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Armstrong Whitworth Argosy

The Hercules predecessor less than affectionately known as the Whistling Wheelbarrow

IN the late 1950s, the RAF was struggling to find suitable replacements for the Vickers Valetta and Handley Page Hasting, so a decision was made to procure an aircraft that had previously been rejected due to what was perceived to be a lack of funds.

The Armstrong Whitworth Argosy was rather unaffectionately nicknamed the ‘Whistling Wheelbarrow’ (among other monikers), an aircraft that definitely didn’t fall into the graceful category, much in the same way as another transporter of the time, the Blackburn Beverley. The front view of an Argosy, with a dark painted nose radome, bears a strong resemblance to a cartoon dog – think Banana Splits for those that remember the 1970s children’s TV show.

But good looks mean little at 20,000 feet and the RAF was in urgent need of a design capable of carrying troops and cargo over distances, the Argosy fitting the bill, historically becoming the last aircraft to carry the Armstrong Whitworth (AW) name (AW’s air division dated back to 1913, originally at a factory in the north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne where 250 BE2cs were built for use in WWI).

When the RAF decided the Argosy wasn’t financially viable in the mid-1950s, AW continued with the project on a private venture basis, helped by the financial muscle of the Hawker Siddeley Company. The initial requirement was to build a high wing, four-engine general purpose aircraft able to carry a load of 25,000lb; the RAF stated requirement was for a range of 2,000 miles carrying 10,000lb.

A prototype, AW650 Argosy (G-AOZZ), first flew at Bitteswell in Leicestershire on January 8, 1959, the Argosy recognisable by its pod fuselage and twin tailboom layout, with civilian orders coming from both the UK (British European Airways) and the US (Riddle Airlines).

By now the RAF had renewed its interest in the Argosy, drawing up a new specification for a military version of the AW650 to serve as medium-range transporter, designated the AW660, distinguished by a nose radome, ‘clam-shell’ rear loading doors capable of opening during flight for dropping supplies, and altering the front section to seal shut the opening nose door of the civilian version. Additional fuel tanks were fitted to increase the range of the aircraft, the four Dart engines also improved to increase their power, with other additions made to improve detection of potentially enemy aircraft.

The AW660 first flew on March 4, 1961, the new version capable of carrying an all-up weight (AUW) maximum of around 105,000lbs: up to 69 fully-equipped troops or military equipment up to 29,000lbs. It had a cruising speed of 269mph and a range of just over 1,000 miles with maximum fuel, down to 345 miles with maximum payload. It entered RAF service in May and June 1962 with Nos. 114 and 267 Squadrons at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, and with No 105 Squadron, operating the Argosy from RAF Khormaksar in Aden.

In 1963, No 215 Squadron were handed Argosies at RAF Changi in Singapore, retaining the aircraft for four years before being disbanded on December 31, 1967 – their Argosies reallocated to No. 70 Squadron at Akrotiri in Cyprus.

Argosy C.1 of No. 70 Squadron in 1971
(Argosy C.1 of No. 70 Squadron in 1971 - 📸 RuthAS)

By this time the aircraft industry had undergone a rationalisation, the new aircraft now rebranded as the Hawker Siddeley Argosy E Mk 1. In January 1964, the Argosies of 105 Squadron were used to transport troops from the Staffordshire Regiment from Aden to Entebbe to counter a mutiny by the Ugandan Army; later in the same year, 105 Squadron aircraft supported army units during fighting with dissidents in the Radfan area north of Aden.

Like many transport aircraft, the Argosy had a good safety record, but on May 7, 1968, 11 people were killed in a crash in Libya. Approaching Got-El-Afrag desert airstrip near Derna, XR133, operated by a crew from 267 Squadron, a request was made to complete a low pass in order to check the landing gear was down: however, at a low height, while attempting to complete a turn to the right, the wing was believed to have struck the ground causing the aircraft to crash with the resultant explosion killing all eleven on board – four crew and seven passengers.

Despite limitations with its transport capabilities, the Argosy served the RAF for 13 years in the role, the final military transport flight taking place in 1975, that job taken over by the Hercules. Ahead of its transport role officially ending, plans were in place for an overhaul of 14 of the aircraft as Navigation Trainers for RAF Training Command, replacing the Vickers Varsity. Aircraft XP411 was re-designated as the Argosy T Mk1 in advance of delivery of the new fleet, work carried out at RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland by No. 23 Maintenance Unit early in 1974. However, only two aircraft were modified as Argosy T.2s before the programme was abandoned due to defence spending cuts.

Argosy E.1 of No. 115 Squadron in 1977

(Argosy E.1 of No. 115 Squadron in 1977  - 📸 RuthAS)

Following the ending of the transport role for the Argosy, the aircraft remained in service with No. 115 Squadron for a further three years until 1978 at RAF Cottesmore, an E.1 variant used in a calibration role.

The official last flight of an Argosy in RAF service took place on January 20, 1978, a return journey from Brize Norton to Cottesmore, and in total over nearly 16 years it served with six squadrons, three at home and three overseas, along with No. 242 Operation Conversion Unit and No. 6 Flying Training School. A total of 56 of the military versions of the aircraft were constructed along with around 27 for civilian freight work which continued until 1991: the last commercial Argosy was flown by American cargo airline Duncan Aviation.

Today there are believed to be six remaining Argosy airframes and one cockpit: one at Woodbourne Airport in New Zealand, two in the US, three airframes in the UK, including one at the RAF Museum at Cosford, and a cockpit at Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire.

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