Dr Michael Pryce, who has spoken to the Association before on V/STOL topics, addressed Members on 13 Feb on the history of the P.1154, Hawker’s (and Ralph Hooper’s) thwarted attempt to enter the world of supersonic V/STOL, or, as it would later be termed, ASTOVL.

In 1996 Mike achieved an MSc in the history of technology at Imperial College. For his subsequent DPhil at Sussex he studied the P.1154 and later V/STOL programmes. He has been funded by BAES and the US Dept of Defense to study and advise on advanced technology project management, including the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter). He has also advised the UK Government in this field. He now lectures at Cranfield University and teaches MoD acquisition at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He is also a writer and runs the harrier.org.uk website.

Mike started by summarising the UK experience in jet V/STOL; fifty years of P.1127, Kestrel and Harrier design, development, testing, operations and support with exports to the USA, Spain, India, Italy, and asked, why should we look at failure? Most new things fail and looking at failure shows the nature of success. There are technical and political lessons to be learned from failures. The Kingston aircraft heritage from Sopwith to BAe had seen 100 years of fighter design which, in 1957, was interrupted by the consequences of the Duncan Sandys view that the Lightning would be the last UK manned fighter leading to the discontinuation of the P.1121 and Hawker’s move into V/STOL.

The Rise And Fall Of The P.1154


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The P.1154 requirement arose in the early 1960s when wars east of Suez were seen as likely. The political climate was coloured by: the UK financial crisis and a change of government, RAF and RN rivalry over the ‘island stance’ or carriers, and whether a joint service aircraft should be V/STOL or conventional, and the choice of European collaboration or American alliance.

The technical solution would have to meet diverse needs. Meanwhile NATO wanted a supersonic nuclear strike aircraft for off-base dispersal. The RAF were fighting in Malaysia and South Arabia with subsonic Hunters and flying helicopters from jungle bases. What the RAF wanted most was the TSR2 for tactical and strategic use with its nuclear weapons and digital systems. This was not as good an aircraft as many of its proponents would have us believe, said Michael. It had technical problems amongst which was fin flutter requiring an hydraulic damper, and a possible 500 kn EAS limit. And it was ridiculously expensive. What’s more, the Weybridge-Warton collaboration was the worst ever.

The Navy had vintage carriers, which had been updated but were too small for modern jets, and aircraft such as the 1940s design Sea Vixen. The five fleet carriers were under-utilised and unappreciated, the RN felt. The operational focus was east of Suez as WW 3 in Europe was expected to be nuclear and short. What the RN wanted most was new large carriers, the CVA-01 class, with new aircraft and a new supporting fleet. This was not cheap.

In government the MoD was in thrall to the new US cost-cutting ‘commonality’ concept promoted by Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara, an ex-Ford Motor Company ‘whiz-kid’ (on whose watch the disastrous Edsel model had failed.) The TFX requirement which led to the F-111 embodied this ‘commonality’; one airframe was to satisfy jointly both the USAF and the USN. The Conservative UK Minister of Defence, Peter Thornycroft, wanted the P.1154 to be similarly ‘joint’. The services were not keen and had to be begged to accept commonality; and Hawker was against it.

Stepping back to 1961, Ralph Hooper drew the P.1150 based very clearly on his P.1127 which had just started flying. It was powered by the BS.100, a Pegasus development with plenum chamber burning (PCB) which utilised Bristol’s ram-jet technology to burn fuel in the front (cold) nozzles to produce enough thrust for supersonic flight. Renumbered P.1154 (2 X 27) the design was entered in NATO competition NBMR3 (NATO Basic Military Requirement no. 3). In 1962 the P.1154 was declared the ‘technical winner’ but France’s Dassault Mirage IIIV was deemed ‘equal’ for work-share proposal reasons! Unfortunately NATO had no money so the competition foundered. Consequently, the UK Government decided to go ahead with a joint RAF/RN P.1154.

Like NATO the RAF wanted a low level, single seat, strike fighter, whereas the RN wanted a carrier launched, high altitude, loitering, two seat fleet defence interceptor with a big radar. No workable common aircraft could be devised (Hawker drew six main naval versions including some with twin R-R Speys, and several ‘joint’ ones although the RAF version changed little). In February 1964 the RN withdrew from the ‘joint’ P.1154 and selected the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, a choice promoted by Capt Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown and Admiral Louis Mountbatten. These aircraft were fitted with R-R Speys so they could be launched from UK decks, and cost as much as the entire P.1154RN projected costs! They served from 1969 until 1978.

Building the first RAF P.1154 started in 1964 at Kingston, Hamble and Brough with the BS.100 on the test bed at Filton. During 1964-65 a lot of work was done including wind tunnel tests and equipment development. The aircraft was designed to fit RN carrier and commando carrier lifts as well as Australian, Canadian and Indian carriers with an eye on exports. Next Mike looked at the politics. The P.1154 was developed due to changing military needs and political support. Sir Solly Zuckerman, chief Scientific Advisor to the MoD, did not want the RAF to be embarrassed by Sukarno’s supersonic MiG 21s in Indonesia in spite of the fact that they were sub-sonic at low altitude.

Harold Wilson who formed his Government in 1964 believed that the Services and the aircraft industry were inefficient. Denis Healey became Minister of Defence. He believed the best way forward was to buy American and jointly develop with France. A ‘100 day’ aircraft projects review of the P.1154, the TSR.2 and the HS.681 was instigated as was a defence review. At the same time the balance of payments crisis came to a head and the ‘Gnomes of Zurich’ called for economies in return for loans.

Consequently the P.1154 was cancelled for Phantoms and some P.1127s/Harriers were ordered for the RAF. TSR.2 was cancelled and F-111s ordered instead with the USA giving favourable 15 year credit terms, which helped the UK balance of payments cash flow problem, and early delivery. Also, the AFVG (Anglo-French variable geometry) fighter was launched as the Government wanted to join the EEC (European Economic Community) or Common Market.

In the end, did the cancellation of the P.1154 matter? The Harrier, and its Sea Harrier derivative, became a great success, operating from existing ships, roads, strips and pads. The P.1154, with its very hot, high energy exhaust could not have done this. However, some saw the Harrier as a backward step. At the time of the P.1154 cancellation, Chief Designer P.1154, John Fozard said: “At this rate I will be Chief Designer of the Sopwith Pup when I retire!” At the time the Harrier was not a secure programme and several hundred redundancies ensued.
Was the P.1154 a supersonic red herring? Kingston and Bristol persevered with PCB in spite of the fears of others, the work culminating in the P.1216 twin boom fighter project but this also came to nought for internal BAe political reasons to do with promoting Eurofighter. Does it matter today? Since the P.1154 cancellation there has been extensive UK ASTOVL work and the UK is playing a very significant role in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

The political issues are similar today: carriers, budgets, inter-service rivalry. The same mistakes are repeated. The withdrawal of the Harriers from service and scrapping of their carriers is an example as is the F-35C debacle (changing from the ASTOVL ‘B’ to the catapult launched/arrested landing ‘C’) which cost the best part of 100 million - for nothing!

The vote of thanks for this excellent talk was given by Chris Farara who has known Michael since he came to the Brooklands Museum archive when he was doing his MSc.