These days four engine jetliners are a rarity at local airports. Sure the Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, is still flying and relevant today along with the Airbus A380 and even the Airbus A340. Those days are quickly coming to an end. But it’s no surprise flying two engines is less expensive than four, with engine and aerodynamic technology having continued to push the limits while requiring less fuel and less maintenance as a result. So why on earth would an aircraft manufacturer begin designing and pitching a four-engine short haul airliner? It’s complicated.
Hawker Siddeley, competing against not only Fokker, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, but also homegrown manufacturer British Aircraft Corporation, was looking to develop the next generation of short haul aircraft. For nearly twenty years, many different ideas and iterations of short haul aircraft bounced around internally, ultimately to settle on what would become the HS146, now known as the British Aerospace (BAe) 146 series of aircraft. Hawker Siddeley was working on an aircraft that would appeal to state-owned carriers operating in less than ideal conditions, such as unpaved fields and more rural areas. But rather than a prop aircraft, it was working on a short-haul jetliner.
This aircraft could operate completely independent of ground service vehicles. Baggage compartments were waist high for ground crew, the aircraft could be optioned with airstairs, eliminating the need for additional vehicles and complexity, and operate from remote fields fully contained. And, with four jet engines, a loss of an engine wouldn’t mean an immediate return trip to the airport, nor the concern that a two-engine aircraft (with a loss of engine) would have: only 50% power remaining. With four engines, a loss would mitigate to a loss of only 25%. There was only one problem: these state-owned carriers often didn’t have the financial ability to support buying not only a jet aircraft, but a brand-new jet aircraft. There was also a second problem that was going to burst onto the scene and shut down any airlines ability to consider a four engine jet: The oil crisis of 1973.
By 1974, the crisis was in full swing because of the support Israel was getting from the United States due to the Yom Kippur War. A barrel of oil tripled in cost by the end of the year, and there was no sign of it slowing down. This was the worst possible time to launch a four-engine jetliner.
Between homegrown political battles to keep the project alive and the manufacturers insistence it terminate, ultimately Hawker Siddeley won and the HS146 was terminated. But in the long run this came back and bit Britain’s aviation industry hard, with the government fed up of bailing out various aerospace manufacturers including Rolls Royce with the RB211 and the Concorde debacle.
By 1977, the British government nationalized the aerospace industry under the 1977 Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries act in an attempt to save Britain from losing these industries. Enter the new formed British Aerospace, where the government would fund and ultimately divest itself of its shares, concluding by 1985 its complete divesture of British Aerospace who would become a publicly owned and traded entity.
1977 saw the new board of directors argue about restarting the HS146 or continuing on with the BAC Two-Eleven. Political considerations at play ensured the HS146 would continue on, and the BAC Two-Eleven would never make it off the drawing board. With the company now moving forward with full scale development and manufacturing, the world would yet change again, starting in the United States. Enter deregulation, where airlines were now free to fly and charge whatever they wanted.