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BOAC, Politics and the Vickers 1000

The story of the relationship between BOAC, Vickers and the Government is a complicated one that includes many personalities, a changing scene and conflicting interests. It is also intertwined with other happenings, amongst which is the stillborn Vickers 1000 project. This article is an attempt at providing an overview of the situation and the results, in several parts. In the next part, the VC10 order book will get some more attention.

Background

BOAC occupied an unusual position as an airline for several reasons. In 1939 it was conceived as a nationalised company which catered for the long range routes outside of, then, war-torn Europe although the name was not fully applied until the Civil Aviation Act was passed in 1946. When the Second World War ended it did not expand its services across Europe but a second airline was set up to service this area: British European Airways (BEA). Additionally, British South American Airways (BSAA) was set up to operate to the Caribbean and South America but these operations were taken over by BOAC in 1949. From that year on BOAC and BEA both served as the national carriers for the United Kingdom. Being state-owned BOAC had a financial construction that included having to pay interest to the government on any money that it used, whether there was a profit or not. Although not a construction that was unheard of in industry, it did mean that its financial troubles worsened every year. It was provided with the option to borrow money from the government for its first 10 years, and it was a great pleasure for the management to announce that it no longer needed this support three years before this term ended, but from 1956 on their capital requirements became subject to the whims of politics as they were made a part of the national annual budget. In this way government control of BOAC increased as every large expenditure had to be approved by a Minister, and also because the Treasury could impose cuts which influenced BOAC's profitability directly, for reasons unconnected with the airline or civil aviation as a whole. The management structure consisted of a board, the head of which was appointed by the minister, and a managing director below that who lead the running of the corporation on a day to day basis. Because of these various government connections BOAC could be heavily influenced by any minister who occupied the relevant political position on a given day.

For most of its life BOAC was governed by the Ministry of Transport (later Transport and Civil Aviation) but in 1959 the aviation part of this ministry was merged with the Ministry of Supply to become the Ministry of Aviation. Next to these changes in the government structure, the responsible ministers changed at an even more rapid pace (figure 1).

 

Figure 1: BOAC leaders and VC10 orders

BOAC leadership and the Vickers 1000

The characters who made up the leadership of BOAC were varied. When Sir Miles Thomas took over the helm in 1949 he inherited a company which was in debt, overstaffed and which used many types which were outdated even then. One of the steps he took was to hire a competent accountant, someone to deal with, as he put it, 'too much delay in presentation of figures and too much confusion in the way they were put forward'. He was planning to go away on a long trip but having found his man he 'had no qualms about leaving, secure that at least the figures he produced would tell a true story, however sour'. The man he hired, Basil Smallpeice (later Sir Basil), started in the role of Financial Comptroller but he quickly managed to 'get his feet well and truly under the BOAC table', later rising to the function of Managing Director. Smallpeice later wrote about his days at BOAC in his autobiography 'Of Comets and Queens' which provides an insight into the internal workings of the company in those days.

In the early 50s it became clear that BOAC needed a next generation airliner for the 60s and Vickers had been working on a transport version of the Valiant bomber, which had made its first flight in 1951, since those same days as George Edwards was a firm believer in developing derivatives of a basic design. The Vickers 1000 was initially designed to fulfil a need by the RAF for a large jet transport. The resulting aircraft didn't look much like the Valiant but its characteristics as a transport aircraft meant that it could easily be marketed as a civil design as well. As the proposed Comet 4 did not have the range to fly the North Atlantic non-stop, the Vickers 1000, as the civil VC7, could fill this gap. According to Edwards, BOAC was involved in the studies from the start and the Vickers 1000 could give them a clear lead over their rivals if the model turned out to be succesful. See figure 2 for a timeline that includes the expected in service date of the Vickers 1000 and shows the mix of US-built versus UK-built airliners in BOAC service over the years. According to Smallpeice, Thomas was aware of the fact that BOAC needed to support the British aircraft industry but BOAC's order was also dependant on the RAF ordering a significant number and thereby shouldering a part of the development costs. Thomas himself was more enamored of a Comet development that never emerged: the trans-Atlantic Comet 5. His dealings with de Havilland and the belief that it was best to take a proven design and tweak this provided the confidence that this was the aircraft that would solve BOAC's problems in this regard. Unfortunately, de Havilland decided to develop a new model in favour of a further Comet development and the Comet 5 was taken off the table.


