Flight Line

Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history

Boeing B-29 or Washington B1? WF442/KO-J of No 115 Squadron, pictured at the RAF Display at Farnborough on 7-8 July 1950.

The initial choice as a name for the A400M was Titan…did someone in the RAF realise the danger of allocating a name containing ‘tit’?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Or would it? What’s in a name? Or, more specifically, what’s in an aircraft name? While manufacturers’ PR departments have, over the years, expended much time and effort in refining a suitable name for their latest aircraft, there is absolutely no proof that this has ever improved its sales prospects or, in the case of a warplane, increased its lethality.

Some of the great names in the British aircraft industry of old had very definite naming schemes. Vickers at Weybridge liked alliteration, hence the Vickers Vimy, Vildebeest, Valiant (a re-use of the name from a 1927 biplane design) and Viscount. By the time it produced its final design, that wonderful rear-engined, four-Conway airliner that served BOAC and British Airways so well, it had seemingly abandoned the convention, preferring instead the prosaic designation VC10 (‘VC’ for ‘Vickers Commercial’). As an aside, the VC10 became one of very few major aircraft types to serve with the RAF without being given a name. A more recent British four-engined transport, the BAe 146, is another.

The RAF refined its naming schemes before adopting a set of guidelines that served it through the Second World War. Fighters were given names suggestive of speed, activity and — may it be said? — manliness, hence Hurricane, Tempest, Meteor, Javelin and Lightning. Bombers were allocated inland place names from the British Empire, such as Wellington, Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster. Flying boat names were selected from coastal towns and ports of the Empire, notable (and memorable) examples including Lerwick, Sunderland and Seaford. Exceptions? Yes, of course there were names allocated that didn’t fit well with any scheme. Imported American types were often given names that reflected the spirit of the system but had American associations. Thus, the Douglas C-47 became the Dakota in RAF service and, post-war, the Boeing B-29 the Washington.

More recently, with the advent of international collaborative development programmes, manufacturers (should that be consortia?) have had to come up with names that are acceptable to all participating countries. Eurofighter initially met resistance to Typhoon, some German opinion being that it revived memories of Hawker’s piston-engined fighter and its considerable success against German ground forces in the final years of World War Two. Eventually, Typhoon it was, but this was slow to gain general acceptance. I remember some years ago visiting the Spanish fighter base at Morón and asking a pilot there whether Typhoon was a name used in Spanish Air Force circles. “No”, he replied, convincingly, although I noticed he was wearing on his flight suit a patch proclaiming, ‘EF-2000 Typhoon Instructor’.

The RAF had at least one rethink before giving the name Atlas to its new fleet of Airbus A400Ms. The initial choice was Titan, a moniker suitably suggestive of size, importance and strength. An earlier RAF transport, the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, had been nicknamed the ‘whistling wheelbarrow’ or ‘whistling tit’ because of the sound of its four Rolls-Royce Darts, its twinboom layout and the prominent radome on its nose. Did someone in the RAF realise in time the danger of allocating the A400M a name containing ‘tit’?

I’ll end by mentioning an anniversary. It was on 16 January 1968, almost exactly 50 years ago as you read this (if, indeed, you do read this) that the government cancelled its order for the General Dynamics F-111K, an aircraft intended to give the RAF a viable supersonic strike capability following the earlier abandonment of the TSR2. I believe that no name was ever allocated to the F-111K for the RAF. Or does any reader know otherwise?