Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52
British experimental tailless aircraft

Archive Photos ¹

[Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 experimental aircraft (Barbers Teas card image via the Skytamer Archive) ¹]

Overview ²

  • Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52
  • Role: Experimental aircraft
  • Manufacturer: Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft
  • Designer: John Lloyd
  • First flight: 13 November 1947
  • Retired: 1954
  • Primary user: Royal Aircraft Establishment
  • Number built: 2

The Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 was a British flying wing aircraft design of the late 1940s for research into a proposed flying wing airliner. Three aircraft were built to support the program; the A.W.52G glider and two jet powered research aircraft. Further development of the airliner was discontinued, but research flying continued until 1954.

History and Design ²

Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft proposed a jet-powered six or four-engine flying wing airliner design, utilizing a laminar flow wing, during the Second World War. This had to be a large aircraft in order to provide passenger head-room within the wing. The low-speed characteristics of the design were tested on a 53 ft 10 in (16.41 m) span wooden glider known as the A.W.52G; the glider was designed to be roughly half the size of the powered A.W.52, which in turn would be about half the size of the final airliner. Construction of the AW.52G began in March 1943, with the glider making its maiden flight, towed by an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber, on 2 March 1945. Flight testing, with tug releases from 20,000 ft (6,096 m) giving flights of around 30 min continued, mostly satisfactorily until 1947. In 1944, Armstrong Whitworth received a contract that would allow them to produce two A.W.52 prototypes for evaluation, nominally as mail carrying aircraft.

The A.W.52 was intended for high speeds and was an all-metal turbojet-powered aircraft with a retractable undercarriage, but aerodynamically had much in common with the glider. Both were moderately-swept flying wings with a center section having a straight trailing edge. The wings carried small (not full chord) end-plate fin and rudders at their extremities. The rudders operated differentially, with a greater angle on the outer one. Roll and pitch were controlled with elevons that extended inward from the wingtips over most (in the case of the A.W.52 about three-quarters) of the outer, swept part of the trailing edge. The elevons moved together as elevators and differentially as ailerons. They were quite complicated surfaces - which included trim tabs - and hinged not from the wing but from "correctors," which were themselves wing-mounted. These correctors provided pitch trim. Air was sucked out of a slot just in front of the elevons to delay tip stall by pumps powered by undercarriage-mounted fans on the glider and directly from the engine in the A.W.52. The inner center section wing carried Fowler flaps and the upper surface of the outer section carried spoilers.

Maintenance of laminar flow over the wings was critical to the design and so they were built with great attention to surface flatness. Rather than the usual approach, where skinning is added to a structure defined by ribs, the A.W.52's wings were built in two halves (upper and lower) from the outside in, starting from pre-formed surfaces, adding stringers and ribs then joining the two halves together. The result was a surface smooth to better than 2/1000 of an inch (50 ┬Ám).

The crew sat in tandem in a nacelle so that the pilot was just forward of the wing leading edge, providing a better view than in the glider. The pressurized cockpit was slightly off-set to port. The engines were mounted in the wing center section, close to the center line and so not disturbing the upper wing surface.

The first prototype flew on 13 November 1947 powered by two Rolls-Royce Nene engines which each provided a thrust of 5,000 lbf (22.2 kN). This was followed by the second prototype on 1 September 1948 with the lower-powered (3,500 lbf/15.5 kN) Rolls Royce Derwent. Trials were disappointing: laminar flow could not be maintained, so maximum speeds, though respectable, were less than expected. As in any tailless aircraft, take-off and landing runs were longer than for a conventional aircraft (at similar wing loadings) because at high angles of attack, downward elevon forces were much greater than those of elevators with their large moment.

The first prototype crashed without loss of life on 30 May 1949, making it the first occasion of an emergency ejection by a British pilot. Despite the termination of development, the second prototype remained flying with the Royal Aircraft Establishment until 1954.

The Accident ²

On 30 May 1949, while diving the first prototype at 320 mph (515 km/h), test pilot J.O. Lancaster encountered a pitch oscillation believed to be caused by elevon flutter. Starting at two cycles per second, it rapidly increased to incapacitating levels. With structural failure seemingly imminent, Lancaster ejected from the aircraft using its Martin-Baker Mk.1 ejection seat, becoming the first British pilot to use the apparatus in a "live" emergency. It was fortunate that he was alone in the aircraft as the second crew member was not provided with an ejection seat.

Operators ²

  • United Kingdom: Royal Aircraft Establishment

Specifications (TS 363, Nene powered) ³

General Characteristics

  • Crew: 2, pilot and navigator-wireless operator
  • Capacity: 4,000 lb (300 cubic feet)
  • Length: 37 ft 4 in (11.4 m)
  • Wingspan: 90 ft (27.4 m)
  • Height: 14 ft 5 in (4.4 m)
  • Wing area: 1,314 ft² (122 m²)
  • Airfoil: NPL.655-3-218 at root, tapering to NPL.655-3-118 at extremity of the center section and to NPL.654-3-015 at the tips
  • Empty weight: 19,660 lb (8,918 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 34,150 lb (15,490 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Nene centrifugal-flow turbojet, 5,000 lbf (22.2 kN) each


  • Maximum speed: 500 mph (805 km/h) at sea level
  • Range: 980 mi (2,414 km)
  • Service ceiling: 36,000 ft (10,973 m)
  • Rate of climb: 4,800 ft/min (24.4 m/s) at sea level
  • Wing loading: 25.99 lbs/ft² (126.97 kg/m²)
  • Max lift coefficient: 1.6

References ²

  1. Airplane Trading Card images via The Skytamer Archive: Aeroplanes, Barbers Teas, 1956, UK, Card 6 of 25)
  2. Wikipedia. Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52

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