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Blackburn Beverley

The aircraft ‘like something out of the Ark’ in danger of consignment to the history books

AS aircraft designs go, the Blackburn Beverley would never fall into the ‘aesthetically-pleasing’ category, the term brutal may be the most appropriate adjective to describe the 35-tonne transporter.

But, as one of the largest aircraft ever flown by the RAF, it forms part of the service’s distinguished past, and the recent news that the last surviving example is facing the possibility of being scrapped should sadden all those interested in military history.

The Beverley served Transport Command for around a decade starting in 1956, No. 47 Squadron the first unit to receive one of the 49 built – two prototypes plus 47 operational aircraft.

Beverley C.1 of 47 Squadron in 1957
(Beverley C.1 of 47 Squadron in 1957 - 📸 RuthAS)

It was in effect an enormous box for transporting equipment with a large tail boom, each side of the tail plane possessing a large fin and rudder. Access for freight was initially by rear opening doors with a hand-pumped hydraulic ramp, starting life as the GAL.60 Universal (General Aircraft Ltd), the first protype built at its factory in Feltham, Middlesex, before their merger into Blackburn Aircraft.

It was soon decided that Hanworth Aerodrome near to Feltham was unsuitable to test the new aircraft, so it was dismantled and transported 200 miles north to Blackburn’s Brough base and reassembled,

The prototype flew from East Yorkshire on June 20, 1950 before it was officially unveiled at the Farnborough Air Show later that year; there it carried out a slow flypast, performed a short landing and then impressed all present by reversing down the runway.

A bright future for the aircraft appeared assured with testing undertaken at RAF Boscombe Down where it demonstrated its ability to transport heavy loads, with an order for a second prototype made.

The GAL.65 now possessed a 36ft cargo bay with a modified tail boom which could also carry a number of troops, and the rear ramp and doors were replaced by a clamshell operation. Along with improved access, the engines were upgraded to Bristol Centaurs, furnished with reversible-pitch propellers allowing for short-landing distances; along with military equipment, it could now carry around 130 personnel.

A competition among the Brough workforce to name the new aircraft saw the nearby county town of East Yorkshire win the accolade, and by late 1952 a pre-order for 20 of the aircraft from the Air Ministry was received, several months before GAL.65 had even flown.

There were further delays with the first production Blackburn Beverley, XB259, taking off on January 29, 1955, the first operational aircraft arriving at RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire in March 1956.

Initial assessment could be described as mixed with Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Freer describing it as “like something out of the Ark, but a superb supply dropper”. But it was effective at carrying large bulk loads and landing on rough strips of land as well as typical runways, its short landing requirements (310 yards) with a full load a major plus point when operating overseas.

Beverley landing during the Radfan Campaign in 1964

(Beverley landing during the Radfan Campaign in 1964 - 📸 Dick Gilbert)

The Beverley was operated by Nos. 30, 34, 47, 53 and 84 Squadrons, along with No. 242 Operational Conversion Unit, serving in a number of countries including Aden, Kenya, Malaysia and Brunei.

However, it was designed more for transporting equipment with its passengers very much seen as secondary: two locations on the plane for troops to travel in meant those in the upper passenger area had to jump through a hatch in the boom to depart while those in the cargo area could exit through side doors in a more traditional manner.

One particular feature that definitely fell into the after-thought category was the aircraft’s toilets, located in the tail beyond the hatch the troops used to depart the plane. A serviceman using the facilities departed the toilet not knowing that the hatch had been opened, falling 20 feet to his death; modifications were immediately made to ensure the toilet door could not be opened while the hatch was in use.

The most notable accident involving a Blackburn Beverley, however, occurred just a few months into its RAF service, the infamous Sutton Wick air crash on March 5, 1957. The transporter XH117 was carrying members of Nos. 47 and 53 Squadrons, and RAF Police and their military dogs, and had just taken off from Abingdon around 10.40am heading for Akrotiri in Cyprus, when problems with one of its engines soon became apparent, forcing the pilot to shut it down before heading back to the airfield. On its final approach, No. 2 engine failed to respond to throttle inputs and the aircraft began to lose speed and height.

Realising he would be unable to reach the runway at Abingdon, the pilot attempted an emergency landing in a field but the total loss of power made the aircraft uncontrollable, hitting trees and cables before crashing at Sutton Wick, two miles south of Abingdon.

There were 15 on board killed, two civilians on the ground, along with eight RAF police dogs. Four of those on board were thrown clear and survived (one later dying) along with one of the police dogs. The inquiry into the crash discovered that a valve in the fuel system had been installed the wrong way round, leading to the engines being starved of fuel.

Eight other Beverleys were lost in service, two were written off, with the last remaining example, XB259, spending 20 years at Fort Paull, the former military museum near Hull which closed in 2020, just 18 miles from where it was built in Brough.

XB259 Blackburn Beverley C.1
(XB259 Blackburn Beverley C.1 - 📸 Steve Knight)

When Fort Paull shut, XB259 was purchased by a private buyer, Martyn Wiseman, with the support of an anonymous benefactor, with plans to take it apart and reassemble it at another site. The price of moving the Beverley, however, has proved prohibitive, and the aircraft was offered to a number of museums free of charge, but the transports costs, believed to be around £100,000, have proved problematic.

He has launched a crowdfunder, Save the Blackburn Beverley Aircraft, but fears he may be forced to scrap the historical artefact if the owners of St Paull, where it is still located, insist on its removal.

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