UK Aerospace Industry – Fifty Years of Fascinating Contrast

Fifty Years on since the P.1127 Kestrel vertical take-off and landing aircraft made its maiden flight in March 1964; fifty years on since VC10 entered service with BOAC in April that same year, and since the first Short Brothers Belfast cargo aircraft flew for the first time in January 1964; 50 years since the BAC TSR.2 also made its maiden flight in September of the very same year, and since the Hawker Siddeley Trident received certification; the UK aerospace industry has gone through some very interesting times. Even though the following year would witness the premature and unnecessary cancellation of the TSR.2 programme, I suspect that in time history could well decide that 1964 marked the end of the old era of UK aerospace manufacturing and also that it marked the start of the initial planning stage for the fantastic UK aerospace industry that has grown from the wreckage of TSR.2 and of course, that would be encompassed in the subsequent Plowden Report into the Aircraft Industry the following year.

Back in 1964 when the economy was to all intents and purposes to be considered unsound; discussion was predominantly built around whether big projects such as the Anglo-French Concorde and TSR.2 were affordable, and perhaps whether or not it would be better that they would be cancelled. Indeed, virtually the first move of the Wilson Labour Government when it took office in October 1964 was to attempt to negotiate a way out of Britain’s involvement in Concorde with the French. Thankfully the previous administration has tied Britain in to the point that cancelation was no longer an option. There was also much concern and discussion whether the Boeing 727 competitor to the Hawker Siddeley Trident would, just as interference from the UK state owned airline BOAC combined with a low level of support from the previous Conservative government had by then seriously damaged the Vickers VC10 in respect of future international sales, given British European Airways (BEA) insistence on making the Trident commercial aircraft smaller and more short range, wreck its chances of international sales success too. It did not take long to find the answer to that particular question and as we look back on various aircraft programmes in existence in 1964 the bottom line was that, apart from Kestrel that would eventually emerge years later as the Harrier V/STOL aircraft, none of the above mentioned British aircraft developments made a penny of profit for their respective manufacturers or government sponsor. Indeed, in terms of commercial aircraft development since the end of WW2 it is worth remembering that only the Vickers Viscount would make any money for its industry manufacturer and government sponsor although that said, later commercial aircraft development programmes such as the excellent BAC1-11 short-haul jet and BAE 146/Regional Jet did quite well in international markets.

Today the UK aerospace industry is much changed to the one that we remember in 1964 and that change means we no longer produce any large commercial aircraft at all. Despite this we are still a very large player in the world of commercial and military aerospace, and if anything from a bottom line perspective very much more successful.

Today Airbus UK at its Broughton and Filton sites remains responsible for the manufacturing and supply of wings that are fitted to around half of all commercial aircraft under construction worldwide. That success is shared by many others. For instance, having delivered a record number of 2,646 engines in 2013, the UK in the form of Rolls-Royce received new orders last year covering another 5,000 engines according to a ‘The Aerospace Industry’, a report from the Government’s Economic Policy and Statistics Section and that was supplied to Members of Parliament in April this year. There’s much more too when we recognise that UK built Messier Dowty landing gear is to be found on large numbers of the commercial and military aircraft around the world. All this is a reminder, if it was needed, that while the UK aerospace industry has very much changed over the past fifty years, despite much change it is an industry that because it has been adaptable to change, cost efficient and flexible and yet far from being considered complacent remains at the top of its game.

There is no denying that a great many costly mistakes have been made over the past fifty years and that, with hindsight, could and should have been handled in a very different way. While government was most often to blame for not taking a long term view and being short sighted, I suspect that industry must also share a part of the blame too. That is not to ignore the problem that government had in respect of affordability, the need for industry consolidation and reduction of overall risk. And with no coherent long term policy around until the ‘Plowden Report of The Committee of Inquiry Into The Aircraft Industry’ was published in December 1965, and that recommended international co-operation as a way forward along with industry consolidation plus insisting that only those projects that satisfy the most stringent tests of economic promise should be supported by Government funds; did we have something worthwhile to work on.

