Sleek and silver – Britain's futuristic victor in the World Air Speed Record
This is the Fairey Delta 2, which in March 1956 became the last British aircraft to break the World Air Speed Record and the first in the world to exceed 1,000mph in level flight. Its intrepid pilot was Lieutenant Commander Peter Twiss, and the speed of 1,132mph – twenty miles a minute – was a stunning 310mph faster than the existing record, set the previous year by an American plane and pilot.
In the late 1940s, Britain was lagging behind in supersonic aircraft design. To redress this situation, the Ministry of Supply issued a specification for a research aircraft for investigation into flight and control at transonic and supersonic speed, and Fairey Aviation got the contract.
Sir Robert Lickley led design and development of the Fairey Delta 2, which was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet and featured a very thin, delta-shaped wing and a forward fuselage that could be drooped ten degrees to improve the pilot's visibility during taxying, take-offs and landings. Flying during a period that many regard as the most exciting in aviation history – a time when there seemed no limit to what was possible – Peter Twiss and the Fairey Delta 2 will be forever associated with British excellence in the air.
“There was no sensation of speed,” Twiss recalled shortly after, but he was hardly comfortable. Though the outside temperature was 60 degrees below zero, air friction over the plane’s skin had caused the temperature inside to rise to more than 100 degrees, and he was perspiring.
Twiss was an outstanding former wartime Fleet Air Arm pilot. But his airmanship in wartime was evenly matched in peacetime, and the Fairey Delta 2 is central to his story. He was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for coaxing it back to its Boscombe Down, Wiltshire base from 30,000 feet when fuel starvation caused total engine failure and rendered it a potentially deadly high-speed glider. Twiss somehow managed an unpowered, wheels-up landing with no hydraulic pressure and the nose still in its undrooped position – a remarkable feat. This close shave did not shake his confidence that here was an aircraft capable of greatness, and so it proved.
When his time with the aircraft was finally over, in 1960 Peter Twiss joined the Fairey company's marine division. He pursued his love of speed by competing in powerboat racing. He also took part in two films: Sink the Bismarck! and the James Bond feature From Russia With Love.
Two Fairey Delta 2s were built, at the company's works in Stockport. The type's maiden flight took place on the 6th of October 1954. While much of the flight-test programme was conducted at the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault's airfield at Cazaux, not far from Bordeaux, for the record attempt a nine-mile-long course was established just inland of England's south coast, between Chichester and Ford, with the aircraft flying at 38,000 feet.
If you want to see a Fairey Delta 2 today, one is displayed at the RAF Museum Cosford, near Telford in Shropshire. The actual aircraft that broke the world speed record is displayed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset, although its appearance has changed considerably, as it was modified in the early 1960s for flight-testing of key design features of the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner, which at that time was under development. So radical was the transformation that this Fairey Delta 2 became a type in its own right – the BAC 221.
If you'd like to know more about the air-speed adventure, Peter Twiss wrote an autobiography entitled Faster than the Sun, which is well worth reading. An edition published by Grub Street, ISBN 1-904943-37-3, is readily available.
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