My thanks to Bill Watson for providing much of the information on this page and for the pictures of his team raising one of the engines.
This page is dedicated to the memory of Harry Bailey, Duncan Roberts and Sam McMillan.
The Blackburn B20. It is likely that this is a composite image, airbrushed to show the B20 as it would have appeared in flight.
The Blackburn B20 is one of the least known British aircraft designs of the Second World War. Although the project was abandoned in 1940 its existence was kept hidden until June 1945. What was so special about this aeroplane to warrant this level of secrecy?
Between the World Wars, the design of flying boats had proceeded at a fantastic pace. By the mid-1930s giant four-engined flying boats such as the Shorts "C" class and the Boeing Clipper were on the drawing board. The need to keep the propellers clear of the water meant that such designs had deep fuselages, far from streamlined. One way around this problem was to mount the wings and engines high above the fuselage on a pylon or struts, such as in the Consolidated Catalina and Dornier Wal designs, but such installations still produced drag. In 1936 Major J.D. Rennie, chief seaplane designer for the Blackburn Aircraft Company put forward a revolutionary design to meet Air Ministry Specification R1/36. His radical idea was to have the entire bottom of the flying boat hull able to be extended downwards for landing and be retracted for flight, giving a slim streamlined fuselage and the promise of unprecedented speed for a flying boat. It should be noted that a similar concept had been used in the experimental Ursinus foatplane of 1916, built by Oskar Ursinus. It should also be noted that before designing the retracting-bottom flying boat Blackburn had built and flown the Sydney flying boat, with a pylon and strutted parasol wing that was very close in configuration to the later Consolidated Catalina. But being some five years earlier than the Catalina, the Sydney did not benefit from the development of more efficent alclad construction and the more powerful engines available to the Catalina.
Three companies tendered designs for R1/36, along with the Blackburn proposal Saro and Supermarine both put forward projects (the Supermarine type 314 tendered was one of the last design projects RJ Mitchell had a hand in). The Air Ministry chose the Saro S36 Lerwick to meet specification R1/36 (the Lerwick proved an expensive failure, seeing only limited service and only 21 were produced), but was sufficiently impressed with the Blackburn design to authorise the building of two prototypes. It was originally intended to use two Bristol Hercules engines, but as design and construction commenced the design weight of the aircraft grew and it became obvious that to fully realise the high-speed potential of the B20 more powerful engines were needed. The only choice available was the Rolls-Royce Vulture 24 cylinder engine of 1,700 hp. When war broke out in 1939 the second prototype was cancelled and any chance of a production order was lost, factory resources were devoted to types already in production (Blackburn built Short Sunderland flying boats) and Consolidated Catalinas were purchased from the USA. This is understandable since at the time the pressing need was for aircraft to patrol the Atlantic approaches and seek out U-boats, the high speed of the B20 was simply not seen as an advantage. If you had told anyone in Coastal Command or the Admiralty that by mid-1940 the Atlantic seaboard from the far north of Norway to the Bay of Biscay would be in Nazi hands and used as bases for long-range FW Condor patrol aircraft and Ju88 long-range fighters you would have been laughed at!
On the water, B20 prototype V8914 showing retracting wingtip floats. Mooring could be done from the deck of the retractable pontoon.
However, there was little doubt that the single B20 prototype nearing completion (serial number V8914) showed great promise and so flight trials were allowed to go ahead to glean data for future designs. It was nicknamed the "nutcracker", referring to the fate of anyone on the central float when it was retracted. The B20 took to the air in March 1940. On the first flight, it was found that there was a problem with the aileron trim and it took four or five more test flights to sort this out (there were no trim tabs on the ailerons and alterations could only be done on the ground). In the process it had a birdstrike and repairs had to be carried out. Everyone was agreed that the ability to stand on the float "pontoon" made the B20 very much easier to moor and board than a normal flying boat. On the 7th April 1940, the day before German forces invaded Denmark and Norway, the B20 took to the air for its first attempt at a high-speed run. The pilot was Blackburn's test pilot Flt Lt Harry Bailey, with him were Ivan Waller a Rolls-Royce flight test engineer, Fred Weeks a Blackburn flight test engineer together with Duncan Roberts and Sam McMillan both Blackburn aircraft riggers along to monitor instruments during the flight. The flight that day was over the Firth of Clyde and Sound of Bute on Scotland's west coast. The high-speed run took place¹, but shortly afterwards severe vibration set in. Reducing speed did not help and Flt Lt Bailey ordered the crew to take to their parachutes. Up in the cockpit, Fred Weeks was able to get out of one of the escape hatches in the roof ², but Ivan Waller deployed his 'chute too early and it got caught in the radio mast with him only halfway out of the escape hatch. Then the vibration stopped and Ivan was able to climb along the top of the fuselage, untangle his parachute and drop free. Flt Lt Bailey stayed with the aircraft until the last possible moment to give the other two crew members a chance to escape, his parachute did not open fully and he was drowned. No trace was ever found of Duncan Roberts and Sam McMillan. The two surviving crew members were rescued by the improbable sounding HMS Transylvania (a converted merchant ship). The crew of the Transylvania reported seeing a large rectangular unit come down out of the thick cloud cover, probably an aileron. The most likely explanation for the crash is that the initial vibration was aileron flutter, this ceased when the aileron broke free (giving Ivan Waller his chance to free his parachute). But with the loss of an aileron, the aircraft would have been uncontrollable, leading to its crash. With the loss of the one-and-only example of the B20 the project ended. However, a development called the B40 was planned.
