BAe ATP – Britain’s Last Passenger Aircraft

British civil aircraft manufacturing can trace its history back to 1919 when the de Havilland company converted one of its 4A bomber planes for British Aircraft Transport and Travel (AT&T) to offer scheduled flights between London and Paris. Over the years, the industry has contributed some iconic aeroplanes, including the world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet and of course, the iconic supersonic Concorde.

The last passenger aircraft to be designed and built in Britain was the British Aerospace (BAe) Advanced Turbo-Prop, or ATP for short. 

Used For - ATP
The Prototype British Aerospace ATP (G-MATP). (Photo: BAe Systems)

Origins

The ATP story begins with the Hawker Siddeley/Avro/BAe 748, a medium-sized turboprop airliner developed in the late 1950s to replace the ageing Douglas DC-3. 

Powered by two Rolls-Royce Dart engines, the type first flew on June 24, 1960 entering service the following year. Often referred to as the ‘Budgie,’ it rapidly became a firm favourite with airlines and passengers alike, and when production ended in 1988, 380 had been produced. 

A Dan Air HS 748. (Photo: Christian Volpati via Wikimedia Commons)

The 748 faced stiff competition in the regional aircraft market throughout its life, principally from the highly successful Fokker F27 Friendship and Convair CV540/CV580.

In the early 1980’s British Aerospace looked at creating a replacement for the Budgie as rivals had already begun making their own regional airliners.

Air travel at the time was booming, and BAe believed there was a demand for an aircraft with a greater seating capacity than the 40-58 seats found on the 748 (although Channel Airways used to cram a knee-crunching 64 seats onto their 748 fleet). Fuel was also at an all-time high and airlines were desperate for an airliner that had improved engine and operating efficiency.

Channel Airways would cram 64 seats on to their 748s for domestic services.

BAe initially looked at a clean-sheet design that would cost around £400 million (around £1BN in today’s currency). The team also looked at how much it would cost to redevelop and improve the 748, which came in at a significantly lower cost – around £150 to £200 million. After some research, it was revealed that any advantages of a clean sheet design were only marginal over a significant redesign of the 748. And so, on March 1, 1984 the project – designated the ATP – was born.

BAe ATP promotional material.
Early design drawings for the ATP.
Early promotional material for the ATP. (Photo: BAe Systems)

The production line for the new aircraft was laid down at the former Avro site at Woodford near Manchester and manufacturing took place here until October 1992.

The ATP production line at BAe Woodford. (Photo: BAe Systems)

While the ATP may have initially been billed as an updated 748, the only things in common with its predecessor were an identical fuselage cross-section and a wing design based on the military freighter version.

The ATP featured an 18 feet stretched fuselage, taking maximum seating up to 72 passengers, although standard capacity was set at 64 with a 31” seat pitch. The cabin interior was thoroughly revised and modernised, with a single lavatory situated at the front, plus a galley at the rear for the two (or occasionally) three cabin crew carried. To allow faster turnarounds on multi-sector flights, integral forward air-stairs were fitted as standard.

Manx Airlines ATP Cutout. (Photo: ‘Wings of Mann’ book by Gordon N. Kniveton)

The other noticeable difference to the 748 was the change of powerplant. After contacting numerous engine manufacturers, Pratt and Whitney of Canada agreed to produce a version of their PW100 series engine to meet the ATPs specification. Two PW126A turboprops drive slow turning six-blade composite propellers with a maximum take-off power of 2,570shp. The engines were created to be rugged and reliable and designed to simplify maintenance requirements, with all accessories mounted on top of the powerplant for easy access.

One of the ATPs major selling points was the low noise levels that the engines produced, both internal and external.

The ATPs six-blade Pratt & Whitney PW126A engines as seen on an Air Europa Express example.

At the pointy end, the flight deck was also wholly overhauled using Electronic Flight Information Systems (EFIS), an automatic flight control system and Electronic Engine Control (EEC), all to help improve safety and decrease pilot workload. The aircraft was also fitted with a ‘Category 2’ instrument landing system allowing for landings in all but the most extreme conditions. The nose too was retrofitted, and BAe added some sweep back to the tail.

The ATP flight deck was much updated over its predecessor the 748.

Taking To The Skies

The prototype ATP G-MATP, painted in BAe’s house colours, made its first flight on schedule on 6th August 1986, and despite poor weather conditions and strong crosswinds, the flight lasted 2 hours 40 minutes and was a complete success. Shortly afterwards, the ATP appeared at the Farnborough Air Show before continuing with the test programme.

BAe ATP advertisment. (Photo: BAe Systems)

The second aircraft to roll off the production line (G-BMYM) was painted in the full colours of launch customer British Midland (BD). At the same time, the third (G-BMYK) appeared at the 1987 Paris Air Show before being used for cabin evacuation trials. Full certification was planned for September 1987, but problems with the test programme caused delays. By the close of 1987, two ATPs had been placed with British Midland for intensive route-proving trails leading to final certification in March 1988.

G-BMYM was the second aircraft off the production line and appeared in full British Midland colours.

British Midland

BD placed the type into full passenger service in May 1988 on the new twice-daily ‘Diamond Service’ from East Midlands to Amsterdam and a six-daily route from Heathrow to Birmingham. Despite being the launch customer, the aircraft never really established itself in the British Midland fleet and only three were ever used: G-BMYK, G-BMYL, G-BMYM.

