There is one thing that you can’t deny about British aircraft designers in the Cold War period, and that is they were not afraid of innovation. Some aircraft sadly did fall flat on their feet, like the Bristol Brabazon. But that is for another time. But then there are some aircraft that innovate and become legends and classic aircraft, such as the Avro Vulcan. Then there are aircraft that fall somewhere inbetween. Aircraft that showed a lot of potential but, for various reasons, never made it well and truly off the ground.

One of those aircraft was the Fairey Rotodyne. This incredible machine looked like something between a helicopter and regular aircraft, and showed a lot of promise during early testing. Officially it was known as a hydroplane, and it was set to revolutionize air travel within urban areas, could potentially be used with the military too. But various reasons such as politics and a lack of orders meant the Rotodyne, for want of a better phrase, never got off the ground. Which is a shame, given the potential it had shown during its testing program.

Design And Development Of The Rotodyne

Fairey Rotodyne Side View In Flight
via History Net

The Fairey company was quite intrigued by the idea of rotary-wing aircraft, a phenomenon that can trace its roots back to the 1930s and aircraft, but Fairey were the first to really explore the concept with the FB-1 Gyrodyne. Following testing of this and the upgraded Jet Gyrodyne in the late 1940s, British European Airways formulated a requirement for a passenger-carrying rotocraft that could serve as a short term hauler, effectively like a helicopter but with larger passenger capacity and more speed. Various proposals were submitted but it was the Fairey one that showed the most promise.

Fairey Rotodyne Under Construction
via Ars Technica

In April 1953, the Ministry of Supply contracted Fairey with the building of a prototype of the Rotodyne. The idea was a novel one. The main powerplant were two Napier Eland N.EI.7 turboprop engines. Unlike in a helicopter, though, the blades were not propelled via a single engine. The two Napier engines were mounted on small, stubby wings while the propellors had four rotor tip jets on them, one on each tip, and these spun the blades round. These could then be switched off when the Rotodyne was in normal flight. They would be switched on again during landing of the Rotodyne.

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Initial Promise During Testing

Fairey Rotodyne In Flight In London
via Helis

The initial promise that the Rotodyne showed was very promising during testing. The idea of an aircraft that could fly people to destinations within cities, potentially to airports to link up with airliners for longer flights, was quite appealing. Direct city-to-city transport was also becoming highly appealing, putting the Rotodyne in what was called the medium-haul “flying bus” market. And soon, Fairey would get orders for their new aircraft. BEA announced they intended to buy six and potentially take that number up to 20 aircraft.

Fairey Rotodyne In Flight
via This Day In Aviation

Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force placed an order for 12 military versions of the Rotodyne while New York Airways signed a letter of intent to buy five of the aircraft at $2 million each. And this also had an option for another 15 more of the aircraft. The American Army was also apparently interested, and Japan had looked to use some examples on the Tokyo-Osaka route. The Rotodyne could carry more people than a helicopter and bring costs down, from 20-30 cents a seat mile to just four cents. However, things soon started to unravel for the Rotodyne.

Where Things Went Wrong For The Rotodyne

Fairey Rotodyne Flying Under The Westland Name
via Research Gate

As you have probably already worked out, things did not go to plan with the Rotodyne. Firstly, the noise from the tip jets was already set to become a nuisance. They made a huge amount of noise, which would be a big problem in the middle of the city. But Fairey developed quieter tip jets, so that wasn’t the reason the project was canceled. But soon, Britain’s aviation industry was streamlined, amalgamating multiple companies into one, and the Rotodyne was a victim of this reshuffling as Fairey became part of Westland. Issues trying to find more powerful turboprop engines also didn’t help matters, and orders soon started to be canceled. And in 1962, funding was pulled by the British government. And thus the Rotodyne simply disappeared, with just fragments of it now on display.

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A Potential Missed Opportunity

Fairey Rotodyne Parked With Its Crew
via BBC

The cancellation of the project highlighted two things. One, that Britain’s aircraft industry was a bit of a mess at the time with so many projects on the go. And two, that the government were also quite short-sighted. Because the concept of the Rotodyne is one that now sounds quite good. A medium-sized, mid-hauler for city-to-city travel and one that can carry a good number of passengers. On the face of it, the Rotodyne might well have been a missed opportunity. But we can only now say that with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but the Rotodyone could have ushered in a new era for commercial aviation.

Sources: Wikipedia, History Net, Ars Technica, Helis, This Day In Aviation, Research Gate, BBC

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