British aviation icon by night
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
In the previous edition of Aerodrome, we saw how a specially arranged early season enthusiast photography event had me travelling to the Royal Air Force Museum site at Cosford for my first visit of the year and a full day of aviation indulgence, one which proved to be much more poignant than I had initially anticipated. Although this event only required attendees to be at the site for sign in and briefing from around 5pm, in advance of an evening and night shoot event, the chance to blow the cobwebs of a winters event inactivity was too good to pass up and a full inspection of the Museum’s magnificent exhibits was very much on the agenda.
Our first Cosford review allowed us to take a closer look at some display changes in the impressive ‘War in the Air’ hangar and how the museum had arranged four of their aircraft to mark the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. We ended edition 141 by promising readers that the next edition of our blog would focus on the main reason for this visit to Cosford and whilst enthusiasts will probably have seen several photographs of the evenings proceedings published on various websites, we are pleased to be bringing you a full review and a comprehensive collection of images taken during what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable event. Please join us as we document a rare outdoor appearance for one of the British aviation industry’s most distinctive aircraft and one which is still the subject of heated debate almost 56 years after making its first flight.
‘Whilst the main attraction’s away!’
For one weekend only, there was a massive TSR.2 shaped void in the ‘Test Flight’ display hangar, which allowed visitors an opportunity to photograph some of the other exhibits which are usually very much in its shadow
Like most aviation enthusiasts, I am always on the lookout for new and interesting events to experience and over the past few years, the number of specially arranged ‘nightshoot’ photography events appear to have been finding favour with an ever increasing number of people, all of whom are looking for that something a little bit different. As a consequence, a number of different groups, in affiliation with museums and aircraft owners, have now started marketing these events which are a break away from the traditional crowds associated with Airshows, offering a more intimate and immersive aviation opportunity. With their ever increasing experience in hosting these types of events, they offer the photographer a complete lighting solution for the shoot, meaning that all we have to do is turn up, check our technique and fire away.
Aerodrome regulars will probably recall a previous nightshoot event I attended at the RAF Museum Cosford back in 2018, where the star attraction was McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 ‘Black Mike’, ably assisted by several of the museum’s home based SEPECAT Jaguars. Interestingly, the same group who hosted that event so successfully back then, Threshold Aero, were also the people running this most recent event and as the aviation subject they were offering this time was even more iconic, I knew I had to get in quickly with my application. Thankfully, I was one of only 200 photographers fortunate enough to attend the event briefing at the end of another busy day for the Cosford Museum staff on Saturday 14th March, excited at what the coming few hours had in store for me.
This early season night photography event held the promise of LED illumination for several of the museum’s regular outside exhibits, which included their rare Nimrod R.1 XV249 and Bristol Britannia 312, however, the undoubted aviation attractions which had everybody rushing to obtain their tickets are usually found safely tucked up in the ‘Test Flight’ hangar at Cosford. Although the event information included a perfectly understandable caveat that poor weather could significantly impact their available aircraft plans, the two aircraft everybody was hoping to see in the Shropshire night air were British Aerospace EAP ZF534 and their magnificent British Aircraft Corporation TSR.2 XR220, a tantalising prospect which was definitely worth taking a punt for.
One of the most impressive and controversial British aviation projects of the post war years, TSR.2 would have equipped the Royal Air Force with one of the most technologically advanced strike aircraft in the world and one which would have struck fear into the hearts of Eastern Bloc nations during the dark days of the Cold War. The opportunity to photograph this magnificent aircraft, one of only two surviving complete airframes in the world, outside its hangar and with Cosford’s magnificent National Cold War Exhibition building as its backdrop was a prospect which was simply too good to pass up and for those lucky enough to have been in attendance, they will definitely count themselves extremely fortunate indeed.
A TSR.2 view from a previous visit. This is a very big aeroplane and it completely dominates the display in this exhibition hall – is it any wonder why we are all still transfixed by the TSR.2 project?
