History of Romeo X-Ray

Bristol beat the competition to build a four engine airliner, the likes of which had not been seen before. With interest from many airlines, the flight test stage of the development of the Bristol Britannia was going very well in early 1954. The first prototype (G-ALBO) had taken off from Filton on 16th August 1952. Although several problems were encountered in the early days, the aircraft was modified and test flights continued successfully. The second prototype (G-ALRX) lifted from Filton's runway on 23rd December 1953, and was fitted with the production version of the Bristol Proteus turboprop engine, the model 705. Still reeling from the cancellation of the mighty Brabazon airliner in 1952, Bristol had pinned its hopes on the Britannia becoming a worldwide success. Both prototype Britannias were painted in the colours of BOAC, the launch customer, who had set out the original specification for a 'Medium Range Empire' airliner in 1946.
Rare colour photo of G-ALRX in air, as seen from the other prototype. Filton's hangars can be seen in the background on the right.
(Peter Rushby Collection via www.aviationarchive.org.uk)

The first two prototypes in flight
(Bristol via www.aviationarchive.org.uk)

Landing on Mud


On the morning of 4th February 1954, G-ALRX took of from Filton on a test flight, with Captain A.J. 'Bill' Pegg at the controls. Flight Engineers for the trip were Ken Fitzgerald and Gareth Jones. On board were Dr. Archibald E. Russell, Chief Designer of Bristol Aircraft Division; Dr. Stanley G Hooker, Chief Engineer of the Bristol Engine Division; and Mr Farnes, the Bristol Sales Manager. This was not just a test flight; also present were two representatives of the Dutch airline KLM, a potential Britannia customer. G. Malouin of KLM was co-pilot for the flight. Thirteen people were on board all together. The take-off was uneventful, but seven minutes into the flight the engine temperature on engine no. 3 rose, so it was shut down. Once it had cooled sufficiently, it was restarted, and the flight continued its journey northwards to Herefordshire.

The engine temperature rose again when climbing through 10,000 feet, then suddenly the engine exploded. Shrapnel missed the fuselage, but pierced the engine oil tank, which burst into flames. The fire was so intense it could not be extinguished. While Bill Pegg turned the aircraft south for an emergency landing at back at Filton, engine No.4 was shut down, as a precaution. To add to the drama, engines no. 1 and 2 shut themselves down, turning the Britannia into a large glider. It was only the speedy work of the two engineers, Fitzgerald and Jones, that got the two port engines relit, and disaster was averted.

With flames engulfing the starboard wing, threatening to penetrate the fuel tanks, and Filton still several miles away, Pegg elected to put down on the Severn Mudflats, the silt and mud of the Severn Estuary exposed when the tide is out. With the flaps and wheels up, and only the two port engines running, the Britannia was expertly belly landed on the flats near Littleton-on-Severn, not far from the eastern end of the first Severn bridge, which was built the following decade. The aircraft slid for 400 yards, sending plumes of mud in the air. It ended up facing out from the shore, with one engine ripped from the nacelle, but with little damage elsewhere. Miraculously, the mud managed to put out the flames, which could have ripped through the fuel tanks at any moment. Relieved and shaken the crew and passengers jumped from the aircraft.

G-ALRX from the air. Note the tracks where the Britannia slid along the mud, before veering to the right into the Estuary. There are five tracks - one for the fuselage, and one for each engine.
(Bristol via www.aviationarchive.org.uk)

Locals and workers from the nearby brickworks ran to the scene to help. Fire tenders arrived, but were not needed. Although only 150 yards from the shore, the aircraft could not be pulled from the mud before the tide came in. A mesh pathway was laid over the mud, and frantic efforts began to retrieve any equipment that could be saved. It was 48 hours before an attempt could be made to pull her shore, but the sea had taken its toll, and the aircraft was a write off. Not only had the salty water covered the fuselage, damaging the airframe and any equipment remaining on board, but efforts to pull the aircraft to the shore had put extreme stress on the fuselage. From her first flight 43 days earlier, she had achieved only 51 hours and 10 minutes in the air, in 24 flights.

The Britannia - minus wings and pulled into shore
(Bristol via www.aviationarchive.org.uk)
 
With the loss of the aircraft from the flight test programme, development of the Britannia was delayed. This was exacerbated by the grounding of the first prototype three months later, following a near-disasterous failure of a flap during flight. The Bristol Britannia went on to be one of Britain's most successful airliners, with two production lines (at Filton and Belfast), and licences for Canadair to built two derivatives, the CL-28 Argus and CL-44 Yukon in Canada. KLM did not place an order for the aircraft.

