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1960's ‘Thunderbirds’ projects brought to life

A hypersonic space-plane capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound, a jeep that leapt over enemy blockades, and a commercial aircraft able to take off and land vertically in densely populated cities, are just some of the 1960s inventions unearthed in our archives

The Hypersonic Aircraft

In 1964 the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) designed a hypersonic aircraft capable of flight at five times the speed of sound, nicknamed MUSTARD (Multi-Unit Space Transport And Recovery Device)
The Hypersonic Aircraft

The project would have created the world’s first reusable ‘space plane’, with the cost of development having been estimated as ‘20 to 30 times cheaper’ than that incurred by the expendable rocket systems in use that eventually put man on the moon in 1969.

The aircraft was formed of three separate crewed, delta-winged sections that are launched as a single unit. Two of those would act as boosters and launch the third into space, and then separate before returning to earth like normal aircraft – followed by the third, once its intended mission was complete.

The government decided not to proceed with the project though, prompting Tom Smith - one of the developers - to comment that MUSTARD was too “far ahead of its time”, and that there was “nothing worse than being right at the wrong time.”

The ideas behind that original aircraft can still be seen today in current delta-winged space aircraft such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, XCOR’s Lynx Mk.III as well as early designs for the US Space Shuttle.

The Jumping Jeep

The ‘Jumping Jeep’ was a concept reconnaissance vehicle capable of leaping over obstacles - a 4x4 transporter flanked by 12 vertical lift fans, whose angle could be adjusted dependant on the situation - allowing the jeep to overcome enemy barriers
The Jumping Jeep

Developed by BAC Warton at the request of the British army in the 1960s, the design was an attempt to adapt vertical take-off and landing technology to vehicles and was developed with the Ministry of Defence’s Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment.

The project was cancelled in the mid-1960s, due to assessments that production of the design would be too expensive.

The Fighter Jet Take-Off Platform

The Fighter Jet Take-Off Platform was a concept platform that would rise vertically from the ground, and allow an aircraft to take-off from its back – allowing planes to operate from small airstrips or narrow forest clearings
Fighter Jet Take-Off Platform

English Electric developed the P17A jet to fulfill the purpose of a tactical strike and reconnaissance jet, and rather than attaching a heavy vertical take-off and landing system to the aircraft, they collaborated with Shorts, who created the P17D – a platform that would stay steady above the ground and allow the P17A to take-off from its surface.

With no less than 56 jet engines, the P17D gave the P17A the desired effect of being able to take off from tight spaces. On its own, the P17D would also have been able to fill the role of a VTOL freight transport, able to deliver equipment and supplies to less-accessible locations. It was not, however, picked for further consideration by the Air Ministry at that time due to the complexity of its operation and a lack of available budget.

The Intercity Vertical-Lift Aircraft

The Intercity Vertical-Lift Aircraft design from the Hawker Siddeley company was an attempt to bring vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) to commercial aircraft, to allow airlines to put airports amongst densely-populated cities, open up more direct travel for passengers and to cut down on the amount of space required for airport runways
Intercity Vertical-Lift Aircraft

A number of designs were drawn up over the 1960s, looking very similar to our passenger planes today; however featuring rows of lift fans on either side of the body of the plane.

The project was eventually dropped after it was decided that together with the cost of fuel required to fly the aircraft and the extra load from the frames housing the lift fans, combined with the weight of passengers, could lead to instability in flight. 

VTOL systems inspired by the project are still in use today however, through the F-35 Lightning II, with adaptations of the vertical lift fans having been engineered by BAE Systems to improve some of the most versatile military jets in the world.

Celebrating our heritage

Coinciding with the opening of a new centre to celebrate heritage at our military aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire, some unique documents from the archives have been brought to life through animation to show how the R&D projects might have looked if developed further. The unique designs were produced by engineers in BAE Systems predecessor companies including English Electric, Hawker Siddeley and the British Aircraft Corporation

Howard Mason, Heritage Manager at BAE Systems said “Although 50 years have passed since these extraordinary designs were first put to paper, we can see how some of the technologies and ideas were developed over time and put to use now in aircraft like the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. Aircraft and vehicle engineering involves producing and analysing literally thousands of iterations and whilst today the process is speeded up through the use of computer modelling, it’s fascinating to look through our archives and see what engineers were working on at that time.

“BAE Systems stores more than one million historical documents and artefacts and in addition to celebrating our nation’s engineering achievements, I believe these examples of forward thinking are still inspiring for young people who are thinking about a career in engineering and considering the endless possibilities of what could be designed.” 

Research and development is a hugely important part of our defence, aerospace and security business, we invested £150 million of our own capital in R&D in 2012.