Some of the other TSR.2 related exhibits include this fascinating anti-skid braking system cutaway, which was just one of the many technological innovations produced in support of this project
The reason why there was so much room in the ‘Test Flight’ hangar was that BAC TSR.2 XR220 was allowed a rare excursion outside the protection of its usual home, to the delight of all who were fortunate enough to see it
For those Aerodrome readers who are familiar with the TSR.2 display at Cosford, they will certainly attest to the fact that this is a very large and imposing aeroplane, one which absolutely dominates the display in the ‘Test Flight’ hangar. Before we move on to looking at the nightshoot itself, I would just like to spend a moment discussing one of the slightly less obvious benefits of heading to the RAF Museum in advance of this memorable event. Moving this massive aeroplane outside the hangar would not be an undertaking without its logistic challenges and could certainly not be done whilst visitors were at the museum. For that reason, when we arrived at Cosford on the morning of the 14th March, both the EAP and TSR.2 were already in position for the evening event, cordoned off, so that they were both out of bounds to normal museum visitors. It was still possible to take pictures of both, but only from a restricted angle and any encroachment into the cordoned off area understandably incurred the wrath of museum staff.
With its nightshoot position secured, there was now a huge TSR.2 shaped void in the hangar and this afforded visitors the unexpected opportunity to take unobstructed pictures of several of the other, slightly smaller residents in the Test Flight hangar. Usually, the sheer size of the TSR.2 means that it is difficult to obtain clear pictures of aircraft which are displayed at the bottom end of the hangar, aircraft which perhaps can’t claim to have the same popular appeal as the TSR.2, but nevertheless needed photographing in these advantageous circumstances.
A rather futuristic looking development aircraft which would certainly not look out of place in an episode of Thunderbirds, the Saunders-Roe SR53 was the result of a project looking to produce a high altitude interceptor for the Royal Air Force, one which possessed spectacular performance and could attain its operating altitude in extremely short order. Taking inspiration from the rocket powered Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet which operated during the Second World War, the SR53 actually incorporated dual powerplants - an Armstrong Whitworth Viper jet engine and a powerful de Havilland Spectre rocket motor. As a point defence fighter, it was intended that this high speed interceptor would rise to challenge high flying Soviet bombers threatening UK airspace, firing off their missiles, before returning to re-arm and re-fuel. With the Viper engine increasing endurance and allowing standing patrols in advance of anticipated attack, the Saunders-Roe fighter was a relatively simple design and if required, it was intended that great numbers could be deployed.
Interestingly, these futuristic looking interceptors were produced at Saunders-Roe’s waterside factory at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, with the company possessing a reputation for building large and effective seaplanes. It seems strange that these top secret rocket powered interceptors would have to be transported from the factory, across the Solent and on to the A&AEE Boscombe Down for flight testing, all without its existence being discovered. The aircraft made its first flight on 16th May 1957 and whilst it would later attain speeds in excess of Mach 2 at altitude, it quickly became clear that the aircraft was too small to undertake this highly specialist role. As it would need to carry radar and ever more sophisticated missiles, a larger, more powerful variant would be needed and whilst development did commence, it did not survive the cuts which followed publication of the 1957 Defence White Paper.
Another of the unique exhibits at Cosford, the Saunders-Roe SR53 may look something like a miniature version of TSR.2, but it was developed to perform a very different role, that of rocket powered interceptor
Although it may share the same white colour scheme adopted by the TSR.2, the two aircraft could not be more different in stature – the Saunders-Roe looks very much like a miniature version of its more famous hangar-mate. Enjoying being out of the shadow of the TSR.2 for one glorious weekend, this was a great enthusiast opportunity to obtain some unobstructed pictures of this fascinating aircraft.
Gloster Meteor F.8 ‘Prone Pilot’ demonstrator
The Gloster Meteor is undoubtedly one of the most important aircraft in the history of British aviation, with the first F.1 fighter aircraft being the first jet powered machines in Royal Air Force service and indeed, the only Allied jet powered aircraft to see operational service during WWII. A relatively robust and simple design, the original Meteor would give rise to a great many future variants of the jet, aircraft which would not only see lengthy service with the RAF, but also with many overseas air arms who were looking for a relatively cheap, yet effective route into the jet age.
Of the almost 4000 Gloster Meteors built, perhaps the most unusual was WK935, a much modified Meteor F.8 fighter variant, which was used to assess the potential benefits of operating a high performance jet aeroplane from a prone flying position. With the ever increasing speed associated with jet powered flight, the Institute of Aviation Medicine needed to assess the effects of high ‘G’ forces on pilots flying aircraft whilst lying on their stomach, but for this, they would require a test aircraft. Armstrong Whitworth Aviation modified Meteor F.8 WK935 to have a rather strange extended nose, one which housed a second pilot and allowed him to fly the aircraft from a prone position. Interestingly, you will also note that this configuration much reduces the front profile of the aircraft, something which was also seen as a beneficial reduction in drag in the search for ever greater speeds.