Whilst the catastrophic crashes of the three Comet aircraft in 1953/4 damaged future UK commercial aircraft industry potential it was in my book the manner in which both BOAC and BEA were allowed by Government to interfere on VC10 and Trident aircraft development projects that would cause irreversible permanent damage to the commercial aircraft manufacturing industry, just as cancellation of TSR.2 in 1965 plus major aircraft programme defence cuts in 1966 caused substantial damage to the military aircraft industry.

Nevertheless, what emerged as a result of Plowden has meant that the UK commercial aerospace industry is stronger today than might have been the case had nothing changed. Certainly the risk of ‘withering on the vine’ is far less likely today that had we not accepted the need to reconfigure what we were doing, look at what we were best at and invest, through partnership, in alterative developments that carried less risk. Today when I look at the UK aerospace industry that has grown up around us since Plowden, I see that that while it has abundant levels of confidence, is far from being complacent in terms of standing still. Today the industry invests in itself and in its future. It is an industry that has a ‘can do’ culture and one that is confident and far from being complacent.

Perhaps today we need to remind ourselves occasionally that the UK commercial aerospace industry has a 17% global market share, annual turnover exceeding £25bn and importantly, one that is responsible for the employment of over 100,000 direct jobs and one that through exports brings in considerable benefit to the economy.

Our involvement in the commercial and military aerospace industry remains massive ranging from BAE System’s involvement in military aircraft manufacturing of Hawk T-2 jet plus large scale manufacturing and MRO support of Eurofighter Typhoon, large scale involvement in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter military jet, plus avionics and other specialist aerospace related components at one end of the spectrum, to Marshall Aerospace involvement  in conversion, modification, maintenance, component manufacturing and support of commercial, military and business aircraft at the other. By any standards Britain remains a very big player and it is still the second largest exporter of defence equipment in the world behind America. We have a list of companies as long as your arm and it matters not whether they are UK owned or not, the point is that each and every one has invested in the UK.

I have already mentioned some of the many large and medium sized companies involved, but here are a few more. Thales, for instance, has large scale investment in the UK aerospace and defence industry and the company engages in a mix of security, flight simulation, communications right down to operation of airports, air traffic control and railway signalling. Broad though the Thales activities and investment are it is also the manufacturer of Watchkeeper remotely piloted aerial system used for reconnaissance plus the various other avionics, electronics and specialist systems and small land missies and systems. Raytheon is another company that is heavily invested manufacturing sovereign capability here in Britain including specialist defence munitions and bombs, security equipment plus through life support of RAF Sentinel operational capability. Such investment continues a long record of providing the UK with industry leadership and retention of a sophisticated engineering skill-set.

The list is of aerospace industry players is extremely long and the number of individual enterprises involved is close to 600. There is an abundance of small and medium sized enterprise activity and this along with the smaller number of very large entities allows retention of complex engineering skills. There is of course shortage of skills but nevertheless Britain is fortunate to have all of the above and more. It is fortunate also to have companies such as missile systems manufacturer MBDA and the complex composite and aerospace structures manufacturing operations owned by GKN not to mention the flight simulation architecture produced here by L-3 and also, Northrop Grumman which provides not only computer network operation and cyber security and C4 command and control but also the whole life support for the Royal Air Force fleet of Boeing Sentry E-3D AWACS aircraft.

Through life support including MRO is today a large and very important part of the UK aerospace and defence industry and includes large international players such as Boeing which supports operation of both Apache and Chinook military helicopters, C-17 ‘heavylift’ aircraft plus of course, vast numbers of commercial aircraft and systems. Neither should we ignore large service based players such as Babcock that engage in a variety of cutting edge training, support and MRO work at various Royal Air Force and Royal Navy locations including full FSTA support at RAF Brize Norton plus for trainer aircraft such as the T-2 Hawk based at RAF Valley and separately, Grob and Tutor training aircraft management and support as well as RAF Sea King search and rescue support.

I have no doubt missed many activities and specific companies from this list for which I apologise. The point is that UK aerospace is a great place to be and that with support from government in the form of the Aerospace Growth Partnership it si a great place to be.

CHW (London 20th August 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 7779785

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