The Cause

The Proteus 705 turboprop - used in prototype G-ALRX
(Rolls Royce via www.aviationarchive.org.uk)
When the mud extinguished the fire, it also preserved the evidence of the problem. This was found to be a failure of the reduction gear of the no. 3 engine. A pinion at the front of the propeller shaft had been stripped of its teeth. The revolutionary Proteus turboprop engine had a free turbine design, so the reduction gear failure left the propeller turbine unloaded. In this state it rapidly oversped, and eventually disintegrated in an explosion. The fire was caused by shrapnel piercing the engine oil tank, and igniting the oil. The reduction gear was later redesigned and installed in subsequent aircraft. The straight teeth on the offending pinion were replaced with helical teeth. The cause of the shutdown of engines no. 1 and 2 was due to a short circuit, caused by the fire.

Examination of engine number 3 started shortly after the crash landing
(Bristol via www.aviationarchive.org.uk)
Had it not been for the piloting skills of Bill Pegg and the engineering skills of the two engineers, Fitzgerald and Jones, the flight would surely have ended in disaster, with loss of life. The only injury during the whole episode was a minor head wound on the radio operator, however Ken Fitzgerald was rushed to hospital later as his wife had gone into labour!

New Career


With no hope of repair, G-ALRX was returned to Filton in sections, and started a new career as a training airframe. Much of the main fuselage, the landing gear, flaps and other parts were sectioned for instructional use, and the aft fuselage was used for torsion and fatigue tests. The refurbished forward fuselage became a flight deck trainer, and was used by the Bristol Aeroplane Company's Air Service School to train customer airline crews. This included Royal Air Force crews, who completed the manufacturers course as the first part of their training on the Brit. Between its inception in 1956 and Spring 1971, it had been used to give some 6,000 aircrew (4,500 civil and 1,500 RAF) their introduction to the aircraft.

A Bristol publicity shot of the Aircraft Demonstration Hall at Filton. The cockpit of the Britannia fuselage was hooked up to several items around the hall (Bristol)
With no further use for the Britannia, Bristol wished to cease their Britannia training programme, so the Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Brize Norton assumed responsibility for all training. The nose section, having proved such a useful training aid at Filton, was acquired and move to Brize. It was located alongside the OCU, and could be entered from the Systems lecture room. The acquisition of the facility was enhanced by the fact that the Britannia Simulator proper was located at RAF Lyneham, the original home of the RAFs Britannia fleet. Moving that to Brize Norton was not possible. This prompted the challenge to make the nose section flight deck more realistic, and a considerable amount of ingenious and non-standard work was carried out with some measure of success. The modification was enhanced by the increase in the number of 'real' instruments and controls, allying the flight deck to the RAF version, by utilising parts from the RAF Britannia that ran off the end of the runway at RAF Khormaksar, Aden in 1967 (XL638). It was during this period that the fuselage section gained a RAF style 'lightning flash', carried on all RAF Britannias.

The cockpit of 'RX
(Andrew Appleton)
In 1975 the RAF's Britannia fleet was retired, with aircraft parked up at RAF Saint Athan and RAF Kemble. However, the Aircraft and Armaments Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) continued as a Britannia operator, with XX367 acquired in 1971. G-ALRX now found its way to the MoD base at Boscombe Down, at the hands of the pilots and engineers of Air Transport Flight, B Squadron. When the Boscombe Britannia was sold in 1984, 'RX continued to prove useful, this time as an escape chute trainer with the Aeromedical and Safety Training School, another part of the A&AEE at Boscombe Down. It was mounted on stilts, and was clearly visible from the main A303 road from London to Somerset. It served its training role until 1994, when it was replaced by a purpose built training facility.

Preservation

 
Given its historic significance, the nose section of G-ALRX was donated to the Britannia Aircraft Preservation Trust, and was moved initially to the Bristol Aero Collections temporary home at Banwell, near Weston-super-Mare, in December 1995. When a more permanent home was found for the Collection at Kemble the following year, the Britannia was moved along with other important Bristol artefacts.

'RX at Kemble in 1997
(Andrew Appleton)
The forward fuselage remained on display to the public, and was restored by volunteers from the Bristol Aero Collection. In 2003, the RAF style lightning flash colour scheme was replaced with an authentic early 1950s BOAC livery, identical to the one it carried during its brief flying career. The repaint was completed in time for its 50th Birthday, on 23rd December 2003.
'RX in its original colours at Kemble in 2008 (Andrew Appleton)
The Bristol Aero Collection closed its doors in May 2012 and placed its exhibits in store at Filton. Plans are now well underway to build a museum and learning centre on the former airfield at Filton, which should open in 2017. 'RX will be an important artefact in the museum, named the Bristol Aerospace Centre. On 23rd December 2013, on its 60th birthday, ownership of the Britannia was transferred from the BAPT to the Bristol Aero Collection Trust, and its future is now assured just a short distance from where it first flew in 1953.
'RX in 2014, back in the Brabazon hangar at Filton, where it was built over 60 years before (Andrew Appleton)


If reproducing this article, please credit Britannia Aircraft Preservation Trust/Andrew Appleton.

Credits - Andrew Appleton, 'Bristol Britannia', by Charles Woodley; 'Bristol Aircraft Since 1910', by C.H.Barnes; 'Bristol Aircraft', by Robert Wall; www.aviationarchive.co.uk; Roger Hargreaves