaborate on testing, specifically the French Air Force and Dassault Aviation. So, in October and November 1956, Fairey in cooperation with Dassault and the Armee de l’Air conducted dozens of test flights over France.
And these were observed by, and the data shared with, Dassault.
Dassault at the time were in the process of developing their own delta-winged aircraft, a fighter that is arguably the finest multirole aircraft of the Cold War, considering its longevity.
The Dassault Mirage III.
Over 1,400 of these were built, and they are still operating (just about) in front line service today!
Now, the perceived similarities between the Delta 2 and Mirage III have led some aviation historians to the opinion that the two are almost the same. I’m not so sure about that; the Mirage was well in development at the time of Delta 2’s French test flights.
But what those DID do was provide critical test data to Dassault that helped their own design choices and prove the viability of a single-engine delta-wing aircraft as both fast and agile.
And that raises an interesting prospect.
Had the British government not largely abandoned the idea of manned fighter aircraft and instead supported Fairey, at least in their lower end ideas on the possibilities of the Delta 2, well, that could have given the British aircraft industry a single-engine, competent, multi role aircraft that there was a definite need for, as demonstrated by the immense popularity of the Mirage III as an export when it became available.
And that is the biggest “what-if” of the Delta 2, and maybe one of the biggest in aviation history, a opinion apparently shared by the great Marcel Dassault, the man who built the Mirage III, who said that:
“If it were not for the clumsy way in which you tackle things in Britain, you could have made the Mirage yourself.”
As said the Delta 2’s did an amazing job in their field, pushing the envelope of what was possible. But best of all, they both still exist.
WG777 can be seen at the RAF Museum at Cosford, still in her original form.
And WG774, the aircraft that broke the speed record, is still in her modified form as BAC221 at the Fleet Air Arm Museum near Yeovil in Somerset, where she is on display next to the aircraft she helped provide data for, the prototype Concorde.