One of Cosford’s more unusual looking exhibits, Gloster Meteor ‘Prone Pilot’ demonstrator WK935 was a modified version of an F.8 fighter, with the conversion work taking place less than 50 miles from where she is now on display
This aircraft did see extensive use in these prone flying studies and whilst this Meteor was never actually flown solo by the prone pilot (a reserve pilot was always in the normal cockpit), tests did show that a prone pilot could withstand greater gravitational forces than one sat in the usual seated cockpit position. In the end though, the development of specialist ‘g suit’ clothing was seen as the most effective way to proceed and this unusual looking aircraft was no longer required. Thankfully, Meteor WK935 was saved from the scrapheap and now takes her place amongst the impressive collection of Test and Evaluation aircraft at the RAF Museum Cosford. It is also not lost on enthusiasts that the aircraft’s place in the collection is particularly poignant, as the conversion work to prone flight configuration was carried out at a factory which is less than 50 miles from where she is now displayed.
Experimental Aircraft Programme ZF534 – Forefather of Typhoon
Now we get on to the main aviation subjects of this latest edition of Aerodrome and the two stars of Cosford’s latest night photography event. If we are talking about unique and ground-breaking British aircraft, British Aerospace Experimental Aircraft Programme airframe ZF534 must be considered the most important, especially when considering its association with the RAF’s latest air superiority fighter.
An aircraft which could claim to have been the most advanced fighter aircraft the world had ever seen when it made its first flight, EAP ZF534 was a one-off research aircraft intended to test pioneering manufacturing techniques and aviation technologies which could be used in the production of a future advanced fighter aircraft. An unstable aircraft from design outset, this was an extremely agile aeroplane and would include a host of technologies which at the time, were all new, but are now commonplace on the world’s most effective aircraft.
EAP made its triumphant first flight from the British Aerospace factory airfield at Warton on 8th August 1986 and just three weeks later, it was thrilling an awestruck public at the Farnborough Airshow. Although EAP incorporated much technology which was considered ‘cutting edge’ at that time, it was still something of a test hybrid and used existing Panavia Tornado engines, as well as being forced to carry the significant additional weight of a myriad of test and evaluation equipment. This extra weight would certainly have an impact on the aircraft’s performance, but as this was still pretty spectacular, it held great promise for the aircraft which would result from all this flight testing work.
The driving force behind the entire EAP test programme was to ensure everything was done as safely as possible, however, once the aircraft was in the air, the team were determined to push the boundaries of known science. Following its triumphant first appearance at Farnborough, ZF534 embarked on an active and ambitious test flight programme and in no time had attained speeds in excess of Mach 2.0 and had flown at slow speed angles of attack greater than 35 degrees, all in fully controlled flight – a particularly impressive feat for an aircraft which was inherently unstable aeroplane.
The aircraft marked 100 test flights in a busy 10 month period at the 1987 Paris Air Show, before continuing with its active testing programme and a further 159 flights. The aircraft’s final test flight took place from Warton in May 1991, by which time it had provided much invaluable flight data which was later incorporated into the design of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
This next series of images all feature EAP ZF534 at different points during the evening of this photoshoot. The aircraft was positioned some distance away from the TSR.2 and with the area cordoned off to visitors during the day, it was not possible to obtain clear pictures until the start of the event itself. With the weather looking indifferent to say the least, we did not know what conditions would be like during the shoot, so we had to work quickly. As darkness fell, the lighting certainly added drama to the proceedings and made the aircraft look even more dramatic – I did draw the line at sitting my camera in a puddle though!
Following the end of its extensive flight test service life, EAP ZF534 was used as an impressive design appreciation exhibit for students at Loughborough University, who will surely have marvelled at the sight of this magnificent aircraft. It arrived at the RAF Museum’s Cosford site for public display in 2012 and two years later was officially donated to the museum by BAE Systems. Displayed next to the equally impressive BAC TSR.2, this enigmatic pairing represent the very best of the post war British aviation industry, with the interesting aside that both aircraft also share a strong connection to the British Aerospace (BAE Systems) airfield at Warton in Lancashire.
