Bristol Aeroplane Company

Following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed and troubled projects from around the world.

Bristol Aeroplane Company – UK
Project name : Bristol Brabazon
Project type : Aircraft design and development
Date : 1949 (filed under historical failures)
Cost :
 £12M (1949 costs) – £350M (2012 inflation adjusted cost)

Synopsis :
Project failure is by no means a new phenomena. The mistakes that lead to today’s failed projects are mistakes than have been made throughout history. The Bristol Brabazon project is a classic example of what can happen when decision makers fail to understand requirements and when they fail to see how a disruptive technology may be about to change the business landscape.

In the 1940’s the UK undertook a large scale project to design and develop a set of commercial aircraft that would serve the needs of the British Empire after WWII had come to an end. The design process was lead by a committee (the Brabazon Committee), headed by John Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara. Brabazon was a former UK Minister of Transportation and had a long history in aviation. As such he did have the necessary credentials to lead the effort.

To server different needs the committee proposed a number of designs. Of the designs proposed, the flagship was the Bristol Brabazon. An aircraft designed to carry 100 passengers in comfort on long-haul routes such as London to New York. Unfortunately the design committee failed to properly engage stakeholders such as the airlines and as a result produced a design that failed to match market needs or expectations.

Bristol Brabazon

The Bristol Brabazon
source wIki commons

The critical mistakes made by the committee were: a) basing the requirements for the aircraft on the pre-war passenger demographics and b) believing that pre-war technology would still be financially viable after the war had ended. Prior to the war commercial air passengers were either very wealthy people or diplomats flying to outposts of the British Empire. In designing the new aircraft Brabazon and the committee assumed that this same demographic would make up the majority of the paying passengers after the war. As a result the aircraft was designed to provide luxury accommodations and a significant amount of space per passenger. In addition, the design used the traditional internal combustion engines that had powered aircraft prior to the war.

Although the aircraft was successfully built and test flown, it proved to be a commercial failure. Airlines failed to order a single aircraft and even the Government owned BOAC (British Overseas Airline Corporation) did not show any interest in the aircraft. In part the problem was that the design misread the needs of the airlines and in part the problem was that the design used old technology. At the time the jet engine was beginning to emerge as a viable technology and by the time the Brabazon first flew pioneering jetliners such as the Avro Canada C102 and de Havilland Comet were already in flight testing. The Brabazon’s 250 Mph cruise speed was no match for the 450 Mph speed of the jet powered aircraft and following a number of test flights, the Brabazon was scrapped.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Failure to recognize changing market needs and the impact of disruptive technology. Key design decisions made without fully exploring the requirements of the airlines or evaluating the needs of the post war commercial aviation sector.

Note: The Brabazon committee was fully aware of the potential of the jet engine. Geoffrey de Havilland (head of the de Havilland aircraft company that was developing the Comet) was a member of the committee and he actively advocated for the use of jet engines. The Comet was eventually adopted as part of the committee’s plan, but development of Brabazon continued in parallel with the Comet.  The Comet did go on to be a partial success, although as a project, the Comet project itself can be viewed as a troubled project.

Reference links :

  1. Bristol Brabazon – Wikipedia page