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De Havilland….first and last

One hundred years ago, at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent across Europe. The First World War had ended. Whatever you may think of that conflict one thing cannot be denied – the quantum leap in aviation development.

In just four short years the military went from having balloons, then low powered spotter biplanes and finally monoplane fighters and multi-engine bombers.  By the end of 1918 along with a large number of surplus aircraft there was also a large number of surplus pilots. With governments selling off their unwanted aeroplanes at fire-sale prices, some enterprising pilots bought themselves a plane or two and looked at ways to make money.

One of the most popular types was the single engine medium bomber the De Havilland DH-4 and its successor, the larger DH-9. These could carry one or in the case of the DH-9 two passengers and a small number of companies were formed with plans for starting commercial aviation in the UK. One of these was Air Transport and Travel known as AT&T. It was this company that operated the first regular passenger service in August 1919 with daily flights to Paris from London.

Some DH-9s were converted with a wider fuselage to carry four passengers and these were designated the DH-16. There is an unconverted DH-9 on display at Duxford in the Airspace hangar right next door to another De Havilland masterpiece, the Comet 4.

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Photo: Flight magazine
A DH-16 converted to carry four passengers with the addition of a shed-like cover over the open cockpit.

Some of the larger surplus aircraft such as the Handley Page 0/400 bomber had also been used as an airliner, but with the ability to carry just eight passengers the arithmetic did not add up. With very high ticket prices for even the smaller single-engine aeroplanes, all the commercial companies that started the first airlines in the UK had withdrawn from scheduled flights by early 1921 due to financial problems.

They pressed their position with the government saying that they were an essential service and should receive subsidies to help them operate. Initial refusal of their claim was eventually followed by a change of heart and small subsidies became available to allow some of the scheduled services to recommence. It was from this that the government took a long hard look at the future of commercial aviation in the UK and in 1924 the state airline Imperial Airways was formed. AT&T continued flying and can trace its history through many mergers and takeovers to todays British Airways.

Thus the aeroplane manufacturer De Havilland had seen one of its planes become the first to start UK commercial flying in 1919. Over succeeding years, many different types of de Havilland airliners were used by airlines around the world.

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Photo: San Diego Air and Space museum
One of De Havilland’s most beautiful inter-war designs was the Albatross. Made entirely of wood the first flight was in 1938.

This great dynasty of aeroplanes ended with the 146/RJ/RJX series of airliners in 2003. That was when the last British jet airliner to be built rolled off the production line at Chester. The project was cancelled by BAE Systems who manufactured the type. The original design concept had been made by De Havilland, so not only did they supply the first British airliner but also the last. Let us take a look at this very successful final British-built jet airliner.

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Photo: Michael F Mehnert
Looking like a bird of prey, this unique profile can only be a member of the 146 family, in this case a later RJ85 landing at Berlin Templehof airport.

Design studies for a DC-3 replacement had begun at the De Havilland design office in Hatfield as far back as the late fifties and after several changes, a twin rear-engine design known as the DH126 was proposed. By the mid-sixties, following the government forced re-organisation of the British aerospace industry, De Havilland had become part of the Hawker Siddeley group and following a design rethink the DH126 became the HS136.

Up at Woodford, in the old Avro factory the design office was working on a similar project. As both Avro and De Havilland were now under the same Hawker Siddeley umbrella, a joint project was looked at which was known as the HS144. This was have a high tail and rear-mounted Rolls Royce Trent engines. However, following Rolls Royce’s bankruptcy in 1970, the Trent engine project was cancelled leaving the HS144 without a powerplant.

To get around this problem the design team changed their proposal and came up with a four-engine aircraft using small Lycoming ALF502 engines. This new and final version of the proposed design was renamed the HS146. The four engines gave the 146 outstanding short field performance and without thrust reverse the aircraft was also very quiet.  This characteristic was pushed hard during sales tours, indeed the test aircraft carried suitable registrations such as G-SSSH and G-SSHH to emphasise this quality. In 1973 it was announced that the project would go ahead with costs being split 50/50 between the manufacturer and the British taxpayer.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
The prototype HS146-200 outside the flight sheds at Hatfield. This would be the first aeroplane for US carrier Air Wisconsin.

The company planned to make two variants – the small 146 -100 carrying 70-88 passengers and the larger 146-200 with 82-102 passengers. All was looking good for this latest airliner project but with the oil crisis, rampant inflation and a global recession it was deemed not the time to build a new aeroplane. The Hawker Siddeley board called a halt to all work on the project in October 1974. However the government asked that all tools, jigs and drawings be kept.

There was constant pressure on the government to restart the project and following the nationalisation of the aerospace industry to form BAe (British Aerospace) the project was restarted in 1978 as the BAe146. The plan was to produce a civil airliner and a military airlifter version. There were no orders for any aircraft right up to the rollout of the prototype in 1981 when the American airline, Air Wisconsin placed an order for four with four further options for the larger 146-200. Other American airlines such as Pacific Southwest of California would later also order the British jet.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
A 146-100 at Hatfield in Californian airline Pacific Southwest Airlines livery.

