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RB211…The engine that broke and made Rolls-Royce!

RB211………..By Keith Bradshaw. All photos by the author unless noted.  

I was in one of our Portacabins the other day and lying on the table were several black and white photos of a group of guys standing in front of an aeroplane. All you could see of the plane was part of the fuselage with the words ‘Rolls-Royce RB211 flying test bed’ written on it. Well, this got the grey matter going (no small feat these days I can tell you!), and I remembered as a teenager seeing this aircraft flying at Farnborough. It was a VC10. This somewhat tenuous link connects this story and our collection here at Duxford!

What Rolls-Royce had done was chop off the left-hand two Conway engines and pylon, nailing on a single RB211 in their place! It looked like something out of an episode of Thunderbirds. This is the story of that iconic engine, prompted by a group picture of some of the guys who worked on the project.

Photo: Rolls-Royce

RB211…The engine that broke and made Rolls-Royce!

In the mid-sixties, Rolls-Royce were working on a number of new engine designs. These were to replace the Spey engines on a proposed updated Trident and a replacement for the Conways fitted to the VC10. The Trident engine was cancelled and work concentrated on the Conway replacement. In 1965 Rolls decided to go with a triple spool engine which would be the first such engine to go into production in the world. A triple spool is basically an engine which has three concentric shafts all fitted with turbines at the rear. One shaft drives the large fan at the front of the engine while the other two drive separate compressor units which provide the power to drive the turbines. Rolls deemed this solution as the best available to give low noise and low fuel consumption. When it became apparent that a revamped VC10 was not going to be developed, Rolls-Royce scaled down their design in 1966 and renamed it RB211. Ironically the RB211 was flight-tested on an ex-RAF VC10 which had the two left-hand Conway engines replaced by a single RB211, a view of what might have been if the uprated VC10 design had gone ahead.

Photo: Graham Dives 

An ex-RAF VC10, on loan to Rolls-Royce as a test bed, displays the RB211 at Farnborough in 1970.

One of the novel features of the RB211 design was the new advanced technology ‘Hyfil’ carbon fibre fan blades which offered a considerable weight saving over conventional titanium blades, thereby giving an improved power to weight ratio. 

Rolls had previously said it was not interested in competing for the engine on the new Boeing 747 as the proposed RB211 was not powerful enough. However they offered both Douglas and Lockheed a version of the RB211 for their DC-10 and Tristar aircraft. Following a lot of negotiating with the manufacturers, airlines and governments, Lockheed placed an order in 1968 for150 sets of engines to power its three-engine Tristar wide-body airliner. The RB211 was to be the only engine to power the Tristar aircraft. Rolls had committed to having an engine in service by 1971.

Being a very new and complex design, the RB211 required a long test and development period and by 1969 Rolls-Royce was struggling to meet the proposed fuel consumption and power figures. Things continued to go wrong when in 1970, during testing, the new Hyfil fan blades broke up when a chicken was fired into the front of the running engine. The only answer was to return to a titanium blade with all the extra weight and cost penalties this brought. Three years earlier, Rolls and the RB211 programme had suffered another serious blow with the sudden death of their Chief Engineer, Adrian Lombard. Later in 1970 Rolls-Royce reported to the government that the development costs were now nearly double the original estimate and each engine would now cost almost a quarter of a million pounds. By the New Year, Rolls-Royce had become insolvent and was placed into receivership. The new RB211 engine looked like their downfall.

One of the last operators of the Tristar was the RAF, who used them as tankers and troop carriers.

Because of the importance of Rolls-Royce to the country and the fact that Lockheed were banking on the RB211 for its Tristar programme with all the UK jobs that would create, the UK government nationalised Rolls to enable the development of the new engine to be completed. In May 1971 a new company, Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd, was formed and signed a new contract with Lockheed allowing for a price increase for each engine and cancellation of any penalties for late delivery. Rolls persuaded Stanley Hooker, one of the great engine designers, and others to come out of retirement and oversee the final development and troubleshooting. Their work enabled the RB211 to finally be certified on 14 April 1972. The first RB211 powered Tristar entered service with Eastern Airlines 12 days later, with 250 aircraft eventually being built – all powered by RB211s. For his role in saving the project Stanley Hooker became Sir Stanley in 1974.

Photo: Aero Icaris

Launch customer Eastern Airlines Tristar at Miami in 1990.

The RB211 on the Tristar had a power rating of 40,600 lbf, however with a redesigned fan and compressor this could be raised to 50,000 lbf enough to power the Boeing 747. As this engine offered significant improvements over the Pratt and Whitney JT9, Boeing agreed to offer the RB211 as an option on the Boeing 747-200. This engine/aeroplane combination first entered service with British Airways in 1977 giving a seven per cent fuel consumption saving over the airline’s Pratt & Whitney powered aeroplanes.

Photo Lars Hentschel

RB211 on Bahrain Air Force Boeing 747

This was the start of a long relationship between the American manufacture and the RB211. With the advent of the larger and heavier Boeing 747-400, Rolls could now offer the RB211-524 series with thrust up to 60,600 lbf. The 524H series also offered a new engine management system known as FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control), much the same as the engine management system on modern cars. This engine was also offered as an option on the Boeing 767, the first of these entering service with British Airways in 1990. 

Because of the way the RB211 had been designed, Rolls could also make it smaller by reducing the fan diameter and removing one of the compressor stages. This 37,400 lbf thrust engine was offered to Boeing as the launch engine for its new Boeing 757 airliner. The aircraft entered service with Eastern Airlines and British Airways in 1983 with the Eastern Airlines President calling the RB211-535C the finest airline engine in the world. In later years, to compete with the more fuel-efficient Pratt & Whitney competition, Rolls developed the engine into the RB211-535E4 which entered service in 1984. Four years later, American Airlines ordered a fleet of 50 Boeing 757s all powered by the Rolls-Royce engine. 

Photo: Public domin

Over the year Monarch operated 11 Boeing 757s, retiring the last in 2015

Another first for Rolls-Royce and the RB211 came in 1992 when the first Russian-built Tupolev TU-204 airliner entered service powered by RB211s. This was the first time a Russian airliner had used western-built engines.

Photo: Sergey Kustov

Tupolev-204 freighter.

In 1990 a much-developed RB211, known as the Trent, was first run. This series of engines went on to power today’s widebody airliners such as the Airbus 330, 340, 350, 380 and Boeing 777 and 787. With thrust ratings now up to 97,000 lbf, it was a long step from the first RB211 of 40,600 lbf.  But the family lineage is there to be seen. When Rolls-Royce was re-privatised in 1987 it’s share of the world large airliner engine market was just eight per cent. With the success of the RB211 and its growth into the world-beating Trent series, this share is now 40 per cent making Rolls-Royce number two in the world’s large airliner engine manufacturers. So over 50 years after the original design, Rolls-Royce is flying high thanks to the RB211 that so nearly sunk the company back in 1971. 

Photo: Wikipedia

RB211 with the translating cowl open showing the thrust reverser vanes.