An impression of the Vickers 1000 in RAF colours.
Image copyright BAE Systems

An impression of the Vickers 1000 in RAF colours.
Image copyright BAE Systems

BOAC's interest in the Vickers 1000 waned during 1955 when it became clear that the aircraft would be heavier than planned, something which could easily be shouldered by a larger, uprated version of the chosen Rolls-Royce Conway engine. But later that year, when the RAF decided that its most expensive project would have to be cancelled to achieve the needed cuts in expenditure that it had been ordered to make, the future of the Vickers 1000 looked bleak. A political angle which didn't help the situation was that government-owned Shorts was in need of work, desperately at that time, and the slow-selling Britannia could be built by them and fill the RAF's needs for a lot less money. After the RAF order was cancelled, a top-level meeting was set up between Miles Thomas, Whitney Straight and Basil Smallpeice for BOAC, and Sir Ronald Weeks, Sir Charles Dunphie and George Edwards for Vickers. The question on the table was whether BOAC would be willing to continue backing the VC7 so that the project, for which the prototype was by then 80% complete, could continue. Thomas was very clear that he would not buy the VC7 as the weight increase had shortened its range, making a non-stop North Atlantic flight an impossibility. Also he did not believe that Rolls-Royce would deliver the needed thrust increase for the Conway engine, a thrust increase which was later used on the 707 when it was delivered to BOAC. Edwards tried to persuade Thomas later on by going through TCA's Gordon McGregor to Minister of Supply Reginald Maudling, who then spoke to Thomas again, but to no avail. He felt that BOAC had suffered enough from the Comet disasters and the delays in Britannia deliveries. BOAC's official statement was that 'the only way in which customers will not wish to cross the Atlantic will be by fast jet'. When the cancellation of the Vickers 1000 was debated this was translated by the Government spokesman as 'BOAC is satisfied that for the foreseeable future it will be fully competitive on the North Atlantic with Britannias'. A translation which was not very accurate as it turned out.





Figure 2: Long range aircraft in BOAC service between 1950 and 1970 (dates are approximate).

Not long after the Vickers 1000 cancellation in 1956 Miles Thomas became so desillusioned with the job that he handed in his resignation. Smallpeice explains that the Comet disasters weighed heavily on him and that his relation with Watkinson, the fourth new Minister in six years, was not developing as well as it should. In Thomas' autobiography 'Out on a Wing' he explains how Watkinson did not appreciate Thomas copying in any other government officials in a letter that answered Watkinson's question about BOAC's future fleet needs. Later on Thomas explained to his deputy CEO that the constraints under which the chairman of a nationalised industry worked were not worth putting up with. This left Watkinson searching for a new chairman and all through the final days of Thomas' chairmanship he left the management in doubt over his intentions. On 19 April 1956 he sent for Smallpeice, having already spoken to other board members, and told him that he had decided to appoint Gerard d'Erlanger as the next chairman, but on a part-time (and initially unpaid!) basis. The bombshell came next, as along with d'Erlanger, Watkinson wanted a senior civil servant, Sir George Cribbet, as chief executive and this did not go over well with Smallpeice who stated clearly that he would not work under Cribbett, who was not suited for the job as far as he was concerned. The discussion got heated and Smallpeice reminded Watkinson that he did not have the power to appoint a chief executive, that was reserved for the board. After more than an hour Watkinson asked Smallpeice to go and discuss the situation with d'Erlanger and work out a top structure for BOAC that included Cribbett in some capacity. Within the afternoon they decided to appoint Cribbett as deputy chairman with responsibility for international relations and associated companies, but not for the running of BOAC itself - other than in d'Erlanger's absence. The board would also be asked to appoint Smallpeice as managing director, a title which d'Erlanger preferred over chief executive. And so Smallpeice ended up at the top of the corporation, a position he had not sought himself but which he embraced with enthusiasm after he got over the initial shock of his promotion.