Flt Lt Harry Bailey, pilot of the B20, who lost his life in the crash.
The 3 images above of the B20 prototype V8914 at the Blackburn Factory in Dumbarton (in the top photo you can see the famous "Rock of Dumbarton" on the left). The photos are courtesy of Patrick Tilley.
The picture above is of the Saro Lerwick which won the order for specification R1/36. Its dumpy, high sided fuselage shows exactly the problem of drag the retracting bottom of the B20 was designed to avoid. Note that the front turret had to slide back to allow mooring duties to be carried out (as in the Sunderland). The B20 design allowed these to be carried out from the "deck" of the retracting pontoon bottom.
If the Blackburn B20 had been chosen instead of the Saro Lerwick it is likely there would have been tremendous pressure to use the Hercules engines as originally planned. In this case, J.D. Rennie would either have had to resist the growth in the weight of the B20 during its development or accepted a reduced performance in either speed or range. However, the Hercules engine was developed extensively both before, during and after the war and its power was increased from 1,150 horsepower of the MkI in 1936 through the 1,615 horsepower Mk VI of 1941 to the 2,080 horsepower Mk 762 of post-war years. So mid to late war versions of a B20 powered by Hercules engines could well have come close to realising the full speed potential of the airframe. If the B20 had been chosen to meet R1/36 it would have had an armament of 8 machine guns (2 in a nose turret, 2 in a dorsal turret and 4 in the tail turret) and carried a bomb load of 2,000 lb (the B20 was apparently designed with 4 bomb-cells in the inner wings, each capable of accomodating a 500 lb bomb). The range called for in R1/36 was only 1,500 miles (The Sunderland and Catalina flying boats both had a range of more than 2,500 miles).
How a Hercules powered version of the Blackburn B20 might have looked
If, on the other hand, the B20 had been ordered into production later, after the switch to Rolls-Royce Vulture engines as the powerplants, an alternative engine would have been needed when production of the Vulture was stopped to allow Rolls Royce to concentrate on the Merlin. One way forward would have been to emulate the process which transformed the lacklustre Avro Manchester into the Lancaster and replace the two Vultures with four Merlins. Another solution, as adopted for the Vickers Warwick bomber, was to wait for the availability of the 2,300 horsepower Bristol Centaurus late in the war. Taking a real broad overview perhaps the best engines for the B20 would have been the Fairey P-24 "Monarch" engine of 2,240 horsepower (hoped to be developed to 3,000 hp) which was flying in prototype form in 1939 but was cancelled by an Air Ministry that thought Britain had too many aero-engine companies. Each Monarch engine consisted of two12 cylinder units, each of which drove its own contra-rotating propeller, a mechanically simple arrangement which avoided the many problems which plagued the outwardly similar German Daimler-Benz DB606.
How the B20 might have looked in the air-sea rescue role. Its speed would have made its chance of survival in this task over the North Sea much greater than the types which actually carried it out. The pontoon float would have greatly simplified the task of picking up survivors.
