It had a greater wingspan than a Boeing 747 and was first flown in 1949 - this is the story of the Bristol Brabazon.
Built for elegance, style and splendor, in the late forties, the 230ft wingspan Brabazon was the largest aircraft that had ever existed. It was the result of a desire for grandeur and technological advances that made it possible.The dream became a reality, but was it too late?
The Technological Challenge of the Age
With a length of 177ft and a wingspan the same as London's Waterloo Bridge, the gigantic Brabazon wasn't a straightforward project. It was bigger than anything that had flown before. It also weighed a staggering 130,000kg. To put this into perspective, a fully loaded B-17 weighed around 24,500kg.
A critical issue with the design, that the Bristol engineers just had to get right, surrounded the powerplant required to get the airplane into the sky and cruising at 250mph. The plane was built at a point in time where turboprops and jet turbines for airliners were still in their infancy. Instead, the aircraft company had to resort to eight-piston engines which drove four counter-rotating propellers. Although it just about worked, this setup was an engineering nightmare and quite impractical. They also ended up providing poorer performance than expected. The aircraft was meant to cruise at 250mph but ended up falling short of that target by around 100mph - not great for a transatlantic aircraft.
The concept of the Brabazon as an airliner was somewhat different to how we think about air travel today. The aircraft was, quite literally, made to imitate an ocean liner; travel would be luxurious, spacious and relaxing. You could enjoy all the same comforts as traveling by ship, aside from taking a stroll about the decks.
Today, it's almost unthinkable that air travel could be this opulent. There were sleeping cabins (actual rooms like a hotel), a gallery and a dining cabin. Perhaps the most unbelievable was the inclusion of an entire cinema in the rear of the fuselage! Talk about in-flight entertainment.
A Humongous White Elephant
Sadly, the Brabazon was built for an era that no longer existed in the late 1940s. Travel posters of huge flying boats and luxury airliners were replaced with advents for affordable transport for the masses. As technology caught up with the grand aspirations for the future, society decided they wanted something else and the Brabazon was consigned to the history books.
It's unsurprising in many ways that this was the outcome of the Brabazon story. The aircraft was designed to carry just 100 people at a time across the Atlantic. No airlines placed an order instead deciding to purchase smaller airplanes that carried more people. In 1953, the Bristol aircraft company called it a day and the sole Brabazon that had been built was scrapped.
News Reel Footage
If you'd like to see what this monster looked like in flight, here's a great bit of newsreel footage. It shows the very first flight of the giant airplane in 1949.
Article by James Whomsley
Editor of FliteTest.com