13 June 2015 sees the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Britten-Norman Islander light transport and utility aircraft. The Islander is the most successful British aircraft ever and was created by what could be considered as one of the last British aircraft companies to come into existence, the Britten-Norman Company, or B-N, based at Bembridge Airport on the Isle of Wight. The first flight 50th anniversary will be commemorated by the “Islander 50” event to be held at Bembridge Airport in June, 2015. Bob Wealthy guest reports for GAR.
The Britten-Norman Aircraft Preservation Society Trust is preparing plans for the commemoration event alongside work currently well under way at its Bembridge Harbour workshop to restore the oldest B-N Islander in existence, G-AVCN, construction number 003, as a high-quality static exhibit. The restored Islander will be a tribute to John Britten and Desmond Norman and all who worked with them and the B-N Company over the years to make the Islander an outstanding success for the British Aviation Industry.
Origins of the BN-2 Islander aircraft
The B-N Company evolved from the vision and ambition of particular individuals when two young de Havilland apprentices, John Britten and Desmond Norman, decided to build their own light aircraft in 1949 after they had finished their apprenticeships at the de Havilland Technical School. Thus the B-N partnership came into being. Their first project was the construction of an ultra-light monoplane, the BN1-F Finibee.
During the early 1950s, John Britten and Desmond Norman specialised in converting surplus training aircraft, mainly Tiger Moths, for agricultural use. However by 1954 the demand for these conversions was beginning to decline and attention was turned to improving crop spraying techniques, leading to the development of the Micronair Rotary Atomiser for crop spraying in 1955. The design successfully replaced the clumsy boom-and-nozzle style equipment of the era, and by 1958 over 500 Micronair Rotary Atomiser units had been sold worldwide. In order to operate aircraft fitted with the Atomiser, a company known as Crop Culture (Aerial) Ltd was formed in 1956 when John Britten and Desmond Norman joined up with Frank Mann and Jim McMahon to pursue crop spraying business world wide.
In 1959 B-N and Crop Culture began to study air-cushion vehicles or hovercraft. Design and construction of the Cushioncraft series successfully proceeded through various stages up to the Cushioncraft CC-7, when B-N’s Cushioncraft interests were sold off to the British Hovercraft Corporation. It is interesting to note that in 1965 John Britten and Desmond Norman set up the cross-Solent hovercraft service and became directors of Hovertravel, a company that celebrates its 50 years of successful commercial hovercraft operations in 2015.
In 1963, B-N turned its attention back to aircraft design. For years aircraft manufacturers had focused their design expertise on the quest for more speed, greater range, and bigger payloads, and small commercial aircraft had been overlooked in the process. Private and business aircraft had been designed with an eye to performance and little thought given to their commercial use. John Britten began designing the BN-2 with this in mind, looking for a low-cost “Dragon Rapide”. The BN-2 series had its genesis in the operations of Cameroons Air Transport, a small company set up by B-N in 1960. A scheduled domestic air service was operated by the company between Tiko and Douala, initially with a Piper Apache and later with an Aztec and Dornier Do28. Neither the Apache or Aztec aircraft was particularly well suited to the work due to restricted load space in the cabin. Also their single-engine performance at high ambient temperatures on over-jungle flights was of concern to the authorities. Accordingly, a survey was carried out of all twin engined aircraft available at a cost not exceeding £25,000, but none met the required specification. The conclusion was that an aircraft tailor made for the company’s type of operation, combining short take-off and landing capabilities, with large capacity, simply did not exist. It was felt that they could not be alone in their requirements and that a gap existed in the types of aircraft that were available. As John Britten pronounced, “we must design our own plane to do these chores”.
Following an initial design study, a board level decision was made to go ahead with the BN-2 project in January 1963. Detailed design work began in November 1963, and the decision to proceed with building a prototype was made in January 1964. To supplement its own resources, B-N had contracted the Miles Company at Shoreham to provide the services of a group of designers.
From the outset it was decided to produce a low cost, rugged all-weather aircraft which incorporated the features that had become apparent during the market research. It was shown that twin engined reliability, combined with a good payload, were essential. A small reduction in range was acceptable as the average sector involved flights of 40 minutes’ duration or less.
The prototype BN-2 design that emerged was a high wing, lightly loaded monoplane, powered by two Continental IO-360 210 hp engines, with a fixed tricycle undercarriage and room for up to ten persons. The design was of classic simplicity, with a one piece wing without dihedral. The wing was provided with a degree of “washout” by means of Hoerner-type wing tip sections that served to reduce drag and helped to obtain acceptable stalling characteristics. Frontal area was reduced by arranging the passenger seats in bench-type pairs with no space wasting central aisle. This necessitated three separate doors, two on the port side and one on the starboard, for easy access to the five rows of seats. The port rear door was of extra width for added ease when loading cargo. By using a large wing in conjunction with single slotted flaps and ailerons, the BN-2 was expected to achieve better STOL performance than more expensive and specialised types.