Even though EAP provided much design and manufacturing inspiration for the later Eurofighter Typhoon, close inspection of the aircraft reveals some clear differences in the design of the two aircraft. To the naked eye, Typhoon appears to be a much sleeker, much more cultured aeroplane, with EAP looking a little squashed in comparison. Obviously using different engines, EAP also had two large airbrakes which could be extended on both sides of the rear fuselage whilst stopping, with both aircraft possessing the option of using a braking parachute during landings, if required.
With the obvious differences in weapons and sensors, EAP also has a different fin profile, canard placement and employs a main undercarriage with a much narrower track than Typhoon, but other than that, it is a Typhoon by any other name! Clearly, this statement is a little tongue in cheek, however, this unique aeroplane did play a significant role in the development of the aircraft which now patrols Britain’s airspace against unauthorised incursion and makes for a fascinating aviation exhibit at this magnificent museum.
BAC TSR.2 – British aviation’s triumph and tragedy
For everyone attending this specially arranged night photography event, the undoubted star of the show was a rare outdoor excursion for the stunning British Aircraft Corporation TSR.2 XR220, a true icon of the British aviation industry. Perhaps more than any aircraft in the history of British aviation, the name TSR.2 causes more heated debate amongst enthusiasts and historians, whilst at the same time being at the centre of any number of conspiracy theories, opinions as to why an aircraft which offered such potential was cancelled with seemingly undue political haste.
From the perspective of aviation history, many still feel that the TSR.2 project represents everything that was wrong with the state of the British aviation industry during the 1950s and 60s, whilst at the same time illustrating how the country’s finest minds were capable of leading the world in technological advancement. Had the aircraft continued through its development programme, it would undoubtedly resulted in the Royal Air Force being equipped with a strike and reconnaissance jet which was significantly more capable than anything else in service at that time, a real world-beater which could claim to be well ahead of the competition.
From the outset, it was clear that the new aircraft engineers at BAC were working on would be a significant leap forward in aviation thinking, with almost every aspect of its design incorporating new and ground-breaking technologies. Unfortunately, the extremely advanced nature of the project, whilst undoubtedly extremely impressive, would also prove to be its Achilles heel, as the various manufacturing companies, sub-contractors and indeed, the Government of the day, all failed to establish a coherent management structure, one which was capable of driving this monumental aviation project.
With a development process that was becoming a little pedestrian, suffering almost constant delays and setbacks as a result of the advanced nature of the technologies being employed, inter-service disagreements would also result in numerous design ‘tweaks’ as TSR.2 finally neared its flight test programme. Rather than producing a combat aircraft which would be the envy of every air force in the world, it was in danger of turning into something of a bureaucratic monster. Despite this, all its many problems appeared to completely dissipate on 27th September 1964, when BAC’s chief test pilot Roland Beamont accelerated TSR.2 XR219 down the runway at Boscombe Down and into the annuls of aviation history – the world looked on in awe as TSR.2 blasted into the sky. For the British public, the spectacular TSR.2 was the cause of much excitement and from the moment it first took to the air, a bond was created between the two which continues to endure to this day.
Even though the TSR.2 project was cancelled almost exactly 55 years ago, this beautiful aeroplane still looks futuristic to me and would certainly not look out of place sharing an RAF airfield with Typhoons and F-35 Lightnings. These two photographs were taken from a similar angle, but with differing lighting conditions, as the evening shadows began to slowly draw in
Despite showing huge potential, the ambitious nature of the TSR.2 project probably doomed it to failure before it had chance to progress beyond the development stage. Spiralling cost overruns would prove just too painful for a recently changed British government in a period of financial austerity to bear and consequently, their first budget of April 1965 included the announcement of the immediate termination of the TSR.2 project, despite previous government assurances to the contrary. Perhaps even worse than this, a government directive insisted on the immediate destruction of not only the TSR.2 airframes already in various stages of construction, but also the manufacturing jigs used to build them.
Was the end of Britain’s BAC TSR.2 dream all about project overruns and costing uncertainties, or were there more sinister forces at play behind the scenes? Showing the British public what they could have had, only to snatch it away in such a high profile, some would say vindictive manner, still gives rise to many conspiracy theories and has people scratching their heads in disbelief. Undoubtedly, if you see one of the surviving airframes at either Cosford or Duxford, you can’t help thinking how impressive the sight of large numbers of these aircraft in squadron service would have been – can you imagine seeing one of these mighty aviation beasts wearing the distinctive camouflage of an RAF strike aircraft?
