It is difficult to believe that a country which gave the world such classic airliners as the Handley Page HP 42, the Shorts ‘C’ Class flying boat, the first jetliner, the DH Comet, and the elegant Vickers VC.10 would no longer design and produce air transport aircraft. Difficult to believe, but sadly, true. For example, Britain’s last ‘indigenous’ fighter aircraft was the superb English Electric Lightning (RAF service in 1959), and it looks like the British Aerospace 146 (and the later Avro RJ version) will be the last British-designed air transport aircraft.
Here, on the apron at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, representing the last flowering of a long line of British airliners, is Titan Airlines BAE 146-200QC (originally built as G-BPBT). This aircraft was previously owned by Ansett New Zealand, a subsidiary of the Australian airline, Ansett, (registered as ZK-NZC), but when that airline went bankrupt it was sold to Titan where it now operates exclusively as a freighter (the QC can be used for passengers or freight). The London Stansted-based 146 is one of 387 examples of this high-winged, medium-capacity airliner which was produced from 1983 to 2001.
Powered by four Textron Lycoming (later Honeywell) ALF502R-5 turbofans of 6970 lbs st each, the QC version can carry nine standard LD3 containers, and it is remarkably quiet. This ’low noise footprint’ along with a bifurcated speed brake, and a sophisticated spoiler system, allows all versions of the BAE 146 to be utilized at noise-sensitive airports such as London City. Since the ALF502 engines are not designed for reverse thrust, the aircraft is fitted with a carbon-disc wheel braking system instead of the usual stainless steel one, as well as an aerodynamic braking and ‘lift-dumping’ system. The RAF ordered three BAE 146 aircraft, as the BAE 146 CC.2, for the Queen’s Flight. On 1st April 1995 (the anniversary of the formation of the RAF), the Queen’s Flight was merged with No. 32 Squadron to form No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron, (sometimes written as XXXII(TR) Squadron), which is based at RAF Northolt. Their 146s are fitted out with 19 seat VVIP interiors, and carry a crew of six.
In the 1990s, attempts were made to upgrade the basic design. Production was switched from Hatfield to the former Avro factory at Woodford (near Manchester), and this gave rise to a name change – Avro RJ (for Regional Jet). A last effort to revive the programme was made with a change of engines; the ALF502 turbofans, having suffered reliability problems throughout the aircraft’s life (including leakage of toxic fumes), were swapped for Honeywell AS977 engines offering lower fuel-burn, and reduced maintenance costs. The resulting aircraft was designated Avro RJX, but, despite 14 firm orders and several options, the programme was terminated by BAE Systems (as the company had become) in December 2001.
Even though the 146 is no longer in production, there is still a healthy market for second-hand examples of the jet; indeed, BAE Systems have in place a system of sales and lease options for potential users of the airliner. This also includes a heavy marketing campaign for a militarised transport/freighter, the BAE 146M. Indeed, BAE Systems have been joined in support of the BAE 146 by Chevron Technical Services, at Cotswold Airport, Kemble, who have become an EASA Part 145 A1 maintenance organisation, conducting heavy base maintenance on BAE146/RJ series aircraft.
Given the original BAE estimated sales of around 1,500, the actual sales of 387, and the fact that the second generation aircraft was cancelled, it would seem that the ‘Tonka Toy’ or ‘Baby Jumbo’ as it is sometimes known, has failed to live up to expectations. I would hate to think that the UK no longer has the will or the expertise to build a commercial aircraft.