Would the B20 have been a success if it had gone into service? A biography of Wilfrid Freeman ³, the man ultimately responsible for the cancellation of the B20 project, says "the operational requirement for a heavy flying boat with a top speed of 340 mph was questionable". Maybe so, and of course none of the Blackburn designs of the war years was particularly liked by their crews (the Botha in particular). The B20 would not have had the range to hunt U-boats in mid-Atlantic. However, I bet there are a lot of Coastal Command aircrew that would have given their right arm for an aircraft able to outrun the long-range Junkers 88 fighters over the Bay of Biscay or off the coast of Norway. The B20 would have been able to catch and shoot down any FW Condors it encountered. It would also have been of immense use for reconnaissance in the Mediterranean and Far East (the actions in defence of Ceylon in 1942 spring to mind). Imagine a B20 in 1943/44 capable of over 300 mph with a 57 mm Mollins gun in the nose and rocket projectiles under its wings, now that would have been a powerful weapon!
One thing that should be remembered is that after the B20 was rejected for the R1/36 specification its development from that time was as a flying test-bed for the retractable bottom technology. If the Second World war had not occurred it is likely that the two B20 prototypes planned would have taken to the air in civilian markings and that Blackburn would have worked to adapt the B20 into a fast flying boat airliner, and its extra speed in that role may well have appealed to many passengers in the aviation marketplace. Just think of a trip in a fast Blackburn flying boat from Southampton down to the posh resorts of Biarritz, Monte Carlo and Capri in a 1940's Europe free of war and dictatorship.
On 28th August 1998, Royal Navy divers recovered one of the Rolls Royce Vulture II engines of the Blackburn B20 prototype from the sea. The wreck itself is a war grave but a fishing trawler's nets had become entangled in the engine, and dragged it into shallower water. Because of the rarity of the engine it was decided to raise it. The propeller was separated from the engine and each part was floated to the surface by airbags from where they were hoisted onto HMS Damant. The following pictures were sent to me by Bill Watson who took part in the recovery.
From the view above the engine looks like a radial, an optical illusion caused by viewing it from the front. What you are seeing are the steel piston liners of the "X" arrangement Vulture Mk II engine. With the aluminium engine blocks rotted away they are "flopping" around the steel crankshaft and have fallen into a circular arrangement. See the photo of the recovered engine in the museum for a better perspective.
Joe McGrath informed me the engine was displayed for a time at the Rolls Royce Museum at Hillington in Glasgow until the museum closed. In Sept 2007 I received an email from Jim Richardson to say that the engine is now on display at the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum near Dumfries. I visited it myself in 2012, All the aluminium parts have disintegrated leaving only part of the steel crankshaft with a few steel piston liners attached. They are liberally painted in black and silver to prevent further corrosion. The item is displayed in a lean-to on one side of the site.
The remains of the Rolls-Royce Vulture engine at the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum in 2012.
¹ The top speed achieved in this run is given as 285mph in Derek N James' article and 345 mph in Peter Harding's article (see sources listed below). There are a few other differences in detail between the two articles and it should be noted that James' article is based on the account of one of the survivors (Fred Weeks) while Harding's article is based on the other survivor's story (Ivan Waller). Any historian researching the B20 is strongly recommended to read both accounts. Of particular note is the distinct impression, in James' article, that it was misguided to attempt a high-speed run so early in the B-20 flight-test program.
² In July 2002 I received an email from Richard Weeks, son of Fred Weeks. He said his father never forgot his experience and carried a metal splint in his leg from the rudder he hit on the way out. Fred Weeks died in 1977. The "Caterpillar Club" badge, given to Fred Weeks for using an Irving parachute, was featured in an episode of the BBCs "Antiques Roadshow" television programme (Series 43 Newby Hall first broadcast 18th April 2021).
³ Quoted from "Wilfred Freeman - The Genius behind Allied Survival and Air Supremacy 1939 To 1940" By Anthony Furse. ISBN 1-86227-079 - 1
Air Britain Aeromilitaria Magazine Volume 33 Issue 130 Summer 2007 - Article "Blackburn B20, B40 and B44"
British Secret Projects- Fighters & Bombers 1935-1950 - by Tony Butler, Midland Publishing 2004 ISBN 1 85780 179 2.
The British Aircraft Specification File - KJ Meekcoms & EB Morgan, Air-Britain Publications 1994 ISBN 0 85130 220 3
Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 - by AJ Jackson published by Putnam ISBN 370 000536
Jane's All The Worlds Aircraft 1945 Collectors Edition ISBN 000 470831-8
Flight of the Nutcracker an article by Peter Harding (reminiscences of Ivan Waller) relayed to me by Bill Watson.
The Blackburn B20 - an article by Derek N. James in the February 1974 edition of Aircraft Illustrated magazine. It lists Fred Weeks as it one of its sources.