Manx Airlines/Loganair

However, the type did have more success with BD’s subsidiaries, Manx Airlines (JE) and Loganair (LM). Manx Airlines had first looked at ordering the ATP for use on its prestigious London Heathrow route and even placed an option on one of the early production models. This idea was subsequently dropped in favour of jet aircraft, but the carrier would later order the type to replace its ageing Viscount and Shorts 360 fleets. The first example G-UIET (a nod to the types low noise levels), arrived in October 1988, with the second G-OATP arriving soon after. JE’s third G-PEEL came in April 1990 and was delivered with luxurious ‘Royal’ burgundy leather seats. The rest of the fleet would later be retrofitted. Manx Airlines also established the world’s first complete maintenance facility for the ATP.

At the end of 1993, two ex-BD examples joined the airline, and we re-registered as G-ERIN and G-MAUD, the latter named after the airline’s longest-serving employees Maud Pownall, who had worked with the company since 1982. When LM ran into financial difficulties, most of its operation and aircraft were folded into the newly formed Manx Airlines Europe, bringing its ATP fleet to a peak of 15.

British Airways

British Airways (BA) had ordered eight ATPs back in 1988, with four to be based at Glasgow for the airline’s Highland division, operating domestic routes across Scotland and the rest of the UK. The remaining four would be based in Berlin, where BA still provided internal German services. However, following the reunification of Germany, these aircraft were returned to Glasgow, where they were joined by a further five aircraft ordered in August 1990, bringing the total fleet to 13 with options on an additional six.

The smaller capacity of the ATP meant that BA could increase frequencies on many of its domestic services, and the airline would also use the type from its regional bases at Birmingham and Manchester to destinations across Europe such as Frankfurt and Hanover.

As BA entered the new millennium, it decided to reorganise its regional division, and many of the ATPs were passed on to its partner airlines. This included Manx Airlines Europe, which would later become British Regional Airlines operating as British Airways Express, before being purchased by BA and merged with Brymon Airways to create British Airways Citiexpress.

Other Operators

The only US carrier to order the ATP was Air Wisconsin (ZW), a United Express affiliate who would fly a total of ten of the type between January 1990 and September 1993.

Other notable operators from overseas included SATA Air Açores (SP), who flew a total of seven ATPs, the first entering service in 1989 to replace its ageing 748 fleet.

Palma based Air Europa Express (X5) operated a total of 17 of the type on Spanish domestic routes from February 1998 until October 2001.

Swedish domestic carrier NextJet (2N), founded in 2002, held the honour of operating some of the last passenger ATPs in the world. When the airline ceased operations on May 16, 2018 it had five of the type still in service.

Problems

Despite some limited success, big orders were slow to materialise. The ATP was also dogged with technical problems, leading the aeroplane to be often referred to by crew and engineers as ‘Another Technical Problem’ or the ‘Skoda of the skies.’ Issues quickly arose with electrical wiring, de-icing difficulties, engine problems and performance issues. Indeed a British Aerospace trainer later said that “they took the 748 and designed all the simplicity out of it.”

Desperate to save the project in 1993, British Aerospace looked at relaunching the ATP as the Jetstream 61. Apart from the name change, it introduced several minor technical changes, including an interior based on the Jetstream 41 (with innovative armrests incorporated into the cabin walls for window seats). It also had more powerful PW127D engines and increased operating weights, giving higher speeds and a more extended range. Passenger capacity was also increased from 64 to 70 seats.

The original ATP prototype was re-registered as G-PLXI and modified to become the prototype Jetstream 61, first flying in this guise on 10th May 1994. The new model was available for delivery from 1994, but only four were ever created in Prestwick, Scotland, which were subsequently scrapped before they entered service.

A Cargo Reprieve

As the ATP began to be retired by passenger carriers, it was lucky enough to find a new lease of life as a cargo aircraft. West Air Sweden’s development of the cargo version was undertaken, with the first conversion making its maiden flight on 10 July 2002. Using a modified HS 748 freight door, the cargo ATP can carry 30% more cargo than its predecessor with marginally increased operating costs.

Like most things in aviation, timing is everything, and sadly, the ATP came at the wrong time and was riddled with too many flaws. British Aerospace had believed there was a market for a regional turboprop, but by the early 90s regional jets were coming into service and proved much more popular with airlines and their fare-paying passengers. Also, the turboprop market was already well covered with the popular de Havilland Dash 8 and ATR’s -42 and -72 models. Only 65 Advanced Turbo-Props were ever built: 61 ATPs and four J61s. Yet, despite the aircraft’s shortcomings, it has found a new lease of life as a freighter and over 30 years since taking to the skies, many are still flying today.

Incidents

On April 19, 1997 Merpati Nusantara Airlines Flight 106, operated by ATP PK-MTX, was on a domestic flight from Soekarno Hatta International Airport to Buluh Tumbang Airport in Indonesia with 48 passengers and five crew on board. The aircraft was approaching bad weather at its destination when it attempted to go around. At 2000 feet, it reportedly entered a steep left bank and crashed into a coconut grove and broke into three pieces. 11 passengers and four of the five crew members were killed.

The second incident involving the ATP happened on December 11, 1999 and remains the worst air accident involving the type. SATA Air Açores Flight 530M operated by aircraft CS-TGM, was on a domestic rotation from Ponta Delgada (on the island of São Miguel) to Horta (on the island of Faial), as part of the first leg of the wider Ponta Delgada to Flores flight in the remote Atlantic archipelago of the Azores. While on approach to Horta, the aircraft collided with Pico da Esperança on the central mountains of the island of São Jorge. All of the 31 passengers and four crew members on board perished in the disaster.

For a detailed list of all 65 ATP/J61s and their operators click here.

N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.

© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross.

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