Flight International was very positive about the new management structure, although Smallpeice's promotion did not make the issue on 27 April 1956. They noted that both d'Erlanger and Cribbett were well chosen as they were both 'steeped in aviation and understood the workings of airliner commerce' and the assistance of Cribbett as deputy would relieve d'Erlanger, especially as his appointment was part time, also he did not have to take on the double responsibility of chairman and chief executive like Miles Thomas. The short article went on to point out that 'The first nettle that the men will have to grasp is the crucial issue of the corporation's future equipment policy. Should it buy British-engined American jet airliners ... or wait until the late sixties for a supersonic British airliner? There is no reason to lack confidence in the ability of BOAC's new management to make a decision that history will prove was correct.'

With d'Erlanger in office the needs of BOAC were evaluated again and this prompted a sad postscript to the Vickers 1000 story. The cancellation of this type had left BOAC without a long range jet for the 60s and the launch orders for the 707 and the DC-8 quickly made them realise that they needed more than the delayed and troubled Britannia. This led the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, Watkinson, to invite George Edwards into his office only ten months after the Vickers 1000 had been cancelled and ask a 'dreadful question': could the Vickers 1000 be reactivated? Edwards saw Watkinson as 'one of the best Ministers ever, as honest as they come', he realised that Watkinson had to go throught the motions but made it clear that 'the whole thing is finished'. The reason for the question was that BOAC had put in a request to buy 707s for their long range jet aircraft needs, and on 24 October 1956 Watkinson duly announced the government's approval for purchase of fifteen 707s at a cost of 44 million. One of the provisions of this deal was that the next airliner that BOAC would buy would have to be British as the government would not make the needed dollars available, even though BOAC would earn these dollars themselves within a reasonable period. An interesting insight in the workings of the Treasury is also provided by the fact that BOAC had requested 17 707s. It was a normal routine within the Treasury to cut requests by 10%, or in this case 1.7 707s.

The next BOAC long range airliner


An impression of the Handley Page 97, clearly a Victor descendant.
Image collection J. Hieminga

As the 707 deal had firmly closed the door on further purchases in the USA, BOAC started immediate negotiations with the various aircraft firms for their further needs. Traffic forecasts dictated that a certain number of aircraft were needed to supplement the 707s, especially on the Southern and Eastern (or 'Empire') routes which featured short runways and high airports for which the 707s were unsuitable. The notion of 'Empire' routes actually went back to the original Brabazon committee and their thoughts for post-war British aviation. This philisophy still influenced the airline's and the political thinking far into the 1950s. There were three options:

  • Handley Page's HP97 project had been proposed as early as 1952 and was essentially a Victor development with a larger fuselage. Smallpeice noted that the Victor's tailplane, which had detached from the prototype WB771 in 1954 causing loss of aircraft and crew, was suspect, which disqualified this entry.
  • de Havilland had been talking to BOAC about a further development of its Comet, called the Comet 5, which would be larger with a more swept fin and tailplane and powered by the Rolls-Royce Conway engine. To start developing this version de Havilland wanted an order for 30 airplanes (although Smallpeice and other sources mention that they wanted 50 orders) which was more than BOAC needed. Later they proposed the de Havilland 118 model on which the engines were now underneath the wings, but de Havilland decided to focus on the BEA order which later on became the Trident.
  • Vickers had been working on a larger airliner since the Vickers 1000 cancellation. Initially this was known as the 'Vanjet' as it was a jet-powered Vanguard derivative with three rear-mounted Conway engines but it slowly morphed into the basic VC10 configuration.

Smallpeice describes how BOAC wanted a 'British 707' but there was pressure from cabinet level to not just copy the American design, but to come up with something better. This set the scene for a meeting between the various parties, which took place in 1957.

 

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