After all the problems giving birth to the 146, the big day arrived on 3 September 1981 when the first of the three 146-100 test aircraft took to the sky from the factory at Hatfield. Almost a year later in August 1982, the 146-200 prototype first flew. That year at Farnborough the 146 was the star of the show. The Air Wisconsin liveried 146-200 was joined in the air by 146-100 in Dan Air colours, as they had become the launch customer for that variant, along with another 146-100 in a British Air Ferries paint scheme in the static park. With the test flying complete the first production aeroplane was handed over to Dan-Air in May 1983.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
One of the test fleet leaps off the Farnborough runway in 1982 in Dan-Air colours.

 At the following year’s Farnborough, as a response to competition from Fokker with their 122 passenger Fokker100, BAe announced a new stretched version of the 146 to be called the 146-300. This new version would have the capacity to carry around 100 passengers. The original 146-100 prototype G-SSSH was wheeled into the hangar at Hatfield and cut into three pieces with a fuselage plug being fitted both in front and behind the wing to give the increased cabin size. Now registered G-LUXE the original 146 made its second maiden flight as the 146-300 on 1 May 1987 just 10 months after the conversion had started.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
The first BAe146-300 – a conversion of the much smaller 146-100 prototype.

Part of the original plan to obtain government backing was to offer a military version of the jet. BAe initially produced an all-freight version of the 146-200 known as the QT, Quiet Trader. A large order was forthcoming from the overnight parcels giant TNT for 72 aircraft –  a mix of 146-200QT and 146-300QT, over the next five years. However after a number of deliveries this order was cut back when TNT came under new ownership and just 21aeroplanes were delivered out of a total of 28 QTs built.

At the time of this order for the freighter, there was a healthy order book for the passenger versions. BAe then opened another production line at Woodford. Sadly this would be the prelude to the site at Hatfield eventually being closed and sold as part of the BAe plan to move all aircraft production to the north of England.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
The second of twenty-one 146QT freighters for TNT. On the opposite side of the fuselage behind the wing a large lift-up cargo door was fitted to enable pallets and containers to be carried.

BAe made several design studies into the production of a military freighter but concluded the addition of a tail ramp would be just too expensive. Despite there being several proposals including a carrier-capable freighter for the US Navy, only one pure military freighter was produced.  This was known as the BAe-146-STA, Sideloading Tactical Airlifter.  A large freight door was constructed in the side like the 146QT and an in-flight refuelling probe fitted along with other military hardware.

A demonstrator was created by converting another aircraft from the original test fleet. Registered G-BSTA a worldwide sales tour was undertaken starting in 1988. By 1990 there had been no orders so the aircraft was stripped of its military paint and fittings and the floor replaced with a roller mat. It was put up for sale and has several owners. It still flies in Australia with Cobham/National Jet who mainly fly freight on support flights to mines in the outback.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
The second 146-100 prototype converted to the military STA, sideloading tactical airlifter. This was to be the only such example built as the world’s military were not interested in the design.

Although not impressed by the STA, the RAF was keen to replace the Andovers of the Queen’s Flight and in 1983 purchased two 146-100s for evaluation. They liked what they saw and in 1986 two new 146-100s adorned in the Queen’s Flight colours were delivered to the Queen’s Flight at RAF Benson. In 1995 the Queen’s Flight was amalgamated with 32 (The Royal) Squadron at RAF Northolt who operate government VIP flights. They now have two 146s for VIP transport and two others with a changeable seating/freight layout.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
One of the RAF’s VIP configured 146s shows off the large tail airbrake which removes the need for thrust reversers keeping the aeroplane’s noise footprint low.

BAe announced in1991 that as part of a cost cutting re-structuring of its Regional aircraft division, all 146 production would be concentrated at Woodford and the Hatfield factory was to close. On 23 March 1992 the last aircraft to be completed at Hatfield, a 146-200, made its maiden flight. This was the last of 8.468 aeroplanes that had been built at the site since 1934. By April 1994 the airfield had closed.

BAe had been testing a new engine for the 146 family the Lycoming LF507. Happy with the test results, they announced a new rebranded range of 146s to be known as Avro RJs or Regional Jets. There would be three variants RJ70, RJ85, RJ100, the numbers all relating to the number of passengers that could be carried. 

That last 146-200 to be built at Hatfield became a development aircraft for the RJ85. As well as the new more efficient engines the RJ range offered new avionics with Electronic Flight Instruments and Cat 3 Autoland, more available load, greater range and a new revamped interior. The RJ range was a great success and many blue chip airlines bought them such as British Airways (for its London City operations) Lufthansa, Sabena and Swiss airlines. All of them also offered flights on the jet into London City.

The 146/RJ was the first jet aircraft to be certified for use at London City due to its quiet engines and the ability to operate down the steep glidepath. For over fifteen years the 146/RJ range dominated operations, its place at the top now being taken by more modern Embraer aircraft.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
A Crossair RJ100 on finals into London City airport.