The first metal was cut in September 1964, and work continued rapidly. News of the project was first made public in the same month, when a model was displayed at the SBAC Farnborough Show. At this stage, the project was an entirely private venture, with plans of attaining production of about 30 aircraft per year. While construction proceeded, the company sought Government aid to offset the huge cost of setting up production, and being in the position to be able to quote firm delivery dates. The Transport Aircraft Requirements Committee considered and evaluated the project. There was no delay in manufacturing the prototype and within nine months the BN-2, now registered as G-ATCT, was ready for trial hops in the evening of 12 June and made its first official flight on 13 June 1965. With John Britten and Desmond Norman at the controls and Andy Coombe as flight test observer, the flight was incident free and lasted about 70 minutes. Desmond Norman commented upon landing: “Absolutely delightful, it flies like a fully developed aircraft that has been in service for a couple of years”.
Later that month the BN-2 was christened “Islander”, a name that had been suggested by one of the B-N aircraft fitters as the winning entry in a naming competition organised within the company The efforts of the company’s small but loyal work force were rewarded when the prototype was awarded a Special Category Certificate of Airworthiness, and flew to the Paris Air Salon 1965, four days after the first flight.
Two problems were revealed during the early test flights, one of handling and one of performance. The first was the inability to trim the aircraft fore and aft in all the conditions laid down by the aviation authorities, and this was solved by an increase in elevator trim-tab area. The second was that cruising speed and single-engine climb performance were below estimates. The trouble was due partly to excessive drag, which was cured by extending the wing-span by 4ft, redesigning the engine-nacelle rear fairings and air intakes. The greater part of the problem, however, was related to the power plant. Because of the strength and high lift characteristics of the airframe, the decision was taken to increase the maximum permissible operating weight from 4750lb to 5700lb, and to fit Lycoming O-540 engines. The re-engined prototype first flew on 17 December 1965.
During 1966 certification trials progressed well and the production prototype, c/n 002, G-ATWU, was flown on 20 August 1966 and joined the test programme. To enable the production prototype to appear at the SBAC Farnborough Show in 1966, some 300 B-N employees sacrificed their annual holiday. A new factory, with an area of 56,000 sq. ft., was completed by the end of 1966. Prior to this, fuselages were being produced at B-N’s Bembridge Harbour workshops, and the wings from the original B-N hangar workshop to the south of the Bembridge airfield.
The company suffered a severe setback on 9 November 1966, when the BN-2 prototype, G-ATCT, crashed in Holland on the way back from a demonstration tour of West Germany. The occupants, Peter Hillwood, B-N demonstration pilot, and his passenger Albert Weerda, the prospective representative for Islander sales in Germany, both died in the crash which was believed to have been caused by a loss of control in severe icing conditions that resulted in structural overloading such that the aircraft was operated beyond its stated design limits.
Islander Gets Into Production
The first production Islander, c/n 003, later registered as G-AVCN, had been assembled in the original B-N hangar and not in the newly constructed factory as it appeared to the press. G-AVCN first flew on 24 April 1967, in time to be displayed at the Paris Air Show that year. Some time had been lost due to the prototype’s demise, but with the burden of certification testing being assigned to G-ATWU, full certification was obtained on the 10 August 1967. The first aircraft, G-AVCN, c/n 003, was delivered to Glosair on 13 August and c/n 004 and c/n 006 were delivered to Loganair later the same month, with six more delivered during the remainder of the year.
Sales of the Islander far outstripped the available production capacity at Bembridge and a major production sub-contract was let to Westland Aircraft’s Saunders Roe Division at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Over 300 sets of Islander airframe components were delivered to Bembridge where final assembly and flight testing was undertaken by B-N at their new factory. Subsequently production of bare Islander and later on Defender aircraft was transferred to Romania as a result of a technology transfer agreement associated with setting up production of the BAC 1-11 airliner in Romania. Bembridge remained the centre for final fitting out of the aircraft to customer requirements, flight testing, delivery and support.
The Islander’s sales success was due to its simple and robust design with its capacious fuselage, high wing and fixed undercarriage, its ability to carry up to nine passengers or freight, and of a configuration that was relatively easily adapted for numerous specialist roles – air ambulance, parachuting, photo/geophysical survey and many others. The most revolutionary variant of the BN-2 family is the three engined Trislander that enjoyed around 80% commonality with the Islander. The military version of the Islander, the Defender, launched in 1971, has been used in a multitude of different roles for military and related purposes. Later Turbine powered versions have been developed as the BN-2T Islander and Defender and the BN-2T-4S Defender 4000.
The BN-2 Islander is Europe’s most successful modern light twin-engined aircraft. More than 1,250 BN-2s of various models have been delivered since 1965 and at present around 600 are still operational in 126 countries worldwide. Remarkably the BN-2 design in its various forms has remained in production from 1967 to the present day and will continue to be produced for the foreseeable future.