British Aircraft Corporation TSR.2 XR220 was one of nine development aircraft ordered as part of an ambitious programme to equip the Royal Air Force with the world’s most advanced strike jet. This airframe was damaged during its road delivery to A&AEE Boscombe Down in early September 1964, an incident which would prove significant in its history. The subsequent repairs, combined with the fact that components were stripped and used to support the maiden flight of its sister airframe XR219, meant that its own first flight date was delayed past a fateful decision in the history of the programme, a decision which ultimately dictated that sister ship XR219 would be the only TSR.2 to actually fly.
This next pair of images are probably the ones most of the people signing up for this event were hoping to come away with – the iconic TSR.2 XR219 pictured with the stunning National Cold War Exhibition building as its backdrop
XR220 would later undergo a series of full engine test runs, as it prepared to make its first flight, however once again, several niggling technical issues conspired to prevent this from happening as planned. Finally, a maiden flight date for the aircraft was set for the afternoon of 6th April 1965, however the cancellation of the TSR.2 project that same day and the immediate removal of the aircraft’s Certificate for Flight ensured that XR220’s wheels would never leave the ground whilst the aircraft was under its own power – an aeroplane which possessed great potential, but was never allowed to show what it could do.
This stunning aircraft arrived at the RAF Museum Cosford in May 1975 and over the course of the next few years, underwent a period of renovation by museum volunteers, in an effort to bring it up to static display standard. Now an imposing and much-loved exhibit in the ‘Test Flight’ hangar, the TSR.2 still manages to look cutting edge in every respect and had these aircraft actually made it to squadron service, would surely not look out of place on any modern military airfield. It stands to represent both the very best of British aviation technology, as well as something of a lost opportunity for an entire nation in failing to fully developing a truly world leading strike aircraft.
Much of the development information gleaned during the TSR.2 project would subsequently find its way into the Jaguar and Tornado projects which would follow in the years to come, although it would be fair to say that neither of these aircraft could claim to have the imposing presence of their illustrious strike predecessor.
British aviation icon by night. Floodlit night photography can always be relied upon to produce images which include real drama, but having said that, is it possible to find a more enigmatic aviation subject than the stunning British Aircraft Corporation TSR.2? I think not
As an icon of the British aviation industry, it is no wonder that this opportunity to photograph TSR.2 XR220 outside of its hangar, with the National Cold War Exhibition building as its backdrop, saw tickets for this event being snapped up in super quick time. With only around 200 photographers gathered at Cosford to see XR220 in the fading light of evening and culminating in a couple of hours where the aircraft was expertly lit by LED lighting, this proved to be an extremely enjoyable event and one which will live long in the memory of those fortunate enough to be in attendance.
What the country has been forced to endure in the weeks that followed has given this special event even greater poignancy for the relatively few people who were lucky enough to be there and from a blog perspective, we hope that by showing this selection of images taken on the day, our readers manage to take their minds of the current situation for just a few precious TSR.2 related moments.
In the next edition of our blog, it will be Airshow action all the way, as we delve into our archives to bring you a review from a recent UK Airshow event.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our email@example.com address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
In between new editions of our blog, the aviation related conversation continues over on the Airfix Aerodrome Forum and we can also be contacted on either the Airfix or Corgi Facebook pages, in addition to Twitter for both Airfix and Corgi - please do get involved in the discussions and let us know what you think about Aerodrome.
The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 24th April, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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Model link section
It will come as no surprise that an aircraft with the undoubted pedigree of the British Aircraft Corporation TSR.2 has been of great interest to modellers and collectors over the years. Airfix have produced scale examples of the aircraft in both 1/72nd and 1/48th scales, whilst Corgi also produced a stunning diecast example in 1/72nd scale. All of these models are currently unavailable and anyone who has one amongst their collection will no doubt consider themselves extremely fortunate.
Some of the future aircraft types which benefitted from technology incorporated into the ground breaking design of TSR.2 can be found in model form in both the Airfix and Corgi ranges and include the following:
Eurofighter Typhoon, BAe Hawk T.Mk.1A, Panavia Tornado F.3 and Quickbuild Typhoon for younger modellers. Slightly more tenuous links exist for the English Electric Lightning (chase plane used during many TSR.2 test flights) and the Fairey Swordfish (an aircraft which was designated TSR.1).