Bristol Type 175 “Britannia” – The British Revival

Had the Britannia appeared in 1950, when it was faster than every American aircraft, it would have put the British at the forefront of commercial aviation sales. Now, competing with the Boeing 707, the turboprop airliner had become passé.

Peter Pigott about the Britannia.

The developing World War II saw the UK manufacturing companies forced to focus on military development and production leaving the scene of the civilian aircraft progresses to the overseas competitors. To partially contain this technological gap, the 1943 Brabazon’s Committee called for several aircrafts standards to fulfill Britain’s civilian aviation needs. Bristol Aeroplane Company won, among other, the Type III contract.

BOAC requirements for MRE (Medium Range Empire) aircraft, coinciding with Type III of the Brabazon’s Committee, called for an airliner seating 48 passengers and powered by Bristol Centaurus or Napier Nomad engines. In July 1948, BOAC and the MoS committee, approved the project of Bristol assigning a company project number “Type 175”. Although at the time unknown to anyone, the way for the first post-war British-built long range airliner was paved.


The initial design was strictly developed to accommodate the Type III requirements and the BOAC need to operate the Karachi-Cairo route, hence limiting passengers to 48 to allow for the maximum fuel to be on board and complete the route. However, in November 1948 the design revised to accommodate a longer fuselage allowing up to 74 passengers and a longer wing span, this design change prompted the manufacturer to offer the aircraft as a long-range transatlantic aircraft instead of a medium range aeroplane.

BOAC, fairly happy with the development change raised and asked the aircraft to be fitted with the new turboprop engines Bristol Proteus, despite their initial stage design status. This will, in the end, pose huge challenges on the project and delay the production by quite some time.

In the meantime, the project was nicknamed “Britannia” by Bristol and at the beginning of 1950s the first couple of prototypes, equipped with the only test-tried Proteus 600 series engine (the Proteus 625), designated as Britannia 101 became ready for the certification process.


Bristol Britannia first prototype on ground. (c) BAe Systems

On August 16, 1952 the prototype G-ALBO first flown from Filton Aerodrome. Unlucky as it was, this first test flight shown a wide series of issues and flaws with the design. Flight controls were extremely over-sensitive and during the approach to land the cockpit filled up with smoke from a defective landing gear actuator that, just seconds before landing, finally fully extended.

After a run to fix the “snags”, Bristol was able to setup a flying prototype by the Autumn of 1952 when she was presented to the public at the Farnborough Air Show.

1953 and 1954 proved to be really hard years for the UK aircraft manufacturers, some mysterious and unexplained accident happened to the Comet fleet worldwide prompted the Air Ministry to ask Bristol Britannia to undergo lengthy tests on the road to the final certification.

Several engines issues were discovered during the test flight campaign and one of the prototypes (G-ALRX) was destroyed in a force landing due to engine issues in 1956. This delayed the entry into service of the fleet to December 1957, roughly two years later than supposed.


Bristol Britannia G-ALBO aerial view. (c) BAe Systems

Reactions to the new British aircraft were universally good and in 1956 Peter Masefield flew G-ANBJ in a World Tour aimed to promote the new aircraft worldwide! Especially American’s and Australian’s airlines were really interested into the model with TWA and Easter Airlines placing orders for several units.

Bristol, not ready to receive such a volume of orders, could not fulfil the request within the required time frame. This would set deliveries at the end of the 1950s where the new promising jet aircraft were supposed to enter the market.

The delays, in the end, proved to be the biggest challenge for a very perfect plane on the market.


Bristol Britannia of British Eagle in 1950s (c) BAe Systems

In service, the elegant Bristol 175 Britannia was advertised as ‘The Whispering Giant’.

Stretched developments were offered for all cargo (Bristol Britannia 200), passenger cargo (Bristol Britannia 250) and all passenger operations (Bristol Britannia 300).

BOAC selected the Bristol Britannia 300 for the trans-Atlantic route, leading to additional orders from El Al and Canadian Pacific. The Bristol 175 Britannia 301 was first flown on 31st July 1956 whilst the Bristol Britannia 310, with increased fuel capacity, flew in December of the same year.

The first Bristol 175 Britannia service from London to New York was flown in December 1957.

At the end on 1962, BOAC, retired 14 of the earlier Bristol Britannia from the fleet, most of them was less than 5 years in service.

The planes were taken over by many independent operators in UK and proved to be good workhorses for several years to come.

Canadian Canadair built some variants of the Bristol Britannia under license, some of those were equipped with piston engines for different uses and are still flying today.

85 Bristol 175 Britannia aircraft were built, including those sub-contracted to Short Bros. & Harland Ltd in Belfast. Canadair built 33 Argus as well as a total of 39 Yukon and CL-44D. Although troubled initially by engine icing, the Bristol 175 Britannia eventually proved itself to be safe and robust in service. 

The limited production total of 85 aircraft reflects the emergence and success of jet engine airliners during the 1950s, most notably the Boeing 707 which dominated long distance passenger routes.


According to Aviation Safety Network, a total of 18 occurrences involving Bristol Britannia of which 14 hull-loss are recorded into the database.