THE ONE-ELEVEN AND ME - 50 GREAT YEARS!
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By Bruce Hales-Dutton
January 1967, Gatwick airport: a party of journalists representing local newspapers in Kent, Surrey and Sussex are boarding a British United Airways airliner bound for Rotterdam on a trip organised in conjunction with the British Airports Authority to promote both airline and airport. From Rotterdam the party will drive by coach to The Hague and on to the seaside resort of Scheveningen where they’ll have lunch at Bali’s, the famed Indonesian restaurant. They’ll spend the afternoon in Amsterdam before flying home to Gatwick.
August 2013, Brooklands Museum: a group of men and women with links to one of Britain’s best-loved airliner types has gathered to mark the anniversary of its first flight which happened exactly 50 years ago today. They’ll hear presentations from key people involved with the aircraft at various stages of its career before gathering for a group photograph with an example which is now an exhibit at the museum.
The common factor was, of course, the BAC One-Eleven, but it’s also possible that I was the only person to have been present on both occasions. I was there as journalist but during the intervening 46 years, working successively for the government and various parts of the aviation industry, the One-Eleven was a fairly constant presence. It was, after all, an industry staple for much of that time.
And because of my Dutch treat all those years ago, I’ll always have a soft spot for the One-Eleven. It was, after all, the first aircraft I’d ever flown in and the one that took me on my first overseas trip. Since then I’ve flown in quite a few different examples, displaying a variety of liveries, but until the last few years, when I went back to journalism, I hadn’t fully appreciated the type’s real significance. I’ve written a number of articles on the type but this year, right out of the blue, came an invitation to edit one of the titles in Kelsey Publishing’s Classic Airliner series of ‘bookazines’. It was, of course, about the BAC One-Eleven.
What my research told me was that, despite total sales over two decades that barely matched those chalked up by the latest Boeing wide-body in a morning at the Dubai air show, the One-Eleven was a hugely significant type for the British aerospace industry.
The fact was it was the right aircraft at the right time. Without the One-Eleven it’s by no means certain that the nascent British Aircraft Corporation would have survived. It’s fair to say that the combination of Vickers and English Electric didn’t have much else on at the time. Designing and building the new twin-jet provided much needed work for the former Vickers’ plants at Hurn and Weybridge. They’d just about finished with the Viscount and were not being kept especially busy by the Vanguard and the VC10. The H.107 brought to the party by Hunting, which later joined Vickers and English Electric under the BAC umbrella, must have seemed like a Godsend. Vickers’ VC11 was clearly not winning that much support from the airlines so, re-designed and re-engined, the Hunting H.107 became the BAC One-Eleven.
The launch customer was also new. British United Airways, which had just become the nation’s biggest independent airline, had, like BAC, been formed with government encouragement. It was about to make the One-Eleven the first major type to be launched without an order from one of the nationalised airlines. Even more importantly it wasn’t tailored specifically to their needs. The One-Eleven comfortably outsold the VC10 and Trident combined.
Not that BUA’s managing director Freddie Laker was disinterested in the details. He certainly was: I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when he and BAC boss Sir George Edwards met to talk turkey. The product of Laker’s intervention was an aircraft with an appeal far wider than the demands of its launch customer. During its long life the One-Eleven served with most of Britain’s airlines, even BEA/BA. They carried holidaymakers and business travellers alike: if you went on a package holiday during the `60s, `70s or early `80s you probably went in a One-Eleven.
Not that the design of the One-Eleven broke dramatically fresh ground. It was certainly more advanced than the first short-haul twin-jet the Sud Caravelle, and was the first to be powered by by-pass engines. But Edwards and his team had gained a reputation for building robust aircraft, a tradition they maintained with the One-Eleven. Indeed, sturdiness, or the lack of it, was the least of the One-Eleven’s problems. The lack of orders was.
It was the success of the Caravelle followed eventually by the One-Eleven which helped persuade Boeing to launch the 737. More than 10,000 examples later the story continues. The Douglas DC-9 sold over 1,000 and that’s not counting the MD-80 derivatives. Even the Caravelle outsold the One-Eleven. Its problem was the lack of development potential due to the lack of a suitable engine to power developed variants. Who knows what might have happened if the promising Medway engine hadn’t been canned because it didn’t suit BEA’s reduced ambitions for the Trident? The Tay, of course, came later, but the JT8-D, now that might have worked. I found an artists’ impression of a P&W-powered One-Eleven but, as Edwards was only too well aware, an American-powered One-Eleven probably wouldn’t have flown politically.
Then there were the wide-bodied Two-Eleven and Three-Eleven….. Looked at with the illumination of hindsight the reasons for cancelling such promising designs seem fatuous.
So at the root of it all lays the human factor. People design, build, operate and fly aircraft as well as travel in them. And there were some big personalities involved in the One-Eleven story: Edwards, Laker, Harold Bamberg of British Eagle, they don’t come much bigger than that, but there was also Charles ‘Chuck’ Beard of Braniff whose friendship with Edwards helped swing the first American order for the One Eleven. And let’s not forget Paul Stoddart whose somewhat improbable role as the RAAF’s scrap merchant helped write one of the last chapters in the One-Eleven story.
But not quite the final one. Those who attended the Brooklands celebration were given a fascinating glimpse of the top secret world of Northrop-Grumman research operations on behalf of the US military. Glimpse, though, was all it could be because the activities of this four decades old aircraft are so top secret.
And of course we have dedicated enthusiasts like Peter Clark, Nik Read and Richard Church who are keeping memories of the One-Eleven green. For me the highlight of 2013, the One-Eleven’s golden jubilee year, was to join them at Brooklands and be one of the 1-11 celebrants – that’s what they said! – present on 20 August. Thanks, guys. Now, where should I be in January 2017?
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