The RJ series generated some big orders for BAe with Sabena ordering 23 RJ85s and Lufthansa operated a fleet of up to 37 146/RJs during the 2000s. Just like the 146, sales were also strong from the commuter airlines in the USA and Northwest airlines ordered, in1996, thirty-six RJ85s. You could now go to most large airports anywhere in the world and see one of these De Havilland- designed jet airliners.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
A 146-200 prior to delivery to Air Western Australia seen at Farnborough in 1984.

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Photo Keith Bradshaw
From Australia to Vancouver Canada 146s could be seen everywhere in the 1990-2000s.

No purely military version of the RJ series was promoted but the Empire Test Pilots School at Boscombe Down operate two examples for use by their students a RJ70 and a RJ100.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
The ETPS RJ70 at a Yeovilton air show.

In 1999 BAe took over Marconi and was rebranded as BAE Systems and it was BAE that looked into the next development of the RJ launching the Avro RJX in March 2000. Once again new engines were the order of the day with Honeywell AS977 units replacing the older Lycoming giving more economy and even lower noise levels. The order book was beginning to fill up with 14 orders and companies such as British Airways and British European both committing to the new type. Unlike the 146/RJ series there would only be two variants of the RJX the RJX85 and RJX100 both making their maiden flights in 2001. But all was not well and two months after the RJX100 had flown, the BAE Systems Chief Executive announced the company was pulling out of the regional jet market. The RJ production line would be wound down and the new RJX project cancelled due to the economic downturn, increased competition and rising costs.

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Photo; Ken Fielding
The RJX 100 prototype at the Manchester Airport viewing park. This is the sole remaining complete RJX.

The first  – and last – production RJX100 made its maiden flight in January 2002. It flew five times and was then scrapped. The RJX85 prototype was dismantled and taken to BAE System’s regional aircraft headquarters at Prestwick. The RJX100 prototype was donated to the Manchester airport viewing park museum. The final British-built jet airliner, an Avro RJ85, left Woodford for Finnish airline Blue 1 in November 2003 bringing an end to a 22 years production run of 394 146/RJs.

This was not the final story for deliveries from Woodford however as in May 2004 the original 146-100 prototype that had been converted into the 146-300 prototype left Woodford on delivery to the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement (FAAM) based at Cranfield university. Fitted out with high tech sensors and computer equipment it is operated all around the world on atmospheric research projects.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
First flown in 1981 as a 146-100 prototype then as the 146-300 prototype, G-FAAM has a new lease of life as a research aircraft.

Fifteen years after the last jet was built, the 146/RJ family continues to earn money for airlines across the globe. They are slowly being replaced by modern twin-engine jets or advanced turbo props. In Europe the last big operators of the type were Swiss, Brussels , Braathens and Cityjet airlines. By the end of 2017 both Swiss and Brussels Airlines had replaced their RJs with newer aircraft leaving only Braathens and Cityjet to continue operating sizeable fleets, but even the Cityjet fleet is slowly being reduced as new Sukhoi Super jets enter service.

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Photo: Russell Lee
A Cityjet RJ85 departing London City airport.

Outside Europe the major operators by 2018 were South African  Air Express and the Cobham/National jet express in Australia. A large number of the airfields that once hosted 146/RJ operations now have an example or two on their tarmac, but parked up awaiting an uncertain fate. Many of the earlier 146 variant have been scrapped but RJs still pop up here and there in new operator’s colours.

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
An ex-Brussels Airlines RJ sits forlornly in a corner at Cranfield awaiting its future.

An unexpected new lease of life has developed across the Atlantic in the US where many of the states contract-in fire bombers to deal with summer forest blazes. In 2004 trials were carried out, with full BAE backing, in the USA and the aircraft was found to be ideal for its new proposed role. A number of fire fighting companies have now acquired around 20 airframes and converted them for their new role. The preferred types are the 146-200 and the RJ85. Some have tanks fitted within the fuselage others have large conformal tanks fitted around the centre section which keeps the cabin empty. One of the companies involved in the project, Conair of Canada, expects their aircraft to be in service for the next 20-25 years. A testament to the sturdiness of the original design.

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Photo: YSSY Guy English Wikipedia
A Conair RJ85 fire bomber showing the conformal fire retardant tanks.

BAE systems continue to promote factory conversions of the aircraft to the industry with everything from VIP transport, airtankers and border patrol aircraft on offer. Indeed there is a report that BAE systems in conjunction with Rolls-Royce, Airbus and others will be modifying a 146 to fly with one of its engines replaced by an electric motor sometime in 2020. Nearly forty years on, with two of the original prototypes still flying, there is still life left in the last British built jet airliner.  It was designed like the first British airliner,  by De Havilland ….first and last !

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Photo: Keith Bradshaw
Let’s finish with a colourful picture of a Flybe 146-300 advertising Mansion House casino as it arrives in Jersey after the short flight from Gatwick.

Till the next time   Keith.